Ethics Case Study of the Week: Firm’s Funds Are Best Investment, Right?

By Gary Sarkissian posted 05-26-2020 08:00


CFA Institute’s Code of Ethics and Standards of Professional Conduct codify the ethical guidelines for the investment profession that are critical to maintaining the integrity of capital markets and investor trust.  Members, candidates, and even firms make a commitment to uphold these standards as they help elevate ethical decision-making universally around the globe.  

As investment professionals, we are certain to face important ethical decisions in our day-to-day activities.  Some scenarios we encounter will be straightforward, while others may be more complex.  No matter what circumstances we face, continuous learning remains imperative in an investment industry that continues to evolve with products undergoing innovation and a regulatory environment continuing to adapt. 

For that reason, each week we will feature a sample case from CFA Institute’s Ethics in Practice Casebook.  Each case is built upon a real-life example that may involve a regulatory matter or even a CFA Institute Professional Conduct investigation.  At the end of the case is a multiple-choice question that addresses the ethical nature of the actions taken in that case.  

This week’s case involves Standard VI(A) Disclosure of Conflicts. 

Firm’s Funds Are Best Investment, Right?
Miriam works as an investment adviser for JVC Wealth Managers. JVC provides wealth management services to high-net-worth clients through discretionary, diversified, risk-adjusted investment  management accounts that hold positions in both mutual funds and hedge funds. On average, Miriam has invested 74% of her clients’ mutual fund assets and 63% of her clients’ hedge fund assets in JVC proprietary funds, earning JVC and its affiliates additional fees. Miriam’s actions are

acceptable because clients hiring JVC as an investment manager should expect that the firm will prefer investing in its own funds.
B.  acceptable if Miriam indicates her preference for investing client assets in JVC proprietary funds.
C.  unacceptable if there are non-proprietary mutual funds and hedge funds that meet the clients’ investment needs.
D.  unacceptable because the additional fees earned by JVC violate the duty of loyalty, prudence, and care that Miriam owes to her clients.

What do you think is the correct choice?  Feel free to discuss in the comments below and make sure to check back later this week as we post the analysis.  The completion of this case qualifies for 0.25 hour of Standards, Ethics, and Regulation (SER) credit.

[Update – 5/28/2020]
Welcome back! Here is the analysis of this case:

This case involves a potential conflict of interest for Miriam between providing cost efficient investment vehicles for her clients and selling her employer’s investment products. CFA Institute Standard VI(A): Disclosure of Conflicts states that CFA Institute members “must make full and fair disclosure of all matters that could reasonably be expected to impair their independence and objectivity” or interfere with their duties to their clients. Best practice is to avoid conflicts of interest if possible, otherwise mitigate the conflict of interest through the disclosure called for in Standard VI(A). Although the additional fees earned by JVC from selling proprietary funds present a potential conflict, the fees do not automatically violate Miriam’s fiduciary duty to her clients (Answer D).

It is possible that those proprietary funds are the best and most appropriate investment vehicles for Miriam’s clients even with the additional fees. But because there is a potential conflict of interest, Miriam must clearly disclose those fees “such that the disclosures are prominent, are delivered in plain language, and communicate the relevant information effectively” according to Standard VI(A). And although Answer C is based on the existence of alternative non-proprietary mutual funds, that response does not say that those funds are superior to JVC funds or have lower costs. Assuming that the clients understand that Miriam, who works for JVC, will sell JVC products at every opportunity, is not sufficient (Answer A). The best answer in this case is Answer B, which calls for Miriam to disclose the conflict. This disclosure should be made at the outset of the relationship and address what investment vehicles will be used by JVC along with their costs.

This case is based on a 2015 SEC enforcement action.

Image by aymane jdidi from Pixabay

© 2018 CFA Institute. All rights reserved. You may copy and distribute this content, without modification and for non-commercial purposes, provided you attribute the content to CFA Institute and retain this copyright notice. This case was written as a basis for discussion and is not prescriptive of how a business situation or professional conduct matter should or should not be handled or addressed. Certain characters mentioned are fictional to facilitate discussion, and any resemblance to actual persons is coincidental.