The top U.S. securities regulator says its examiners will finally get around to knocking on doors at some of the thousands of investment advisors it has never met, including some waiting for more than a decade for the agency to come calling.
While the U.S. Securities and Exchange is responsible for overseeing most independent investment advisors, it doesn't examine the vast majority of them often, and some, not at all. The agency, which examines about 9 percent of roughly 11,000 investment advisors per year, has long argued that it does not have enough examiners, or the budget, to keep up with the industry's growth.
The new focus -- raised after years of criticism that some advisors are slipping through the cracks -- is not a guarantee that the SEC will actually visit a neighborhood near you. But it is certainly a wake-up call to prepare for whatever questions examiners may throw, compliance professionals say.
The SEC's focus on "never-before examined advisors" is one of the agency's 2014 examination priorities, according to a list published by the SEC's Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) on January 9.
These advisors tend to counsel individual investors and are not the same as the roughly 1,500 other advisors who counsel hedge funds and private equity funds and are subject to a different type of SEC exam program.
The agency is honing in on some 1,000 traditional investment advisors who have been registered with the SEC for more than three years, but who were never examined, according to Jane Jarcho, who heads OCIE's exam program for investment advisors and investment companies. There are roughly 11,000 investment advisors registered with the SEC.
The SEC will tackle exams for advisors it never reviewed in two ways: a broad look at some firms, to determine risks, such as shoddy supervision, they may pose to the investing public. At other firms, examiners will dive deeply into one or two areas, such as marketing or managing conflicts of interest.
Firms at which the SEC uncovers problems typically have a chance to make things right, such as reimbursing excess fees to customers. But examiners often refer egregious violations to the SEC's enforcement division, which can fine or suspend advisors.
Not all compliance professionals are convinced that the SEC will have the resources it needs to plod through everyone on its list. "In my mind, it's fifty-fifty whether they'll actually pull it off," said Steven Thomas, director of Lexington Compliance, a Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based consultancy for investment advisors.
A $1.1 trillion spending bill unveiled by U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday suggests that Thomas may be right. It would allot the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission $1.35 billion for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2014. An SEC spokesman said the figure could limit the agency's ability to bolster its enforcement and examinations programs.