A Personal Note From Our Founder

Today, September 3, 2018, Longs Peak turns 3 years old! Over the last 3 years we have provided investment performance and GIPS consulting services to over 70 investment firms and we are proud that, for many of these firms, we helped them claim compliance with the GIPS standards for the first time.

To celebrate this occasion, instead of writing a technical blog about performance and GIPS, I’d like to share what this date means to me each year.

September 3rd was not an arbitrary date to launch our firm. This date is significant to me because on September 3rd 2003 I had my first open heart surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm and to replace my aortic valve with a valve from a pig. Exactly ten years later, on September 3rd 2013, I had a second open heart surgery to replace my pig valve with a valve from a cow because my pig valve had torn.

Going through these surgeries and the recovery periods that followed was not easy, but I made a conscious decision to embrace being part farm animal and focus on the positive. These experiences motivated me to live my life to its fullest potential. This means something different to everyone, but for me, this meant taking chances to ensure I didn’t look back on my life wishing I’d had the courage to do something I was too scared to try. One of the biggest chances I took was leaving a great job to start Longs Peak. This was one of the scariest decisions I’ve ever made, but it has been one of the most rewarding adventures of my life, thanks to our wonderful clients and amazing team.

Over the years, this mentality has pushed to make decisions that help me truly experience life outside of work as well. Specifically, on or around September 3rd each year, I celebrate my life and health by doing something I would not have been able to do if it weren’t for the success of these surgeries. In previous years I have run a marathon, completed long hikes, and climbed 14ers (mountains in Colorado above 14,000 feet), but this year I am taking it to a new level!

With this year being both the 5th and 15th anniversaries of my two surgeries, I was looking for a big physical challenge as well as a way to encourage the people around me to live long, healthy, and satisfying lives. This year, I have decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro as a fundraiser for the American Heart Association, which I will do during the second half of this month.


The American Heart Association’s mission is to be a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives. Without the hard work of organizations like this, the idea of putting parts of farm animals into people would sound ridiculous. Actually, it still does sound ridiculous, but it works, and it gives people like me the opportunity to live full and complete lives.

I would love to have your support in this adventure. If you are interested in contributing to the fundraiser, donations of any amount are greatly appreciated and can be made through the link below. Please note that as my contribution to this cause I will personally match all donations up to $2,500.

Link to fundraiser page: Gilly Does Kili

Creating GIPS Compliant Presentations

Firms that are GIPS compliant are required to provide all prospective clients with a GIPS compliant presentation. Typically, each composite has its own separate one-page sheet that includes all the statistics and disclosures required for that composite. This one-page sheet can be attached as an appendix to your firm’s pitchbooks and other marketing materials to properly represent your firm to the public as a GIPS compliant firm.

Not all compliant presentations are the same. Your firm’s required statistics and disclosures will depend on your firm’s strategies and policies. In this article, we discuss the required statistics and disclosures applicable to most GIPS compliant firms. In addition, we provide information on common issues firms face when creating compliant presentations and what you might be able to do to avoid them.

Required GIPS Statistics

Although additional statistics may be required, the following are the most common statistics that GIPS compliant firms are required to present in their compliant presentations:

  • Annual composite time-weighted returns (gross and/or net) – GIPS recommends the use of gross-of-fee returns; however, at least in the United States, it is most common to include both gross and net-of-fee returns. Net returns can be based on actual management fees or a model fee. As discussed in a previous post titled “Are fee-related administrative issues causing errors in your investment performance?” using a model fee instead of actual fees may be necessary when you have clients that pay fees from an outside source (e.g., by check or from another account your firm manages for them).
  • Annual benchmark returns – GIPS requires the use of a benchmark unless you are able to disclose a reason why no meaningful benchmark is available. Even if your strategy is benchmark agnostic, most firms choose to include the most relevant benchmark available and then disclose any material differences between the benchmark and the strategy.
  • Number of portfolios in the composite as of each year-end – This is simply the number of portfolios that are included in the composite as of 31 December each year.
  • Total assets in the composite as of each year-end – This is simply the sum of the composite assets as of 31 December each year.
  • Total assets of the GIPS firm as of each year-end – This is the sum of all discretionary and non-discretionary portfolio assets that are included in the firm definition as of 31 December each year.
  • A measure of internal dispersion for each annual period – Internal dispersion is a measure used to give the user of the performance report an indication as to how tightly the strategy is managed. In other words, if you are reporting that the composite return was 10% for the most recent annual period, a low internal dispersion figure will tell the user that most portfolios in the composite returned approximately 10%. High dispersion would indicate that the portfolios in the composite had a more diverse set of returns (e.g., perhaps some returned 5% while others returned 15%). Typically, firms use standard deviation to present this, which can either be calculated on an equal-weighted or asset-weighted basis.
  • Three-year annualized ex-post standard deviation of both the composite and the benchmark based on monthly returns – This is a measure of risk. The standard deviation of the composite’s monthly returns and the benchmark’s monthly returns provides the user of the performance report an idea of the level of risk taken compared to the benchmark. Ideally, you want higher annual returns and lower annualized standard deviation compared to the composite’s benchmark. That would indicate that you were able to outperform while taking less risk. For composites where a different measure of risk would be more meaningful than standard deviation, firms may present an additional risk measure with an explanation as to why that measure is more relevant, but the annualized standard deviation must still be included.

Other statistics may also be required if, for example, your firm manages non-fee-paying or bundled-fee accounts. Firms with these types of accounts must show the percentage of the composite they represent as of each year-end. Firms with private equity or real estate composites also require different statistics which can be found in the Real Estate and Private Equity provisions of the GIPS Standards.

Required Disclosures

When reviewing compliant presentations before distribution, many firms focus purely on the statistics presented to ensure material errors do not exist. This is often done without realizing that missing or incorrect disclosures can also be considered a material error. Thus, you’ll want to make sure your review process incorporates an evaluation of both.

The disclosures that must be included in a GIPS compliant presentation will differ by firm and by composite. Rather than listing all of them here, we have compiled a checklist of required GIPS disclosures which can be used as part of your firm’s marketing material review process. This checklist can be used to help you incorporate the proper disclosures for each compliant presentation prior to approving them for external use.

When reviewing the disclosures included in your firm’s GIPS compliant presentations, it is important to ensure:

  1. No required disclosures are missing.
  2. The disclosures are consistent with the policies documented in your GIPS Policies and Procedures document (“GIPS P&P”), including any recent changes to policies. For example, if a minimum asset level is changed for a composite, it is important to ensure that this change is consistently:
    1. documented in your firm’s GIPS P&P,
    2. implemented in the actual composite construction, and
    3. disclosed in the GIPS compliant presentation.
  3. Any disclosures (such as the claim of compliance) that are required to be written word-for-word as stated in the standards, are not modified in any way.

