On June 13, 2022, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged three Charles Schwab investment adviser subsidiaries—Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.; Charles Schwab Investment Advisory, Inc. (“CSIA”); and Schwab Wealth Investment Advisory, Inc. (“SWIA,” and together with Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. and CSIA, “Charles Schwab”)—with violations of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 for alleged misconduct associated with its robo-advisor, Schwab Intelligent Portfolios (“SIP”).  Unlike most other robo-advisers, Charles Schwab did not charge an advisory fee for the SIP service.  However, Charles Schwab required its SIP clients to hold pre-set amounts of cash—rather than investing in equities under market conditions where equities were outperforming cash—that was then loaned out by Charles Schwab Bank at higher interest rates than it paid to the SIP clients, resulting in a profitable spread for Charles Schwab and the equivalent of a hidden fee for its clients, since holding cash lowered their returns.  Charles Schwab was ordered to pay almost $46 million in disgorgement, more than $5 million in prejudgment interest, and $135 million as a civil penalty.  The $187 million in total sanctions will be returned to investors.  Charles Schwab also agreed to an independent consultant to conduct a “comprehensive review” of its compliance policies, and agreed to provide ongoing cooperation to the SEC in an unusual provision—a sign that there may be additional charges yet to come.

Continue Reading SEC Brings Robo-Adviser Case Against Charles Schwab for Misleading Clients About Hidden Costs

On May 25, 2022, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) proposed amendments to rules and related reporting forms under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (the “Advisers Act”) and the Investment Company Act of 1940 (the “Investment Company Act”) that are ostensibly intended to provide additional transparency regarding the use of environmental, social, and governance (“ESG”) factors by investment advisers and investment companies (the “Proposal,” available here), but which will also give SEC Examination and Enforcement staff additional tools to track and target advisers and funds pursuing an ESG strategy.
Continue Reading New ESG Rule Proposal Raises the Stakes under SEC’s New Marketing Rule

On May 23, 2022, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced the inaugural enforcement action against an investment adviser by its much hyped ESG Task Force.[1]  As expected, this case does not find fault with the concept of ESG or conduct suggesting actual wrongdoing.  Instead, consistent with bread and butter policy for the SEC’s Enforcement Division, the SEC charged BNY Mellon Investment Advisers (“BNYMIA”) for failing to act consistently with its ESG disclosures to investors and having inadequate policies and procedures to prevent the misleading disclosures.  While the penalty of $1.5 million could be seen as small for this SEC, BNYMIA was charged with negligent fraud under Section 206(2), Section 206(4) and Rule 206(4)-8 under the Advisers Act, in addition to compliance violations.
Continue Reading SEC’s ESG Task Force Comes Out Swinging with Inaugural Enforcement Action Ahead of New ESG Disclosure Rules

On March 30, 2022, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) Division of Examinations (the “Division”)—formerly the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations—released its 2022 Examination Priorities (“2022 Priorities”).  The Division is undergoing extensive leadership changes, with the recent departures of several top officials.  Consistent with the aggressive agenda set by Chair Gensler for the SEC generally, the Division has returned to its pre-pandemic caseload, conducting over 3,000 exams in fiscal year 2021, issuing over 2,000 deficiency letters, and making 190 referrals to the Enforcement Division.  Despite the management changes, the 2022 Priorities generally retain perennial risk areas as the core focus, but include several new and emerging risk areas reflecting the policy goals espoused by Gensler in recent proposed rule releases and public statements.
Continue Reading SEC Division of Examinations Reinforces Gensler Initiatives in its 2022 Exam Priorities

The SEC and a consortium of 32 states recently announced a $100 million settlement with BlockFi Lending LLC over its crypto lending product, BlockFi Interest Accounts. The SEC alleged BlockFi had violated the securities laws by failing to register its interest-bearing crypto lending product as a security, failing to register itself as an investment company,

On January 26, 2022 the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) adopted proposed amendments to Form PF that would dramatically expand both the frequency and amount of reporting by private fund advisers and hedge fund advisers (the “Proposal”).  The Proposal is purportedly intended as part of an effort to bolster the Financial Stability Oversight Counsel’s

On January 14, 2022, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California issued a decision in SEC v. Matthew Panuwat[1] validating the legal theory advanced by the Commission that trading in the securities of a competitor company could form the basis of an insider trading violation where the defendant learned that an acquisition of his employer was imminent.  In denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss the complaint, the court ruled that the SEC had sufficiently pled a claim, marking the first judicial decision concerning alleged insider trading in securities of a company based on material, nonpublic information (“MNPI”) about another company, a practice that has sometimes been referred to as “shadow trading.”   The court’s refusal to dismiss the SEC’s novel legal theory that trading on the basis of MNPI of one company to profit on a securities transaction involving a competitor constitutes actionable insider trading should be considered by companies and individuals as they assess trading decisions and policies.
Continue Reading SEC’s “Shadow Trading” Insider Trading Case Allowed to Proceed