MSRB NOTICE 2002-30 (SEPTEMBER 25, 2002)

NOTICE REGARDING APPLICATION OF RULE G-19, ON SUITABILITY OF RECOMMENDATIONS AND TRANSACTIONS, TO ONLINE COMMUNICATIONS

On September 25, 2002, the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (“MSRB”) filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission an interpretive notice regarding the applicability of Rule G-19, on suitability of recommendations, to online communications (the “Online Suitability Notice”).[1]  There has been an increase in retail online municipal securities trading in the last few years and the MSRB is issuing this guidance to remind dealers that they have suitability obligations when they make recommendations to customers online.

The Online Suitability Notice is based on NASD Notice to Members 01-23, Online Suitability-Suitability Rule and Online Communication (the “NASD Online Suitability Notice”) (April 2001).  The MSRB notice does not expand or create new obligations under the suitability rule, nor does it establish a “bright line” test for determining whether a particular communication constitutes a recommendation for purposes of the suitability rule.  The MSRB chose to adopt the general principles enunciated in the NASD Online Suitability Notice as well as the NASD guidelines for evaluating suitability obligations to remind dealers of their suitability obligations and provide helpful direction to dealers developing online systems.

The text of the interpretation is contained below.

  *   *   *   *   *  

Background

In the municipal securities markets, dealers[2] typically communicate with investors one-on-one, in person, or by telephone.  These dealer/customer communications are made to provide the investor with information concerning the municipal securities the dealer wants to sell and to allow the dealer to find out about the customer’s investment objectives.  Over the last few years there has been a dramatic increase in the use of the Internet for communication between dealers and their customers.  Dealers are looking to the Internet as a mechanism for offering customers new and improved services and for enhancing the efficiency of delivering traditional services to customers.  For example, dealers have developed online search tools that computerize the process by which customers can obtain and compare information on the availability of municipal securities of a specific type that are offered for sale by a particular dealer.[3]  Technological advancements have provided many benefits to investors and the brokerage industry. These technological innovations, however, also have presented new regulatory challenges, including those arising from the application of the suitability rule to online activities.  In consideration of this, the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (“MSRB”) is issuing this notice to provide dealers with guidance concerning their obligations under MSRB Rule G-19, relating to suitability of recommendations,[4] in the electronic environment.[5]

Rule G-19 prohibits a dealer from recommending transactions in municipal securities to a customer unless the dealer makes certain determinations with respect to the suitability of the transactions.[6]  Specifically, the dealer must have reasonable grounds for believing that the recommendation is suitable based upon information available from the issuer of the security or otherwise and the facts disclosed by the customer or otherwise known about such customer.

As the rule states, a dealer's suitability obligation only applies to securities that the dealer recommends to a customer.[7]  A dealer or associated person who simply effects a trade initiated by a customer without a related recommendation from the dealer or associated person is not required to perform a suitability analysis.  However, under MSRB Rules, even when a dealer does not recommend a municipal security transaction to a customer but simply effects or executes the transaction, the dealer is obligated to fulfill certain other important fair practice obligations.  For example, under Rule G-17, when effecting a municipal security transaction for a customer, a dealer is required to disclose all material facts about a municipal security that are known by the dealer and those that are reasonably accessible.[8]  In addition, Rule G-18 requires that each dealer, when executing a municipal securities transaction for or on behalf of a customer as agent, make a reasonable effort to obtain a price for the customer that is fair and reasonable in relation to prevailing market conditions.  Similarly, under Rule G-30, if a dealer engages in principal transactions with a customer, the dealer is responsible for ensuring that it is charging a fair and reasonable price.  The MSRB wishes to emphasize the importance of these fair practice obligations even when a dealer effects a non-recommended transaction online.[9]

Applicability of the Suitability Rule to Electronic Communications—General Principles  

There has been much debate about the application of the suitability rule to online activities.[10]  Industry commentators and regulators have debated two questions: first, whether the current suitability rule should even apply to online activities, and second, if so, what types of online communications constitute recommendations for purposes of the rule.  The NASD published NASD Notice to Members 01-23, Online Suitability-Suitability Rule and Online Communication (the “NASD Online Suitability Notice”) (April 2001) to provide guidance to its members in April 2001.[11]  In answer to the first question, the MSRB, like the NASD, believes that the suitability rule applies to all recommendations made by dealers to customers—including those made via electronic means—to purchase, sell, or exchange a security.  Electronic communications from dealers to their customers clearly can constitute recommendations.  The suitability rule, therefore, remains fully applicable to online activities in those cases where the dealer recommends securities to its customers. 