Common Issues

Firms that do not have composite maintenance software or an external GIPS consultant to create their GIPS compliant presentations often create them manually. When creating and updating compliant presentations yourself, it is important to avoid theses common mistakes:

  1. Don’t double count assets. For example, if the same portfolio is included in more than one composite you will not be able to sum your composite assets to get to your total GIPS firm assets. Additionally, if you manage a fund and then some of the separate accounts you manage invest in that fund as part of their portfolio, you need to ensure you do not count those assets both as part of the fund and again as part of the separate accounts. It is also important to ensure that only actual accounts are included. Models and anything that is considered “advisory-only” should be excluded from your calculation.
  2. Ensure that the number of portfolios reported is the total number of portfolios included in the composite as of 31 December of that year. Since internal dispersion is calculated based on only the portfolios that were in the composite for the full year, some firms make the mistake of reporting their number of portfolios as just the number of portfolios that were included for the full year. This is not correct as this statistic is intended to be the total number of portfolios in the composite as of each year-end.
  3. When partial-year performance is presented, it is important to:
    1. Clearly label the period for which performance is presented.
    2. Match the benchmark period to the period presented for the composite.
  4. Keep your presentations up-to-date. This means:
    1. Updating presentations with corrected statistics if corrections are made to the composite’s data. For example, firms may make updates to transactions for reconciliation purposes, such as backdating dividends. If this results in a change to composite-level statistics, then the compliant presentations must be updated accordingly. It is important to consistently follow your firm’s GIPS error correction policy. Typically, immaterial changes to the statistics are updated for future use even if the changes are not large enough to trigger redistribution of the presentation.
    2. Updating presentations with the most recent year’s statistics as soon as they become available. It is not necessary to wait for the verification to be complete before adding and presenting updated statistics. For example, if your annual GIPS verification for calendar year 2017 will not be complete until mid-2018, you do not need to wait until the verification is complete to present the 2017 statistics in your compliant presentation. You just cannot update the date your firm is verified through until the verification report is issued (i.e., you can present unverified statistics for the 2017 period, but the date range of your verification will still be disclosed as ending 31 December 2016). This lets the user of your compliant presentation have the latest statistics while letting them know that the verification for the latest period is pending.
  5. Ensure there are no typos if you are manually entering the statistics into a table. Typos can easily cause material errors that would trigger the need for redistribution of the presentation with disclosure of the error. Establishing a simple review process can help your firm avoid this headache.
  6. Make sure the information for each composite is entered into the correct compliant presentation (i.e., ensure you do not enter the statistics for Composite A into the presentation for Composite B). Seems obvious, but you’d be surprise how often this mistake is made. Again, a reliable review process can help your firm avoid these mistakes.

Want to Learn More?

If you have any questions about creating compliant presentations or any GIPS statistics or disclosures, we would love to help. Longs Peak’s professionals have extensive experience helping firms become GIPS compliant as well as helping them maintain compliance with the GIPS Standards on an ongoing basis. Contact us to learn how we can help.

GIPS 20/20 Consultation Paper

The GIPS Executive Committee (“EC”) is preparing for a full re-write of the GIPS standards, which they are referring to as GIPS 20/20. It is referred to as GIPS 20/20 as it is a “vision” for the future of the standards and because it also is intended to be rolled out in the year 2020.

The EC has never put out a consultation paper of this kind before; typically the only opportunity to comment is after new guidance is already drafted. This is your opportunity to help shape the future of the standards by submitting your comments in response to the questions they pose in the consultation paper. To provide feedback, please send your comments to standards@cfainstitute.org by 16 July 2017.

The full GIPS 20/20 Consultation Paper is available on the GIPS Standards website. The areas of focus include:

  • The structure of the standards to ensure they are applicable to all types of investment managers as well as to asset owners
  • Specific treatment of pooled funds, to build on the Guidance Statement on Broadly Distributed Pooled Funds currently in place
  • Adjustments to the way asset-class specific guidance is structured in the standards (e.g., guidance specific to private equity and real estate)
  • Expanded use of internal rates of return (IRR) where appropriate
  • The frequency at which portfolios are required to be valued
  • Providing compliant presentations to existing clients and pooled fund investors
  • Options for reporting “advisory-only” assets (e.g., UMA) that do not currently fit within a firm’s assets under management (AUM)
  • The inclusion of non-fee paying portfolios in composites
  • References to the firm’s claim of GIPS compliance
  • Timeliness and frequency for updating compliant presentations
  • The use of estimated trading expenses
  • Whether any required statistics or disclosures can be removed as well as if any statistics or disclosures not currently required should be added

Whether you agree or disagree with the potential changes discussed, the EC greatly appreciates any feedback provided. If you only have an opinion on some of the topics, it is okay to respond to the portions you wish. Your response does not need to be formal and could even be a simple email.

We are in the process of composing our comments and strongly encourage you to do the same. If there are any aspects of the consultation paper you do not understand, feel free to contact us and we can help give you context or clarify the concerns involved.

Part 1: Creating GIPS Policies and Procedures

Firm Definition and Definition of Discretion

GIPS compliant firms are required to document how they comply with the GIPS requirements as well as any recommendations that the firm chooses to follow. This document acts as the firm’s internal representation of their GIPS compliance, and is intended to state the firm’s policies and describe the procedures the firm follows to maintain its compliance.

Many firms create their GIPS policies and procedures (“GIPS P&P”) from a template; however, unless this template is customized to address the unique circumstances of the firm, it will not sufficiently describe the firm’s actual practices in place to adhere to the GIPS requirements. Given that every firm has their own unique set of circumstances, we cannot cover every detail that your GIPS P&P should include, but we will cover the most important parts that every firm is required to document. Within Part 1 of this two part series we will focus on Firm Definition and Definition of Discretion. In Part 2 we will cover calculation methodology, books and records, composite definition, and error correction.

Firm Definition

The GIPS standards must be applied to your firm as a whole, not to a single product or strategy you manage. How your firm is defined for GIPS purposes is primarily based on how the firm is held out to the public, which may differ from the legal structure of your firm.

Most small and mid-sized investment managers define their firm for GIPS purposes the same as they are defined for legal and regulatory purposes. If you choose to define your firm more narrowly than the legal entity, it is important to ensure that you will be able to clearly and consistently hold yourself out to the public based on this more narrow definition. Most importantly, you must never imply that any part of your firm that falls outside of your GIPS Firm Definition is GIPS compliant.

Your GIPS P&P must include a written definition of your firm. This definition will then be provided as a disclosure in each of your firm’s GIPS compliant presentations. The following are a couple examples of how one might define their firm:

Example 1 – Firm Definition Matches Firm’s Regulatory Registration

ABC Asset Management, LLC is a registered investment advisor with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission in accordance with the Investment Advisors Act of 1940. ABC Asset Management, LLC manages equity and fixed income strategies for institutions and high net worth individuals.

