Best execution refers to the obligation of an investment adviser to ensure that the prices its orders receive reflect the optimal mix of price improvement, speed and likelihood of execution. The concern is whether the investment adviser is getting some other compensation that influences the decision to use one broker over another. This concern should be heightened when there is an affiliate involved.
In meeting the “best execution” obligation, an adviser must execute securities transactions for clients in such a manner that the clients’ total cost or proceeds in each transaction is the most favorable under the circumstances. In assessing whether this standard is met, an adviser should consider the full range and quality of a broker’s services when placing brokerage, including, among other things, execution capability, commission rate, financial responsibility, responsiveness to the adviser, and the value of any research services provided. That’s a fairly fuzzy standard.
One of the landmark decisions in this area was an administrative proceeding against Mark Bailey & Co.(.pdf). Many of the clients were referred by a third party brokerage firm. The clients would tell the firm to keep using the referral brokerage firm for their transactions. The claim was that the firm violated Section 206(2) of the Advisers Act because the firm failed to negotiate lower brokerage commissions. The SEC also took the position that the firm should have been batching transactions to lower brokerage costs and receive a volume discount. The conflict came from perception that the firm was willing to pay the higher commission to the broker in exchange for continuing referrals from the broker.
A recent case highlighted the conflict when an investment adviser is also affiliated with a fund platform. The SEC brought a case against Manarin Investment Counsel Ltd. and Roland R. Manarin claiming they violated their obligation for “best execution” by selecting higher cost mutual fund shares for the three fund clients even though cheaper shares in the same funds were available. The three funds were advised by Manarin and an affiliate of Manarin served as the broker for investments by the funds.
The SEC claims that Manarin consistently purchased Class A shares with higher fees paid to the affiliated broker instead of institutional shares that would have a lower fee structure. In effect, this case highlights the need to look at the various classes of mutual fund shares available as part of best execution, not merely the brokerage cost involved. In this case, the conflict was heightened because the higher fees were going to an affiliate of the adviser.
Image is Marie Antoinette’s execution in 1793 at the Place de la Révolution