The New York State Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) announced Sept. 22 that it has approved Circle Internet Financial’s BitLicense application – making it the first company to receive a BitLicense from NYDFS. The BitLicense – which NYDFS finalized in June 2015 – is the first comprehensive regulatory framework for firms dealing in virtual currency such as Bitcoin, and includes key consumer protection, anti-money laundering compliance, and cyber security guidelines.
On Sept. 16, the SEC adopted amendments (the Amendments) to Rule 2a-7 under the Investment Company Act and Form N-MFP to remove credit-rating references for instruments held by money market funds (MMFs). The Amendments, initially proposed in 2011 and re-proposed in 2014, were prompted by Section 939A of the Dodd-Frank Act, which mandates that the SEC review and, where appropriate, modify rules referring to ratings by credit rating agencies as a test of the creditworthiness of a security or money market instrument. MMFs must comply with the Amendments by Oct. 14, 2016 — the same compliance date for the implementation of the amendments to Rule 2a-7 relating to liquidity fees and redemption gates and requiring a floating net asset value for institutional prime and municipal MMFs. The Amendments revise the definition of “eligible securities” under Rule 2a-7 by removing all references to Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations (NRSRO) ratings. In general, under the current rule, 97% of a MMF is required to be invested in securities with the top short-term credit quality category of a requisite NRSRO (or comparable unrated securities). Under the Amendments, “eligible securities” are instead defined as securities presenting “minimal credit risk,” and the SEC codified four general factors funds must consider, to the extent appropriate, in analyzing the capacity of a security’s issuer or guarantor to meet its financial obligations. The Amendments also revise Rule 2a-7’s requirements for MMF portfolio diversification. It should be noted that the Amendments do not prohibit MMFs from using NRSRO ratings as an aid in assessing whether securities qualify as “eligible securities.” If a MMF uses NRSRO ratings to evaluate securities, however, the Amendments require the MMF to disclose on Form N-MFP the NRSRO ratings used in the evaluation.
In the Sept. 9 issue of the Roundup we reported that the MSRB had filed a proposal seeking SEC approval to (1) apply MSRB Rule G-20, which provides limitations on business-related gift-giving by municipal securities dealers, to municipal advisors, (2) add a new provision to specifically prohibit both dealers and municipal advisors from seeking reimbursement for certain entertainment expenses from the proceeds of an offering of municipal securities and (3) extend to municipal advisors related books and records requirements through proposed amendments to MSRB Rule G-8. On Sept. 22 the proposal was published in the Federal Register. The text of the proposed rule amendments can be found at the end of MSRB Notice 2014-18. Comments are due by Oct. 13.
The MSRB announced on Sept. 21 that municipal advisors may now begin enrolling to take the pilot Municipal Advisor Representative Qualification Examination (Series 50). The registration window for the pilot examination begins on Sept. 21 and closes on Jan. 14, 2016. Municipal advisor firms will need to utilize FINRA Form U10 to enroll their municipal advisor professionals for the Series 50 pilot exam and to remit the exam fee of $265.
In a Sept.18 press release the Department of Treasury and Department of Commerce announced additional amendments to the Cuban Assets Control Regulations (CACR) and Export Administration Regulations (EAR), which took effect Sept. 21. The amendments are extensive, and include easing sanctions on commercial and financial transactions by Cubans who are outside Cuba, easing sanctions on remittances to Cuban nationals, and allowing depository institutions to maintain accounts for certain Cuban nationals present in the United States in a non-immigrant status; depository institutions will no longer be required to block such accounts if not closed before the Cuban national’s departure. For additional information, please see the press release, updated FAQs, Treasury and Commerce regulations.
Goodwin Procter’s Capital Markets practice has issued a client alert detailing the New York Stock Exchange’s amendment to its Rule 202.06, which governs the procedures that listed companies must follow for the release of material information. The amendment will become operative on Sept. 28, 2015. Most importantly, the amendment extends to 7 a.m. Eastern Time the pre-market hours during which listed companies are required to notify the NYSE before releasing material news. The amendment also provides advisory guidance related to the release of material news after the close of trading on the NYSE, and makes changes and provides clarification to the suggested means for the public release of material news and the circumstances in which the NYSE may halt trading in listed securities (including American Depository Receipts (ADRs)). A copy of the rule, marked to show the amendment, is available as Exhibit 5 of NYSE File No. SR-2015-38 as filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Securities and Exchange Commission Release No. 34-75809 relating to the NYSE amendment is available on the SEC web site.
Enforcement & Litigation
The SEC announced a settlement with a St. Louis-based registered investment adviser (the RIA) over charges that it failed to establish the required cybersecurity policies and procedures in advance of a breach that compromised the personally identifiable information (PII) of approximately 100,000 individuals, including thousands of the RIA’s clients. The RIA had been using a third-party web service to store client PII including Social Security numbers and dates of birth in an unencrypted form when that server was attacked by hackers. The federal securities laws require registered investment advisers to adopt written policies and procedures reasonably designed to protect customer records and information. An SEC investigation found that R.T. Jones Capital Equities Management violated this “safeguards rule” during a nearly four-year period when it failed to adopt any written policies and procedures to ensure the security and confidentiality of PII and protect it from anticipated threats or unauthorized access.
Goodwin Procter’s Securities Litigation & White Collar Defense and Fintech practices have issued a client alert regarding the CFTC’s recent order against Coinflip and its chief executive officer. In taking this action against a virtual currency options trading platform operator, the CFTC confirmed that bitcoin and digital currencies are commodities, and ordered the company to cease illegally offering bitcoin options and to cease operating a facility for trading or processing of swaps without registering.
The Inspector General of the FDIC has released a report of its investigation into the agency’s role in Operation Choke Point, a U.S. Department of Justice initiative conducted during 2012 and 2013 intended to protect consumers from fraud perpetrated by financial intermediaries such as third party payment processors. The FDIC’s participation in Operation Choke Point attracted attention from Members of Congress, who expressed concern that FDIC officials acted improperly to deny access to the financial system to certain lawful businesses in order to advance their personal political or moral agenda. The Inspector General’s report concludes that the FDIC’s involvement in Operation Choke Point was “inconsequential” and that the agency acted within its broad statutory authority to supervise financial institutions. The report also states that the Inspector General found no evidence that the agency used a “high risk” list to target specific institutions or to pressure institutions to decline banking services to merchants on the high risk list. However, the report did note that the FDIC discouraged financial institutions from providing services to payday lenders in accordance with longstanding FDIC concerns about reputational and legal risks related to payday lending, and it found that the FDIC also exerted pressure to cause three financial institutions to terminate their involvement in providing tax refund anticipation loans. The report makes several recommendations, which it notes that the FDIC intends to implement. These include reviewing and clarifying existing policy and guidance pertaining to termination of banking services and reviewing and clarifying the agency’s policy and guidance related to the use of moral suasion to encourage supervised institutions to take particular actions.