MSRB INTERPRETIVE LETTER – RULES G-21, G-30 AND G-32
- December 11, 2001

Differential re-offering prices. This is in response to your letter in which you ask us to provide interpretive guidance on MSRB rules G-21, G-30 and G-32 in the context of a proposed new system (the “System”) to be established by your client (the “Company”) for pricing and distribution of primary market municipal securities to retail investors. You provide a description of the System, including a discussion of incremental changes through various versions of the System. We have included below a brief summary of the MSRB’s understanding of certain key features of the System that may be relevant in responding to your questions. This should not be construed as meaning that the MSRB has “approved” the System, or even reviewed the System description which you provided, except for the limited purpose of addressing your specific questions on the three rules noted above. The MSRB expresses no views and has not considered whether the System as you describe it, or whether a broker-dealer using the System, would be in compliance with MSRB rules or other applicable law, rules or regulations, beyond the specific statements set forth herein on these three rules.

As you describe it, the System consists of an internet-based electronic primary market order matching process that will provide (1) electronic notices (“Electronic Notices”) to registered representatives at subscribing broker-dealer firms and (2) an ability to establish a range of acceptable reoffering prices for each order of primary market municipal securities. Registered representatives will provide to the System profiles (“Retail Inquiries”) that describe the features of municipal securities that the registered representative’s customers wish to purchase. The System will then automatically advise the registered representatives of the availability for purchase of a new municipal security issue that matches the Retail Inquiry by sending an Electronic Notice by fax or e-mail. The Company intends to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission as a broker-dealer prior to charging subscription fees for the services provided by the System. We understand that, for purposes of the System, a retail investor is characterized solely by the size of the order, rather than by the identity of an investor as a retail or institutional customer.

Municipal securities available for purchase through the System will be sold using a structure that establishes a range of acceptable retail reoffering prices. For each new issue, the underwriter and the issuer will establish a maximum and minimum yield and a maximum and minimum price to be entered into the System. For all Retail Inquiries that match the basic parameters of the issue (e.g., maturity, rating, state of issuer), the System will send an Electronic Notice to each registered representative that adjusts the price to include the least of the registered representative’s desired mark-up, the maximum mark-up established by the registered representative’s broker-dealer firm, or the maximum issue mark-up established by the underwriter. In the System’s initial stages, a registered representative may place an order for amounts up to $500,000 to purchase the securities upon receiving an Electronic Notice. You note that use of the System will permit sales of municipal securities of the same maturity and order size to different buyers at different prices.

You state that you believe that the business and operating plan for the System will be in compliance with all published MSRB rules and that broker-dealers subscribing to the System will not violate any MSRB rules by virtue of their use of the System. You request clarification regarding the applicability of certain provisions of rules G-21, G-30 and G-32 to broker-dealers using the System. As noted above, the MSRB cannot provide an “approval” of a proposed system or of its use by broker-dealers. We can, however, provide some guidance regarding your specific rule-related interpretive requests. Since the application of rules to particular factual situations is, by its nature, fundamentally dependent upon the specific facts and circumstances, you should be cognizant of the precise nature of our guidance and of the potential for seemingly small factual variances resulting in different conclusions regarding compliance with our rules.

Rule G-30, on Prices and Commissions

You ask us whether we view use of the System by broker-dealers to establish a range of reoffering prices (instead of a single reoffering price) as compliant with the requirement under rule G-30, on prices and commissions, that municipal securities prices be fair and reasonable. We cannot provide you with assurance that under all circumstances prices charged to customers by broker-dealers using the System will comply with rule G-30. However, the following discussion should provide some guidance in assessing whether broker-dealers using the System will be able to comply with rule G-30.

Rule G-30(a) provides that no broker-dealer shall sell municipal securities to a customer in a principal transaction except at a price that is fair and reasonable, taking into consideration all relevant factors.[1] The rule cites, as relevant factors, the best judgment of the broker-dealer as to the fair market value of the securities at the time of the transaction, the expense involved in effecting the transaction, the fact that the broker-dealer is entitled to a profit, and the total dollar amount of the transaction.[2] In addition, the MSRB has identified a number of other factors which might be relevant in determining the fairness and reasonableness of prices in municipal securities transactions. These additional factors include, but are not limited to, the availability of the security in the market, the price or yield of the security, the maturity of the security, and the nature of the professional’s business.[3] The MSRB firmly believes that the resulting yield to the customer is the most important factor in determining the fairness and reasonableness of a price in any given transaction. The MSRB previously has stated that such yield should be comparable to the yield on other securities of comparable quality, maturity, coupon rate, and block size then available in the market.

