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  • FINRA releases 2018 Regulatory and Examinations Priorities Letter

    Securities

    On January 8, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) published its Annual Regulatory and Examination Priorities Letter (2018 Letter), which focused on several broad issues within the securities industry, including improving the examination program to “implement a risk-based framework designed to better align examination resources to the risk profile of [] member firms.” As previously covered in InfoBytes, last July FINRA360 (a comprehensive self-evaluation and organizational improvement initiative) prompted the organization to announce plans currently underway to enhance operations by consolidating its existing enforcement teams into a single unit. In the 2018 Letter, FINRA announced ongoing efforts to work with member firms to understand the risks and benefits of fintech innovation such as blockchain technology, as well as the impact initial coin offerings (ICOs) and digital currencies have on broker-dealers.

    Additional areas of regulatory and examination focus for FINRA in 2018 will include: (i) fraudulent activities and suspicious activity report filing requirements; (ii) business continuity planning; (iii) protection and verification of customer assets, including whether firms have implemented adequate controls and supervision methods along with measuring the effectiveness of cybersecurity programs; (iv) anti-money laundering monitoring and surveillance resources and policies and procedures; and (v) the role firms and other registered representatives play when effecting transactions in cryptocurrencies and ICOs—specifically with regard to the supervisory, compliance and operational infrastructure firms implement to “ensure compliance with relevant federal securities laws and regulations and FINRA rules.”

    Securities Fintech FINRA Examination Fraud Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security Anti-Money Laundering Initial Coin Offerings Virtual Currency SARs Blockchain Financial Crimes

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  • FINRA Fines Brokerage Firm $2.8 Million for Customer Protection Rule Violations

    Securities

    On December 27, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) announced that it fined a New York-based brokerage firm $2.8 million based on allegations that the firm violated the SEC’s Customer Protection Rule and due to other related supervisory failures. According to the Letter of Acceptance, Waiver, and Consent (AWC), from March 2008 to June 2016, the firm did not have reasonable processes in place to ensure that its control systems were operating properly.  As a result of these design flaws, the firm failed to properly segregate customers’ foreign and domestic securities in appropriate control locations, leading to deficits in securities valued at hundreds of millions of dollars.” The firm neither admitted nor denied the findings set forth in the AWC agreement.

    Securities FINRA Enforcement SEC

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  • SEC Obtains Emergency Court Order Against Canadian Firm for Allegedly Violating Federal Securities Law; Halts Initial Coin Offering

    Securities

    On December 4, the SEC announced it had obtained an emergency court order to freeze the assets of a Canadian company and the company’s founders (Defendants) and block Defendants’ ability to continue to raise funds through an initial coin offering (ICO). At the time the order was issued, the ICO had raised $15 million since August by “promising investors returns of 1,354% in under 29 days.” This is the first enforcement action taken by the SEC’s recently established Cyber Unit, whose focus includes distributed ledger technology and initial coin offering violations. (See previous InfoBytes Cyber Unit coverage here.)

    According to a complaint filed December 1 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Defendants allegedly violated the anti-fraud and registration provisions of U.S. federal securities laws by making a series of materially false and misleading statements when marketing and selling securities as digital tokens/cryptocurrencies to obtain investor funds. From August to the present, Defendants purportedly raised $15 million through the ICO, and made false representations including, among other things, that: (i) the firm consisted of large teams of experts across the globe, and (ii) investors would receive certain promised returns (1,354% in less than a month) on investments if all tokens were sold. Further, Defendants allegedly failed to disclose (i) that a portion of the proceeds from the ICO funds would pay personal expenses, and (ii) that the company’s principal executive was “a known recidivist securities law violator in Canada.” The SEC seeks relief in the form of permanent injunctions, monetary penalties and interest, and an “officer-and-director bar and a bar from offering digital securities” against the company’s founders.