With regard to the second question, the MSRB does not seek to identify in this notice all of the types of electronic communications that may constitute recommendations.  As the MSRB has often emphasized, "[w]hether a particular transaction is in fact recommended depends on an analysis of all the relevant facts and circumstances."[12]  That is, the test for determining whether any communication (electronic or traditional) constitutes a recommendation remains a "facts and circumstances" inquiry to be conducted on a case-by-case basis. 

The MSRB also recognizes that many forms of electronic communications defy easy characterization.  The MSRB believes this is especially true in the online municipal securities market, which is in a relatively early stage of development.  Nevertheless, the MSRB offers as guidance the following general principles for dealers to use in determining whether a particular communication could be deemed a recommendation.[13]  The "facts and circumstances" determination of whether a communication is a recommendation requires an analysis of the content, context, and presentation of the particular communication or set of communications.  The determination of whether a recommendation has been made, moreover, is an objective rather than a subjective inquiry.  An important factor in this regard is whether—given its content, context, and manner of presentation—a particular communication from a dealer to a customer reasonably would be viewed as a "call to action," or suggestion that the customer engage in a securities transaction.  Dealers should bear in mind that an analysis of the content, context, and manner of presentation of a communication requires examination of the underlying substantive information transmitted to the customer and consideration of any other facts and circumstances, such as any accompanying explanatory message from the dealer.[14]  Another principle that dealers should keep in mind is that, in general, the more individually tailored the communication is to a specific customer or a targeted group of customers about a security or group of securities, the greater the likelihood is that the communication may be viewed as a recommendation.

Scope of the Term Recommendation

As noted earlier, the MSRB agrees with and has in this guidance adopted the general principles enunciated in the NASD Online Suitability Notice as well as the NASD guidelines for evaluating suitability obligations discussed below.  While the MSRB believes that the additional examples of communications that do not constitute recommendations provided by the NASD in its Online Suitability Notice are useful instruction for dealers who develop equity trading web sites, as the examples are based upon communications that exist with great regularity in the Nasdaq market, the MSRB believes that the examples have limited application to the types of information and electronic trading systems that are present in the municipal securities market. 

For example, the NASD’s third example of a communication that is not a recommendation describes a system that permits customer-directed searches of a “wide-universe” of securities and references all exchange-listed or Nasdaq securities, or externally recognized indexes.[15]  The NASD example therefore applies to dealer web sites that effectively allow customers to request lists of securities that meet broad objective criteria from a list of all the securities available on an exchange or Nasdaq.  These are examples of groups of securities in which the dealer does not exercise any discretion as to which securities are contained within the group of securities shown to customers.  This example makes sense in the equity market where there are centralized exchanges and where electronic trading platforms routinely utilize databases that provide customer access to all of the approximately 7,300 listed securities on Nasdaq, the NYSE and Amex.  However, no dealer in the municipal securities market has the ability to offer all of the approximately 1.3 million outstanding municipal securities for sale or purchase.  The municipal securities market is a fragmented dealer market.  Municipal securities do not trade through a centralized exchange and only a small number of securities (approximately 10,000) trade at all on any given day.  Therefore, there is no comparable central exchange that could serve as a reference point for a database that is used in connection with municipal securities research engines.  The databases used by dealer systems typically are limited to the municipal securities that a dealer, or a consortium of dealers, holds in inventory.  In these types of systems the customer’s ability to search for desirable securities that meet the broad, objective criteria chosen by the customer (e.g., all insured investment grade general obligation bonds offered by a particular state) is limited.  The concept of a wide universe of securities, which is central to all of the NASD’s examples, is thus difficult to define and has extremely limited, or no, application in the municipal securities market. 

Given the distinct features of the municipal securities market and the existing online trading systems, the MSRB believes it would be impractical to attempt to define the features of an electronic trading system that would have to be present for the system transactions to not be considered the result of a dealer recommendation.  The online trading systems for municipal securities that are in place today limit customer choices to the inventory that the dealer or dealer consortium hold, and therefore, the dealer will always have a significant degree of discretion over the securities offered to the customer.  A system that allows this degree of dealer discretion is a dramatic departure from the types of no recommendation examples provided by the NASD guidance, and thus, these communications must be carefully analyzed to determine whether or not a recommendation has been made.  

