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On March 8, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) filed a proposed rule with the SEC to streamline its competency exams for professionals entering or re-entering the securities industry. Currently, only individuals associated with FINRA-regulated firms are eligible to take the qualification exam. The proposed rule would allow individuals with no prior securities industry experience to take FINRA’s Securities Industry Essentials exam, an “important first step to entering the industry,” which would serve to “provide enhanced flexibility and efficiency in [the] qualifications programs, while maintaining important standards and investor protections.” While these individuals would also be required to pass a more specialized knowledge exam—and must be associated with, and sponsored by, a firm—the proposed change would potentially expand the pool of qualified candidates for positions. Further, under this proposal, individuals who transfer to a financial services affiliate of a FINRA-regulated firm may qualify for a waiver that allows their credentials to be reinstated without re-taking their qualification exams, should they return to the industry within a seven-year period and meet the requirements of the waiver program. Currently, a registered individual who transfers for two or more years must re-take an exam to be re-qualified. The proposed rule is under review with the SEC.
On December 28, FINRA entered into an acceptance, waiver, and consent (AWC) agreement with a Puerto-Rican-based brokerage firm based upon allegations that the firm’s anti-money laundering (AML) program “was not reasonably designed to achieve and monitor compliance with the requirements of the Bank Secrecy Act.” In deciding to levy a $5.75 million fine, FINRA noted, among other things, that the firm improperly “relied on manual supervisory review of securities transactions” that was “not sufficiently focused on AML risks.” The firm neither admitted nor denied the findings set forth in the AWC agreement, but agreed to address deficiencies in their AML program within 180 days. According to a firm spokeswoman, the firm is “pleased to have this matter from 2013 resolved and we continue to improve, manage and monitor our AML efforts.”
N.Y. Attorney Generals Office, SEC and FINRA Assess Penalties, Fines Against Securities Firm Over Dark Pool Access Disclosures
On December 16, N.Y. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced a $37 million settlement against a major securities firm following its joint investigation with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) into allegedly false statements and omissions made by the firm in connection with the marketing of its electronic order routing services, known as its “Dark Pool Ranking Model.” As explained by Attorney General Schneiderman, “Electronic order routing systems that route investor orders to various markets, including dark pools, are a part of modern equities trading, and companies that promote their routing capabilities must do so truthfully.” As part of the agreement, the firm admitted that it misled investors and violated New York State and federal securities laws; its conduct was also censured by both regulators.
That same day, FINRA announced its decision to fine the same firm $3.25 million for failing to disclose accurate information to all clients about services and features of its alternative trading system (ATS). In Form ATS filings with the SEC, the firm represented that all ATS users would have “identical access” to the system’s services and features. However, FINRA found that some ATS users, including high-frequency traders, were provided with more information than others and received services not available to others. The firm settled without admitting or denying the charges.
In a December 5 press release, FINRA announced that it has fined Credit Suisse Securities (USA) LLC $16.5 million for anti-money laundering (AML), supervision and other violations. FINRA’s determination and penalty were based primarily on two deficiencies in the investment bank’s suspicious activity monitoring program. First, Credit Suisse relied too heavily on its registered representatives “to identify and escalate potentially suspicious trading, when, in practice, such high-risk activity was not always escalated and investigated, as required.” And, second, FINRA found that the firm failed to properly implement its automated surveillance system to monitor for potentially suspicious money movements.
On January 5, FINRA released a letter regarding its regulatory and examination priorities for 2016. The letter focuses on the following three broad issues within the securities industry: (i) culture, conflicts of interest and ethics; (ii) supervision, risk management and controls; and (iii) liquidity. Regarding FINRA’s assessment of firm culture, the letter notes that FINRA “will focus on the frameworks that firms use to develop, communicate, and evaluate conformance to their culture,” assessing five specific indicators of a firm’s culture, including (among others) whether policy or control breaches are tolerated. In connection with supervision and risk management, FINRA will focus its examination efforts on the following four areas that continue to affect firms’ business conduct and market integrity: (i) management of conflicts of interest; (ii) technology; (iii) outsourcing; and (iv) anti-money laundering. Finally, in connection with liquidity, FINRA plans to review firms’ contingency funding plans as they relate to their business models, noting that the framework for FINRA’s reviews will be driven by the effective practices contained in Regulatory Notice 15-33. Additional areas of regulatory and examination focus for FINRA in 2016 will include but are not limited to: (i) protecting seniors and vulnerable investors from fraud, sales practice abuse, and financial exploitation; (ii) private placements and Regulation A+ public offerings; (iii) financial and operational controls concerning exchange-traded funds and fixed-income prime brokerage; and (iv) market integrity.
On March 12, FINRA announced an order requiring a New York-based broker-dealer to pay over $1 million in restitution and $500,000 in fines for alleged fraud in sales of a private placement offering. According to the Order, from January 2011 to October 2011, the firm defrauded its customers by claiming – without performing sufficient due diligence – they would benefit from investing in the pre-initial public offering shares of a California-based automaker, but failed to disclose the criminal and adverse regulatory background of a key individual connected to the automaker. In addition to the $500,000 fine against the broker-dealer, its president has been barred from the securities industry. Under the settlement agreement, the broker-dealer and its president neither admitted nor denied the allegations.
On February 11, FINRA announced that, effective February 23, Erozan Kurtas will join the industry regulator as Head of the newly-established Office of Advanced Data Analytics and will also assume the role of Senior Vice President. Kurtas will be responsible for enhancing the agency’s data analytics abilities and improving how the agency “analyzes and uses the data it currently gathers from firms.” Kurtas previously led the SEC in the advancement of the National Exam Analytics Tool software system, which allowed examiners “to analyze systematically large amounts of trading data to detect insider trading, improper allocation of investment opportunities and other misconduct.”
On December 18, FINRA announced a joint $1.5 million penalty against two broker-dealers for anti-money laundering failures. According to anti-money laundering compliance program requirements, broker-dealers opening new accounts must identify each customer through an established written Customer Identification Program (CIP). FINRA alleges that the broker-dealers had a deficient CIP system, which over nine years resulted in the failure to conduct customer identity verification for nearly 220,000 new accounts. The firms neither admitted nor denied FINRA’s charges, but agreed to the entry of the agency’s findings.
On December 11, FINRA fined 10 financial firms a total of $43.5 million dollars for allegedly violating the industry-regulator’s conflict of interest rules. According to FINRA, in pitch meetings, the firms’ equity research analysts offered favorable research coverage in exchange for an underwriting role in a 2010 planned IPO of a large retail company.