The SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations, muniland’s uber-regulator, issued a “Risk Alert” yesterday directed at underwriters of municipal bond offerings. The alert basically said: If you offer new bonds for sale, you must perform due diligence on the issuer. And you better document what you did.
I have to wonder about all the sudden fuss. The SEC’s “Risk Alert” was just restating a fundamental law in securities markets that requires securities dealers to investigate and verify what they are offering to investors. In other words, dealers must know their product, because there is no immunity for selling bad stuff. It’s a little shocking that the SEC has to remind securities dealers that they are required to do due diligence, but they went further and detailed some specifics on what had to be done (Page 3, emphasis mine):
the Commission also stated that sole reliance on an issuer will not suffice in meeting an underwriter’s “reasonable basis” obligations.
What the SEC insists on, and what is stated in the law, is that securities firms go beyond the surface facts presented by issuers and verify the underlying facts. And here they point their finger at unnamed broker-dealers who are not performing to standard and scold them for not maintaining records of their due diligence (Page 4):
[The staff] has observed instances where municipal underwriters have not maintained, nor did they require the creation and maintenance of, adequate written evidence that they complied with their due diligence obligations, including those under Rule 15c2-12 and applicable Commission interpretive guidance. Indeed, some firms have asserted that it is their specific policy not to maintain any due diligence records and have stated that “it is not industry practice” or that they are following advice from outside counsel … This approach might lead to lax due diligence practices at a time when there are growing concerns over the fiscal well-being of some municipalities.