Although a comparative yield assessment is the most important factor in determining whether a transaction price is fair and reasonable, rule G-30 states that other facts and circumstances of a specific transaction may also enter into the final determination of whether the transaction price is fair and reasonable. Thus, rule G-30 clearly contemplates the possibility that, depending upon the facts and circumstances of two contemporaneous transactions in identical securities, both transactions may be priced in compliance with rule G-30 even though the prices are not identical. It is not possible to state a specific percentage of variance between prices on contemporaneous transactions that would create a presumption of a violation of rule G-30 with respect to the higher priced transaction since a number of different factors may be relevant to the individual transactions.[4] However, the degree to which price variances may occur without raising the presumption of a rule G-30 violation generally would parallel the level of variance in the relevant factors under rule G-30 from transaction to transaction in the same security. For example, a large difference in the par value of two transactions could potentially justify a larger price difference than would a small difference in the par value of the two transactions.

The MSRB has stated that, although rule G-30 does not specifically mention new issue offering prices which may be set by the syndicate or the issuer, compliance with rule G-30 in this context also is determined by whether the price of a municipal security is fair and reasonable, taking into account all relevant factors.[5] As noted above, a comparative yield assessment is the most important factor in determining the fairness and reasonableness of a transaction price. Although it is the ultimate responsibility of the broker-dealer effecting a transaction with a customer to ensure that the price is in compliance with rule G-30, the issuer and underwriter may help broker-dealers using the System to avoid possible violations of rule G-30 by carefully reviewing the ranges of yields and prices entered by the underwriter into the System to ensure that the net yield to customers[6] would be comparable to that of similar securities regardless of where within the established ranges a transaction is executed by a broker-dealer using the System.

Rule G-32, on Disclosures in Connection with New Issues

You provide us with a sample of proposed language to be included in the official statement for new issue municipal securities to be sold using the System. This language indicates the lowest price at which any of the securities in the new issue are offered and also indicates a range of maximum prices at which the securities are offered based on various lot sizes of the securities sold in a particular transaction. The language further states that, subject to the practices of each broker-dealer firm in the selling group, investors may have purchased the securities at prices lower than those shown in the range of maximum prices included in the official statement. Finally, the language provides a specific dollar amount representing the total compensation paid to the underwriter as representative of the selling group. You ask us whether inclusion of such language in the official statement by issuers using the System complies with rule G-32.

Rule G-32(a)(ii) provides that, in connection with new issue municipal securities purchased by the underwriter in a negotiated sale, any broker-dealer selling such securities to a customer must deliver to the customer by no later than settlement information regarding, among other things, the underwriting spread and the initial offering price for each maturity in the issue, including maturities that are not reoffered.[7] The MSRB has stated that the obligation to disclose the underwriting spread requires that the broker-dealer disclose the difference between the initial offering price of the new issue and the amount paid by the underwriter to the issuer, expressed either in dollars or points per bond.[8] The MSRB has prohibited broker-dealers from merely disclosing to customers the offering prices and amount paid to the issuer and describing how the underwriting spread can be calculated from these figures.[9] The MSRB has stated that initial offering prices may be expressed either in terms of dollar price or yield.[10]

The MSRB recognizes that disclosure of initial offering prices and underwriting spread is more complicated in circumstances where securities of the same maturity may be offered at a number of different prices, as compared to the typical situation where each maturity is stated to be offered at a single price. The MSRB believes that, under these circumstances, the initial offering prices and underwriting spread may be expressed as a range of values.

In expressing the initial offering prices as a range of values, broker-dealers must ensure that the prices at which the securities are initially offered to customers will fall within the expressed range. At the same time, the MSRB believes that the disclosure of a range of prices must not be misleading to customers. For example, a range that implies that a market may exist at prices where in fact no transactions are likely to occur could be misleading. In addition, a range that includes prices that are not fair and reasonable for purposes of rule G-30 could mislead customers with regard to what would in fact constitute a fair and reasonable price. These and other practices arising in connection with the disclosure of a range of initial offering prices could constitute violations of rule G-17[11] and would not satisfy the disclosure obligation under rule G-32. Broker-dealers are cautioned, when using a range to disclose initial offering prices, to make such range as narrow as reasonably possible in order to avoid violations of rules G-17 and G-32. For example, if broker-dealers have established discrete price ranges for specific securities within the issue (e.g., separate maturities) or for specific types of transactions (e.g., different lot sizes), they should include such discrete ranges in the disclosure made to customers. The initial offering price range must be expressed either in terms of dollar prices or yields.

In expressing the underwriting spread as a range of values, the range must be no broader than would be obtained by calculating the lowest possible spread based on all of the lowest initial offering price values and the highest possible spread based on all of the highest initial offering price values. This range should be further refined based on specific information available to the broker-dealer (e.g., minimum or maximum spreads agreed to between the issuer and the underwriter, fixed components of the gross spread, known levels of transactions at particular prices, etc.).[12] Broker-dealers may show this spread range either as a range of a total amount or as a listing of the components of the spread range. If components of the spread range are listed, that portion of the range which represents compensation to the underwriter must be clearly identified as such. The spread range must be expressed either in dollars or points per bond.