    Securities SEC Initial Coin Offerings Enforcement Blockchain Cryptocurrency Fintech Virtual Currency Distributed Ledger

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  • SEC Reaches $3.5 Million Settlement With Broker-Dealer Over Failure to File Suspicious Activity Reports

    Securities

    On November 13, the SEC announced it has reached a settlement in an administrative proceeding against a broker-dealer firm for allegedly willful violations of Section 17(a) of the Securities and Exchange Act, including the firm’s failure to file, or timely file, at least 50 Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) with the Financial Crime Enforcement Network (FinCEN) from approximately March 2012 through June 2013. As the SEC Order notes, Bank Secrecy Act regulations require a broker-dealer to file a SAR if it knows, suspects or has reason to suspect that a transaction of a certain minimum or aggregated amount involved funds derived from illegal activity or if the transaction was conducted to disguise funds derived from illegal activities. Other factors requiring a broker-dealer to file a SAR include the absence of any business or apparent lawful purpose for the transaction or if the transaction is to facilitate criminal activity.

    When deciding whether to accept the firm’s settlement offer, the SEC considered voluntary remedial efforts undertaken by the firm, including the fact that the firm retained a third-party anti-money laundering (AML) compliance company to conduct a review of some of the firm’s SAR investigations. Under the terms of the settlement, the firm voluntarily agreed to, among other things, conduct a review of its AML policies and procedures for the identification, evaluation and reporting of suspicious activity related to firm accounts; and provide additional training to staff responsible for conducting investigations and filing SARs. Additionally, the firm was assessed a civil money penalty of $3.5 million.

    Securities Bank Secrecy Act Anti-Money Laundering SARs Enforcement FinCEN

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  • SEC Chairman Discusses Corporate Governance, States Enhanced Transparency Can Help Prevent Fraud, and Reveals First-Ever National Database of Barred Brokers and Advisors

    Securities

    On November 8, the Chairman of the SEC, Jay Clayton, spoke before the Practising Law Institute’s annual institute on securities regulation to discuss the role of corporate governance and how enhanced transparency can help prevent fraud. Clayton stated that the SEC would be streamlining and shortening its near-term agenda in an effort to increase transparency and accountability, and that the SEC also would apply this approach to its longer-term strategic plans as well.

    Clayton also commented on approaches to mitigate “misconduct” before an enforcement action would be required. Specifically, Clayton noted, “[l]ooking back at enforcement actions, a common theme emerges – where opacity exists, bad behavior tends to follow.” Clayton highlighted the following areas in which opacity may exist: (i) disclosures involving “hidden or inappropriate fees”; (ii) poor recordkeeping and lack of reliable information related to penny stocks; (iii) transaction processing related to unregistered securities; (iv) online platforms that manage initial coin offerings (ICOs); and (v) investor education.

    Concerning ICOs, Clayton commented that because “[t]here is a distinct lack of information about many online platforms that list and trade virtual coins or tokens offered and sold in . . . ICOs . . ., [t]rading of tokens on these platforms is susceptible to price manipulation and other fraudulent trading practices.” The SEC proposed enhanced clarity when listing tokens on these types of platforms, assigning value to tokens, and examining measures designed to protect investors and market integrity.

    Clayton further revealed that the SEC was creating a website that would publish, among other things, a searchable database of those individuals who have been barred or suspended as a result of federal securities law violations.  Clayton noted that this database would be “intended to make the prior actions of repeat offenders and fraudsters more visible to investors” and could be “particularly valuable when bad actors have shifted from the registered space for investment advisers and broker-dealers to the unregistered space.”

    Securities Initial Coin Offerings SEC Fraud

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  • CFTC Issues Primer on Virtual Currencies, Claims Certain Virtual Tokens Fall Under Its Oversight

    Securities

    On October 17, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) announced the release of “A CFTC Primer on Virtual Currencies” (Primer) issued by its LabCFTC division. As previously discussed in Infobytes, the LabCFTC initiative rolled out in May of this year to engage innovators in the financial technology industry to promote responsible fintech innovation within regulated CFTC markets. In this Primer—a first in a series—the CFTC discusses potential use-cases for virtual currencies and outlines the agency’s role and oversight of virtual currencies. The Primer also highlights the risks associated with virtual currencies, such as (i) the susceptibility of “digital wallets” to cybersecurity hacks; (ii) inadequate safeguards and other customer protection related systems on virtual currency exchanges; and (iii) the susceptibility of virtual currencies to Ponzi schemes and other types of frauds.

