On February 5, FINRA announced its largest ever fine for alleged AML-related violations. The self-regulatory agency ordered a securities firm to pay $8 million for allegedly failing to (i) implement an adequate AML program to monitor and detect suspicious penny stock transactions; (ii) sufficiently investigate potentially suspicious penny stock activity brought to the firm’s attention; and (iii) fulfill its SAR filing requirements. Further, the firm allegedly did not have an adequate supervisory system in place to prevent the distribution of unregistered securities. In addition to the monetary penalty against the firm, FINRA suspended the firm’s former Global AML Compliance Officer for one month and fined him $25,000. FINRA explained that penny stock transactions pose heightened risks because low-priced securities may be manipulated by fraudsters. In this case, it believes that, over a four-and-a-half year period, the firm executed transactions or delivered securities involving at least six billion shares of penny stocks, “many on behalf of undisclosed customers of foreign banks in known bank secrecy havens.” The firm allegedly executed these transactions despite the fact that it was unable to obtain information essential to verify that the stocks were free trading and in many instances did so without even basic information such as the identity of the stock’s beneficial owner, the circumstances under which the stock was obtained, and the seller’s relationship to the issuer. During this time, penny stock transactions generated at least $850 million in proceeds for the firm’s customers. The firm did not admit to or deny the allegations.
On July 8, FINRA released a targeted examination letter it sent to 10 firms to assess their compliance with requirements related to order routing and execution quality of customer orders in exchange listed stocks during the period of January 1, 2014 to present. The letters include numerous requests for information, including requests that each firm explain: (i) how it uses reasonable diligence to ascertain the best market for orders that the firm routes for execution to an exchange, or broker-dealer, so that the resultant price is as favorable as possible for its customer under prevailing market conditions; (ii) how the firm’s exchange order-routing decisions are made for customer non-marketable, customer market, and marketable limit orders; and (iii) how the firm reviews the execution quality of such orders. The letters also include requests related to each firm’s use of the “Smart Order Router.”
On January 2, FINRA outlined certain specific areas of concern the independent regulator intends to focus on in 2014. The topics are largely consistent with FINRA’s 2013 priorities and are grouped in several categories: (i) business conduct; (ii) fraud; (iii) financial and operational; and (iv) market regulation. Under business conduct, for example, FINRA explains that it remains concerned about the suitability of recommendations to retail investors for complex products whose risk-return profiles may be difficult for investors to understand. FINRA lists numerous specific products it intends to scrutinize with regard to suitability. FINRA also intends to focus on, among other things, conflicts of interest, cybersecurity, anti-money laundering, and senior investors.
On November 12, FINRA released an enhanced version of BrokerCheck, its online system that allows investors to research the professional background of investment professionals. The enhancements allow investors to search both the BrokerCheck and Investment Adviser Public Disclosure record of any securities professional or firm directly on the FINRA homepage. Additional changes were made to present data in a more user-friendly format.
On October 14, FINRA released a report on conflicts of interest in the broker-dealer industry, stating that the report is intended to identify potential problem areas and highlight effective conflicts management practices that may go beyond current regulatory requirements. The report identifies the components of an effective conflicts management framework, which include, for example (i) identifying and managing conflicts on an ongoing basis through an enterprise-level approach that is scaled to the size and complexity of a firm’s business, (ii) establishing new product review processes that provide independent perspectives and identify potential conflicts raised by new products, (iii) minimizing conflicts in compensation structures between customer and broker or firm interests where possible, and (iv) including “best-interest-of-the-customer” standards in codes of conduct that apply to brokers’ personalized recommendations to retail customers.
On July 22, FINRA announced that it will begin to disseminate information for so-called specified pool transactions in agency pass-through mortgage-backed securities and SBA-backed securities, including transaction information such as the time of the trade, price and volume. Transactions must be reported to within two hours of execution (the reporting period is reduced to one hour after a six month implementation period), and are disseminated as soon as received. Combined with FINRA’s action last year to begin disseminating transaction information for agency pass-through mortgage-backed securities traded “to-be-announced” (TBA), FINRA now will be sharing information for securities that represent over 90 percent of the par value traded in all asset- and mortgage-backed securities.
On June 21, the SEC approved a change to FINRA’s rules that will allow the self-regulatory organization to publish greater information about FINRA’s disciplinary actions. Under existing rules, FINRA only releases disciplinary actions upon request, unless the action meets specified criteria established for use in determining whether an action is worthy of publication. Once the new rules take effect – likely several months from now – those publication criteria will be removed, and most FINRA disciplinary actions will be released as a matter of course. FINRA will retain authority to redact information to protect privacy of individuals. The new rules also update and codify FINRA’s practices related to the publication of other FINRA actions, including temporary cease and desist orders, statutory disqualification decisions, expedited proceeding decisions, summary actions, and others.
On May 22, FINRA announced that it was selected by Direct Edge, the third largest U.S. stock exchange operator, to provide market surveillance services on behalf of Direct Edge’s two licensed stock exchanges. The agreement extends FINRA’s surveillance oversight to more than 90% of U.S. equities trading volume. With this agreement, all of Direct Edge’s third-party regulatory services will be consolidated with FINRA.
On May 8, FINRA announced that it fined three firms a combined $900,000 and suspended four executives for allegedly failing to establish and implement adequate anti-money laundering programs. Specifically, FINRA claims that investigations into the three firms revealed that (i) one firm failed to identify suspicious account activity or did not adequately investigate numerous AML “red flags” and that certain of the firm’s customers’ accounts engaged in a pattern of activity consisting of moving millions of dollars through the accounts while conducting minimal-to-no securities transactions, (ii) a second firm that specialized in online trading and catered to the Chinese community failed to implement an AML program adequate to detect and report suspicious transactions, including potential manipulative trading, and (iii) a third firm failed to create and enforce a supervisory system and written procedures to monitor for unlawful transactions in unregistered penny stocks and failed to establish a program reasonably designed to monitor for and report suspicious activity. The suspended executives included two chief compliance officers who failed to fulfill obligations to monitor in accordance with AML requirements, and two owners. The suspensions range from three to nine months. The firms and the executives did not admit to the allegations, but agreed to pay the fines to resolve the investigation.
On January 26, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) issued Regulatory Notice 12-05, notifying institutions of an increase in reports of customer funds being stolen through improper access to customer email accounts and unauthorized electronic instructions to transfer or withdraw funds. FINRA urged firms to review policies and procedures to ensure protection of customer funds, particularly in cases where the request for funds and transmittal are handled electronically. FINRA recommends that policies and procedures include methods for confirming the identity of the requestor, as well as a system to identify and respond to “red flags.” Concurrent with the regulatory notice, FINRA issued an alert to investors warning about the increased account breach activity and providing tips for protecting account information and funds.