New investment vehicles and opportunities have flooded the financial services industry over the past few decades, but arguably none have grown in popularity at a rate comparable to cryptocurrency. A cryptocurrency is a digital or virtual currency typically based on a decentralized network that utilizes blockchain technology. In other words, this decentralized feature allows a network of users to verify and record transactions without relying on any central authority, which permits the cryptocurrency to exist without government interference.
While Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) were introduced in the early 1990’s, the investment product skyrocketed in popularity throughout the 2000’s. In fact, only one ETF existed in 1993 before the market subsequently expanded to 102 funds in 2002, and then to 1,000 funds by 2009. There currently exists more than 7,602 ETFs globally, and their popularity among investors has prompted the creation of numerous other Exchange-Traded Products (ETPs). While ETFs are the most prominent form of ETPs, fund issuers have introduced a myriad of products that vary in terms of volatility, complexity, and investor suitability. Hence, regulators and financial professionals have continued to warn the investing public of the risks involved with purchasing complex ETPs, such as single-stock ETFs, without sufficiently understanding how the products operate.
Throughout the history of the financial services industry, broker-dealers and investment advisory firms have typically required harmed investors to dispute matters through arbitration rather than the court system. Arbitration disputes between broker-dealers and former clients are generally kept confidential and decided by a purportedly impartial three-person panel; the panels are hand-selected by the parties from a randomly generated list of arbitrators employed by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). FINRA utilizes a computer algorithm, the Neutral List Selection System (NLSS), which creates a list of potential arbitrators to review the matter based on the type of case. However, a recent court decision overturning a 2019 FINRA arbitration award in favor of Wells Fargo has flooded the financial services industry with widespread allegations of fraud and misconduct. In addition to vacating the arbitration award, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Belinda Edward criticized FINRA’s arbitration selection procedures as well as Wells Fargo for their role in altering the process. Wells Fargo is set to appeal the decision while FINRA now faces immense regulatory pressure to address its failure to facilitate a fair arbitration selection process.
Every year, hundreds of financial advisors and brokers across the country are convicted of a host of bad acts, which include conducting Ponzi schemes, misappropriating client funds and forging customer signatures. 2021 was no exception. Here are ten recent examples of how the legal system as well as regulators in the financial services industry, respond to allegations of fraud, misappropriation, improper hiring practices, and criminal activity.
For several years, broker-dealers and investment advisory firms have typically required harmed investors to dispute matters through arbitration rather than the court system. However, the House of Representatives’ Financial Services Committee has approved a bill aimed at prohibiting mandatory arbitration commonly imposed by broker-dealers and investment advisory firms. H.R. 2620, known as The Investor Choice Act, restricts investment advisors and broker-dealers from including pre-dispute binding arbitration clauses in their client agreements. The Investor Choice Act addresses “long-standing and deeply unfair practices of forcing customers to resolve their claims through arbitration instead of as part of a class action,” according to Maxine Waters, Chairwoman of the Financial Services Committee.
For several years, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) has sought to increase oversight of brokers who have a history of misconduct as well as the firms that hire these brokers. In an effort to disincentivize the recruitment of high-risk brokers, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently approved FINRA’s proposed Rule 4111, which subjects “restricted firms” to additional capital obligations and hiring restrictions. Specifically, FINRA Rule 4111 targets brokerage firms that have exceeded thresholds of risk-related or investor-harming disclosures compared to similarly sized peers. The new rule, which will go into effect in 2022, is designed to provide FINRA with greater authority to proactively address the risks posed to investors by rogue brokerage firms.
COVID-19 has ushered in a new era for the brokerage industry as financial advisors and professionals across the world have been exiled from regional offices in favor of remote work. Numerous financial advisors may continue working remotely whether due to a novel sense of autonomy, elimination of a commute, or perceived increase in productivity. However, the remote-work era has introduced a plethora of compliance-related issues throughout the brokerage industry. Brokers working remotely possess additional independence to determine when to work and how to communicate with clients, which heightens compliance risks because firms are not able to monitor employees as stringently as they were before COVID-19. Federal regulators, including the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), are responding to newfound compliance risks by issuing updated guidance and investigating potential violations throughout the brokerage industry.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) has shaken the world economy, not the least of which the financial industry. As the financial industry has adapted to work-from-home life under the coronavirus pandemic, industry regulators such as the SEC and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) have been forced to adapt rules to changing circumstances and shift their enforcement priorities to pandemic related fraud.
On January 28, 2019 the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) released Regulatory Notice 19-04 announcing a 529 Plan Share Class Initiative encouraging firms to self-report potential violations. Broker-Dealers are encouraged to consider self-reporting under the initiative if they have identified specified failures in connection with 529 plan recommendations, and have the ability to assess the impact of the failures. Firms have until April 1st to notify FINRA in writing if it has decided to self-report.
Under Rule 506 of Regulation D (“Reg D”), the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) exempts companies making private placements to accredited investors from all federal and state securities registration requirements. As a federal safe harbor, Rule 506 of Regulation D preempts all conflicting state securities regulations, but reserves the states’ rights to require issuers to make notice filings, and to investigate and prosecute securities fraud under state securities laws, commonly known as “Blue Sky Laws.” On its face, Rule 506 of Reg D creates a more efficient securities marketplace. However, the historical lack of consequences for non-compliance at the federal level, combined with inconsistent state notice requirements for using exemptions, further complicates an already over-regulated securities marketplace.