Views on the integrity of global capital markets
03 November 2017

Ethics in Practice: Using Erasable Ink Is Fine, Right? Case for Week of 30 October

CFA Institute Ethical Decision-Making Framework

Analysis now posted. Check out how your choice compares.

It is time for this week’s ethical workout. Keep Reading!

Case

Huang is a newly hired client account representative for GWC Asset Management, an investment adviser for high-net-worth clients. Part of Huang’s responsibility is to assist each new client complete the extensive documentation needed to open an account. These documents give GWC access to client assets and the discretion to trade on behalf of the client. Because Huang is new to GWC, he is not completely familiar with firm procedures and is afraid of making mistakes with the documents. He uses erasable ink in completing the documentation so he can easily fix any mistakes without having to go back to the client for additional signatures. Huang’s actions are

  1. unacceptable under any circumstances.
  2. unacceptable unless disclosed to the clients.
  3. acceptable because he is providing efficient client service.
  4. acceptable if GWC is aware of this practice.

Analysis

This case involves the duty of loyalty to both clients and employer. By using erasable ink, Huang is rendering the key client documents changeable and thus unreliable. Once signed, anyone with access can go back and alter the terms or provisions of the documents. CFA Institute Standard III(A): Loyalty, Prudence, and Care requires members to “act with reasonable care and exercise prudent judgment” and “act for the benefit of their clients.” Using erasable ink for legally binding financial documents does not constitute reasonable care and prudent judgment, and it potentially causes harm to the clients. Even if Huang engages in this conduct to try to provide efficient client service (Choice C), he is really trying to protect his own interests and make his job easier while opening the client up to potential harm. Even if he discloses to clients that their documentation can be changed after the fact, he (or anyone with access to the documents) would still have free rein to make any changes. Huang must get client permission regarding the specifics of any changes to these important legal documents to make them effective, making Choice B incorrect. It is irrelevant whether his employer, GWC, is aware of and acquiesces in the practice because the harm to the client remains (Choice D). In fact, engaging in this conduct without the knowledge of GWC would be a violation of CFA Institute Standard IV(A): Duties to Employers – Loyalty, which prohibits member form causing harm to their employer. Huang’s actions, if discovered, would cause great reputational damage for GWC with both the regulator and clients because the firm would have to go back through the process to redo all documentation. Finally, even if a client was aware of and gave permission to use erasable ink (or otherwise gave Huang or GWC permission to make changes to their documents without informing the client of what those changes were going to be), engaging in this conduct would make these documents ineffective and of no value. Huang would be violating the CFA Insitute Code of Ethics that requires members to act with integrity, competence, and diligence. Therefore, using erasable ink for client documents is inappropriate under any circumstances (Choice A).

This case is based on facts provided by Nick Pollard, Managing Director of Asia Pacific for CFA Institute, gathered from his industry experiences.

Have an idea for a case for us to feature? Send it to us at ethics@cfainstitute.org.

More About the Ethics in Practice Series

Just as you need to practice to become proficient at playing a musical instrument, public speaking, or playing a sport, practicing assessing and analyzing situations and making ethical decisions develops your ethical decision-making skills. To promote “ethical exercise,” we are excited to introduce Ethics in Practice.

Each week, we will post a short vignette, drawn from real-world circumstances, regulatory cases, and CFA Institute Professional Conduct investigations, along with possible responses/actions. We then encourage you to assess the case through the lens of the Ethical Decision-Making Framework and the CFA Institute Code of Ethics and Standards of Professional Conduct and let us know which of the choices you believe is the right thing to do and why. If you are not a CFA Institute member, you can post your choice and reasoning in the comments section below. For CFA Institute members, we would like you to join the conversation in our new Member App and post your responses there. Later in the week, we will post an analysis of the case and you can see how your response compares.

CFA Institute Member App

The Member App gives CFA Institute members access to a content from multiple CFA Institute publications, including these weekly Ethics in Practice posts. Best of all, the app allows in-app submission of Continuing Education credits, which members can earn by reading and participating in the conversation for each case. (0.25 CE, 0.25 SER). The app is available in the Apple and Google Play stores. After downloading, simply log in using your CFA Institute website credentials (e.g., john.doe@cfainstitute.org + password). Hint: Save the post to your library in the app to find it easily.

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Image Credit: ©CFA Institute

About the Author(s)
Jon Stokes

Jon Stokes is the director of ethics education at CFA Institute. He is responsible for development and maintenance of the CFA Institute Code and Standards, as well as the design and management of the CFA Institute Ethical Decision Making training programs. Stokes holds a JD degree.

3 thoughts on “Ethics in Practice: Using Erasable Ink Is Fine, Right? Case for Week of 30 October”

  1. Payal says:

    It is unacceptable till disclosed to client. as it opens various opportunities for fraud.

  2. Jose says:

    A. unacceptable under any circumstances.

    We can’t allow that important documents will can be modify, because we are opening a opportunity of fraud, thay is one of three factors of the theory Fraction Triangle by Donald R. Cressey (opportunity, stress and rationalization)

    Regards

  3. Nick says:

    A signature means nothing if the document to which it relates can be modified. This is unacceptable in any circumstance and Huang has a duty to improve and not to correct mistakes. Mistakes happen. Even if the client is ok with this, the integrity of the process is compromised in a collusive manner and becomes vulnerable to fraud through opportunity as mentioned by Jose. One day Huang (and the client) may be incentivised to manipulate a document at the expense of other clients etc. Ultimately if getting a signature is such a barrier then the process needs review but need not be subverted.

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