MSRB NOTICE 2011-36 (AUGUST 2, 2011)

INTERPRETIVE GUIDANCE CONCERNING THE APPLICATION OF MSRB RULE G-17 TO UNDERWRITERS OF MUNICIPAL SECURITIES

On August 2, 2011, the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (“Board” or “MSRB”) filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) a proposed rule change consisting of a proposed interpretive notice (the “Notice”) concerning the application of MSRB Rule G-17 (on conduct of municipal securities and municipal advisory activities) to underwriters of municipal securities.[1]  The MSRB proposed that the Notice be made effective 90 days after approval by the SEC.

BACKGROUND

With the passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act ("Dodd-Frank Act"), the MSRB was expressly directed by Congress to protect municipal entities.  Accordingly, the MSRB is proposing to provide additional interpretive guidance that addresses how Rule G-17 applies to dealers in their interactions with municipal entities as underwriters of municipal securities, as well as integrally-related activities, such as interest rate swap transactions.

SUMMARY OF PROPOSED RULE CHANGE

Representations to Issuers.  The Notice would provide that all representations made by underwriters to issuers of municipal securities in connection with municipal securities underwritings (e.g., issue price certificates and responses to requests for proposals), whether written or oral, must be truthful and accurate and may not misrepresent or omit material facts.

Required Disclosures to IssuersThe Notice would provide that an underwriter of a negotiated issue that recommends a complex municipal securities financing (e.g., a variable rate demand obligation with a swap) to an issuer has an obligation under Rule G-17 to disclose all material risks, characteristics, incentives, and conflicts of interest (e.g., payments received from a swap provider) regarding the complex municipal securities financing.  Such disclosure would be required to be sufficient to allow the issuer to assess the magnitude of its potential exposure as a result of the complex municipal securities financing.  In the case of routine financing structures, underwriters would be required to disclose the material aspects of the structures if the issuers did not otherwise have knowledge or experience with respect to such structures.

The disclosures would be required to be made in writing to an official of the issuer whom the underwriter reasonably believed had the authority to bind the issuer by contract with the underwriter (i) in sufficient time before the execution of a contract with the underwriter to allow the official to evaluate the recommendation and (ii) in a manner designed to make clear to such official the subject matter of such disclosures and their implications for the issuer.  If the underwriter did not reasonably believe that the official to whom the disclosures were addressed was capable of independently evaluating the disclosures, the underwriter would be required to make additional efforts reasonably designed to inform the official or its employees or agent.[2]

Underwriter Duties in Connection with Issuer Disclosure DocumentsThe Notice would provide that a dealer’s duty to have a reasonable basis for the representations it makes, and other material information it provides, to an issuer and to ensure that such representations and information are accurate and not misleading, as described above, extends to representations and information provided by the underwriter in connection with the preparation by the issuer of its disclosure documents (e.g., cash flows).  

New Issue Pricing and Underwriter Compensation.  The Notice would provide that the duty of fair dealing under Rule G-17 includes an implied representation that the price an underwriter pays to an issuer is fair and reasonable, taking into consideration all relevant factors, including the best judgment of the underwriter as to the fair market value of the issue at the time it is priced.  The Notice distinguishes the fair pricing duties of competitive underwriters (submission of bona fide bid based on dealer’s best judgment of fair market value of securities) and negotiated underwriters (duty to negotiate in good faith).  The Notice would provide that, in certain cases and depending upon the specific facts and circumstances of the offering, the underwriter’s compensation for the new issue (including both direct compensation paid by the issuer and other separate payments or credits received by the underwriter from the issuer or any other party in connection with the underwriting) may be so disproportionate to the nature of the underwriting and related services performed, as to constitute an unfair practice that is a violation of Rule G-17.

Conflicts of Interest.  The Notice would require disclosure by an underwriter of potential conflicts of interest, including third-party payments, values, or credits made or received, profit-sharing arrangements with investors, and the issuance or purchase of credit default swaps for which the underlying reference is the issuer whose securities the dealer is underwriting or an obligation of that issuer.

Retail Order PeriodsThe Notice would remind underwriters not to disregard the issuers’ rules for retail order periods by, among other things, accepting or placing orders that do not satisfy issuers’ definitions of “retail.”