Example 2 – Firm Defined More Narrowly than the Firm’s Regulatory Registration

ABC – Institutional is the Institutional Division of ABC Asset Management, LLC, which manages equity and fixed income strategies for institutional investors. ABC Asset Management, LLC is a registered investment adviser with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission in accordance with the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. ABC Asset Management, LLC also includes a wealth management division focused on managing customized portfolios for high net worth individuals. The institutional and wealth management divisions are held out to the public as separate entities and only the institutional division complies with the GIPS standards.

Definition of Discretion

One of the benefits of GIPS is that it helps your firm demonstrate its ability to manage each strategy that it offers. To ensure that your composite results truly reflect your portfolio manager’s decision-making process, it is important to include only the accounts that are free of material, client-mandated restrictions in your composites.

GIPS requires all discretionary, fee-paying portfolios to be included in at least one composite, while non-discretionary portfolios are excluded from composites. Within your GIPS P&P you can define how to determine the discretionary status of each account.

The term “discretion” is defined differently for GIPS than it typically is for legal or regulatory purposes. For example, you may have a discretionary contract for an account that you deem to be non-discretionary for GIPS purposes because of restrictions the client places on the implementation of the strategy. The definition of discretion section of your firm’s GIPS P&P should outline objective criteria for determining the discretionary status of accounts.

This section typically includes the types of restrictions that would cause an account to be deemed non-discretionary for GIPS purposes. Ideally, firms should include thresholds to ensure the policy can be followed consistently. For example:

  • Custom allocation requests that cause the portfolio’s asset allocation to deviate by more than 10% from the strategy’s target allocation.
  • Restricting the purchase or sale of certain securities that affects more than 10% of the portfolio.
  • Requests to hold cash at a level more than 5% above the current cash target.
  • Monthly, recurring cash flows regardless of size.
  • The use of margin, regardless of amount used.

As far as determining the thresholds to set, firms that manage their strategies very strictly to a model will typically have very low thresholds or even a 0% tolerance for deviations from their model. These deviations would trigger the portfolio to be deemed non-discretionary and excluded from the composite. Firms that allow for greater customization in their portfolio construction will typically have a higher tolerance for deviations.

When setting the criteria for determining discretion you’ll want to consider the following:

  1. A greater tolerance for deviations from the strategy’s holdings/allocation, will result in more portfolios in the composite (higher disclosed composite size), but dispersion (differences in performance between portfolios in the same composite) will also be higher.
  2. A lower tolerance for deviations results in tighter dispersion, but composite assets will be smaller and your firm’s number of non-discretionary accounts will be larger.

Your firm should find a balance that results in composite performance that meaningfully reflects the size and dispersion of your strategies.

Want to Learn More?

If you have any questions about the GIPS Standards, we would love to help.  Longs Peak’s professionals have extensive experience helping firms become GIPS compliant as well as helping them maintain compliance with the GIPS Standards on an ongoing basis. 

How to Become GIPS Compliant

Many firms are interested in becoming GIPS compliant, but are intimidated by the initial process of bringing their firm into compliance. As long as you know the steps to become GIPS compliant and understand the options you have to complete each step, this process is very manageable. The information provided here is intended to provide you with a high-level overview of the steps you must complete to become GIPS compliant.

Before holding your firm out to the public as a GIPS compliant firm, there are three main steps that must first be completed. Firms must:

  1. Document GIPS policies and procedures
  2. Construct composites that consistently follow these policies and procedures
  3. Create compliant presentations to show the results of each composite

Document GIPS Policies and Procedures

Firms are required to document how they comply with the GIPS requirements as well as any recommendations that the firm chooses to follow in a document known as the firm’s GIPS Policies and Procedures (“GIPS P&P”). This document acts as the firm’s internal representation of their GIPS compliance, and is intended to state the firm’s GIPS policies as well as describe the procedures the firm follows to maintain their compliance. Examples of items typically found in this document include:

  • Firm Definition – GIPS is applied to your firm as a whole, not to a single product or strategy you manage. How your firm is defined for GIPS purposes is primarily based on how the firm is held out to the public, which may differ from the legal structure of your firm.
  • Definition of Discretion –Discretion is defined differently for GIPS than it typically is for legal or regulatory purposes. You may have a discretionary contract for an account that you deem to be non-discretionary for GIPS purposes because of restrictions the client places on the implementation of the strategy. The “Definition of Discretion” section of your firm’s GIPS P&P should outline objective criteria for determining the discretionary status of accounts.
  • Policies Regarding Books and Records – Firms must be able to support all information included in compliant presentations as well as support that their client assets are real. This section of your P&P can outline the types of records that are maintained and in what format/location they are stored.
  • Calculation Methodology – While GIPS provides a framework for how to calculate performance, firms may have different methods for handling external cash flows, asset-weighting accounts, calculating dispersion, etc. The specifics of the methods used must be documented in the firm’s GIPS P&P.
  • Composite Definitions and Rules – Firms must create policies to ensure that accounts are placed in the appropriate composite for the correct time period. The timing of the movement of accounts in or out of composites must be based on objective criteria that is outlined in this section of the firm’s GIPS P&P. Other optional rules, such as minimum account sizes and significant cash flow thresholds can also be documented here to keep accounts out of composites during periods where the intended strategy cannot be fully implemented.
  • Error Correction Policies – Firms must create materiality thresholds that pre-determine the action required if errors occur in a compliant presentation. This section should include thresholds for all statistics as well as criteria for determining when errors in disclosures are material.

Construct Composites

After the GIPS P&P is created, firms can use these policies to construct the composites defined in the policy document. To do this, firms must:

  1. Identify all of the accounts that meet the definition of a composite. In other words, group all accounts by strategy, but then remove accounts that do not meet the firm’s definition of discretion or that do not meet a composite-specific rule, such as a minimum account size.
  2. Determine the correct time to include each account as well as remove any account that closed, changed strategies, or otherwise caused you to lose discretion. Portfolios must only be included in composites for periods in which they were considered discretionary for GIPS purposes. This helps ensure that the composite results accurately represent the firm’s management of the composite’s strategy and does not include outside noise created from client-requested restrictions.
  3. Asset-weight the monthly account-level results for each account included in the composite to calculate the composite-level performance results.
  4. Calculate all required composite-level statistics (see the list below) that must be included in the composite’s compliant presentation.

Create Compliant Presentations

Compliant presentations act as the firm’s external representation of their GIPS compliance and must be provided to all prospective clients. Each composite has a separate presentation that includes all of the required statistics as well as the required disclosures. Statistics included in compliant presentations include:

  • Annual composite performance (gross and/or net)
  • Annual benchmark performance
  • Number of accounts in the composite as of each year-end
  • Total assets in the composite as of each year-end
  • Total assets of the GIPS firm as of each year-end
  • A measure of internal dispersion for each annual period
  • Three year annualized ex-post standard deviation of both the composite and the benchmark based on monthly returns

Other statistics may also be required such as the percentage of non-fee paying accounts or the percentage of bundled fee paying accounts as of each year-end, where applicable.

Want to Learn More?

If you have any questions about how to become GIPS Compliant, we would love to help.  Longs Peak’s professionals have extensive experience helping firms become GIPS compliant as well as helping them maintain compliance with the GIPS Standards on an ongoing basis. 

