In January of this year, the SEC entered bar and cease and desist orders against a two member registered investment advisor firm. The firm was owned by a husband and wife with the wife serving strictly in an administrative capacity. The law judge in the case found that the registered investment advisor had willfully violated the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 because it falsely represented to the SEC that it had assets under management (AUM) exceeding $25 million in order to remain eligible for SEC registration. The inflated AUM numbers were reported on several Form ADV Part 1 amendments from 1996 through 2000. The SEC terminated the firm’s registration in 2002. However, the firm continued to hold itself out to the public as an investment advisor and reported its AUM numbers through several database services. The reporting of those numbers were also found to be intentionally inflated and therefore misleading. Further, the firm was not able to provide documentation substantiating its AUM and performance numbers. The firm claimed all paperwork and client files were lost in a fire and then claimed the paperwork was lost in flood. To read the entire order click here.
While this firm’s actions were found to be willful and were intentionally done to mislead potential clients and the public in general, the lessons learned can be applied to every registered investment advisor. This case illustrates the importance of disclosing accurate AUM on the Form ADV Part 1. If your firm does not meet an eligibility requirement for SEC registration, it must deregister with the SEC and register with the state regulators. Do not take the risk of over reporting or misreporting AUM simply to maintain SEC registration. This case also illustrates action the SEC is willing to take when a registered investment advisor presents misleading AUM and performance information to the public through advertising and other marketing channels. All performance numbers need to be substantiated, documented and maintained with the firm’s books and records. Finally, a registered investment advisor is required to maintain books and records under Rule 204-2 and other applicable regulations, even after the firm terminates its registration. Once termination is effective, a registered investment advisor must maintain all books and records for the time period required under Rule 204-2, typically not less than five years from the end of the fiscal year during which the last entry was made on such record.