Dealer Payments to Issuers.  Finally, the Notice would remind underwriters that certain lavish gifts and entertainment, such as those made in conjunction with rating agency trips, might be a violation of Rule G-17, as well as Rule G-20.

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Questions about this notice should be directed to Peg Henry, Deputy General Counsel, at 703-797-6600.

August 2, 2011

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TEXT OF PROPOSED RULE CHANGE

INTERPRETIVE GUIDANCE CONCERNING THE APPLICATION OF MSRB RULE G-17 TO UNDERWRITERS OF MUNICIPAL SECURITIES

Under Rule G-17 of the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (the “MSRB”), brokers, dealers, and municipal securities dealers (“dealers”) must, in the conduct of their municipal securities activities, deal fairly with all persons and must not engage in any deceptive, dishonest, or unfair practice.  This rule is most often cited in connection with duties owed by dealers to investors; however, it also applies to their interactions with other market participants, including municipal entities.[1]

The MSRB has previously observed that Rule G-17 requires dealers to deal fairly with issuers in connection with the underwriting of their municipal securities.[2]  More recently, with the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act,[3] the MSRB was expressly directed by Congress to protect municipal entities.  Accordingly, the MSRB is providing additional interpretive guidance that addresses how Rule G-17 applies to dealers in the municipal securities transactions described below.

The examples discussed in this notice are illustrative only and are not meant to encompass all obligations of dealers to municipal entities under Rule G-17.  The notice also does not address a dealer’s duties when the dealer is serving as an advisor to a municipal entity or obligated person.  Furthermore, when municipal entities are customers[4] of dealers they are subject to the same protections under MSRB rules, including Rule G-17, that apply to other customers.[5]  The MSRB notes that an underwriter has a duty of fair dealing to investors in addition to its duty of fair dealing to issuers.  An underwriter also has a duty to comply with other MSRB rules as well as other federal and state securities laws.

Basic Fair Dealing Principle

As noted above, Rule G-17 precludes a dealer, in the conduct of its municipal securities activities, from engaging in any deceptive, dishonest, or unfair practice with any person, including an issuer of municipal securities.  The rule contains an anti-fraud prohibition. Thus, an underwriter must not misrepresent or omit the facts, risks, potential benefits, or other material information about municipal securities activities undertaken with a municipal issuer.  However, Rule G-17 does not merely prohibit deceptive conduct on the part of the dealer.  It also establishes a general duty of a dealer to deal fairly with all persons (including, but not limited to, issuers of municipal securities), even in the absence of fraud.

Representations to Issuers

All representations made by underwriters to issuers of municipal securities in connection with municipal securities underwritings, whether written or oral, must be truthful and accurate and must not misrepresent or omit material facts.  Underwriters must have a reasonable basis for the representations and other material information contained in documents they prepare and must refrain from including representations or other information they know or should know is inaccurate or misleading.  For example, in connection with a certificate signed by the underwriter that will be relied upon by the issuer or other relevant parties to an underwriting (e.g., an issue price certificate), the dealer must have a reasonable basis for the representations and other material information contained therein.  In addition, an underwriter’s response to an issuer’s request for proposals or qualifications must fairly and accurately describe the underwriter’s capacity, resources, and knowledge to perform the proposed underwriting as of the time the proposal is submitted and must not contain any representations or other material information about such capacity, resources, or knowledge that the underwriter knows or should know to be inaccurate or misleading.  Matters not within the personal knowledge of those preparing the response (e.g., pending litigation) must be confirmed by those with knowledge of the subject matter.  An underwriter must not represent that it has the requisite knowledge or expertise with respect to a particular financing if the personnel that it intends to work on the financing do not have the requisite knowledge or expertise.  

Required Disclosures to Issuers

Many municipal securities are issued using financing structures that are routine and well understood by the typical municipal market professional, including most issuer personnel that have the lead responsibilities in connection with the issuance of municipal securities.  For example, absent unusual circumstances or features, the typical fixed rate offering may be presumed to be well understood.  Nevertheless, in the case of issuer personnel that lack knowledge or experience with such structures, the underwriter must provide disclosures on the material aspects of such structures.