What are the GIPS Standards?

The Global Investment Performance Standards (GIPS®) are an ethical framework that standardize how investment managers calculate and report their investment performance to prospective investors. Standardized presentations help ensure the information presented is meaningful, complete, and comparable to performance presentations of other GIPS compliant firms, regardless of location or regulatory jurisdiction.

This comparability helps simplify the due diligence process for prospective investors as it allows them to make an “apples-to-apples” comparison of similar strategies managed by different investment managers regardless of their location. Currently, there are 37 countries that have officially adopted GIPS, making it a true global standard.

Why are the GIPS Standards Necessary?

GIPS is designed to address potentially misleading practices employed by some investment managers when presenting investment performance to prospective clients. Examples of misleading practices include:

  • “Cherry-picking” accounts – Showing a strategy’s best performer as a representation of how the strategy performed as a whole
  • Using selective time periods – Presenting the performance of a strategy only for the period it performed the best
  • Utilizing model or back-tested results when results of actual managed accounts could have been used
  • Survivorship bias – Excluding accounts that have closed (often the worst performing accounts) from performance calculations

Under GIPS, discretionary accounts are grouped into composites based on the strategy they follow. Performance is then reported at the composite level, based on the aggregation of the accounts within the composite. Composites only include actual discretionary accounts, not models, and it is required to present each composite’s performance statistics for each annual period.

These requirements, implemented in conjunction with the rest of the GIPS requirements, help prevent compliant firms from manipulating their results and improve comparability between firms that are GIPS compliant and manage similar strategies.

Why Become GIPS Compliant?

GIPS compliance offers investment managers both marketing and compliance benefits.

According to eVestment, two out of three searches made in their database by investors or consultants are set to exclude firms that are not GIPS compliant. Being able to “check the box” in RFPs and consultant databases indicating that your firm is GIPS compliant can be a valuable marketing benefit.

Being GIPS compliant requires firms to document policies and procedures, addressing how their firm complies with all of the GIPS requirements as well as the recommendations they choose to adopt. The practice of documenting and implementing these policies is an excellent way to ensure your firm is consistent in its practices across the firm, which can be immensely valuable to your compliance department.

Misconceptions About GIPS that Discourage Managers from Complying

Misconception 1: GIPS Compliance is Burdensome and Expensive

The initial process of becoming compliant can be time consuming; however, if sufficient time is put in at the start of the process to create detailed GIPS policies and procedures and construct composites that consistently follow these policies, the ongoing maintenance is very manageable.

For firms that do not have the resources available internally to bring their firm into compliance, GIPS consulting firms such as ours, Longs Peak Advisory Services (“Longs Peak”), are available to assist with the creation of policy documents, construction of composites, the creation of compliant presentations, etc.

Verification is often the largest direct expense associated with GIPS compliance; however, having your firm verified is not required. If you choose to be verified, the marketing benefit received will likely outweigh the cost. If the cost of a verification is more than your firm can currently afford, you can always become complaint now and add verification at a later date when it fits more comfortably in your budget.

If a firm can comply with all of the GIPS requirements without the help of a GIPS consultant and elects not to have their compliance verified, there is no direct cost for a firm to be GIPS compliant.

Misconception 2: GIPS is Not Relevant for My Firm

As mentioned earlier, GIPS offers both marketing and compliance benefits. Even if you are not marketing your strategies to institutional investors that require their managers to be GIPS compliant, your firm can still benefit from GIPS. More specifically, if your firm:

Only manages funds:

It may seem pointless to create a composite of one account; however, when marketing a composite rather than the fund itself, adjustments can be made to the fund’s fees to make the performance results more representative of what a separate account would have experienced following your strategy. This composite performance could be used to market your strategy to prospective separate account investors or to help prospective clients compare your performance to a competitor whose performance is based on a composite of separate accounts.

Manages customized portfolios:

Even if you are not managing a strategy strictly to a model, composites can be built based on the risk level of the client. For example, many wealth management firms have Conservative, Moderate, Growth, and Aggressive composites. There may be some dispersion between accounts within each composite, but these composites at least give you the opportunity to present an aggregation of your actual accounts with similar risk and objective profiles.


If you have questions about the GIPS standards, we would be love to talk to you. Longs Peak’s professionals have extensive experience helping firms become GIPS compliant as well as helping firms maintain their compliance with GIPS on an ongoing basis. Please feel free to email Sean Gilligan directly at sean@longspeakadvisory.com.

Will the GIPS Guidance Statement on Broadly Distributed Pooled Funds affect your firm?

An Exposure Draft of the Global Investment Performance Standards’ (GIPS®) new Guidance Statement on Broadly Distributed Pooled Funds was recently published. The intention of this exposure draft is to seek comments from the public regarding this proposed new guidance before it is officially adopted in January of 2017.

Anyone with opinions regarding the guidance, especially with regard to questions the GIPS Technical Committee has included within the exposure draft, is encouraged to provide written feedback by 29 April 2016. Witten feedback can be submitted by emailing your comments to: standards@cfainstitute.org.

Who does the pooled fund guidance apply to?

Any GIPS compliant firm that manages and markets a “broadly distributed pooled vehicle” (which includes mutual funds or other similar vehicles) fits within the scope of this guidance.

If a firm is only responsible for managing the fund (e.g., as a sub-advisor), but has no responsibility for filing the fund’s official documents (e.g., the prospectus or KIID) or for creating fund-specific marketing materials, then this proposed guidance statement is not applicable.

The requirements set forth in the proposed guidance statement are specific to marketing pooled funds. Marketing pooled funds should not be confused with marketing a strategy or composite that contains a pooled fund. The guidance is specific to situations where the fund itself is being marketed to attract new investors within that fund.

What is the purpose of the proposed guidance?

GIPS requires firms to make every reasonable effort to provide compliant presentations to all prospective clients; however, most firms have historically interpreted this to only include new separate account prospective investors, not pooled fund investors that simply invest in a fund that is already included in a composite.

The purpose of this guidance statement is to ensure GIPS compliant firms are consistent in the way they present their pooled fund information to prospective investors. This consistency is intended to help prospective pooled fund investors make meaningful comparisons between funds. To achieve this, the exposure draft proposes requiring official fund documents, as well as all fund-specific marketing materials (i.e., materials that are specifically marketing the fund itself, not the strategy or composite), to include specific statistics and disclosures.

What does the proposed guidance require?

If adopted in its current form, the new guidance would require GIPS compliant firms to include the following in each of their funds’ official documents as well as any fund-specific marketing materials:

  1. A description of the fund’s objective or strategy.
  2. An indication of the risk involved in investing in the fund, which can be either qualitative or quantitative.
  3. Pooled fund returns calculated according to the methodology and time periods required by local laws or regulations. If local laws or regulations do not specify a methodology or time period then firms must present the fund’s returns net of all fees and expenses for periods that are acceptable based on the current GIPS Advertising Guidelines.
  4. Benchmark returns for the same periods that the fund’s performance is presented, as well as a description of the benchmark. If no appropriate benchmark exists, this can be disclosed in lieu of including benchmark performance.
  5. The currency used to express performance.

