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 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 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.