    The CFTC noted that there’s no inconsistency between the SEC’s analysis that Initial Coin Offerings or Token Sales may be subject to federal securities law (see previous InfoBytes coverage here) and CFTC’s determination that virtual currencies are commodities and virtual tokens “may be commodities or derivatives contracts, depending on the particular facts and circumstances.” Last month, as discussed in InfoBytes, the CFTC also filed its first-ever antifraud enforcement action for activities involving Bitcoin investment solicitations.

    Securities Fintech Agency Rule-Making & Guidance CFTC Digital Commerce Initial Coin Offerings Virtual Currency Bitcoin SEC

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  • Treasury Report Calls for Extensive Regulatory Relief to Capital Markets

    Federal Issues

    On October 6, the U.S. Treasury Department published a report that focuses on capital market oversight and outlines challenges and recommendations to reduce regulatory burdens. The report, “A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities: Capital Markets,” is the second in a series of four the Treasury plans to issue in response to President Trump’s Executive Order 13772, which mandated a review of financial regulations for inconsistencies with promoted “Core Principles.” (See Buckley Sandler Special Alert here.) The report notes that while certain capital market regulatory framework elements function well, there remain significant challenges. Specifically, the report recommends—among other things—reducing fragmentation, overlap, and duplication in the U.S. regulatory structure. This includes focusing on effecting changes to promote efficiency and more clearly defining regulatory mandates that would allow agencies to issue joint rulemaking and foster coordination. 

    Treasury’s recommendations focus primarily on market regulations but also build upon themes identified in the first report published in June 2017, which primarily focused on solutions for providing relief to banks and credit unions. The second report identifies recommendations, actions, and associated “Core Principles” within the following categories:

    • “promoting access to capital for all types of companies, including small and growing businesses, through reduction of regulatory burden and improved market access to investment opportunities”;
    • “fostering robust secondary markets in equity and debt”;
    • “appropriately tailoring regulations on securitized products to encourage lending and risk transfer”;
    • “recalibrating derivatives regulations to promote market efficiency and effective risk mitigation”;
    • “ensuring proper risk management for [central counterparties] and other financial market utilities because of the critical role they play in the financial system”;
    • “rationalizing and modernizing the U.S. capital markets regulatory structure and process”; and
    • “advancing U.S. interests by promoting a level playing field internationally.”

    A fact sheet accompanying the report further highlights Treasury’s recommendations to streamline regulations.

    Federal Issues Department of Treasury Securities Capital Requirements Risk Management

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  • SEC Approves FINRA’s Streamlined Securities Competency Exams for Industry Professionals and Consolidated Registration Rules

    Securities

    On October 5, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) announced SEC approval of its proposal to consolidate certain registration rules and streamline competency exams for professionals entering or re-entering the securities industry. Under Regulatory Notice 17-30, the NASD and NYSE incorporated registration rules are now consolidated as “FINRA rules” to provide member firms “consistency and uniformity.” The rules will allow member firms to permissively register all associated persons of a firm and establish waiver programs for registered employees who “move to a financial services industry affiliate of a member firm.” Further, as previously discussed in an InfoBytes post concerning the proposed rule, FINRA’s new streamlined examination structure is designed to eliminate duplicative testing and remove outdated categories. The changes include a general knowledge examination that all new representative-level applicants will be required to pass, in addition to a revised qualification examination appropriate to their job functions. Changes to FINRA’s continuing education requirements have also been made. The rule takes effect October 1, 2018.

    Securities FINRA SEC

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  • Second Circuit Upholds Large Monetary Judgment Against International Bank

    Courts

    On September 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a New York District Court’s 2015 ruling, which requires a major international bank to pay $806 million for selling allegedly faulty mortgage-backed bonds to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In the original suit brought by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), FHFA alleged that the bank overstated the reliability of the loans for sale. In upholding the lower court’s decision, the Second Circuit concluded that the marketing prospectus used to sell the mortgage securities to Fannie and Freddie between 2005 and 2007 contained “untrue statements of material fact.” Specifically, the prospectus falsely stated that the loans were compiled with the underwriting standards described therein, including standards related to assessing the creditworthiness of the borrowers and appraising the value of properties.

