Being a fiduciary to clients means acting in the client’s best interest and putting their interest before yours and others. Sometimes knowing what is in the client’s best interest can get foggy so establishing certain guidelines can help protect you, your client, and your representatives.
In accordance with Rule 204A-1 of the Investment Advisors Act of 1940, RIA’s registered with the SEC are required to maintain a written code of ethics that outline the fiduciary duties and standards of conduct of the RIA and its representatives. State registered RIA’s may also be required to develop a code of ethics consistent with state regulations.
It’s important to keep in mind that in creating a code of ethics, the SEC and various state regulations set minimum requirements. The following items are required in an RIA’s code of ethics under Rule 204A-1:
- A standard of business conduct which reflects the fiduciary obligations to clients;
- Provisions requiring all advisers’ and supervised persons’ compliance with applicable federal securities laws;
- Protection of material non-public information of both the adviser’s securities recommendations, and client securities holdings and transactions;
- Periodic reporting and reviewing of access persons’ personal securities transactions and holdings;
- Advisor’s approval before an access person can invest in an IPO or private placement;
- Duty to report violations of the code of ethics;
- A written acknowledgment that all supervised persons received the code of ethics; and
- Recordkeeping provisions.
RIAs often set higher standards that work to reinforce the values or business practices of the company. Rule 204A-1 does not require detailed measures to be included into every code because of the vast differences among advisory firms. However, the SEC has offered guidance and recommendations on additional best practices that advisors should consider incorporating into its code of ethics. The following list contains additional safeguards that are commonly implemented by other advisers:
- Prior written approval before access persons can place a personal securities transaction (“pre-clearance”);
- Maintenance of lists of issuers of securities that the advisory firm is analyzing or recommending for client transactions, and prohibitions on personal trading in securities of those issuers;
- Maintenance of “restricted lists” of issuers about which the advisory firm has inside information, and prohibitions on any trading (personal or for clients) in securities of those issuers;
- “Blackout periods” when client securities trades are being placed or recommendations are being made and access persons are not permitted to place personal securities transactions.
- Reminders that investment opportunities must be offered first to clients before the adviser or its employees may act on them, and procedures to implement this principle.
- Prohibitions or restrictions on “short-swing” trading and market timing.
- Requirements to trade only through certain brokers, or limitations on the number of brokerage accounts permitted;
- Requirements to provide the adviser with duplicate trade confirmations and account statements; and
- Procedures for assigning new securities analyses to employees whose personal holdings do not present apparent conflicts of interest.
Another issue that may be important to include in your code of ethics is provisions concerning gifts and entertainment since giving or receiving gifts between a client and advisor may create the appearance of impropriety. Gift and entertainment provisions usually contain reporting requirements and a prohibition of accepting gifts over de minimus values, such as $100.
While the above requirements and recommendations generally encompass an advisor’s fiduciary duty as it relates to conflicts of interests, advisors have additional fiduciary duties to clients that should be memorialized in a code of ethics as well. For example, and what might appear obvious to some, advisors cannot defraud or engage in manipulative practices with a client in any way. Advisors also have a duty to have a reasonable, independent basis for the investment advice provided to a client and to ensure that investment advice meets the client’s individual objectives, needs, and circumstances. Advisors are also expected to stay abreast of market conditions. Clients should be provided with all material information related to their investments or investment strategy and should be adequately informed of the risks associated with those investments. The depth of the explanation of those risks or strategy depends on the client’s level education and experience.
The buck doesn’t stop with establishing a written code of ethics, however. Implementation and enforcement of your code of ethics are just as crucial. This also includes educating your representatives. Rule 204A-1 does not mandate specific training procedures but ensuring that your representatives understand their obligations and their fiduciary duties is imperative. Thus, periodic training with new and existing employees is not only in your best interest, but also the interest of your employees and clients. Finally, you should annually review your code of ethics to determine if there are any areas of deficiency or whether changes need to be made.
The Syndicate can assist with your firm in the following ways: (1) drafting or establishing a code of ethics; (2) reviewing your current code to assure it complies with applicable state or federal laws; (3) implementing training programs; and (4) analyzing your firm’s implementation procedures to ensure compliance with the codes provisions.