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MSRB Notice

Dealer Payments in Connection with the Municipal Securities Issuance Process

The Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (“MSRB”) is publishing this notice to remind brokers, dealers and municipal securities dealers (collectively, “dealers”) of the application of Rule G-20, on gifts, gratuities and non-cash compensation, and Rule G-17, on fair dealing, in connection with certain payments made and expenses reimbursed during the municipal bond issuance process.  These rules are designed to avoid conflicts of interest and to promote fair practices in the municipal securities market.

Rule G-20, among other things, prohibits dealers from giving, directly or indirectly, any thing or service of value, including gratuities, in excess of $100 per year to a person other than an employee or partner of the dealer, if such payments or services are in relation to the municipal securities activities of the recipient’s employer.  The rule provides an exception from the $100 annual limit for “normal business dealings,” which includes occasional gifts of meals or tickets to theatrical, sporting, and other entertainments hosted by the dealer (i.e., if dealer personnel accompany the recipient to the meal, sporting or other event), legitimate business functions sponsored by the dealer that are recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a deductible business expense, or gifts of reminder advertising.  However, these “gifts” must not be “so frequent or so extensive as to raise any question of propriety.”  Rule G-17 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.

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, comport with the requirements of these rules.  Payment of excessive or lavish entertainment or travel expenses may violate Rule G-20 if they result in benefits to issuer personnel that exceed the limits set forth in the rule, and can be especially problematic where such payments cover expenses incurred by family or other guests of issuer personnel.  Depending on the specific facts and circumstances, excessive payments could be considered to be gifts or gratuities made to such issuer personnel in relation to the issuer’s municipal securities activities.  Thus, 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.

Furthermore, dealers should be aware that characterizing excessive or lavish expenses for the personal benefit of issuer personnel as an expense of the issue may, depending on all the facts and circumstances, constitute a deceptive, dishonest or unfair practice.  A dealer may violate Rule G-17 by knowingly facilitating such a practice by, for example, making arrangements and advancing funds for the excessive or lavish expenses to be incurred and thereafter claiming such expenses as an expense of the issue.

Dealers are responsible for ensuring that their supervisory policies and procedures established under Rule G-27, on supervision, are adequate to prevent and detect violations of MSRB rules in this area.  The MSRB notes that state and local laws also may limit or proscribe activities of the type addressed in this notice. 

By publishing this notice, the MSRB does not mean to suggest that issuers or dealers curtail legitimate expenses in connection with the bond issuance process.  For example, it sometimes is advantageous for issuer officials to visit bond rating agencies to provide information that will facilitate the rating of the new issue.  It is the character, nature and extent of expenses paid by dealers or reimbursed as an expense of issue, even if thought to be a common industry practice, which may raise a question under applicable MSRB rules. 

The MSRB encourages all parties involved in the municipal bond issuance process to maintain the integrity of this process and investor and public confidence in the municipal securities market by adhering to the highest ethical standards.

Finally, the MSRB notes that NASD recently published guidance to assist dealers in complying with NASD Rule 3060 on influencing or rewarding employees of others.  NASD’s guidance relates to personal gifts/exclusions; de minimis and promotional items; aggregation of gifts; valuation of gifts; gifts incidental to business entertainment; and supervision and recordkeeping.[1]  This guidance applies as well to the comparable provisions of MSRB Rule G-20.

January 29, 2007