What You Need to Know
- The complaint in Western shows that firms should focus heavily on their supervisory policies and procedures.
- Procedures should be tailored to the business and reasonably designed to comply with Reg BI standards.
- Advisors should have all the information necessary to determine whether an investment is in a client’s best interest.
Regulation Best Interest, or Reg BI, as the rule is known, became effective as of June 2020. While the regulation has now been effective for some time, how the Securities and Exchange Commission would interpret and enforce the new rules remained largely unknown.
Now, the SEC has charged Western International Securities Inc. (Western) and five of its investment advisors with violations of Reg BI. This initial enforcement action can serve as guidance as to how the SEC might interpret the regulation’s requirements going forward. Covered advisors and firms should also view the case as a warning that the SEC may be willing to enforce the regulation against individual investment advisors on a more widespread basis than initially expected.
Regulation Best Interest: Background
Regulation Best Interest establishes a standard of conduct that investment advisors and broker-dealers must adhere to in their dealings with retail investment customers. The rule applies to a variety of transactions involving securities and was expanded to include rollover transactions that involve recommendations with respect to potential securities transactions.
Under Reg BI, certain broker-dealers and other investment advisors are now required to act in their clients’ best interests by eliminating conflicts of interest, disclosing conflicts on a new Form CRS and taking steps to mitigate the impact of those conflicts. Covered advisors must comply with four basic requirements: (1) the disclosure obligation, (2) the care obligation, (3) the conflict-of-interest obligation and (4) the compliance obligation.
SEC v. Western International Securities Inc.: The Facts
The crux of the SEC complaint is that Western recommended certain unrated, high-risk “L bonds” to clients without a reasonable basis for believing the investments were in the client’s best interest. The unrated bonds, or junk bonds, in question were offered by GWG Holdings Inc. (GWG) and were sold to clients in 2020 and 2021.
In the GWG disclosure materials, GWG clearly disclosed that the L bonds were risky, that the investment should be treated as speculative and that the bond offerings were suitable only for clients with substantial financial resources who would not need immediate access to the investments for liquidity purposes.
The SEC alleges that Western and the other related advisors failed to do their due diligence. For example, the SEC asserts that they did not know whether GWG was profitable or how the bonds themselves were collateralized. The complaint also alleges that the advisors sold the bonds to clients with relatively moderate to conservative risk tolerance, clients with limited resources and clients on fixed incomes who were looking to preserve capital in retirement.