Bates News,Bates Research,Compliance and Regulatory Alerts - 03-05-20

Facing the Coronavirus: Financial Industry Preparations, Reassurances and Contingencies

Facing the Coronavirus: Financial Industry Preparations, Reassurances and Contingencies

If you’ve been in meetings about investor communications, business travel, or other contingency planning over the past few days and weeks, you are not alone. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus (also referred to as COVID-19) and more recently, the precipitous volatility of the financial markets, financial firms have been deluged with questions from just about every stakeholder group about how to respond. Regulators are weighing in as well. Bates looks at some of the efforts to prepare and reassure everyone out there.

The Markets

Despite early attempts by Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome Powell to reassure investors that the central bank is “closely monitoring developments and their implications for the economic outlook” and that the Board “will use our tools and act as appropriate to support the economy,” the Fed took more definitive action earlier this week by lowering the target range for the federal funds rate by 1/2 percentage point in an attempt to protect the economy from potential disruptions.

Political actors have been vocal about pressuring the Fed to do more. The President reportedly urged the central bank to be more aggressive cutting rates and suggested that Congress cut taxes. As we went to print, Congress, however, appears to be closing in on a bipartisan $8.3 billion appropriation to combat the virus. Presidential candidates, most notably former candidate Senator Warren, are advocating for substantial fiscal stimulus to address the current situation and potential spread. The Senator wrote letters to CEOs of the globally systemic important banks demanding they provide information regarding “how you evaluate the risks to your institution and its customers associated with coronavirus, the extent to which your institution is exposed to those risks and prepared to absorb their impact, and how you are monitoring the developments going forward.”  

Firm Management  

For all market participants, the priority is to make preparations to keep transactions and other financial functions operating. A spokesperson from the NYSE stated they are carefully monitoring the spread of COVID-19, and that the exchange has “robust contingency plans, tested regularly, to enable continuous operation of the NYSE exchanges should any facilities be impacted.”

Many financial firms have restricted business travel in Asia and Italy, required employees in those areas work from home, and placed other restrictions on travel and attending conferences. Some U.S. firms are restricting travel, as well. Reuters quotes financial sources discussing the preparation of back-up facilities, “splitting up critical teams into rotating shifts and physically distancing staff from one another.” Ultimately, the plans ensure that employees know what they need to do to keep the company operating. 

Backing up how prepared market participants are, Kenneth Bentsen Jr., CEO of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (“SIFMA”), in an interview with Reuters relayed that  “most firms have playbooks for handling a range of business disruptions, including pandemics.” He stated that the “industry is reviewing and updating contingency plans in order to minimize any potential disruption to the financial markets that could be caused by personnel being unable to work onsite.” Plans include potentially “moving staff to backup locations away from major cities.” Bentsen conveyed that “our job is to do as much preparedness as we can . . . and to be as resilient as possible. That's been up and running for several weeks now, and we're prepared."

SEC  

On March 4, 2020, the SEC issued an Order that “provides publicly traded companies with an additional 45 days to file certain disclosure reports that would otherwise have been due between March 1 and April 30, 2020.”  In the release accompanying the Order, the SEC makes clear that companies should “continue to evaluate their obligations to make materially accurate and complete disclosures in accordance with the federal securities laws.”

To receive the relief under the newly issued Order, companies must submit a summary report explaining “why the relief is needed in their particular circumstances.” The Commission stated that it “may extend the time period for the relief, with any additional conditions it deems appropriate, or provide additional relief as circumstances warrant.” 

The SEC Division of Investment Management also issued a statement saying that it is actively monitoring the current and potential effects of the virus on investment advisers and funds. The staff noted, however, that it “would not recommend enforcement action if fund boards do not adhere to certain in-person voting requirements in the event of unforeseen or emergency circumstances affecting some or all of the directors,” as a result of “the current and potential effects of COVID‑19.” Division staff stated that its no-action position applies to board meetings held between March 4 and June 15, 2020 (with extensions as circumstances warrant.)  

Retail Investors

For retail investors, regulators have been offering up advice when considering investment concerns. On February 28, 2020, FINRA issued “Investor Tips for Turbulent Markets,” a 5-step primer for when “the stock market gets rocky” to “elevate your financial security.” While not explicitly referencing the advent of the health crisis, the primer contains key steps to “‘steady your pulse during market downturns.”  These key points include (i) revisiting financial goals to guide a sound investment approach; (ii) diversify across, and within, the major asset classes relative to your overall portfolio; (iii) automating payments to strengthen financial security; (iv) understanding the impact of changing interest rates; and (v) protecting against fraud by working with registered representatives and using FINRA’s BrokerCheck.

Conclusion

The global nature of the coronavirus challenges the broader economy in ways that are as yet unknown. Messages of preparations, reassurance, and contingency plans by market leaders are helpful to “steady the pulse” as stakeholders move forward. Bates will continue to monitor developments.

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