    As previously covered in InfoBytes, the same international bank recently settled with FHFA regarding residential mortgage-back securities trusts purchased in the same timeframe.

    Courts Litigation Second Circuit Appellate Securities FHFA Fannie Mae Freddie Mac Mortgages

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  • Federal Agencies Offer Regulatory Relief for Hurricane Victims

    Federal Issues

    Federal agencies continue to announce regulatory relief for financial institutions aiding consumers affected by recent hurricane disasters. InfoBytes coverage on previous disaster relief measures can be accessed here, here, and here.

    Freddie Mac. On September 25, Freddie Mac issued Bulletin 2017-21 (Bulletin) to extend certain temporary selling and servicing requirements meant to provide flexibility and relief for mortgages and borrowers in areas impacted by all hurricanes occurring on or after August 25 through the 2017 hurricane season. In particular, Freddie Mac will reimburse sellers for property inspections completed prior to the sale or securitization of mortgages secured by properties in disaster areas caused by a 2017 hurricane. Freddie Mac is also requiring servicers to suspend foreclosure sales and eviction activities on property located in eligible disaster areas affected by Hurricane Maria. However, the Bulletin provides that a servicer can proceed with a foreclosure sale if it can confirm that (i) inspection was completed on a mortgaged property “identified as vacant or abandoned prior to Hurricane Maria,” and (ii) the property sustained no “insurable damage.” The Bulletin also reminds servicers to report all mortgages affected by an eligible disaster that are 31 or more days delinquent to Freddie Mac.

    Veterans Affairs (VA). On September 27, the VA issued Circular 26-17-28 to outline measures that it encourages mortgagees to utilize to provide relief to veterans affected by Hurricane Maria. Specific recommendations include: (i) extending forbearance to distressed borrowers; (ii) establishing a 90-day moratorium on initiating foreclosures on affected loans; (iii) waiving late charges; (iv) suspending credit bureau reporting with the understanding that servicers will not be penalized by the VA; and (v) extending “special forbearance” to National Guard members who report for active duty to assist recovery efforts.

    FDIC. On September 27, the FDIC released a financial institution letter to provide additional guidance for depository institutions assisting affected consumers. As previously covered in Infobytes, the FDIC released guidance for Hurricane Harvey disaster relief, and issued a joint press release in conjunction with the Federal Reserve Board, Conference of State Bank Supervisors, and the OCC as a response to those affected by Hurricane Irma. The newest release, FIL-46-2017, announced regulatory relief for financial institutions affected by Hurricane Maria, and steps to facilitate recovery in affected areas, which include: (i) “extending repayment terms, restructuring existing loans, or easing terms for new loans,” and (i) “encourage[ing] depository institutions to use non-documentary verification methods permitted by the Customer Identification Program requirement of the Bank Secrecy Act for affected customers who cannot provide standard identification documents.” Further, banks that support disaster recovery efforts, the FDIC noted, may receive favorable Community Reinvestment Act consideration.

    SEC. On September 28, the SEC issued an order providing regulatory relief to companies and individuals with federal securities law obligations who have been affected by recent natural disasters. The order provides conditional exemptions to certain securities laws requirements for specified periods of time. The Commission additionally adopted “interim final temporary rules” applicable to Regulation Crowdfunding and Regulation A filing deadline extensions.

    Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). On October 3, FinCEN issued a notice to financial institutions that file Bank Secrecy Act reports to encourage communication with FinCEN and their functional regulator regarding any expected filing delays caused by recent hurricanes.

    Federal Issues Consumer Finance Compliance Disaster Relief Flood Insurance Mortgages Foreclosure Freddie Mac Department of Veterans Affairs FDIC SEC FinCEN Bank Secrecy Act CRA Securities Mortgage Modification

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