SEC Approves Consolidated FINRA Rules Governing Know-Your-Customer:

Effective October 7, 2011, new consolidated FINRA rules governing your broker/dealer’s and your account executive’s know-your-customer and suitability obligations become effective for the consolidated FINRA rulebook. The new rules are based in part on and replace provisions in the NASD and NYSE rules.

These rules are of critical importance for broker/dealers and customers alike. They form critical standards by which the firm’s can reasonably monitor the activity that is taking place in your account and they provide guidance to you, the customer, to understand your role verses that of your account executive. In order for the protections of these rules to surround the activity in your account, you must, at the start of your relationship with the broker/dealer and your account executive, provide complete information as discussed below. Importantly, if your circumstances change, it is critical that these changes be communicated to your account executive and firm so that they can fulfill their regulatory obligations to you.

If you comply with your disclosure obligations and the firm or account executive fails to recommend suitable investments or strategies to you, then you would have a claim against them for, among other things, breach of contract, negligence, breach of fiduciary duties, fraud and as it relates to the firm, negligent supervision.

In order to understand how these rules relate to your particular situation, it is important to understand the type of account relationship that you have with the firm. There are three basic types, non-discretionary, discretionary or hybrid. These account are more fully discussed on my website.

Another reason that this information is important is that if you file an arbitration claim, which is based upon investments or strategies not being suitable for you, your expert witness will, in large part, base his testimony and opinions upon the information that you have disclosed to the firm and/or associated person. Your financial condition, prior investment experience and other relevant matters set the standard by which to compare the complained of activity in your account.

Discussion of the New Rules

The know-your-customer and suitability obligations are critical to ensuring investor protection and promoting fair dealing with customers and ethical sales practices. As part of the process of developing the consolidated FINRA rulebook, FINRA proposed and the SEC approved FINRA Rule 2090 (Know Your Customer) and FINRA Rule 2111 (Suitability). The new rules retain the core features of these important obligations and at the same time strengthen, streamline and clarify them. The new rules are discussed separately below.

Know Your Customer

In general, new FINRA Rule 2090 (Know Your Customer) is modeled after former NYSE Rule 405(1) and requires firms to use “reasonable diligence, in regard to the opening and maintenance of every account, to know the “essential facts” concerning every customer. The rule explains that “essential facts” are “those required to (a) effectively service the customer’s account, (b) act in accordance with any special handling instructions for the account, (c) understand the authority of each person acting on behalf of the customer, and (d) comply with applicable laws, regulations, and rules. The know-your-customer obligation arises at the beginning of the customer-broker relationship and does not depend on whether the broker has made a recommendation. Unlike former NYSE Rule 405, the new rule does not specifically address orders, supervision or account opening-areas that are explicitly covered by other rules.

Suitability

New FINRA Rule 2111 generally is modeled after former NASD Rule 2310 (Suitability) and requires that a firm or associated person “have a reasonable basis to believe that a recommended transaction or investment strategy involving a security or securities is suitable for the customer, based on the information obtained through the reasonable diligence of the member or associated person to ascertain the customer’s investment profile. The rule further explains that a “customer’s investment profile includes, but is not limited to, the customer’s age, other investments, financial situation and needs, tax status,investment objectives, investment experience, investment time horizon, liquidity needs, risk tolerance, and any other information the customer may disclose to the member or associated person in connection with such recommendation. The new rule continues to use a broker’s recommendation as the triggering event for application of the rule and continues to apply a flexible “facts and circumstances” approach to determining what communications constitute such a recommendation. The new rule also applies to recommended investment strategies, clarifies the types of information that brokers must attempt to obtain and analyze, and discusses the three main suitability obligations. Finally, the new rule modifies the institutional-investor exemption in a number of important ways.

Recommendations

The determination of the existence of a recommendation has always been based on the facts and circumstances of the particular case. That remains true under the new rule. FINRA reiterates, however, that several guiding principles are relevant to determining whether a particular communication could be viewed as a recommendation for purposes of the suitability rule.