However, in some cases, issuer personnel responsible for the issuance of municipal securities would not be well positioned to fully understand or assess the implications of a financing in its totality, because the financing is structured in a unique, atypical, or otherwise complex manner (a “complex municipal securities financing”).[6]  Examples of complex municipal securities financings include variable rate demand obligations (“VRDOs”) and financings involving derivatives (such as swaps).  An underwriter in a negotiated offering that recommends a complex municipal securities financing to an issuer has an obligation under Rule G-17 to make more particularized disclosures than those that may be required in the case of routine financing structures.  The underwriter must disclose all material risks and characteristics of the complex municipal securities financing.[7]  It must also disclose any incentives for the underwriter to recommend the financing and other associated conflicts of interest.[8]  Such disclosures must be made in a fair and balanced manner based on principles of fair dealing and good faith.

The level of disclosure required may vary according to the issuer’s knowledge or experience with the proposed financing structure or similar structures, capability of evaluating the risks of the recommended financing, and financial ability to bear the risks of the recommended financing, in each case based on the reasonable belief of the underwriter.[9]  In all events, the underwriter must disclose any incentives for the underwriter to recommend the complex municipal securities financing and other associated conflicts of interest.

The disclosures described in this notice must be made in writing to an official of the issuer whom the underwriter reasonably believes has the authority to bind the issuer by contract with the underwriter (i) in sufficient time before the execution of a contract with the underwriter to allow the official to evaluate the recommendation and (ii) in a manner designed to make clear to such official the subject matter of such disclosures and their implications for the issuer.  The disclosures concerning a complex municipal securities financing must address the specific elements of the financing, rather than being general in nature.  If the underwriter does not reasonably believe that the official to whom the disclosures are addressed is capable of independently evaluating the disclosures, the underwriter must make additional efforts reasonably designed to inform the official or its employees or agent.

Underwriter Duties in Connection with Issuer Disclosure Documents

Underwriters often play an important role in assisting issuers in the preparation of disclosure documents, such as preliminary official statements and official statements.[10]  These documents are critical to the municipal securities transaction, in that investors rely on the representations contained in such documents in making their investment decisions.  Moreover, investment professionals, such as municipal securities analysts and ratings services, rely on the representations in forming an opinion regarding the credit.  A dealer’s duty to have a reasonable basis for the representations it makes, and other material information it provides, to an issuer and to ensure that such representations and information are accurate and not misleading, as described above, extends to representations and information provided by the underwriter in connection with the preparation by the issuer of its disclosure documents (e.g., cash flows).

Underwriter Compensation and New Issue Pricing

Excessive Compensation.  An underwriter’s compensation for a new issue (including both direct compensation paid by the issuer and other separate payments or credits received by the underwriter from the issuer or any other party in connection with the underwriting), in certain cases and depending upon the specific facts and circumstances of the offering, may be so disproportionate to the nature of the underwriting and related services performed as to constitute an unfair practice with regard to the issuer that it is a violation of Rule G-17.  Among the factors relevant to whether an underwriter’s compensation is disproportionate to the nature of the underwriting and related services performed, are the credit quality of the issue, the size of the issue, market conditions, the length of time spent structuring the issue, and whether the underwriter is paying the fee of the underwriter’s counsel or any other relevant costs related to the financing.

Fair Pricing.  The duty of fair dealing under Rule G-17 includes an implied representation that the price an underwriter pays to an issuer is fair and reasonable, taking into consideration all relevant factors, including the best judgment of the underwriter as to the fair market value of the issue at the time it is priced.[11]  In general, a dealer purchasing bonds in a competitive underwriting for which the issuer may reject any and all bids will be deemed to have satisfied its duty of fairness to the issuer with respect to the purchase price of the issue as long as the dealer’s bid is a bona fide bid (as defined in Rule G-13)[12] that is based on the dealer’s best judgment of the fair market value of the securities that are the subject of the bid.  In a negotiated underwriting, the underwriter has a duty under Rule G-17 to negotiate in good faith with the issuer.  This duty includes the obligation of the dealer to ensure the accuracy of representations made during the course of such negotiations, including representations regarding the price negotiated and the nature of investor demand for the securities (e.g., the status of the order period and the order book).  If, for example, the dealer represents to the issuer that it is providing the “best” market price available on the new issue, or that it will exert its best efforts to obtain the “most favorable” pricing, the dealer may violate Rule G-17 if its actions are inconsistent with such representations.[13]