 The MSRB, however, does believe that the examples of communications that are recommendations provided in the NASD Online Suitability Notice are communications that take place in the municipal securities market.  Therefore, the MSRB has adopted these examples and generally would view the following communications as falling within the definition of recommendation:

  •        A dealer sends a customer-specific electronic communication (e.g., an e-mail or pop-up screen) to a targeted customer or targeted group of customers encouraging the particular customer(s) to purchase a municipal security.[16]
  •       A dealer sends its customers an e-mail stating that customers should be invested in municipal securities from a particular state or municipal securities backed by a particular sector (such as higher education) and urges customers to purchase one or more stocks from a list with "buy" recommendations.
  •        A dealer provides a portfolio analysis tool that allows a customer to indicate an investment goal and input personalized information such as age, financial condition, and risk tolerance. The dealer in this instance then sends (or displays to) the customer a list of specific municipal securities the customer could buy or sell to meet the investment goal the customer has indicated.[17]
  •        A dealer uses data-mining technology (the electronic collection of information on Web Site users) to analyze a customer's financial or online activity—whether or not known by the customer—and then, based on those observations, sends (or "pushes") specific investment suggestions that the customer purchase or sell a municipal security.

Dealers should keep in mind that these examples are meant only to provide guidance and are not an exhaustive list of communications that the MSRB does consider to be recommendations.  As stated earlier, many other types of electronic communications are not easily characterized.  In addition, changes to the factual predicates upon which these examples are based (or the existence of additional factors) could alter the determination of whether similar communications may or may not be viewed as recommendations. Dealers, therefore, should analyze all relevant facts and circumstances, bearing in mind the general principles noted earlier and discussed below, to determine whether a communication is a recommendation, and they should take the necessary steps to fulfill their suitability obligations. Furthermore, these examples are based on technological services that are currently used in the marketplace. They are not intended to direct or limit the future development of delivery methods or products and services provided online.  

Guidelines for Evaluating Suitability Obligations 

Dealers should consider, at a minimum, the following guidelines when evaluating their suitability obligations with respect to municipal securities transactions.[18]  None of these guidelines is determinative of whether a recommendation exists.  However, each should be considered in evaluating all of the facts and circumstances surrounding the communication and transaction.

  •        A dealer cannot avoid or discharge its suitability obligation through a disclaimer where the particular communication reasonably would be viewed as a recommendation given its content, context, and presentation.[19]  The MSRB, however, encourages dealers to include on their web sites (and in other means of communication with their customers) clear explanations of the use and limitations of tools offered on those sites.[20] 
  •        Dealers should analyze any communication about a security that reasonably could be viewed as a "call to action" and that they direct, or appear to direct, to a particular individual or targeted group of individuals—as opposed to statements that are generally made available to all customers or the public at large—to determine whether a recommendation is being made.[21]
  •         Dealers should scrutinize any communication to a customer that suggests the purchase, sale, or exchange of a municipal security—as opposed to simply providing objective data about a security—to determine whether a recommendation is being made.[22]
  •         A dealer's transmission of unrequested information will not necessarily constitute a recommendation.  However, when a dealer decides to send a particular customer unrequested information about a security that is not of a generalized or administrative nature (e.g., notification of an official communication), the dealer should carefully review the circumstances under which the information is being provided, the manner in which the information is delivered to the customer, the content of the communication, and the original source of the information.  The dealer should perform this review regardless of whether the decision to send the information is made by a representative employed by the dealer or by a computer software program used by the dealer.
  •         Dealers should be aware that the degree to which the communication reasonably would influence an investor to trade a particular municipal security or group of municipal securities—either through the context or manner of presentation or the language used in the communication—may be considered in determining whether a recommendation is being made to the customer.

The MSRB emphasizes that the factors listed above are guidelines that may assist dealers in complying with the suitability rule.  Again, the presence or absence of any of these factors does not by itself control whether a recommendation has been made or whether the dealer has complied with the suitability rule.  Such determinations can be made only on a case-by-case basis taking into account all of the relevant facts and circumstances.

Conclusion

The foregoing discussion highlights some suggested principles and guidelines to assist in determining when electronic communications constitute recommendations, thereby triggering application of the MSRB's suitability rule.  The MSRB acknowledges the numerous benefits that may be realized by dealers and their customers as a result of the Internet and online brokerage services.  The MSRB emphasizes that it neither takes a position on, nor seeks to influence, any dealer's or customer's choice of a particular business model in this electronic environment.  At the same time, however, the MSRB urges dealers both to consider carefully whether suitability requirements are adequately being addressed when implementing new services and to remember that customers' best interests must continue to be of paramount importance in any setting, traditional or online.

