The Securities and Exchange Commission Post-Madoff Reforms

The SEC has just released the information below regarding the actions it will take in the wake of the Madoff scandal. Pillsbury is sponsoring a program in San Francisco on this topic, October 8, 2009.

In the wake of the Madoff fraud, the SEC’s Office of the Inspector General launched an internal investigation in December 2008 to determine why the agency did not detect the scheme. While awaiting the report, the SEC has been taking decisive and comprehensive steps to reduce the chances that such frauds will occur or be undetected in the future.

Safeguarding Investors’ Assets: The SEC in May proposed two rules that would better protect clients of investment advisers from theft and abuse. The rules would provide assurance to these clients that their accounts contain the funds that their investment adviser and account statements say they contain. Among other things, the rules would encourage investment advisers to place their clients’ assets in the custody of an independent firm.

Surprise Exams: One proposal would require all investment advisers who control or have custody of their clients’ assets to hire an independent public accountant to conduct an annual “surprise exam” to verify those assets actually exist. This surprise examination would provide another set of eyes on the clients’ assets, thereby offering additional protection against the theft or misuse of funds.

Third Party Reviews: A second proposal would apply to investment advisers who do not use independent firms to maintain their clients’ assets. Such advisers would be required to obtain a third party written report assessing the safeguards that protect the clients’ assets. The report — prepared by an accountant registered and inspected by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board — would, among other things, describe the controls that are in place to protect the assets, the tests performed on the controls, and the results of those tests. Existing rules make no distinction between an investment adviser whose affiliate holds its clients’ funds and an investment adviser that uses a truly independent custodian.

Revitalizing the Enforcement Division: Under the leadership of a new Enforcement Director, the SEC is restructuring the division to better ensure that it focuses on significant cases that will have a meaningful impact. The restructuring will reduce bureaucracy and speed up the enforcement process by removing a layer of management in the 1,100 person division. The newly structured division will include specialized units that will enable staff in those units to concentrate their expertise in focused areas and help detect patterns, links, trends and motives. In addition, the Division is streamlining internal processes to make investigative procedures more efficient.

Revamping the Handling of Complaints and Tips: In order to improve the handling of hundreds of thousands of complaints, tips, and referrals it receives each year, the SEC has contracted with Mitre, a federally funded research and development center, to help the agency revamp its processes across the agency. After reviewing and analyzing its intake procedures, the SEC is now beginning to improve upon its processes for collecting, recording, investigating, referring and tracking this information. Among other things, the agency is creating a centralized system for handling this information. Once the information and processes are centralized, the agency will apply risk analytics to better enable it to reveal links, trends, statistical deviations and patterns that might not be observable when each complaint is examined one at a time.

Advocating for a Whistleblower Program: The SEC has advocated for expanded authority from Congress to reward whistleblowers who bring forward substantial evidence to the agency about significant federal securities violations. In proposed legislation that the Chairman sent to Congress, a fund would be established to pay whistleblowers using money collected from wrongdoers that is not otherwise distributed to investors.

Conducting Risk-Based Examinations of Financial Firms: The SEC has dispatched its examiners to conduct a “sweep” of firms that present certain risk characteristics to ensure, among other things, that the clients’ assets in fact exist. Such risks include advisers whose clients’ assets are held with an affiliate, as opposed to an independent entity; hedge funds that seem to have “smooth” or outlier returns; firms that use an unknown auditor or no auditor at all; firms with a disciplinary history; and broker-dealers that sell an affiliate’s hedge fund or limited partnership.

Increasing Focus on Agency-Wide Risk Assessment: The SEC is assessing and improving the use of risk assessment techniques, agency-wide, to more proactively identify areas of risk to investors. The agency is increasing collaboration with third parties and other government agencies to identify firms or products that may pose risk to investors or markets. The agency is also improving our ability to monitor the industry — by identifying the data and information that financial firms would submit to the SEC — to allow it to better identify those particular firms that warrant a closer look by examiners and enforcement staff.

Improving Fraud Detection Techniques for Examiners: The SEC instituted measures to improve the ability of examiners to detect fraud and other types of violations. The measures include more rigorous reviews of firms before the examiners enter the premises, and a more complete exam guide that focuses not only on obvious signs of fraud but also more subtle signals that deserve closer inspection, such as a firm using an unknown accountant. The measures also include increased checks on outside entities to verify that assets actually exist there and expanded use of exams of an entire entity when firms have joint or dual registrants such as affiliated broker-dealers and investment advisers.

Recruiting Staff with Specialized Experience: The SEC is working to bring in new staff with diverse skill sets to expand its knowledge base and improve its ability to assess risk, conduct examinations, detect and investigate wrongdoing, and focus our priorities. Some initial examples included:

Senior Specialized Examiners: The agency is hiring new staffers to the examination unit who have specialized experience in areas such as trading, operations, portfolio management, options, compliance, valuation, new instruments and portfolio strategies, and forensic accounting.

Industry and Market Fellows Program: The agency is hiring new staffers who are highly-seasoned financial experts to keep pace with the practices of Wall Street and protect investors. These experts would provide other staffers with new information and perspectives to help them identify emerging issues and understand the ways the industry is changing.

Expanding and Targeting Training: The SEC is providing its staff with targeted training related to hedge funds and specialized products, derivatives and options, complex trading, and investigations of regulated entities. Additionally, the SEC is conducting programs to train hundreds of staffers to become Certified Fraud Examiners, and expanding the availability of programs for staffers to become Certified Financial Analysts.

Seeking More Resources: The SEC has been seeking additional funding to hire more examiners who can go into more financial firms to see whether they are in compliance with the law, as well as for more enforcement staff who can bring more enforcement cases when fraud and other violations of the law are found. In recent years, the SEC has not had adequate resources to oversee the securities industry. For example, the SEC has just over 400 people in its exam program to examine the more than 11,000 regulated investment advisers and 8,000 mutual funds.

Integrating Broker-Dealer and Investment Adviser Examinations: The New York Regional Office has adopted a protocol that will integrate examination teams to make sure people with the right skill sets are assigned to examinations. Under the new protocol, a single team of examiners, drawn from the broker-dealer and investment managements units, will jointly examine selected firms to ensure that the examination team includes those most expert in the subject of the exam. In addition, this initiative includes greater cross-training and coordination between broker-dealer and investment management staff on their examination plans.

Enhancing Licensing, Education and Oversight Regime for “Back-Office” Personnel: Working with senior SEC staff, FINRA has committed to establish a new system to enhance the oversight and professional requirements of personnel performing back-office functions at broker-dealer firms. “Back-office” personnel typically perform critical custody, accounting, transfer agency and account maintenance functions. They have an important role that must be performed with skill and integrity. Under the new regime, certain back-office personnel would be subject to licensing and education requirements as well as enhanced oversight. The new regime will further promote the qualifications and professionalism of those performing back office functions so that client accounts are better protected.

Thanks to Jay B. Gould, Partner, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.

About Alex Akesson

Alex has been specializing in hedge fund and alternative investment news since April 2006. Working mainly in research and manager interviews, she has published breaking news on the hedge fund industry on her blog, as well as several industry publications. Her access to hedge fund managers gives her insight into news stories as well, and the ability to track press releases and other breaking news in real time.
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