There is no requirement to mention GIPS or provide (or even offer) a compliant presentation. The guidance statement does recommend, however, that firms include the following claim of compliance in their fund’s official documents and fund-specific marketing materials: “XYZ Firm, the firm managing this pooled fund, claims compliance with the Global Investment Performance Standards (GIPS®). For more information about the GIPS standards, please visit www.gipsstandards.org.”

It is important to note that this claim of compliance is new and differs from the wording used in compliant presentations or materials adhering to the GIPS Advertising Guidelines. When claiming compliance, firms must ensure that the correct claim is used and is stated verbatim from the standards.

What can firms do now to prepare for this new guidance?

Firms managing pooled funds should first determine whether they fit within the scope of the proposed guidance. If so, then your firm should review its current official fund documents and fund-specific marketing materials to determine if changes are needed in order to meet the new requirements, if adopted.

If there are material changes that are not reasonably feasible for your firm, use this opportunity to provide comments to the GIPS Technical and Executive Committees before the guidance is formally adopted.

In addition to sharing your general feedback on the guidance, responding to the specific questions the GIPS Technical Committee has included within the exposure draft will greatly help shape the final version of the guidance statement before it is officially adopted. The entire exposure draft, which includes these questions, can be reviewed here.

To learn more about the Exposure Draft of the Guidance Statement on Broadly Distributed Pooled Funds or other GIPS and performance measurement topics, please contact us.

GIPS Compliance Actions for the New Year

Your firm works hard to comply with the Global Investment Performance Standards (GIPS®) and likely expects the benefits of GIPS to far outweigh any burden associated with maintaining compliance.

Most of the policies and procedures your firm set when first becoming compliant will never need to change; however, as both the standards and your firm evolves, it is beneficial to conduct a high-level review of your GIPS compliance each year. This high-level review will help ensure that you continually refine your processes and policies to maximize the benefits of claiming compliance with GIPS year after year.

Before getting into the specific aspects to review, you should first make sure you have the right people involved. One person or department may be responsible for managing the day-to-day tasks that maintain your GIPS compliance; however, high-level oversight from a larger group should take place to help ensure that any decisions made or policies set will integrate well with your firm’s other strategic initiatives.

This larger group, often called a GIPS Committee, typically consists of representatives from compliance, marketing, portfolio management, operations/performance, and senior management.

Not everyone on the committee needs to be an expert in the GIPS standards. In fact, many will not be. What they will need is to be available to share their opinions and represent their department’s interests when establishing or changing key policies for your firm.

Your GIPS expert/manager can set the agenda for your meeting and can provide any background on the requirements that will be part of the discussion. If you do not have a GIPS expert internally, or need independent advice about your policies and procedures, a GIPS consultant can be hired to help.

High-Level GIPS Topics to Consider Annually

Once you select the right group to represent each major area of your firm, the following high-level questions can help determine if any action is necessary to improve your GIPS compliance this year:

  • Have there been any changes to the GIPS standards?
  • Have there been any material changes to your firm or strategies?
  • Do your composites meaningfully represent your strategies or should their structure and descriptions be reconsidered?
  • Are the materiality thresholds stated in your error correction policy appropriate for the type of strategies you manage and are they consistent with the thresholds set by similar firms?
  • Are you satisfied with the service received from your GIPS verifier for the fee that is paid?
  • Is there any due diligence you need to conduct on your verification firm?

Changes to the GIPS Standards

It is important to consider whether there have been any changes to the GIPS standards since last year that would require your firm to take action. For example, if a new requirement is adopted, you should consider if any changes to your firm’s policies and procedures or compliant presentations are needed.

Keep in mind that GIPS compliant firms must comply with all requirements of the GIPS standards including any updates that may be published in the form of Guidance Statements, Questions & Answers (Q&As), or other written interpretations.

If your firm is verified or works with a GIPS consultant, these GIPS experts are likely keeping you informed of any changes to the standards. The best way to check for changes yourself is to visit the “Standards & Guidance” section of www.gipstandards.org. Specifically, you should check the “GIPS Q&A Database” where you can enter the effective date range of the previous year to see every Q&A published during this period. You should also check the “Guidance Statements” section. The guidance statements are organized by year published, so it is easy to see when new statements are added.

Changes to Your Firm or Strategies

Similar to changes in the standards, it is important to also consider whether any changes to your firm or its strategies would require you to take action. Examples include, material changes in the way a strategy is managed, a new strategy that was launched, an existing strategy that closed, mergers or acquisitions, or anything else that would be considered a material event for your firm.

Even if no changes were made this year, you should still read your entire policies and procedures document at least annually to make sure it adequately and accurately describes the actual practices followed by your firm.

Regulators, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), commonly review firms’ policies and procedures to ensure 1) that the document includes actual procedures and is not simply a list of policies and 2) that the stated procedures truly represent the procedures followed by the firm. Many firms have created their policies and procedures document based on template language, so tweaks may be necessary to customize the document for your firm.

Meaningful Composite Structure

The section of your GIPS policies and procedures requiring the most frequent adjustment is your firm’s list of composites, as you must make changes each time a new composite is added or a composite closes. However, even without adding new strategies or closing older strategies, the list of composites and their descriptions should be reviewed at least annually to ensure they are defined in a manner that best represents the strategies as you manage them today.

Since your firm’s prospects will compare your composite results to those of similar firms, it is important that your composites provide a meaningful representation of your strategies and are easily comparable to similar composites managed by your competitors. If a review of your current list of composites leads you to realize that your strategies are defined too broadly, too narrowly, or in a way that no longer accurately describes the strategy, changes can be made (with disclosure).

Keep in mind that changes should not be made frequently and cannot be made for the purpose of making your performance appear better. Changing your composite structure for the purpose of improving your performance results, as opposed to improving the composite’s representation of your strategy, would be considered “cherry picking.”

Two examples of cases that may require a change in your composites include:

  1. A strategy has evolved and certain aspects of the way the strategy was managed and defined in the past are different from today. This can be addressed by redefining the composite. Redefining the composite requires you to disclose the date, reason, and nature of change. This disclosure will help prospects understand how the strategy was managed for each time period presented and when the shift in strategy took place. Changes like this should be made to your composite descriptions at the time of the change, but an annual review can help you address any items that may have been overlooked when the change occurred.
  2. A composite is defined broadly to include all large capitalization accounts. Within this large capitalization composite, there are accounts with a growth focus and others with a value focus. If your closest competitors are separately presenting large capitalization growth and large capitalization value composites, your broadly defined large capitalization composite may be difficult for prospects to meaningfully compare to your competitors. To address this, you can create new, more narrowly defined composites to separate the accounts with the growth and value mandates. In this case, the full history will be separated and the composite creation date disclosed for these new composites will be the date you make the change. Note that this will demonstrate to prospective clients that you had the benefit of hindsight when determining the definition.

