Concern about recommendations of complex financial products for retail investors has been at the center of the debate over changing standards for broker-dealers and investment advisers. With full implementation of the heightened Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI) requirements less than a month away, FINRA issued a Notice reminding firms of their sales obligations when offering recommendations on complex oil-related exchange-traded products (ETPs).
The FINRA Notice is straightforward. It describes dramatic volatility in the oil market, related ETP product complexity and risk, suitability obligations and soon-to-be-in-force Reg BI obligations on those firms and registered representatives that trade in these products. FINRA’s Notice, therefore, provides an important case study not only as to the specific expectations of firms that trade oil-related ETPs, but also on how the self-regulator appears to be handling concerns about recommendations to retail clients of complex products in a volatile market. Here’s a closer look.
Oil-related ETPs are complex financial products. They are listed securities that “provide exposure” based on “the performance of an index, benchmark, or actively-managed strategy.” As such, they meet the description set forth in a previously issued FINRA Notice as having features that “make it difficult for a retail investor to understand the essential characteristics of the product and its risks.”
FINRA describes these risks in the context of a representative’s ability to explain them to retail investors. Specifically, FINRA cautioned that firms must understand how tracking futures contracts and indices actually works, how certain conditions currently existing in the market, for example, contango and backwardation, can affect performance, and how ETP securities perform relative to the price of the commodity in the cash market. Further, FINRA warned that firms must comprehend (i) differences among varying ETPs in order to advise clients on how they can be used within an investment strategy, (ii) differences and risks based on product structures—such as the difference between commodity pools which hold futures assets and exchange-traded notes which hold debt—and (iii) risks from different ETPs concerning “structural features,” such as those with provisions for accelerated terminations or suspensions of new issuance.
According to FINRA, current market conditions are highlighting these risks. A decline in oil demand (due in part to COVID-19), has led to a plunge in cash market values which has had a significant impact on the market for futures and ETP indices. (FINRA repeatedly warned that firms must understand and explain to retail investors the differences between the spot market and ETPs). Extreme volatility in several oil-linked ETPs has led to ETP terminations and suspensions and has exacerbated investor losses.
FINRA warned firms that oil-related ETP recommendations require representatives to fully comprehend the terms, features and risks of these complex products. FINRA also advised firms that sales obligations on these complex products require compliance with rules on suitability (Rule 2111), communications with the public (Rule 2210), and supervision (Rule 3110). After June 30, 2020, oil-related ETP recommendations will require compliance with Reg BI.
FINRA noted that both customer-specific suitability and reasonable-basis suitability were “particularly relevant” to oil-related ETPs. The former requires a reasonable basis to believe that a recommendation or strategy is suitable for a specific customer based on a “customer’s investment experience, risk tolerance, liquidity needs, investment objectives, and financial situation and needs.” Reasonable-basis suitability requires that the firm “perform reasonable diligence to understand the nature and risks of the transaction or strategy, and then to determine whether there is a reasonable basis to believe that the recommendation is suitable for the investor.”
FINRA pointed out that in less than a month, recommendations of ETPs to retail clients “will be governed” by Reg BI, and firms must act in the client’s best interest at the time the recommendation is made, “without placing the financial or other interests of the firm ahead of the interests of the retail customer.” (See recent Bates article describing FINRA’s recent proposal to modify the suitability rule.)
FINRA advised firms that public communications of oil-related ETPs should “balance” the benefits of these securities with “a clear description of the risks,” (including those related to contango an backwardation), and that firms “may not omit any material fact or qualification that would cause such a communication to be misleading.” Specifically, FINRA said that public communications must describe the “speculative nature of futures investments and must explain clearly that the ETP’s price will not track directly the spot price of oil.” Further, FINRA warned firms that risk disclosure in a prospectus “does not cure otherwise deficient disclosure in sales material, even if the sales material is accompanied or preceded by the prospectus.”
On compliance with supervisory obligations, FINRA reminded firms to establish and maintain a reasonably designed and tailored supervisory system that takes into account the complexity of any offering of oil-related ETPs in the context of the firm’s customer base. FINRA relayed that firms must conduct training for registered representatives about the terms, features and risks of these products as well as on the suitability of recommendations, given the “investor’s time horizon, impact of time and volatility on the ETP’s performance.”
FINRA issued this Notice because of volatility in the market for oil-related ETPs, the resulting ETP terminations and suspensions, and consequent investor losses. The self-regulator’s emphasis on sales practice reinforces the message that sales of these complex products meet the requirements of FINRA’s suitability, communications and supervision rules, and fall under the new Reg BI standard commencing at the end of the month. Bates will continue to keep your posted on developments.
Julie Johnstone, Managing Director, Retail Securities Litigation
Robert Lavigne, Managing Director, Bates Compliance
Alex Russell, Managing Director, White Collar, Regulatory and Internal Investigations