This Mistake Cost Merrill $9 Million: Mitigating Conflicts of Interest (Part 3)

The SEC’s proposed Regulation Best Interest seeks to impose a duty on brokers to mitigate certain conflicts of interest. This series of articles will explore the various ways firms can effectively mitigate or eliminate conflicts of interest.

Part 1 – Introduction

Part 2 – Level fee

Mitigating Conflicts of Interest – Part 3: Controlling Conflict-Inciting Information 

On August 20th the SEC imposed sanctions on Merrill Lynch related to its handling of a conflict of interest, which cost the firm nearly $9M. Apparently it could have cost much more because this was an offer submitted by Merrill, which was accepted by the SEC.  I thought this might be a good opportunity to step out of the abstract discussion of conflicts and look at a real world scenario that played out over 5 years ago.  In a somewhat overly simplistic summary, it went a little something like this.

Merrill had a Due Diligence Committee responsible for recommending to the Governance Committee what managers and products would be part of a particular set of platforms. The Committee recommended terminating a manager on the platform who was a Merrill subsidiary (“Subsidiary”) and who also had a strong business relationship with BoA.  Subsidiary learned of the upcoming termination prematurely and a “plan of action” was put in place involving members of both Subsidiary and Merrill. This led to a string of events, with the crescendo being an email by an Officer of Subsidiary to a Merrill employee responsible for writing up the Governance Committee meeting agenda which read:

“It was recently communicated to us that the proposal to terminate will not be part of tomorrow’s Governance Committee agenda and [the U.S. Subsidiary] will be afforded an extension of time to further and fully demonstrate our commitment and capabilities in the SMA space…. As it stands now, this news is so new that it may be filtering through your organization, down to the key players in Due Diligence [and other areas, including the product group] but I wanted to inform you directly.”

The Subsidiary’s termination decision was put on hold and Subsidiary ultimately remained on the platform. 

This scenario is not hard to imagine and none of the actors behaved in a way that shocks the conscious (although the email was a little shady). In conversations with Merrill, Subsidiary executives expressed their appreciation for the due diligence team’s autonomy and presented legitimate concerns about the fairness of the termination. For example the due diligence committee often conducted on-site due diligence reviews before terminating a manager, but did not do so in this instance.  The main thrust of Subsidiary’s plea to have the termination put on hold was the fact that such an on-site review was not conducted. And while hindsight is 20/20, it’s interesting to note that the Subsidiary’s new management team did in fact perform well over the relevant period, in fact better than the would-be replacement. As innocent as these actions may have seemed, if not for the outside influence that was exerted on the Due Diligence and Governance Committee, the manager would have been terminated. The Committee did not prove to have the autonomy that was described in Merrill’s ADV and on which investors relied.

The SEC sanctioned Merrill for violating the anti-fraud provision of the Advisor’s Act as well as failing to implement policies and procedures reasonably designed to prevent violations of the Act. But where did Merrill go wrong, what policies and procedures did it fail to implement and what can we learn from this?  To answer this question we need to identify the point in time within these events where policies and procedures could have made the most difference. I would suggest that the only time that a policy could prevent this conflict with reasonable certainty is at the very beginning, BEFORE Subsidiary had any reason to adopt a “plan of action.”

Our cognitive biases as humans can make ethical decision-making very difficult because we identify and analyze facts in a self-serving manner to rationalize why a particular action is allowed or justified. In a competitive corporate environment, these physiological factors make it extremely difficult for a firm’s policies and procedures to stop these human behaviors. In this case, once the horse was out of the barn, reeling her back in was next to impossible. The only way to keep the horse in the barn was by preventing the horse from knowing it should leave the barn. Subsidiary should never have known it was on the chopping block.

In this case, the horse was let out of the barn when an operational employee from Merrill contacted the soon-to-be terminated Subsidiary to get started on all the legwork that would have to be performed to actually remove Subsidiary from the platform.  Usually, a Merrill employee would notify the third party manager after the termination decision had been made by the Governance Committee. However, as the SEC keenly pointed out, no written policy or procedure governed this process.

Had the operational employee at Merrill either not possessed the information about Subsidiary’s termination or had he been trained on a policy to keep such information strictly confidential, Subsidiary would have had no reason to act in a conflicting manner until it was too late to do anything about the termination. The Committee would have acted with the autonomy that it represented to its investors in its ADV and that was required to avoid a conflict of interest. I’d be willing to bet that Merrill at this very moment has extensive policies and procedures governing the confidentiality of Due Diligence Committee recommendations, particularly with respect to the managers who have been recommended for termination.

When designing your policies and procedures, first think about the types of information that could trigger interested parties to act in a manner that conflicts with client interests. Seek to limit the number of people who have access to such information to only those who need to know. Once you have effectively limited the number of people with such information, policies and procedures must put a gag order on such information (both internally and externally) until the passing of a certain event. Had this firewall of information been in place, Merrill would be $9 million richer and I would be writing this article about something else.


                Cory Clark is a Director at DALBAR, Inc., the nation’s leading independent expert for evaluating, auditing and rating business practices, where he has worked since 2006. Cory holds his Juris Doctor from New England Law |Boston where he graduated Cum Laude and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Cory resides near Boston, Massachusetts with his wife and 3 children.

These articles are provided for general information only, and does not constitute legal advice, and cannot be used or substituted for legal advice.