The FCA this week published two template ‘Dear CEO’ letters, one to asset managers and one to alternative investment firms, highlighting the FCA's views on the key risks posed to customers and markets, and setting out its supervision strategy for the coming months.

The FCA's asset management portfolio comprises firms that predominantly directly manage mainstream investment vehicles, or advise on mainstream investments (excluding wealth managers and financial advisers), whilst its alternatives portfolio is comprised of firms that predominantly manage alternative investment vehicles (such as hedge funds or private equity funds) or alternative assets directly, or advise on those types of investments of investment vehicles.

The FCA's key concern is that standards of governance in both sets of firms are below what it expects, and progress is needed in both sectors to protect the best interests of customers.

Next steps:

The ‘Dear CEO’ letters make it clear that the FCA will be very active in the asset management and alternatives sectors in the coming months, and firms should expect increasing scrutiny. It will be important for firms to look at the areas identified by the FCA and consider any changes they need to make.

Supervision strategy:

The FCA's supervision strategy addresses the key issues in each sector, with specific priority areas set out below. Whilst the areas of focus are split between the two sectors, the FCA recognises that there will be overlap between the two.

Asset management:

The asset management supervision strategy will focus on the following key areas:

  • Liquidity management – Authorised Fund Managers (AFMs) are responsible for ensuring effective liquidity management in funds but the FCA warns that there can be a liquidity mismatch in open-ended funds between the terms at which investors can redeem and timescales needed to liquidate assets. The FCA expects firms to take necessary action following recent publications from the FCA and the Financial Policy Committee. This has been a continuing theme in light of the issues experienced by some real estate funds after Brexit and the collapse of the Woodford fund.
  • Firm's governance – Following the extension of SMCR at the end of 2019, the FCA expects firms to have refreshed their approach to governance and taken the steps necessary to improve it in line with SMCR requirements. The FCA intends to carry out work in H1 2020 focussing on the implementation of SMCR across asset managers.
  • Asset Management Market Study (AMMS) remedies – The FCA published its AMMS Final Report in June 2017 and the consequential rule changes are now in force, including requirements around governing body structure and value assessment on funds. In H1 2020, the FCA plans to undertake work on how effectively firms have undertaken value assessments, with more work envisaged in the future given the breadth of the AMMS reforms.
  • Product governance – Following the introduction of new product governance requirements under MiFID II, the FCA has begun reviewing how effectively these requirements have been implemented by asset managers, and expects to complete this work in early 2020. In parallel, the FCA is also reviewing arrangements whereby funds are managed by 'host' Authorised Corporate Directors (ACDs) (AFMs that are not within the group structure of the delegate investment manager), as there are concerns that the 'host' ACD may not be undertaking their responsibilities effectively in some cases.
  • LIBOR transition – The FCA is currently gathering information from some asset management firms to enhance its understanding of business models, including their specific exposure to LIBOR risk, and intends to provide further communications on its expectations for LIBOR transition in due course.
  • Operational resilience – Operational resilience remains an area of focus for the FCA for financial services firms as a whole. In the asset management sector specifically, the FCA is conducting technology reviews and ad-hoc reviews of firms' arrangements and expects to undertake further proactive work in this area. The FCA reminds firms of their obligations under Principle 11 to notify it of any material technology failures or cyber-attacks. For more information on operational resilience in the asset management sector, please see our blog post here.
  • EU withdrawal – With the UK’s exit from the EU approaching, the FCA expects firms to consider how the end of the implementation period will affect both the firm and its customers, and take action to be ready for 1 January 2021.

Alternative Investment Firms:

For alternative investment firms, the FCA's supervisory priorities are as follows:

  • Investor exposure to inappropriate products or levels of investment risk – Significant levels of investment risk are inherent in alternative investments, so the FCA expects firms in this sector to carefully consider the suitability or appropriateness of these investments for their target investors. Where investors are allowed to 'opt-up' to elective professional client status, firms should robustly assess the client's suitability to be opted-up. The FCA plans to review retail investor exposure to alternative investment products offered by alternatives firms, with a particular focus on firms being aware of who their clients are and acting in their clients' best interests.
  • Client money and custody asset controls – As part of the retail investor exposure, the FCA also plans to assess whether firms which have client money or asset custody permissions are exercising them in accordance with the Client Assets Sourcebook (CASS) rules.
  • Market abuse – In the FCA's view, market abuse control across the alternatives sector has "significant scope for improvement". To that end, the FCA has recently conducted an assessment of the adequacy of market abuse controls in the sector and may invite firms to participate in a similar exercise in future. The FCA reminds firms that it may consider enforcement action for those firms which are found not to comply with Market Abuse Regulation (MAR).
  • Market integrity and disruption – With scope to take significant investment risk in managing their products (ie. credit risk and market risk), the FCA expects alternatives firms to operate robust risk management controls to avoid excessive risk-taking and effectively mitigate against potential harm or disruption to markets. The FCA may choose to undertake in-depth assessments of firms' controls in future.
  • Anti-money laundering and anti-bribery and corruption – Alternatives firms face a risk of being used to facilitate fraud, money laundering, terrorist financing and bribery and corruption. The FCA intends to review firms' systems and controls to mitigate this risk, with particular focus on the risks of money laundering and terrorist financing.
  • EU withdrawal – As above, the FCA expects firms to take steps to be prepared for the UK's exit from the EU at the end of the implementation period on 1 January 2021.

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