The Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) recently released its annual examination priorities.  In 2015, OCIE will focus on three primary “themes” involving broker-dealers, investment advisers and transfer agents:

  1. Retail Investors – OCIE will look at important matters for retail investors and investors preparing for retirement including whether the products, advice, services and information being offered to them is consistent with current laws, rules and regulations;
  2. Market-Wide Risks – this is a broad theme which focuses on structural risks and trends involving whole industries or multiple firms; and
  3. Data Analytics – OCIE continues to increase its ability to analyze large amounts of data to identify registrants that may be conducting illegal activity.

Retail Investors – Advisers to retail investors and investors saving for retirement will be scrutinized by the SEC in 2015. The OCIE will assess fee selection where the adviser offers a variety of fee arrangements as well as reverse churning. Further, where advisers recommend moving retirement assets from employer-sponsored plans into other investments or accounts, OCIE will examine whether the sales practices used were improper or misleading. OCIE will also be reviewing the suitability of complex or structured products and higher yield securities and how well representatives in branch offices are being supervised by the home office.  The SEC may have an interesting opportunity to demonstrate whether it is serious in going after those who target seniors.

On February 5, 2015, SEC Commissioner Luis A. Aguilar and Investor Advocate, Rick A. Fleming, gave speeches at The American Retirement Initiative Winter Summit about advocating for investors saving for retirement and protecting elderly investors from financial exploitation.

Under the umbrella theme of “retail investors,” the OCIE will be assessing alternative investment companies and the focus of the exams will be (i) liquidity, leverage and valuation; (ii) the way the funds are marketed; and (iii) the internal controls, staffing, funding and empowerment of boards, compliance and back-offices. Mutual funds with material exposure to interest rate increases will be reviewed by OCIE to ensure they have the appropriate compliance policies and procedures and trading and investment controls in place to prevent their disclosures from being misleading and to be sure their investment and liquidity profiles are consistent with the fund’s disclosures.

Assessing Market-Wide Risks – The OCIE will focus in 2015 on structural risks and trends that involve whole industries or multiple firms. In collaboration with the Division of Trading and Markets and the Division of Investment Management, the OCIE will monitor the largest asset managers and broker-dealers. Through a risk-based approach, the OCIE will conduct annual examinations of all clearing agencies that have been designated systemically important. Furthering the OCIE’s 2014 efforts to examine the cybersecurity preparedness of registrants, 2015 will see a continuation of the initiative and an expansion of the initiative to include transfer agents. OCIE will also be looking into whether firms are giving priority to trading venues due to credits or payments for order flow, thus violating their best execution duties.

Data Analytics – The OCIE has made strides in developing data analytics that it can use to identify and examine firms and other registrants that may be engaged in fraudulent or illegal activity. The examination initiatives the OCIE will be using data analytics to examine include recidivists, microcap fraud, excessive trading and anti-money laundering.

Other Initiatives – Along with the primary themes discussed above, the SEC will continue to examine never-before examined investment advisers and newly registered municipal advisers. Advisers to private equity funds can expect to have their fees and expenses examined as a result of OCIE’s observed high rates of deficiencies. In addition to examining proxy advisory service firms, OCIE will also look at investment advisers’ compliance with their fiduciary duty to vote proxies on their investors’ behalf.

Advisers and broker-dealers should always be prepared for an SEC examination and ensure all written policies and procedures are in place and regularly audited for efficacy and compliance. Should you be subject to an examination, any deficiencies noted by the SEC should be addressed and rectified in a timely manner.