MSRB NOTICE 2007-17 (MARCH 30, 2007)

REMINDER OF CUSTOMER PROTECTION OBLIGATIONS IN CONNECTION WITH SALES OF MUNICIPAL SECURITIES

The Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (“MSRB”) is publishing this notice to remind brokers, dealers and municipal securities dealers (“dealers”) of their customer protection obligations -- specifically the application of Rule G-17, on fair dealing, and Rule G-19, on suitability -- in connection with their municipal securities sales activities, including but not limited to situations in which dealers offer sales incentives.[1] 

Basic Customer Protection Obligation

At the core of the MSRB’s customer protection rules is Rule G-17 which provides that, in the conduct of its municipal securities activities, each dealer shall deal fairly with all persons and shall not engage in any deceptive, dishonest or unfair practice.  The rule encompasses two basic principles:  an anti-fraud prohibition similar to the standard set forth in Rule 10b-5 adopted by the Securities and Exchange Commission under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, and a general duty to deal fairly even in the absence of fraud.  All activities of dealers must be viewed in light of these basic principles, regardless of whether other MSRB rules establish specific requirements applicable to such activities.

Disclosure

The MSRB has interpreted Rule G-17 to require a dealer, in connection with any transaction in municipal securities, to disclose to its customer, at or prior to the sale of the securities to the customer, all material facts about the transaction known by the dealer, as well as material facts about the security that are reasonably accessible to the market.[2]  This duty applies to any transaction in a municipal security regardless of whether the dealer has recommended the transaction.  Dealers should make certain that information they provide to their customers, whether provided under an affirmative disclosure obligation imposed by MSRB rules or in response to questions from customers, is correct and not misleading.  Further, dealers are reminded that disclosures made to customers as required under MSRB rules do not relieve dealers of their suitability obligations – including the obligation to consider the customer’s financial status, tax status and investment objectives – if they have recommended transactions in municipal securities.

Suitability

Under Rule G-19, a dealer that recommends to a customer a transaction in a municipal security 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 or otherwise known about the customer.[3]  To assure that a dealer effecting a recommended transaction with a non-institutional customer has the information needed about the customer to make its suitability determination, Rule G-19 requires the dealer to make reasonable efforts to obtain information concerning the customer’s financial status, tax status and investment objectives, as well as any other information reasonable and necessary in making the recommendation.[4]  Dealers are reminded that the obligation arising under Rule G-19 in connection with a recommended transaction requires a meaningful analysis, taking into consideration the information obtained about the customer and the security, which establishes the reasonable grounds for believing that the recommendation is suitable.  Such suitability determinations should be based on the appropriately weighted factors that are relevant in any particular set of facts and circumstances, which factors may vary from transaction to transaction.  Pursuant to Rule G-27, on supervision, dealers must have written supervisory procedures in place that are reasonably designed to ensure compliance with the Rule G-19 obligation to undertake a suitability analysis in connection with every recommended transaction, and dealers must enforce these procedures to ensure that such meaningful analysis does in fact occur in connection with the dealer’s recommended transactions.

Other Sales Practice Principles

Dealers must keep in mind the requirements under Rule G-17 – that they deal fairly with all persons and that they not engage in any deceptive, dishonest or unfair practice – when considering the appropriateness of day-to-day sales-related activities with respect to municipal securities.  In some cases, certain sales-related activities are governed in part by specific MSRB rules, such as Rule G-19 (as described above), Rule G-18 on execution of transactions, and Rule G-30 on prices and commissions.  Other activities may not be explicitly addressed by a specific MSRB rule.  In either case, the general principles of Rule G-17 always apply.

In particular, dealers must ensure that they do not engage in transactions that are unfair to customers under Rule G-17.  This principle applies in the case of an individual transaction to ensure that the dealer does not unfairly attempt to increase its own revenue or otherwise advance its interests without due regard to the customer’s interests.  In addition, where a dealer consistently recommends that customers invest in the municipal securities that offer the dealer the highest compensation, such pattern or general practice may, depending on the facts and circumstances, constitute a violation of Rule G-17 if the recommendation of such municipal securities over the other municipal securities offered by the dealer does not reflect a legitimate investment-based purpose.

With respect to sales incentives, the MSRB has previously interpreted Rule G-20, relating to gifts, gratuities and non-cash compensation, to require a dealer that sponsors a sales contest involving representatives who are not employed by the sponsoring dealer to have in place written agreements with these representatives.[5]  Dealers are also reminded that Rule G-20(d) establishes standards regarding non-cash incentives for sales of municipal securities that are substantially similar to those currently applicable to the public offering of corporate securities under NASD Rule 2710(i) but also include “total production” and “equal weighting” requirements for internal sales contests.  Dealers should be mindful that financial incentives may cause an associated person (whether an associated person of the dealer offering the sales incentive or an associated person of another dealer) to favor one municipal security over another and thereby potentially compromise the dealer’s obligations under MSRB rules, including Rules G-17 and G-19.  Rule G-17 may be violated if a dealer or any of its associated persons engages in any marketing activities that result in a customer being treated unfairly, or if the dealer or any of its associated persons engages in any deceptive, dishonest or unfair practice in connection with such marketing activities.  The MSRB also believes that, depending upon the specific facts and circumstances, a dealer may violate Rule G-17 if it acts in a manner that is reasonably likely to induce another dealer or such other dealer’s associated persons to violate the principles of Rule G-17 or other MSRB customer protection rules, such as Rule G-18, G-19 or Rule G-30. 

May 30, 2007


[1] The principles enunciated in this notice were previously discussed, in the context of the 529 college savings plan market, in Rule G-17 Interpretation – Interpretation on Customer Protection Obligations Relating to the Marketing of 529 College Savings Plans (August 7, 2006), reprinted in MSRB Rule Book.  This notice makes clear that the general principles discussed in the August 2006 interpretation also apply in the context of the markets for municipal bonds, notes and other types of municipal securities.  This notice in no way alters the substance or applicability of the August 2006 interpretation with respect to the 529 college savings plan market.

[2] See (March 20, 2002), Rule G-17 Interpretation – Interpretive Notice Regarding Rule G-17, on Disclosure of Material Factsreprinted in MSRB Rule Book.

[3] The MSRB has previously stated that most situations in which a dealer brings a municipal security to the attention of a customer involve an implicit recommendation of the security to the customer, but determining whether a particular transaction is in fact recommended depends on an analysis of all the relevant facts and circumstances.  See Rule G-19 Interpretive Letter – Recommendations, February 17, 1998, reprinted in MSRB Rule Book.  The MSRB also has provided guidance on recommendations in the context of on-line communications in Rule G-19 Interpretation – Notice Regarding Application of Rule G-19, on Suitability of Recommendations and Transaction, to Online Communications, September 25, 2002, reprinted in MSRB Rule Book.

[4] Rule G-8(a)(x)(F) requires that dealers maintain records for each customer of such information about the customer used in making recommendations to the customer.  Rule G-19(e), on churning, also prohibits a dealer from recommending transactions to a customer that are excessive in size or frequency, in view of information known to such dealer concerning the customer’s financial background, tax status and investment objectives.

[5] See Rule G-20 Interpretive Letter – Authorization of sales contests, June 25, 1982, reprinted in MSRB Rule Book.