For instance, a communication’s content, context and presentation are important aspects of the inquiry. The determination of whether a “recommendation” has been made, moreover, is an objective rather than subjective inquiry. An important factor in this regard is whether-given its content, context and manner of presentation-a particular communication from a firm or associated person to a customer reasonably would be viewed as a suggestion that the customer take action or refrain from taking action regarding a security or investment strategy. In addition, the more individually tailored the communication is to a particular customer or customers about a specific security or investment strategy, the more likely the communication will be viewed as a recommendation. Furthermore, a series of actions that may not constitute recommendations when viewed individually may amount to a recommendation when considered in the aggregate. It also makes no difference whether the communication was initiated by a person or a computer software program. These guiding principles, together with numerous litigated decisions and the facts and circumstances of any particular case, inform the determination of whether the communication is a recommendation for purposes of FINRA’s suitability rule.

Strategies

The new rule explicitly applies to recommended investment strategies involving a security or securities. The rule emphasizes that the term “strategy” should be interpreted broadly. The rule is triggered when a firm or associated person recommends a security or strategy regardless of whether the recommendation results in a transaction. Among other things, the term “strategy” would capture a broker’s explicit recommendation to hold a security or securities. The rule recognizes that customers may rely on firms’ and associated persons’ investment expertise and knowledge, and it is thus appropriate to hold firms and associated persons responsible for the recommendations that they make to customers, regardless of whether those recommendations result in transactions or generate transaction-based compensation. FINRA, however, exempted from the new rule’s coverage certain categories of educational material-which the strategy language otherwise would cover-as long as such material does not include (standing alone or in combination with other communications) a recommendation of a particular security or securities.FINRA believes that it is important to encourage firms and associated persons to freely provide educational material and services to customers.

Customer’s Investment Profile

The new rule includes an expanded list of explicit types of information that firms and associated persons must attempt to gather and analyze as part of a suitability analysis. The new rule essentially adds age, investment experience, time horizon, liquidity needs and risk tolerance to the existing list (other holdings, financial situation and needs, tax status and investment objectives). Recognizing that not every factor regarding a “customer’s investment profile” will be relevant to every recommendation, the rule provides flexibility concerning the type of information that firms must seek to obtain and analyze. However, because the listed factors generally are relevant (and often crucial) to a suitability analysis, the rule requires firms and associated persons to document with specificity their reasonable basis for believing that a factor is not relevant in order to be relieved of the obligation to seek to obtain information about that factor.

Main Suitability Obligations

The new suitability rule lists in one place the three main suitability obligations: reasonable basis, customer-specific and quantitative suitability. Reasonable-basis suitability requires a broker to have a reasonable basis to believe, based on reasonable diligence, that the recommendation is suitable for at least some investors. In general, what constitutes reasonable diligence will vary depending on, among other things, the complexity of and risks associated with the security or investment strategy and the firm’s or associated person’s familiarity with the security or investment strategy. A firm’s or associated person’s reasonable diligence must provide the firm or associated person with an understanding of the potential risks and rewards associated with the recommended security or strategy. Customer-specific suitability requires that a broker have a reasonable basis to believe that the recommendation is suitable for a particular customer based on that customer’s investment profile. As noted above, the new rule requires a broker to attempt to obtain and analyze a broad array of customer-specific factors. Quantitative suitability requires a broker who has actual or de facto control over a customer account to have a reasonable basis for believing that a series of recommended transactions, even if suitable when viewed in isolation, are not excessive and unsuitable for the customer when taken together in light of the customer’s investment profile. Factors such as turnover rate, cost-equity ratio and use of in-and out trading in a customer’s account may provide a basis for finding that the activity at issue was excessive.

The new rule makes clear that a broker must have a firm understanding of both the product and the customer. It also makes clear that the lack of such an understanding itself violates the suitability rule. If the broker follows the protocol set out in these rules, the protection afford to customer’s should increase and in cases that it does not, provide additional guidance in customer’s attempting to recover their investment losses.

A complete copy of the new rules are attachment with comments and footnotes can be located on the main FINRA website.

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