Materiality Thresholds Stated in Your Error Correction Policy

Another section of your firm’s GIPS policies and procedures that should be reviewed in detail is your error correction policy. Your error correction policy includes thresholds that pre-determine which errors (of those that may occur in your compliant presentations) are considered material versus those deemed immaterial. These thresholds cannot be changed upon finding an error; however, they can be updated prospectively if you feel a change would improve your policy.

Many firms had a difficult time setting these thresholds when this requirement first went into effect back at the start of 2011. Now that much more information is available to help you determine these thresholds, such as the GIPS Error Correction Survey, you may want to revisit your policy to ensure it is adequate.

Setting and approving materiality thresholds that determine material versus immaterial errors is a task best suited for your firm’s GIPS committee rather than your GIPS department or manager. The reason for this is that opinions of what constitutes a material error will vary from one department to another. Your committee can help find a balance between those with a more conservative approach and those with a more aggressive approach to ensure the thresholds selected are appropriate.

GIPS Verifier Selection and Due Diligence

If your firm is verified, it is important to periodically evaluate whether you are satisfied with the quality of the service received for the fees paid. You may also want to consider whether you need to conduct any periodic due diligence on your verification firm with respect to data security or other concerns important to your firm.

All verifiers have the same general objective: to test and opine on 1) whether your firm has complied with all of the composite construction requirements of the GIPS standards and 2) whether your firm’s GIPS processes and procedures are designed to calculate and present performance in compliance with GIPS. Where they differ is in the fees charged and process followed to complete the verification.

With regard to fees, much of the difference between verifiers is based on their level of brand recognition rather than differences in the quality of their service. For example, smaller firms specialized in GIPS verification may have more experience with the intricacies of GIPS compliance than a global accounting firm; yet, a global accounting firm will likely charge the highest fee. When selecting a higher fee firm, it is important to consider whether the higher fee is offset by the benefit your firm receives when listing their brand name as your verifier in RFPs you complete.

With regard to process, the primary difference between verification firms is whether the verification testing is done onsite or remotely. There are pros and cons to both methods and it is important for your firm to consider which works best for the team that is fielding the verification document requests.

The onsite approach may result in finishing the verification in a shorter period, but may be disruptive to your other responsibilities while the verification team is in your office. The remote approach may be less disruptive to your other responsibilities, but likely will take longer to complete and may be less efficient as documents are exchanged back and forth over an extended period of time. Another difference is how the engagement team is structured, whether you can expect to work with the same team each year, and how much experience your main contact has.

Regardless of whether the verification is conducted onsite or remotely, be sure to ask any verifier how your proprietary information and confidential client data is protected. If the work is done remotely, how are sensitive documents transferred between your firm and the verifier (e.g., is it through email or a secure portal) and once received by the verifier, do they have strong controls in place to ensure your data is not breached.

If the work is done onsite, it is important to ask what documents (or copies of documents), if any, the verifier will be taking with them when they leave, and whether these documents are saved in a secure manner. Documents saved locally on a laptop are at higher risk of being compromised.

For more information on how to maximize the benefits your firm receives from being GIPS compliant or for other investment performance and GIPS information, contact Sean Gilligan at sean@longspeakadvisory.com.

Are fee-related admin issues causing errors in your investment performance?

Calculating gross and net investment performance should be simple, right? Yes, however, firms often face fee-related portfolio accounting or administrative issues that cause complications, resulting in inaccurate performance. It is essential that all types of fees are accounted for correctly to ensure reported performance can be relied upon and properly evaluated by clients and prospective investors.

Which Fees and Expenses Reduce Investment Performance?

Gross-of-fee performance represents a portfolio’s return net of transaction costs only. Net-of-fee performance is net of transaction costs and investment management fees, so the only difference between gross and net performance is the investment management fee. According to the Global Investment Performance Standards (GIPS®), investment management fees are defined to include both asset-based and performance-based fees that are earned for managing a portfolio.

If your firm is GIPS compliant, it is important to reduce performance by both types of fees when calculating net-of-fee performance. For non-GIPS compliant firms, this is still considered a best practice; however, it is common for firms with both types of fees to report performance reduced only by the asset-based fee as “Net” and performance reduced by both the asset-based fee and performance-based fee as “Net Net.”

Administrative fees, such as custody fees, do not reduce performance. This is the typical practice because clients have some control over selecting a custodian and, therefore, the administrative fees charged to their portfolio. For this reason, administrative fees are excluded from performance calculations and instead are treated like external cash flows that do not reduce their return.

The most common exception to this is net performance reported for mutual funds, which is typically calculated based on the change in the fund’s net asset value (NAV), resulting in performance that is net of all fees and expenses. Mutual fund investors do not have control over the custodian used or administrative fees charged (i.e., the manager selects the custodian), so these fees do reduce performance when calculating net returns for mutual funds.

What Are the Most Common Fee-Related Administrative Issues and How Can They Be Addressed?

The most common administrative issues that affect performance results usually are derived from:

  1. Clients paying their management fee by check or from another outside source
  2. Accounts with bundled fee structures (e.g., wrap accounts)
  3. Accounts paying asset-based fees for transactions in lieu of per-trade commissions

We will examine each of these issues below.

1.  Clients Paying Their Management Fee by Check or from Another Outside Source

In an ideal world all clients would have their management fees directly debited from the account that earned the fee; however, this is not always the case. Some clients prefer to pay their management fees by check or out of one of their multiple accounts managed by your firm. Since many firms record their accounts receivable in an accounting system separate from their portfolio accounting system (which calculates performance), a matching entry must be added to the portfolio accounting system when fees are paid. If this fee is not recorded in the portfolio accounting system, the client’s gross and net returns will be equal (neither being reduced by the management fee), which is inaccurate.

How to Add Adjusting Accounting Entries to Ensure Net-of-Fee Performance Is Accurate

When a client pays their fee by check, to correctly record this, two entries are needed in the portfolio accounting system:

  1. An external cash inflow matching the management fees paid by check.
  2. A management fee expense for the same amount.

After these two transactions are made, the portfolio’s market value will be the same as it was before entering these transactions since the two transactions offset each other. While these entries do not change the value of the portfolio, an expense is recorded that will allow the system to report the correct net-of-fee performance for the period.

Similarly, when the management fee is directly debited from another account, adjustments need to be made to both the account that paid the fee and the account that earned the fee. The account that paid the management fee will need two accounting entries:

  1. A negative management fee expense for fees paid on behalf of a different account.
  2. An external cash outflow for the same amount.

The account that earned the management fee will also need two accounting entries (note that these are the same as the entries when paid by check):

  1. An external cash inflow matching the fees paid by the other account.
  2. A management fee expense for the same amount.

Again, these transactions will not change the market value of any account as these entries simultaneously adjust cash and management fee expense by the same amount. While this has no effect on the total portfolio’s market value, it will allow net-of fee performance to be accurately reported, regardless of the source or method of the actual payment.

