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IM-2310-3. Suitability Obligations to Institutional Customers

This rule is no longer applicable. NASD IM-2310-3 has been superseded by FINRA Rule 2111. Please consult the appropriate FINRA Rule.

Preliminary Statement as to Members' Obligations
As a result of broadened authority provided by amendments to the Government Securities Act adopted in 1993, the Association is extending its sales practice rules to the government securities market, a market with a particularly broad institutional component. Accordingly, the Association believes it is appropriate to provide further guidance to members on their suitability obligations when making recommendations to institutional customers. The Association believes this interpretation is applicable not only to government securities but to all debt securities, excluding municipals.1 Furthermore, because of the nature and characteristics of the institutional customer/member relationship, the Association is extending this interpretation to apply equally to the equity securities markets as well.
The Association's suitability rule is fundamental to fair dealing and is intended to promote ethical sales practices and high standards of professional conduct. Members' responsibilities include having a reasonable basis for recommending a particular security or strategy, as well as having reasonable grounds for believing the recommendation is suitable for the customer to whom it is made. Members are expected to meet the same high standards of competence, professionalism, and good faith regardless of the financial circumstances of the customer.
Rule 2310(a) requires that, In recommending to a customer the purchase, sale or exchange of any security, a member shall have reasonable grounds for believing that the recommendation is suitable for such customer upon the basis of the facts, if any, disclosed by such customer as to his other security holdings and as to his financial situation and needs.
This interpretation concerns only the manner in which a member determines that a recommendation is suitable for a particular institutional customer. The manner in which a member fulfills this suitability obligation will vary depending on the nature of the customer and the specific transaction. Accordingly, this interpretation deals only with guidance regarding how a member may fulfill such "customer-specific suitability obligations" under Rule 2310(a).2
While it is difficult to define in advance the scope of a member's suitability obligation with respect to a specific institutional customer transaction recommended by a member, the Board has identified certain factors which may be relevant when considering compliance with Rule 2310(a). These factors are not intended to be requirements or the only factors to be considered but are offered merely as guidance in determining the scope of a member's suitability obligations.
Considerations Regarding the Scope of Members' Obligations to Institutional Customers
The two most important considerations in determining the scope of a member's suitability obligations in making recommendations to an institutional customer are the customer's capability to evaluate investment risk independently and the extent to which the customer is exercising independent judgment in evaluating a member's recommendation. A member must determine, based on the information available to it, the customer's capability to evaluate investment risk. In some cases, the member may conclude that the customer is not capable of making independent investment decisions in general. In other cases, the institutional customer may have general capability, but may not be able to understand a particular type of instrument or its risk. This is more likely to arise with relatively new types of instruments, or those with significantly different risk or volatility characteristics than other investments generally made by the institution. If a customer is either generally not capable of evaluating investment risk or lacks sufficient capability to evaluate the particular product, the scope of a member's customer-specific obligations under the suitability rule would not be diminished by the fact that the member was dealing with an institutional customer. On the other hand, the fact that a customer initially needed help understanding a potential investment need not necessarily imply that the customer did not ultimately develop an understanding and make an independent investment decision.
A member may conclude that a customer is exercising independent judgment if the customer's investment decision will be based on its own independent assessment of the opportunities and risks presented by a potential investment, market factors and other investment considerations. Where the broker-dealer has reasonable grounds for concluding that the institutional customer is making independent investment decisions and is capable of independently evaluating investment risk, then a member's obligation to determine that a recommendation is suitable for a particular customer is fulfilled.3 Where a customer has delegated decision-making authority to an agent, such as an investment advisor or a bank trust department, this interpretation shall be applied to the agent.
A determination of capability to evaluate investment risk independently will depend on an examination of the customer's capability to make its own investment decisions, including the resources available to the customer to make informed decisions. Relevant considerations could include:
•   the use of one or more consultants, investment advisers or bank trust departments;
•   the general level of experience of the institutional customer in financial markets and specific experience with the type of instruments under consideration;
•   the customer's ability to understand the economic features of the security involved;
•   the customer's ability to independently evaluate how market developments would affect the security; and
•   the complexity of the security or securities involved.
A determination that a customer is making independent investment decisions will depend on the nature of the relationship that exists between the member and the customer. Relevant considerations could include:
•   any written or oral understanding that exists between the member and the customer regarding the nature of the relationship between the member and the customer and the services to be rendered by the member;
•   the presence or absence of a pattern of acceptance of the member's recommendations;
•   the use by the customer of ideas, suggestions, market views and information obtained from other members or market professionals, particularly those relating to the same type of securities; and
•   the extent to which the member has received from the customer current comprehensive portfolio information in connection with discussing recommended transactions or has not been provided important information regarding its portfolio or investment objectives.
Members are reminded that these factors are merely guidelines which will be utilized to determine whether a member has fulfilled its suitability obligations with respect to a specific institutional customer transaction and that the inclusion or absence of any of these factors is not dispositive of the determination of suitability. Such a determination can only be made on a case-by-case basis taking into consideration all the facts and circumstances of a particular member/customer relationship, assessed in the context of a particular transaction.
For purposes of this interpretation, an institutional customer shall be any entity other than a natural person. In determining the applicability of this interpretation to an institutional customer, the Association will consider the dollar value of the securities that the institutional customer has in its portfolio and/or under management. While this interpretation is potentially applicable to any institutional customer, the guidance contained herein is more appropriately applied to an institutional customer with at least $10 million invested in securities in the aggregate in its portfolio and/or under management.

1 Rules for municipal securities are promulgated by the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board.

2 This interpretation does not address the obligation related to suitability that requires that a member have "... a 'reasonable basis' to believe that the recommendation could be suitable for at least some customers." In the Matter of the Application of F.J. Kaufman and Company of Virginia and Fredrick J. Kaufman, Jr. 50 SEC 164 (1989).

3 See note 2.

Adopted by SR-NASD-95-39 eff. Aug. 20, 1996.

Selected Notices: 94-62, 95-21.

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