The Securities and Exchange Commission announced last week that it had charged eight directors, officers and major stockholders for failing to timely disclose steps taken to take their respective companies private in their beneficial ownership reports on Schedule 13D. The orders issued by the SEC indicate the SEC staff became aware of the violations in the course of their review of proxy and Schedule 13E-3 transaction statements, which described the steps taken in the required disclosures regarding the background of the transactions. The orders note that emails and other contemporaneous communications clearly indicate the steps taken that had not been properly disclosed. The orders issued by the SEC (to which the offending parties consented) resulted in cease-and-desist orders and payment of civil penalties.
Archive for the ‘Accounting & Disclosure’ Category
Today [March 19, 2015], I will share a few observations on three specific areas: the current state of shareholder activism; the shareholder proposal process; and fee-shifting bylaws. I know your next two panels take up aspects of these important topics, but I think the space is lively and big enough for all of us to comment.
The Current Activism Landscape
There are different views on what is meant by “shareholder activism,” but just the word “activism” triggers an adverse reaction from many companies. Reflexively painting all activism negatively is, in my view, using too broad a brush and indeed is counterproductive. To me, the term activism captures the range of efforts by investors to influence a company’s management or decision-making. Some of it is constructive. In certain situations, activism seeks to bring about important changes at companies that can increase shareholder value. Now, some of you may find the juxtaposition of the word “activism” with “shareholder value” does not comport with your sense of reality. Some of you also believe that activists are not interested in increasing long-term value for shareholders and other stakeholders. Still others will assert that activists are simply short-term traders looking to make a quick dollar. I did say this was a lively topic with many different views.
As we noted last year in our memorandum focused on 2013 developments, Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Jo White has called for the SEC to be more aggressive in its enforcement program. By all accounts, the Enforcement Division has responded to that call. The past year saw the SEC continue the trend, started under Enforcement Director Robert Khuzami in 2009, of transforming the SEC’s civil enforcement arm into an aggressive law enforcement agency modeled on a federal prosecutor’s office. This should not come as a surprise since both Andrew Ceresney, the current Director, and George Cannellos, Ceresney’s Co-Director for a brief period of time, like Khuzami, spent many years as federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York. And the Commission itself is now led for the first time by a former federal prosecutor, Mary Jo White, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 1993 to 2002. Given the events of the past decade involving the Madoff fraud and the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, we believe both the aggressive tone and positions the SEC has taken in recent years will continue.
US federal laws and regulations, as well as the rules of self-regulatory organizations, impose numerous yearly reporting and compliance obligations on private equity firms. While these obligations include many routine and ongoing obligations, new and emerging regulatory developments also impact private equity firms’ compliance operations. This post provides a round-up of certain annual or periodic investment advisory compliance-related requirements that apply to many private equity firms. In addition, this post highlights material regulatory developments in 2014 as well as a number of expectations regarding areas of regulatory focus for 2015.
The EU prospectus regime, based on Directive 2003/71/EC (the “Prospective Directive”) as amended, has been in place now for nearly 10 years and was due to be reviewed by the European Commission by 1 January 2016. However, the European Commission has moved forward its review, and on 18 February 2015 released a consultation  on possible reform of the current regime, in conjunction with its Green Paper on a possible EU Capital Markets Union, released on the same date.
The main focus of the proposed EU Capital Markets Union is on improving the access to capital markets for smaller business entities (“SMEs”), in order to broaden the range of funding without the need for bank intermediation. The European Commission considers that the review of the EU prospectus regime is a vital part of developing a Capital Markets Union and, as such, has accelerated the timing of the review by launching its consultation now.
Before I begin my remarks, I would like to acknowledge the remarkable and dedicated career of Harvey Goldschmid. Just a few weeks ago, Harvey visited me to discuss his perspectives on a number of timely securities law issues. His superb intellect was reinforced by his engaging personality and skill as a teacher.
Harvey’s intense passion for the securities laws and investor protection was an inspiration to many of us. In authoring a tribute to Harvey Goldschmid in 2006, SEC historian Joel Seligman labeled him one of the most influential Commissioners.  I couldn’t agree more.
This conference provides us with an opportunity to look backward and to look forward. As I look back over the SEC’s history, I am always impressed by the rate and degree of change.