Forgetting to make these adjustments is very common and often leads to erroneously overstating net-of-fee performance for clients paying their fees from an outside source. It will also result in an overstatement of net-of-fee performance for any composite that includes these accounts. To avoid regulatory deficiencies or non-compliance with GIPS requirements, it is best to look into whether your firm has accounts paying management fees from outside sources and ensure proper adjustments are made.

2.  Accounts with Bundled Fee Structures, Such as Wrap Accounts

As previously discussed, gross-of-fee performance is reduced by transaction costs and net-of-fee performance is reduced by transaction costs and management fees. This can become complicated when fees and expenses are bundled together and accounted for as one bundled fee.

What to Do If Fees and Expenses Are Bundled Together and Cannot Be Separated

If fees and expenses cannot be separated, gross-of-fee performance is calculated by reducing performance by transaction costs and any fees or expenses that cannot be separated from those transaction costs. Net-of-fee performance is then calculated by reducing performance by transaction costs and management fees, as well as any fees or expenses that cannot be separated from the transaction costs or management fees. This often results in identical gross-of fee and net-of-fee performance, as both performance measures are reduced by the entire bundled fee.

This most commonly occurs with wrap accounts, where the client pays one bundled fee and the individual fees for transaction costs, management fees, etc. cannot be separately determined. When this occurs, disclosures should be included with the performance to clarify if any fees other than transaction costs and management fees have been used to reduce performance.

Alternative Presentation Options for Gross-of-Fee and Net-of-Fee Performance With Bundled Fees

Instead of presenting gross-of-fee performance that is equal to net-of-fee performance, firms often only include net returns as their official performance, but then also present “pure gross” returns as supplemental information. Pure gross returns are gross of all fees and expenses and must be disclosed as such.

3.  Accounts That Pay Asset-Based Fees for Transactions in Lieu of Per-Trade Commissions

As discussed earlier, gross-of-fee performance is reduced by transaction costs. Typically these transaction costs are the commissions tied to each executed trade; however, there has been a trend towards using asset-based fee structures for transaction costs, instead of per-trade commissions.

If an account is actively managed and trades frequently enough that an asset-based fee structure results in lower expenses than paying commissions on each trade, an asset-based fee structure may be a good option for your client. However, properly accounting for this kind of fee structure in your portfolio accounting system may be challenging, as many portfolio accounting systems have not caught up with this trend, leading to errors in the client’s reported performance.

With a commission-based structure, portfolio accounting systems typically account for each trade net of commissions, which ensures that gross-of-fee performance is net of transaction costs. All other fees and expenses are recorded as separate line items that are coded as either “performance affecting” (e.g., management fees, which reduce performance to arrive at net-of fee-returns), or “non-performance affecting” (e.g., administrative fees, which are treated as external cash flows that do not have an effect on performance).

When asset-based fee structures replace per-trade commissions, the asset-based fee is commonly accounted for as a line item, similar to management fees or other administrative expenses. The problem with this is that neither of the two options available (“performance-affecting” or “non-performance-affecting”) reduce gross-of-fee performance to account for trading costs. Instead, these options were only designed to reduce net-of-fee performance or reduce neither performance measure (i.e., there is often no transaction code that only reduces gross-of-fee performance).

How to Make Adjustments to Properly Account for Asset-Based Transaction Costs

Many systems have not created a solution for asset-based transaction costs, leaving firms to develop their own workarounds to reduce gross-of-fee returns. One example of a workaround that firms use is to record these fees as negative dividends, which results in the desired effect of reducing gross-of-fee performance. While this approach works, it is not ideal since the dividend transaction code is not intended to be used for this purpose, and should only be used as a short-term solution until your portfolio accounting system provider can offer an appropriate transaction code that will properly account for this type of fee.

Firms that have accounts with this type of fee structure for transaction costs should check with their portfolio accounting system provider to confirm if there is a way to ensure these fees are accounted for properly. Ideally, this should be addressed with a system developer or senior representative from your system provider, as this question is likely beyond the knowledge of a typical helpdesk associate, and may not be addressed in the reference materials they have available to them.

While this post is focused on fee-related administrative issues that affect performance, there are many other fee-related issues that firms face in reporting investment performance. We intend to cover additional fee-related topics in future posts, including: determining whether to use cash basis or accrual accounting for management fees, and considerations for determining when it is appropriate to use hypothetical or model management fees instead of actual management fees to calculate net-of-fee performance. If you would like to receive periodic information on these kinds of topics, please subscribe to our blog by submitting your email at the bottom of the webpage or check back frequently for new posts.

For more information on fee-related administrative issues or to discuss other investment performance or GIPS® topics, please contact Sean Gilligan at sean@longspeakadvisory.com.

Did you miss this year’s GIPS® conference? Here are the key takeaways:

Last week, CFA Institute hosted the 19th annual GIPS Conference in San Diego, California.

Paul Smith, CFA, CEO and President of CFA Institute, delivered the opening address for this year’s conference. He referred to GIPS as CFA Institute’s single most successful product and explained his intention to increase the Institute’s marketing efforts with regard to promoting GIPS around the world.

Smith specifically emphasized the importance of GIPS to developing-market regions. Given that he is based in Hong Kong, I would expect that he will specifically work to promote GIPS in Southeast Asia and other developing regions to help make the standards truly global.

Because there have not been many recent changes to the GIPS standards, much of the conference was focused on general performance and risk topics, as well as US-specific (SEC) regulatory compliance. Below are the key takeaways from this two-day event. Please note that the information provided for non-GIPS topics is based on the opinions expressed by the conference speakers and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of CFA Institute or any other organization.

GIPS-Specific Takeaways

Supplemental Information Disclosures are Not Required Outside of Compliant Presentations

It was clarified that supplemental information disclosures are only required when presenting supplemental information directly on a compliant presentation page. For example, if creating a pitch book with several pages of composite information, supplemental information (e.g., statistics derived from a representative account, carved-out performance, specific holdings, etc.) only needs to be labeled as supplemental if presented on the actual compliant presentation page (i.e., the page with all of your required GIPS statistics and disclosures). If you include supplemental information on pages other than the compliant presentation page, it does not need to be labeled as supplemental and no disclosures are required.

This is a significant shift from how this requirement was interpreted in the past. Previously, most firms interpreted the supplemental information guidance to require any supplemental information included in a presentation to be labeled as such, regardless of what page it was presented on. Other than pure gross returns for wrap composites, it is rare for firms to include supplemental information directly on the compliant presentation page. With this new interpretation, most firms will not need to use supplemental information disclosures at all.

The GIPS Interpretations Committee is working on creating new guidance on this topic that will be published soon. It is important to note that this guidance will not be official until the updated guidance statement is published. It is best to wait until the final guidance statement is available before making any changes to presentations in case changes are made to this guidance as it goes through the process of being approved and finalized.

