The Securities and Exchange Commission for the first time brought charges against a broker-dealer for failure to adequately protect against insider trading by its employees. The charges stem from a broker’s use of a customer’s confidential information to purchase shares in a company being acquired by a private equity firm. (The SEC previously charged the broker with insider trading in a separate action.) The broker-dealer that employed the broker settled charges of violations of the securities laws for failing to adequately establish, maintain, and enforce policies and procedures reasonably designed to prevent insider trading by employees with access to confidential client information.
Since 1988, the federal securities laws have required broker-dealers to establish, maintain, and enforce written policies and procedures, consistent with the nature of their business, to prevent the misuse of material nonpublic information. The policies and procedures must be tailored to the specific circumstances of the business, and broker-dealers (and investment advisers) must not only adopt such procedures but also vigilantly review, update, and enforce them.
As the SEC’s settlement order points out, broker-dealers obtain material nonpublic information (“MNPI”) in various ways, including through their investment banking business and research operations, or from their customers. These various channels of obtaining MNPI and the risks of potential misuse make monitoring of trading by the firm, its registered representatives, and its customers critical to complying with the supervision requirements.
In its settlement order, the SEC found that the broker-dealer, failed to establish, maintain, and enforce policies and procedures reasonably designed to prevent the misuse of MNPI, specifically, any MNPI obtained from its customers and advisory clients. In 2010, the risk became reality when a registered representative of the firm used information from one of his customers before the information was publicly announced. The representative traded on the basis of that information and also tipped others, including several customers of the broker-dealer.
The SEC found that the principal failure of the firm’s procedures occurred when the compliance group reviewed the representative’s trading after the public disclosure of the acquisition but did not share information about the trading with other compliance groups in the firm or with senior management.
The SEC faulted the firm’s insider trading procedure that required a “look-back” review of trading in employee accounts and in customer and client accounts after announcements that significantly affect the market. Specifically, the firm’s written guidance regarding the look-back review procedures was insufficient. Among other things, the firm did not provide appropriate guidance on actions to be taken by employees with respect to:
- Parameters to be considered by the firm’s control group regarding the daily identification of market-moving news stories to identify securities warranting a trading review, and the documentation of work performed on those trading reviews;
- Additional review to be conducted by the control group when it found “red flags” such as profits or losses avoided greater than $5,000, trading by an “insider,” or trades in any accounts in the same branch as an insider;
- The procedure for performing personnel interviews upon identification of “red flags” and for escalating reviews of suspect trading to the control group manager when there was not a “sufficient explanation for the basis of the trade” provided during the review;
- The documentation of the look-back review performed on trading reviews, which made it nearly impossible for firm management to determine whether the firm’s policies and procedures were followed when conducting the reviews.
The SEC also found that the firm’s policies and procedures failed to address how to consider options trading as part of the look-back reviews.
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