Rule G-21, on Advertising

You state that you do not believe that Electronic Notices constitute advertisements within the meaning of rule G-21, which sets forth certain requirements with respect to advertisements of municipal securities. An advertisement is defined as any material (other than listings of offerings) published or designed for use in the public, including electronic, media or any promotional literature designed for dissemination to the public, including any notice, circular, report, market letter, form letter, telemarketing script or reprint or excerpt of the foregoing. The rule covers communications that are intended to reach a broad segment of the public rather than individually tailored communications between two specific parties and communications between broker-dealers. Thus, if the use of Electronic Notices is limited in the manner you describe in your letter, it appears that such Electronic Notices would not constitute advertisements within the meaning of rule G-21. However, we express no opinion as to whether Electronic Notices might constitute advertisements if they were to be disseminated to investors.

* * * * * * * * * *

I must emphasize once again that the guidance provided in this letter cannot be considered an “approval” of the System. Further, this guidance cannot be considered to provide or imply that broker-dealers using the System will, under all circumstances, be in compliance with the rules discussed herein. Nor can this guidance be considered to provide or imply that the operation of the System or the use of the System by broker-dealers is in compliance with any other rules of the MSRB or the laws, rules or regulations of any other entity. MSRB interpretation of December 11, 2001.



[1] In the case of an agency transaction, rule G-30 prohibits a broker-dealer from selling a municipal security to a customer for a commission or service charge in excess of a fair and reasonable amount, taking into consideration all relevant factors. In addition, rule G-18, on execution of transactions, requires that a broker-dealer in an agency transaction make a reasonable effort to obtain a price for the customer that is fair and reasonable in relation to prevailing market conditions. Since we understand that broker-dealers that use the System ultimately will effect transactions with their customers on a principal basis, we do not address potential compliance issues with respect to agency transactions arising under rules G-18 and G-30.

[2] With respect to total dollar amount of a transaction, the MSRB has stated that, to the extent that institutional transactions are often larger than retail transactions, this factor may enter into the fair and reasonable pricing of retail versus institutional transactions. See Rule G-30 Interpretive Letter – Factors in pricing, November 29, 1993, MSRB Rule Book (July 1, 2001) at 163 (the “Pricing Letter”).

[3] See Rule G-30 Interpretation – Republication of September 1980 Report on Pricing, MSRB Rule Book (July 1, 2001) at 161 (the “Pricing Report”).

[4] Of course, the existence of a variance in the prices of two contemporaneous sale transactions in the same security would be less likely to raise a presumption that the higher priced transaction violates rule G-30 if the yields for both transactions are generally higher than for most other comparable securities in the market.

[5] See Pricing Letter. It is worth noting that the rules of the National Association of Securities Dealers regarding fixed-price offerings do not apply to transactions in municipal securities. The MSRB is not aware of any law or regulation which purports to require fixed-price offerings for new issue municipal securities. See Rule G-11 Interpretive Letter – Fixed-price offerings, March 16, 1984, MSRB Rule Book (July 1, 2001) at 60.

[6] The net yield to a customer is based on actual money paid by the customer, including the effect of any remuneration paid to the broker-dealer, other than certain miscellaneous transaction fees. See Rule G-15 Interpretation – Notice Concerning Flat Transaction Fees, June 13, 2001, MSRB Rule Book (July 1, 2001) at 114; Rule G-15 Interpretation – Notice Concerning Confirmation Disclosure of Miscellaneous Transaction Charges, May 14, 1990, MSRB Rule Book (July 1, 2001) at 113.

[7] This information may be disclosed in the official statement if it is delivered to the customer in a timely manner at or prior to settlement. This information may also be provided in a separate written statement.

[8] Spread may be shown as a single figure or as a listing of the components of the spread. If components are listed, the portion of the proceeds representing compensation to the underwriter must be clearly identified as such. See Rule G-32 Interpretation – Notice Regarding the Disclosure Obligations of Brokers, Dealers and Municipal Securities Dealers in Connection with New Issue Municipal Securities Under Rule G-32, MSRB Rule Book (July 1, 2001) at 166 (the “Disclosure Notice”); Rule G-32 Interpretive Letter – Disclosure of underwriting spread, March 9, 1981, MSRB Rule Book (July 1, 2001) at 173.

[9] See Disclosure Requirements for New Issue Securities: Rule G-32, MSRB Reports, Vol. 7, No. 2 (March 1987) at 11.

[10] See Disclosure Notice; Rule G-32 Interpretive Letter – Disclosures in connection with new issues, December 22, 1993, MSRB Rule Book (July 1, 2001) at 174.

[11] Rule G-17 requires broker-dealers to deal fairly with all persons and not to engage in any deceptive, dishonest or unfair practice.

[12] Of course, if the new issue has been fully sold and all initial offering prices are known at the time the disclosure information is prepared, an exact amount rather than a range should be used in disclosing the underwriting spread.