Picture Wall Street 80 years ago—the street was filled with dozens of young men—“runners”—carrying paper back and forth between various brokers and dealers and banks and exchanges and companies that made up the securities markets. Runners were the backbone of the securities market, delivering paperwork and stock certificates at a rate of $8 per day. Maybe the telephone would ring (the desk telephone was launched in 1932) or a telegram would arrive. And investors, would look to the newspaper to decide what stocks to buy or sell.
In our paper, The Impact of Whistleblowers on Financial Misrepresentation Enforcement Actions, which was recently made available on SSRN, we investigate the effect of employee whistleblowers on the consequences of financial misrepresentation enforcement actions by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and Department of Justice (DOJ). Whistleblowers are ostensibly a valuable resource to regulators investigating securities violations, but whether whistleblowers have any measurable impact on the outcomes of enforcement actions is unclear. Using the universe of SEC and DOJ enforcement actions for financial misrepresentation between 1978 and 2012 (Karpoff et al., 2008, 2014), we investigate whether whistleblower involvement is associated with more severe enforcement outcomes. Specifically, we examine the effects of whistleblower involvement on: (1) monetary penalties against targeted firms; (2) monetary penalties against culpable employees; and (3) the length of incarceration (prison sentences) imposed against employee respondents. In addition, we investigate the effect of whistleblowers on the duration of the violation, regulatory proceedings, and total enforcement periods. We examine the effects of whistleblowers conditional on the existence of a regulatory enforcement action. This distinction is important because our tests exploit variation in consequences to SEC or DOJ enforcement with and without whistleblower involvement; we do not measure the effects of whistleblower allegations for which there are no regulatory enforcement actions.
In our paper, Not Clawing the Hand that Feeds You: The Case of Co-opted Boards and Clawbacks, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, we examine the impact of beholdenness of the directors to the CEO on the adoption and enforcement of clawbacks.
Clawbacks have been increasingly prevalent in recent years, and the aim of such provisions is to provide a punishment mechanism that links an executive’s compensation more closely to his or her financial reporting behavior. Clawbacks typically allow firms to recoup compensation from executives upon the occurrence of accounting restatements. Perhaps not surprisingly, the implementation and enforcement of clawbacks by companies is likely to create tensions between boards and executives because executives are unlikely to want to have a “Sword of Damocles” hanging over the compensation that is already in their pocket and are likely to resist attempts by boards to claw at this compensation when accounting restatements trigger a clawback. Hence, to better understand the use of clawbacks by firms, it is important to understand the type of boards that are more likely to implement clawbacks.
On February 11, 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) released two final rules toward establishing a reporting and public disclosure framework for security-based swap (SBS) transaction data. The SEC’s Commissioners had voted in January to approve the rules, 3 to 2.  These rules are the SEC’s first substantive SBS requirements since the SEC began laying out its cross-border position through final rules in June 2014.  Chair White has consistently stressed the need to complete substantive SBS requirements and now appears willing to do so even when the SEC Commissioners are divided.
The SEC rules diverge from existing Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) requirements in some key ways. These divergences will create technical complexity for dealers who have built systems and processes to meet already live CFTC regulations. For example, the SEC’s broader, more exhaustive, and possibly repetitive scope of “Unique Identifier Codes” (UIC) will be problematic for market participants. A less obvious problem will be the SEC’s requirement to report SBS data within 24 hours (until modified by the SEC as the rule suggests), as dealers will likely want to delay public dissemination for as long as possible which will run counter to their existing set-ups for the CFTC requirement to report to a swap data repository (SDR) “as soon as technologically practicable.”
It is difficult to overstate the importance of the municipal securities market. There is perhaps no other market that so profoundly influences the quality of our daily lives. Municipal securities provide financing to build and maintain schools, hospitals, and utilities, as well as the roads and other basic infrastructure that enable our economy to flourish. Municipal bonds’ tax-free status also makes them an important investment vehicle for individual investors, particularly retirees. Ensuring the existence of a vibrant and efficient municipal bond market is essential, particularly at a time when state and local government budgets remain stretched.
Unfortunately, despite its size and importance, the municipal securities market has been subjected to a far lesser degree of regulation and transparency than other segments of the U.S. capital markets. In fact, investors in municipal securities are afforded “second-class treatment” under current law in many ways. This has allowed market participants to cling to outdated notions about how the municipal securities market should operate. The result is a market that, in the view of many, is excessively opaque, illiquid, and decentralized.