Investment Advisers Act

The SEC’s recent settlement involving a “pay-to-play” rule violation by a private equity firm is a timely reminder for fund managers, especially with the November elections approaching. 

As a refresher, Rule 206(4)-5 of the Investment Advisers Act – known as the “pay to play” rule – prohibits investment advisers from receiving compensation for providing advisory services to state and municipal entities for two years after the adviser or one of its “covered associates” makes certain political contribution to candidates for public office. Note that the SEC Enforcement Division staff periodically reviews public campaign contribution reports (which are publicly available online) to identify donations by individuals associated with investment advisers.

As IPOs and other traditional paths to liquidity for private assets have become more challenging, GP-led secondary transactions have emerged as a powerful and popular tool across closed-end private funds, leading to explosive growth over the last five years. And while macro factors influence their prevalence year over year, these transactions remain broadly popular across the various stakeholders in these transactions, facilitating different goals for different parties: 

  • Existing Investors (LPs):  Near-term liquidity in a liquidity-constrained market, typically with an option to continue participation if desired
  • New Investors (Buyers):  Access to a mature portfolio with unrealized upside
  • Fund Adviser (GP):  Extended duration to capture future upside of well-performing assets, additional capital to support existing portfolio, and reset economics aligning with longer-term outlook

On March 15, 2023 the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) released its proposal to amend Regulation S-P: Privacy of Consumer Financial Information and Safeguarding Customer Information, while simultaneously issuing two additional cybersecurity-related rule proposals[1] and re-opening the comment period for its previously-proposed cybersecurity risk management rule released in February 2022.[2] This set of sweeping reforms makes it clear, if not already, that the SEC is serious about implementing comprehensive cybersecurity and privacy standards across its regulated entity population—including investment advisers.   

Last month, we predicted that a renewed focus by the SEC on insider trading, MNPI and related internal controls would be one of the Top Ten Regulatory and Litigation Risks for Private Funds in 2022. Last week, the SEC’s Division of Examinations (“EXAMS”) issued a timely risk alert relating to Investment Adviser Material Non-Public Information (MNPI) Compliance Issues.

The SEC’s EXAMS risk alert specifically highlighted a handful of common deficiencies noted under Section 204A of the Advisers Act and Rule 204A-1 under the Advisers Act (the “Code of Ethics Rule”).

We anticipate a more assertive regulatory enforcement program under the Biden administration, particularly focused on fund managers’ conflicts of interest, advisers’ codes of ethics, and related policies and procedures relating to material nonpublic information.  These concerns may be heightened for fund managers participating in bankruptcy proceedings, where competing fiduciary obligations arise, particularly in the context of serving on creditors committees.  Outlined below are three primary concerns.

On October 7th, 2020, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced the rescheduled date of its 2020 national compliance outreach seminar for investment companies and investment advisers.  This program is intended to help Chief Compliance Officers and other senior personnel at investment companies and investment advisory firms enhance their compliance programs.  The SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE), Division of Investment Management (IM), and the Asset Management Unit (AMU) of the Division of Enforcement jointly sponsor the compliance outreach program.  The national seminar will be held virtually on the afternoon of Thursday, November 19th, 2020 via a live webcast from the SEC’s Washington, D.C., headquarters from noon until 4:50 p.m. EST.

Asset managers commonly engage regulatory compliance consultants to aid them in addressing regulatory requirements and implementing compliance programs. The work of those compliance professionals can be drawn into SEC enforcement actions in various contexts.  See, e.g., ZPR Investment Mgmt. Inc. v. SEC (compliance consultant resigned when advice not followed and testified in proceeding). One such context is when a fund manager asserts reliance on advice of the compliance consultant as a defense to fraud charges. Earlier this year, a district court opinion addressed that very issue. Although the opinion received little attention, it could have major implications if its analysis is broadly adopted.

A cyber breach can have serious legal, financial, and reputational consequences for a fund sponsor, as described in our previous post. As such, cybersecurity threats must be treated as business risks, not just a potential IT problem. Senior management at fund sponsors should take the lead to ensure that the sponsor is taking appropriate actions to protect itself against cyber risks. There are several steps that senior management can guide the fund sponsor to take to prevent breaches from occurring and to mitigate the impact when they do occur.

The SEC has been active in the private equity space recently after being relatively quiet for some time. A recent enforcement action serves as a reminder for fund sponsors that regulators are continuing to look at fund sponsors’ practices relating to “operating partners,” particularly in the context of disclosures to limited partners.

Last month the SEC brought an enforcement action illustrating how cross trades can trip up a manager of a private fund.  The SEC’s settlement with investment manager Lone Star Value Management LLC was based on allegations that the manager carried out a series of cross trades among funds it managed without disclosing to the client in writing that it was acting as a principal and obtaining the client’s consent. In addition to Lone Star, the SEC also sanctioned its founder, sole managing member, CEO, and portfolio manager for violations of Section 206(3) under the Advisers Act and Rule 206(4)-7 thereunder relating to principal transactions.