Conflicts of Interest

Payments to or from Third Parties.  In certain cases, compensation received by the underwriter from third parties, such as the providers of derivatives and investments (including affiliates of the underwriter), may color the underwriter’s judgment and cause it to recommend products, structures, and pricing levels to an issuer when it would not have done so absent such payments.  The MSRB views the failure of an underwriter to disclose to the issuer payments, values, or credits received by the underwriter in connection with its underwriting of the new issue from parties other than the issuer, and payments made by the underwriter in connection with such new issue to parties other than the issuer (in either case including payments, values, or credits that relate directly or indirectly to collateral transactions integrally related to the issue being underwritten), to be a violation of the underwriter’s obligation to the issuer under Rule G-17.[14]  For example, it would be a violation of Rule G-17 for an underwriter to compensate an undisclosed third party in order to secure municipal securities business.  Similarly, it would be a violation of Rule G-17 for an underwriter to receive undisclosed compensation from a third party in exchange for recommending that third party’s services or product to an issuer, including business related to municipal securities derivative transactions.  The underwriter must disclose to the issuer the amount paid or received, the purpose for which such payment was made and the name of the party making or receiving such payment.  The underwriter must also disclose to the issuer the details of any third-party arrangements for the marketing of the issuer’s securities.

Profit-Sharing with Investors.  Arrangements between the underwriter and an investor purchasing new issue securities from the underwriter (including purchases that are contingent upon the delivery by the issuer to the underwriter of the securities) according to which profits realized from the resale by such investor of the securities are directly or indirectly split or otherwise shared with the underwriter also would, depending on the facts and circumstances (including in particular if such resale occurs reasonably close in time to the original sale by the underwriter to the investor), constitute a violation of the underwriter’s fair dealing obligation under Rule G-17.  Such arrangements could also constitute a violation of Rule G-25(c), which precludes a dealer from sharing, directly or indirectly, in the profits or losses of a transaction in municipal securities with or for a customer.

Credit Default Swaps.  The issuance or purchase by a dealer of credit default swaps for which the reference is the issuer for which the dealer is serving as underwriter, or an obligation of that issuer, may pose a conflict of interest, because trading in such municipal credit default swaps has the potential to affect the pricing of the underlying reference obligations, as well as the pricing of other obligations brought to market by that issuer.  Rule G-17 requires, therefore, that a dealer that engages in such activities disclose that to the issuers for which it serves as underwriter.  Trades in credit default swaps based on baskets or indexes of municipal issuers that include the issuer or its obligation(s) need not be disclosed, unless the issuer or its obligation(s) represents more than 2% of the total notional amount of the credit default swap or the underwriter otherwise caused the issuer or its obligation(s) to be included in the basket or index.

Retail Order Periods

Rule G-17 requires an underwriter that has agreed to underwrite a transaction with a retail order period to, in fact, honor such agreement.[15]  A dealer that wishes to allocate securities in a manner that is inconsistent with an issuer’s requirements must not do so without the issuer’s consent.  In addition, Rule G-17 requires an underwriter that has agreed to underwrite a transaction with a retail order period to take reasonable measures to ensure that retail clients are bona fide.  An underwriter that knowingly accepts an order that has been framed as a retail order when it is not (e.g., a number of small orders placed by an institutional investor that would otherwise not qualify as a retail customer) would violate Rule G-17 if its actions are inconsistent with the issuer’s expectations regarding retail orders.  In addition, a dealer that places an order that is framed as a qualifying retail order but in fact represents an order that does not meet the qualification requirements to be treated as a retail order (e.g., an order by a retail dealer without “going away” orders[16] from retail customers, when such orders are not within the issuer’s definition of “retail”) violates its Rule G-17 duty of fair dealing.  The MSRB will continue to review activities relating to retail order periods to ensure that they are conducted in a fair and orderly manner consistent with the intent of the issuer and the MSRB’s investor protection mandate.