As new technologies and/or services evolve, the MSRB will continue to work with regulators, members of the industry and the public on these and other important issues that arise in the online trading environment.

September 25, 2002


[1] File No. SR-MSRB-2002-11.

[2] The term “dealer” is used in this notice as shorthand for “broker,” “dealer” or “municipal securities dealer,” as those terms are defined in the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.  The use of the term in this notice does not imply that the entity is necessarily taking a principal position in a municipal security.

[3] The Bond Market Association’s (“TBMA”) 2001 Review of Electronic Transaction Systems found that at the end of 2001, there were at least 23 systems based in the United States that allow dealers or institutional investors to buy or sell municipal securities electronically compared to just 3 such systems in 1997.  While dealers are also developing electronic trading platforms that allow retail customers to buy or sell municipal securities online, the development of online retail trading systems for municipal securities lags far behind that for equities.

[4] Rule G-19 provides in pertinent part:

    (c) Suitability of Recommendations.  In recommending to a customer any municipal security transaction, a [dealer] shall have reasonable grounds:

        (i) based upon information available from the issuer of the security or otherwise, and

        (ii) based upon the facts disclosed by such customer or otherwise known about such customer for believing that the recommendation is suitable.

[5] Although the focus of this notice is on the application of the suitability rule to electronic communications, much of the discussion is also relevant to more traditional communications, such as discussions made in person, over the telephone, or through postal mail.

[6] This notice focuses on customer-specific suitability under Rule G-19.  Under Rule G-19, a dealer must also have a reasonable basisto believe that the recommendation could be suitable for at least some customers.  See e.g., Rule G-19 Interpretation—Notice Concerning the Application of Suitability Requirements to Investment Seminars and Customer Inquiries Made in Response to a Dealer’s Advertisement, May 7, 1985, MSRB Rule Book (July 1, 2002) at 143; In re F.J. Kaufman and Company of Virginia, 50 S.E.C. 164, 168, 1989 SEC LEXIS 2376, *10 (1989) (the “reasonable basis” obligation relates only to the particular recommendation, rather than to any particular customer).  The SEC, in its discussion of municipal underwriters’ responsibilities in a 1988 Release, noted that “a broker-dealer recommending securities to investors implies by its recommendation that it has an adequate basis for the recommendation.”  Municipal Securities Disclosure, Securities Exchange Act Release No. 26100 (September 22, 1988) (the “1988 SEC Release”) at text accompanying note 72.

[7] Similarly, the suitability rule does not apply where a dealer merely gathers information on a particular customer, but does not make any recommendations. This is true even if the information is the type of information generally gathered to satisfy a suitability obligation.  Dealers shouldnonetheless remember that regardless of any determination of whether the dealer is making a recommendation and subject to the suitability requirement, the dealer is required to make reasonable efforts to obtain certain customer specific information pursuant to rule G-8 (a)(xi) so that dealers can protect themselves and the integrity of the securities markets from customers who do not have the financial means to pay for transactions.

[8] See Rule G-17 Interpretation—Notice Regarding Rule G-17, on Disclosure of Material Facts, March 20, 2002, MSRB Rule Book (July 1, 2002) at 135. 

[9] On April 30, 2002, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) approved a proposed rule change relating to the manner in which dealers fulfill their fair practice obligations to certain institutional customers.  Release No. 34-45849 (April 30, 2002), 67 FR 30743.  See Rule G-17 Interpretation—Notice Regarding the Application of MSRB Rules to Transactions With Sophisticated Municipal Market Professionals (“SMMPs”) (the “SMMP Notice”), MSRB Rule Book (July 1, 2002) at 136.  The SMMP Notice recognizes the different capabilities of SMMPs and retail or non-sophisticated institutional customers and provides that dealers may consider the nature of the institutional customer when determining what specific actions are necessary to meet the dealer’s fair practice obligations to such customers.  The SMMP Notice provides that, while it is difficult to define in advance the scope of a dealer’s fair practice obligations with respect to a particular transaction, by making a reasonable determination that an institutional customer is an SMMP, then certain of the dealer’s fair practice obligations remain applicable but are deemed fulfilled.

