The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority released Regulatory Notice 10-22 reminding registered firms about their obligations regarding suitability, disclosures and other requirements for selling private placements to customers.
A Broker-Dealer that recommends a security is under a duty to conduct a reasonable investigation concerning that security and the issuer’s representations about it. This is true regardless of the type of security. The “reasonable” standard for the investigation depends on many factors including the nature of the recommendation, the role of the broker-dealer in the transaction, its knowledge of and relationship to the issuer, and the issuer itself.
NASD Rule 2310 requires a broker-dealer to have reasonable grounds to believe that a recommendation to purchase, sell or exchange a security is suitable for the customer. That means they must have a reasonable basis to to determine that the recommendation is suitable for at least some investors. Then they have to determine that it is suitable for the specific customer.
The fact that an investor meets the net worth or income test for being an accredited investor is only one factor to be considered in the course of a complete suitability analysis. In a Regulation D offering the broker-dealer should, at a minimum, conduct a reasonable investigation concerning:
- the issuer and its management;
- the business prospects of the issuer;
- the assets held by or to be acquired by the issuer;
- the claims being made; and
- the intended use of proceeds of the offering
Although the “reasonable investigation” must be tailored to each private placement, the regulatory notice provides a list of best practices gathered from member firms.
A. Issuer and Management. Reasonable investigations of the issuer and its management concerning the issuer’s
history and management’s background and qualifications to conduct the business might include:
- Examining the issuer’s governing documents, including any charter, bylaws and partnership agreement, noting particularly the amount of its authorized stock and any restriction on its activities. If the issuer is a corporation, a BD might determine whether it has perpetual existence.
- Examining historical financial statements of the issuer and its affiliates, with particular focus, if available, on financial statements that have been audited by an independent certified public accountant and auditor letters to management.
- Looking for any trends indicated by the financial statements.
- Inquiring about the business of affiliates of the issuer and the extent to which any cash needs or other expectations for the affiliate might affect the business prospects of the issuer.
- Inquiring about internal audit controls of the issuer.
- Contacting customers and suppliers regarding their dealing with the issuer.
- Reviewing the issuer’s contracts, leases, mortgages, financing arrangements, contractual arrangements between the issuer and its management, employment agreements and stock option plans.
- Inquiring about past securities offerings by the issuer and the degree of their success while keeping in mind that simply because a certain product or sponsor historically met obligations to investors, there are no guarantees that it will continue to do so, particularly if the issuer has been dependent on continuously raising new capital. This inquiry could be especially important for any blind pool or blank-check offering.
- Inquiring about pending litigation of the issuer or its affiliates.
- Inquiring about previous or potential regulatory or disciplinary problems of the issuer. A BD might make a credit check of the issuer.
- Making reasonable inquiries concerning the issuer’s management. A BD might inquire about such issues as the expertise of management for the issuer’s business and the extent to which management has changed or is expected to change. For example, a BD might inquire about any regulatory or disciplinary history on the part of management and any loans or other transactions between the issuer or its affiliates and members of management that might be inappropriate or might otherwise affect the issuer’s business.
- Inquiring about the forms and amount of management compensation, who determines the compensation and the extent to which the forms of compensation could present serious conflicts of interest. A BD might make similar inquiries concerning the qualifications and integrity of any board of directors or similar body of the issuer.
- Inquiring about the length of time that the issuer has been in business and whether the focus of its business is expected to change.
B. Issuer’s Business Prospects. Reasonable investigations of the issuer’s business prospects, and the relationship of those prospects to the proposed price of the securities being offered, might include:
- Inquiring about the viability of any patent or other intellectual property rights held by the issuer.
- Inquiring about the industry in which the issuer conducts its business, the prospects for that industry, any existing or potential regulatory restrictions on that business and the competitive position of the issuer.
- Requesting any business plan, business model or other description of the business intentions of the issuer and its management and their expectations for the business, and analyzing management’s assumptions upon which any business forecast is based. A BD might test models with information from representative assets to validate projected returns, break-even points and similar information provided to investors.
- Requesting financial models used to generate projections or targeted returns.
- Maintaining in the BD’s files a summary of the analysis that was performed on financial models provided by the issuer that detail the results of any stress tests performed on the issuer’s assumptions and projections.
C. Issuer’s Assets. Reasonable investigations of the quality of the assets and facilities of the issuer might include:
- Visiting and inspecting a sample of the issuer’s assets and facilities to determine whether the value of assets reflected in the financial statements is reasonable and that management’s assertions concerning the condition of the issuer’s physical plants and the adequacy of its equipment are accurate.
- Carefully examining any geological, land use, engineering or other reports by third-party experts that may raise red flags.
- Obtaining, with respect to energy development and exploration programs, expert opinions from engineers, geologists and others are necessary as a basis for determining the suitability of the investment prior to recommending the security to investors.
“An increase in investor complaints regarding private placements, as well as SEC actions halting sales of certain private placement offerings, led FINRA to launch a nationwide initiative that involves active examinations and investigations of broker-dealers engaged in retail sales of private placement interests,” said FINRA Chairman and CEO Rick Ketchum.