Dealer Payments to Issuer Personnel

Dealers are reminded of the application of MSRB Rule G-20, on gifts, gratuities, and non-cash compensation, and Rule G-17, in connection with certain payments made to, and expenses reimbursed for, issuer personnel during the municipal bond issuance process.[17]  These rules are designed to avoid conflicts of interest and to promote fair practices in the municipal securities market.

Dealers should consider carefully whether payments they make in regard to expenses of issuer personnel in the course of the bond issuance process, including in particular, but not limited to, payments for which dealers seek reimbursement from bond proceeds or issuers, comport with the requirements of Rule G-20.  For example, a dealer acting as a financial advisor or underwriter may violate Rule G-20 by paying for excessive or lavish travel, meal, lodging and entertainment expenses in connection with an offering (such as may be incurred for rating agency trips, bond closing dinners, and other functions) that inure to the personal benefit of issuer personnel and that exceed the limits or otherwise violate the requirements of the rule.[18]

________________ __, 2011

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[1] The term “municipal entity” is defined by Section 15B(e)(8) of the Securities Exchange Act (the “Exchange Act”) to mean: “any State, political subdivision of a State, or municipal corporate instrumentality of a State, including—(A) any agency, authority, or instrumentality of the State, political subdivision, or municipal corporate instrumentality; (B) any plan, program, or pool of assets sponsored or established by the State, political subdivision, or municipal corporate instrumentality or any agency, authority, or instrumentality thereof; and (C) any other issuer of municipal securities.”

[2] See Reminder Notice on Fair Practice Duties to Issuers of Municipal Securities, MSRB Notice 2009-54 (September 29, 2009); Rule G-17 Interpretive Letter – Purchase of new issue from issuer, MSRB interpretation of December 1, 1997, reprinted in MSRB Rule Book (“1997 Interpretation”).

[3] Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, Pub. L. No. 111-203 § 975, 124 Stat. 1376 (2010).

[4] MSRB Rule D-9 defines the term “customer” as follows: “Except as otherwise specifically provided by rule of the Board, the term “Customer” shall mean any person other than a broker, dealer, or municipal securities dealer acting in its capacity as such or an issuer in transactions involving the sale by the issuer of a new issue of its securities.”

[5] See MSRB Reminds Firms of Their Sales Practice and Due Diligence Obligations When Selling Municipal Securities in the Secondary Market, MSRB Notice 2010-37 (September 20, 2010).

[6] If a complex municipal securities financing consists of an otherwise routine financing structure that incorporates a unique, atypical or complex element and the issuer has knowledge or experience with respect to the routine elements of the financing, the disclosure of material risks and characteristics may be limited to those relating to such specific element and any material impact such element may have on other features that would normally be viewed as routine.

[7] For example, an underwriter that recommends a VRDO should inform the issuer of the risk of interest rate fluctuations and material risks of any associated credit or liquidity facilities (e.g., the risk that the issuer might not be able to replace the facility upon its expiration and might be required to repay the facility provider over a short period of time).  As an additional example, if the underwriter recommends that the issuer swap the floating rate interest payments on the VRDOs to fixed rate payments under an integrally-related swap and the underwriter or an affiliate of the underwriter is proposed to be the executing swap dealer, the underwriter must disclose the material risks (including market, credit, operational, and liquidity risks) and characteristics of the integrally-related swap, as well as the risks associated with the VRDO.  Such disclosure should be sufficient to allow the issuer to assess the magnitude of its potential exposure as a result of the complex municipal securities financing. If the underwriter’s affiliated swap dealer is proposed to be the executing swap dealer, the underwriter may satisfy its disclosure obligation with respect to the swap if such disclosure has been provided to the issuer by the affiliated swap dealer orthe issuer’s swap or other financial advisor that is independent of the underwriter and the swap dealer, as long the underwriter has a reasonable basis for belief in the truthfulness and completeness of such disclosure.  The MSRB notes that dealers that recommend swaps or security-based swaps to municipal entities may also be subject to rules of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission or those of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

[8] For example, a conflict of interest may exist when the underwriter is also the provider of a swap used by an issuer to hedge a municipal securities offering or when the underwriter receives compensation from a swap provider for recommending the swap provider to the issuer.  See also “Conflicts of Interest/Payments to or from Third Parties” herein.

