6 compliance risks for SEC-regulated financial institutions amplified by COVID-19
Mark Reilly, SVP, Professional Lines, Ironshore
Tom Pickhardt, Industry Director, Financial Institutions
Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused major disruptions for financial institutions, requiring many to make significant changes to how they operate and interact with clients and consumers. And while these changes were necessary, they also amplified compliance-related risks – many of which are likely to remain even as COVID-19 vaccine rollouts continue and the economy begins to normalize.
Protecting investors’ personally identifiable information (PII) has become more difficult, thanks to reliance on remote network access, videoconferencing, and other communication methods.
To spotlight several areas of concern, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) Office of Compliance Inspections and Examination recently issued guidance highlighting compliance areas that require special attention from investment and brokerage organizations in today’s circumstances.
Some observations included in the risk alert reflect best practices that financial institutions likely already follow as part of their regular processes and procedures. But the recommendations also serve as a current summary of top-of-mind issues related to COVID-19 that will be directly in the SEC’s focus – and therefore provide a good cue for risk managers. Here are six key issues, how they may create new exposures, and ways financial institutions may need to adjust business operations moving forward.
Every SEC-registered firm has a responsibility to ensure the safety of its investors’ assets – guarding against theft, loss, and misappropriation. COVID-19 conditions have complicated this obligation, the commission says, because some firms have had to change their routines. For example, mail delivery delays or less frequent mail collection and processing could affect prompt action with investors’ mailed-in checks. And COVID-19 relief laws that allowed early withdrawals from retirement accounts could make verification of unscheduled disbursements even more important.
Market volatility and the continued shift to remote work have limited on-site due diligence – meaning less direct oversight and interaction with advisers making investment recommendations, initiating trades, and reviewing third-party managers or portfolio-holding companies.
The risk alert also emphasizes fee and expense issues – another long-time focus of the SEC. The guidance acknowledges, for instance, an increased chance of misconduct arising from market volatility experienced during the pandemic.
Any national crisis or global uncertainty can create a heightened risk of investment fraud through bogus offerings, but the current situation reaches an unprecedented scale. Firms should stay abreast of investment fraud alerts and ensure that all personnel are aware of possible threats.
While financial firms have maintained business continuity plans, COVID-19 has likely shifted certain elements. From long-term remote work sites to built-in redundancies for key operations, many critical customer services were weakened due to shifting responsibilities or lack of resources.
Firms must protect investors’ PII, but the widespread use of remote network access, videoconferencing, and other virtual communication methods has made PII protection more difficult. As a result, paying attention to cybersecurity and data protection in the current environment takes on new importance.
Given the nature of their businesses, financial institutions must continue to assess risks introduced and/or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as practices like remote work and video conferencing are likely here to stay. Liberty Mutual has custom programs that provide specialized protections tailored to your unique industry exposures. Learn more about our focused expertise for financial institutions here.
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