[10] See generally Report of Commissioner Laura S. Unger to the SEC, On-Line Brokerage: Keeping Apace of Cyberspace, at n. 64 (Nov. 1999) (“Unger Report”) (discussing various views espoused by online brokerage firms, regulators and academics on the topic of online suitability); Developments in the Law—The Law of Cyberspace, 112 Harv. L. Rev. 1574, 1582-83 (1999) (The article highlights the broader debate by academics and judges over whether "to apply conventional models of regulation to the Internet.")

[11] The guidance contained in this notice is intended to be consistent with the general statements and guidelines contained in the NASD Online Suitability Notice. 

[12] See e.g., Rule G-19 Interpretive Letter dated February 17, 1998, MSRB Rule Book (July 1, 2002) at 144.

[13] These general principles were first enunciated in the NASD Online Suitability Notice. 

[14] For example, if a dealer transmitted a rating agency research report to a customer at the customer's request, that communication may not be subject to the suitability rule; whereas, if the same dealer transmitted the very same research report with an accompanying message, either oral or written, that the customer should act on the report, the suitability analysis would be different.

[15] NASD Online Suitability Notice at 3.

[16] Note that there are instances where sending a customer an electronic communication that highlights a particular municipal security (or securities) will not be viewed as a recommendation.  For instance, while each case requires an analysis of the particular facts and circumstances, a dealer generally would not be viewed as making a recommendation when, pursuant to a customer's request, it sends the customer (1) electronic "alerts" (such as account activity alerts, market alerts, or rating agency changes) or (2) research announcements (e.g., sector reports) that are not tailored to the individual customer, as long as neither—given their content, context, and manner of presentation—would lead a customer reasonably to believe that the dealer is suggesting that the customer take action in response to the communication.  

[17] Note, however, that a portfolio analysis tool that merely generates a suggested mix of general classes of financial assets (e.g., 60 percent equities, 20 percent bonds, and 20 percent cash equivalents), without an accompanying list of securities that the customer could purchase to achieve that allocation, would not trigger a suitability obligation. On the other hand, a series of actions which may not constitute recommendations when considered individually, may amount to a recommendation when considered in the aggregate. For example, a portfolio allocator's suggestion that a customer could alter his or her current mix of investments followed by provision of a list of municipal securities that could be purchased or sold to accomplish the alteration could be a recommendation.  Again, however, the determination of whether a portfolio analysis tool's communication constitutes a recommendation will depend on the content, context, and presentation of the communication or series of communications.  

[18] These guidelines were originally set forth in the NASD Online Suitability Notice.

[19] Although a dealer cannot disclaim away its suitability obligation, informing customers that generalized information provided is not based on the customer's particular financial situation or needs may help clarify that the information provided is not meant to be a recommendation to the customer.  Whether the communication is in fact a recommendation would still depend on the content, context, and presentation of the communication.  Accordingly, a dealer that sends a customer or group of customers information about a security might include a statement that the dealer is not providing the information based on the customers' particular financial situation or needs.  Dealers may properly disclose to customers that the opinions or recommendations expressed in research do not take into account individual investors' circumstances and are not intended to represent recommendations by the dealer of particular municipal securities to particular customers.  Dealers, however, should refer to previous guidelines issued by the SEC that may be relevant to these and/or related topics.  For instance, the SEC has issued guidelines regarding whether and under what circumstances third-party information is attributable to an issuer, and the SEC noted that the guidance also may be relevant regarding the responsibilities of dealers.  See SEC Guidance on the Use of Electronic Media, Release Nos. 34-7856, 34-42728, IC-24426, 65 Fed. Reg. 25843 at 25848-25849 (April 28, 2000).

[20] The MSRB believes that a dealer should, at a minimum, clearly explain the limitations of its search engine and the decentralized nature of the municipal securities market.  The dealer should also clearly explain that securities that meet the customer’s search criteria might be available from other sources.

[21] The MSRB notes that there are circumstances where the act of sending a communication to a specific group of customers will not necessarily implicate the suitability rule.  For instance, a dealer's business decision to provide only certain types of investment information (e.g., research reports) to a category of "premium" customers would not, without more, trigger application of the suitability rule.  Conversely, dealers may incur suitability obligations when they send a communication to a large group of customers urging those customers to invest in a municipal security.   

[22] As with the other general guidelines discussed in this notice, the presence of this factor alone does not automatically mean that a recommendation has been made.