[9] Even a financing in which the interest rate is benchmarked to an index that is commonly used in the municipal marketplace (e.g., LIBOR or SIFMA) may be complex to an issuer that does not understand the components of that index or its possible interaction with other indexes.

[10] Underwriters that assist issuers in preparing official statements must remain cognizant of their duties under federal securities laws.  With respect to primary offerings of municipal securities, the SEC has noted, “By participating in an offering, an underwriter makes an implied recommendation about the securities.” See SEC Rel. No. 34-26100 (Sept. 22, 1988) (proposing Exchange Act Rule 15c2-12) at text following note 70.  The SEC has stated that “this recommendation itself implies that the underwriter has a reasonable basis for belief in the truthfulness and completeness of the key representations made in any disclosure documents used in the offerings.”  Furthermore, pursuant to SEC Rule 15c2-12(b)(5), an underwriter may not purchase or sell municipal securities in most primary offerings unless the underwriter has reasonably determined that the issuer or an obligated person has entered into a written undertaking to provide certain types of secondary market disclosure and has a reasonable basis for relying on the accuracy of the issuer’s ongoing disclosure representations.  SEC Rel. No. 34-34961 (Nov. 10, 1994) (adopting continuing disclosure provisions of Exchange Act Rule 15c2-12) at text following note 52.

[11] The MSRB has previously observed that whether an underwriter has dealt fairly with an issuer for purposes of Rule G-17 is dependent upon all of the facts and circumstances of an underwriting and is not dependent solely on the price of the issue.  See MSRB Notice 2009-54 and the 1997 Interpretation.  See also “Retail Order Periods” herein.

[12] Rule G-13(b)(iii) provides: “For purposes of subparagraph (i), a quotation shall be deemed to represent a "bona fide bid for, or offer of, municipal securities" if the broker, dealer or municipal securities dealer making the quotation is prepared to purchase or sell the security which is the subject of the quotation at the price stated in the quotation and under such conditions, if any, as are specified at the time the quotation is made.”

[13] See 1997 Interpretation.

[14] See also “Required Disclosures to Issuers” herein.

[15] See MSRB Interpretation on Priority of Orders for Securities in a Primary Offering under Rule G-17, MSRB interpretation of October 12, 2010, reprinted in MSRB Rule Book.  The MSRB also reminds underwriters of previous MSRB guidance on the pricing of securities sold to retail investors.  See Guidance on Disclosure and Other Sales Practice Obligations to Individual and Other Retail Investors in Municipal Securities, MSRB Notice 2009-42 (July 14, 2009).

[16] In general, a “going away” order is an order for new issue securities for which a customer is already conditionally committed.  See SEC Release No. 34-62715, File No. SR-MSRB-2009-17 (August 13, 2010).

[17] See MSRB Rule G-20 Interpretation — Dealer Payments in Connection With the Municipal Securities Issuance Process, MSRB interpretation of January 29, 2007, reprinted in MSRB Rule Book.

[18] See In the Matter of RBC Capital Markets Corporation, SEC Rel. No. 34-59439 (Feb. 24, 2009) (settlement in connection with broker-dealer alleged to have violated MSRB Rules G-20 and G-17 for payment of lavish travel and entertainment expenses of city officials and their families associated with rating agency trips, which expenditures were subsequently reimbursed from bond proceeds as costs of issuance); In the Matter of Merchant Capital, L.L.C., SEC Rel. No. 34-60043 (June 4, 2009) (settlement in connection with broker-dealer alleged to have violated MSRB rules for payment of travel and entertainment expenses of family and friends of senior officials of issuer and reimbursement of the expenses from issuers and from proceeds of bond offerings).


[1] File No. SR-MSRB-2011-09.  Comments on the proposed rule change should be submitted to the SEC and should reference this file number.

[2] Section 4s(h)(5) of the Commodity Exchange Act requires that a swap dealer with a special entity client (including states, local governments, and public pension funds) must have a reasonable basis to believe that the special entity has an independent representative that sufficient knowledge to evaluate the transaction and its risks, as well as the pricing and appropriateness of the transaction.   Section 15F(h)(5) of the Exchange Act imposes the same requirements with respect to security-based swaps.