Submission of Firm Notification Form Now Needs to be Verified

It was announced that verifiers will be required to conduct annual testing to ensure that the firms they verify have submitted their notification form, informing CFA Institute of their status as a GIPS compliant firm. The form must be submitted by 30 June each year, answering the questions about their firm as of 31 December of the prior year.

For most firms, verifiers can simply check to ensure the firm they are verifying is on the published list of compliant firms; however, if your firm has elected to be excluded from this list, it is recommended that you maintain a record of the submission to provide to your verifier.

If your firm has not yet submitted the form that was due 30 June 2015, there is no penalty for late submission, and the recommendation is that you log on and complete the notification form as soon as possible. Click here to complete the form now.

New Pooled Fund Advertising Guidelines will be Distributed for Public Comment During 4Q 2015

GIPS compliant firms are very familiar with the requirement to provide all prospective clients with a compliant presentation, but there has been some confusion as to whether the term “prospective client” includes new investors in funds and other pooled vehicles. It would be very difficult to provide all prospective investors in a fund a compliant presentation, so most firms have followed this requirement by only providing compliant presentations to prospective, separate account investors.

New guidance on how to present performance information to prospective pooled fund investors has been drafted and is scheduled to be distributed for public comment during 4Q 2015. This guidance is expected to require GIPS compliant firms that manage broadly distributed pooled funds to include specific performance and disclosure information in each fund’s prospectus or similar offering documents.

This new requirement is designed to ensure there is consistency and completeness in the way GIPS compliant firms market to prospective pooled fund investors. Many of the required statistics and disclosures are expected to be similar to what is already required by most regulators, so material changes to offering documents may not be necessary.

If you are a GIPS compliant firm that manages broadly distributed pooled funds, please provide feedback during the public comment period to ensure your point of view is considered before this guidance is finalized.

Regulatory (SEC) Compliance Takeaways

Are “Canned” Compliance Policies and Procedures Provided by Consultants Sufficient?

Many firms use “canned” policies and procedures that do not sufficiently describe the actual practices of their firm. It is important to consider whether your compliance policies and procedures are tailored to match your firm or if they are generic, template language provided by a consultant and could be applied to any firm. At a minimum, it is important to ensure that your policies do not state that you are doing something that you are not actually doing.

Policies should have a strong emphasis on employee education, both for new hires and for ongoing training, to demonstrate a proactive approach to creating a “culture of compliance.” Most importantly, ensure that you are able to consistently apply any policy created.

What are the Key Elements of a Compliance Program?

Firms often make their compliance program more complicated than it needs to be. Keep it simple and focus on the following three points:

  1. Risk Assessment – Clearly document how you assess your firm’s risk areas.
  2. Annual CCO Review – Compliance programs should evolve over time to ensure they are sufficiently meeting the needs of your firm, but do not make changes simply to give the impression of making improvements when no changes are necessary. Firms often overdo this. If your firm has not experienced significant changes, your program does not need to change much either.
  3. Calendar/Checklist – This is the most important element of your compliance program. Your compliance calendar is your opportunity to demonstrate your firm’s protocol. If your firm has multiple offices, ensure testing covers all locations and not just your headquarters. Not thoroughly monitoring and testing the compliance procedures of outside offices is a common issue.

What Should Firms do to Prepare for an SEC Examination?

Many firms hire an outside consultant to conduct mock audits, but this can actually be counterproductive. Unless conducted by an attorney, with whom you would have attorney-client privilege, the findings from a mock audit are discoverable by the SEC. This means you are essentially handing the SEC a list of your firm’s weaknesses.

Your time may be better spent working with a consultant building the most robust compliance program you can and ensuring your compliance officer is prepared to confidently represent your firm in the event of an examination.

What are the Current Focus Areas of SEC Examiners?

In addition to the common recurring items that SEC examiners focus on, such as custody, assets under management, marketed performance presentations, suitability, and conflict disclosures, the following are areas currently being emphasized in SEC examinations:

  • Cyber Security – Examiners are looking to make sure cyber security has been considered and policies and procedures have been developed and implemented to protect client data. Firms are responsible for conducting due diligence on their vendors as well, to ensure policies are in place to protect any client data that vendors can access.
  • Fees – There are several areas where fees are being tested by examiners, including:
    • Testing to ensure investors are not placed in wrap or asset-based fee structures for strategies that are not heavily traded, resulting in the investor paying higher transaction costs than if they were on a traditional commission structure.
    • Comparing similar accounts that follow the same strategy to ensure fees are consistent. While it is understood that larger accounts may pay smaller fee percentages, accounts that are the same size and are managed the same, but pay different fees, may be questioned.
    • Reviewing fee structures to ensure they are reasonable and justified for the complexity of the strategy employed.
    • Targeting retirement accounts in their testing sample to ensure the account balances are not being “eaten up by fees.” The SEC feels these types of accounts are especially important to protect, given the reliance individual investors have on these accounts for their future financial security.
    • Examining alternative strategies to ensure both suitability and fees are reasonable and appropriate for the investors.
  • Back-tested Performance – Examiners are looking for “fair and balanced” disclosures. Having multiple drafts of back-tested performance, each with small tweaks until the historical performance looks the best it could, can be an issue if the final version is not clearly based on a repeatable process that the back-tested performance is helping market.
  • Dispersion – Examiners are using dispersion to test that composites or other groupings of accounts are meaningful and that accounts are not included in the wrong composite.
  • Calculation and Distribution of Performance –Examiners are recalculating performance to test results. Even if an independent party has verified your performance, the SEC examiner will likely recalculate your performance to ensure they get to the same results. The distribution and presentation of performance is equally as important as the calculation itself. Even accurate performance could be deemed misleading if matched against an inappropriate benchmark or presented for a select time period that excludes poor performance periods.

Client Reporting Takeaways

Is your firm’s client reporting meaningful for individual investors?

Although the GIPS standards focus on performance reporting for marketing purposes, client reporting was also discussed at the conference. Institutional investors likely want to see detailed performance reports including performance attribution and risk measures; however, if you work with individuals, the reporting that would be beneficial for this type of investor may be quite different.

Once an individual becomes your client, your periodic performance reports are probably the most important tangible item you provide. Given the importance of this document, it is essential that time is taken to ensure the information you are providing is meaningful to that specific client. Consider the following:

  • Is the performance information that you report to your clients easy for them to understand?
  • Do they care if you beat the benchmark or would they rather see a status report demonstrating the progress made toward achieving their financial goals?
  • Does your report help build advocacy and trust in your relationship, or is it just confusing for the client?
  • Do you think your clients read and find value in your reports, or are they disregarded?

Take the time to consider how you add value to your clients, why you are worth a higher fee than a “robo-broker” and demonstrate this value in your client reporting.

Other sessions included a discussion of fee transparency, the use of Active Share in assessing managers, the use of money-weighted returns, insights on manager search and selection, and ex-ante risk evaluation. For more information on these topics or to discuss the key takeaways noted above, please contact Sean Gilligan at sean@longspeakadvisory.com.