Mary Jo White, the Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”), recently delivered two speeches with important implications for the future structure of U.S. equity markets. The first (discussed on the Forum here), delivered on June 5, 2014, discussed various initiatives to improve equity market structure. The second (discussed on the Forum here), delivered on June 20, 2014, addressed the importance of intermediation in the securities markets and the roles that technology and competition play with respect to various types of market intermediaries such as exchanges, dark pools, brokers and dealers. In both speeches, Chair White expressed her belief that the equity markets are not rigged or fundamentally unfair, but nevertheless could—with updated or different regulations—function more efficiently and with even greater fairness than they currently do.
Posts Tagged ‘Debevoise & Plimpton’
The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (the “Dodd-Frank Act”) amended section 4a of the Commodity Exchange Act (the “CEA”) to require the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (the “CFTC”) to establish position limits on an aggregate basis for (1) futures and options contracts on agricultural and exempt commodities traded on or subject to the rules of a designated contract market (“DCM”) and (2) contracts based on the same underlying commodity as such futures and option contracts, including (a) swaps listed for trading by a DCM or swap execution facility (“SEF”), (b) swaps that are not traded on a DCM, SEF or other registered entity but which are determined to perform or affect a “significant price discovery function” (“SPDF swaps”) and (c) foreign board of trade (“FBOT”) contracts that are price-linked to a DCM or SEF contract and made available for trading on the FBOT by direct access from within the United States.
On October 23, 2013, the SEC voted unanimously to propose Regulation Crowdfunding,  the rules related to the offer and sale of securities through crowdfunded private offerings, as set forth in Title III of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (“JOBS”) Act. FINRA then published its proposed rules governing the licensing and regulation of so-called “funding portals,” a new type of limited-purpose regulated intermediary solely for these offerings. Crowdfunding itself is not new. Websites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo help all sorts of businesses, organizations and people raise money through small individual contributions for an identifiable idea or business. Until the JOBS Act, however, crowdfunding could not be used to offer or sell securities to the general public. Issuers and intermediaries relying on Regulation Crowdfunding expect to further democratize investing in start-ups, because any investor, whether or not accredited, may invest in these securities.
To permit crowdfunding, JOBS Act Title III added two provisions to the Securities Act of 1933: (1) Section 4(a)(6), which creates a new exemption to allow issuers to use crowdfunding to offer and sell securities in unregistered offerings and (2) Section 4A, which requires certain disclosures to be made by crowdfunding issuers and sets forth requirements for crowdfunding intermediaries. Proposed Regulation Crowdfunding and the proposed FINRA rules would implement these statutory provisions and create the regulatory framework for crowdfunding. Both agencies have sought comment on all aspects of their proposed rules, which are due in early February.
On August 30, 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit unanimously held that Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Section 10(b)”) does not apply to extraterritorial conduct, “regardless of whether liability is sought criminally or civilly.” Interpreting the scope of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Morrison v. National Australian Bank Ltd.,  the Second Circuit’s significant decision in United States v. Vilar, et al. means that a criminal defendant may be convicted of fraud under Section 10(b) only if the defendant engaged in fraud “in connection with” a security listed on a United States exchange or a security “purchased or sold” in the United States. In reaching its conclusion, the court rejected the government’s attempts to distinguish criminal liability under Section 10(b) from the civil liability at issue in Morrison, holding that “[a] statute either applies extraterritorially or it does not, and once it is determined that a statute does not apply extraterritorially, the only question we must answer in the individual case is whether the relevant conduct occurred in the territory of a foreign sovereign.”
Buyers and sellers in typical leveraged buyouts of subsidiaries and divisions have long recognized that the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (“PBGC”) could perceive its own interests as threatened in the transaction and, consequently, might choose to interfere with the parties’ bargain. This concern has to date been viewed as largely theoretical, as the PBGC typically either does not appear in a transaction at all, or, if it does appear, extracts relatively modest protections from the parties. Two recent developments suggest that the PBGC intends to become more active in buyout transactions:
- In April, the PBGC initiated proceedings to terminate a pension plan in connection with Compagnie de Saint-Gobain’s sale of its US metal and glass containers business to Ardagh Group. Initiation of a plan termination is typically viewed as an attempt to scuttle a transaction.
- In a recent interview, a senior PBGC official announced that the PBGC intends to become more aggressive in scrutinizing future buyout transactions and to allocate more of its resources in this area.
Recent news coverage has suggested that the Staff of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) has taken a position interpreting its tender offer rules that represents a significant new development. In actuality, however, the Staff has for some time taken the position that the satisfaction of a financing condition in a tender offer for an equity security subject to Regulation 14D constitutes a material change to the tender offer requiring that it remain open for at least five business days following this change. Though nothing new, the Staff’s recent reiteration of this position serves as a reminder to bidders who are financing their offers that they may be required to extend the tender offer period and that their financing papers and merger agreement should be drafted to take this into account.
For many employers, underfunded defined benefit pension plans present significant ongoing challenges. These challenges arise not only because of the underfunding itself, but also because of the significant volatility that the underfunding can create on its balance sheet due to changes in interest rates and other key assumptions over time. An employer has always had the ability to seek to improve its longer-term financial profile by “de-risking” its pension plan through the purchase of an annuity from a suitable annuity provider that commits to pay benefits to plan participants without further financial support from the employer. The transfer of pension obligations in this manner, which may include the termination or partial termination of the pension plan, can significantly improve an employer’s financial profile. De-risking transactions have become more prominent in recent months because of two transformative transactions, one involving General Motors and the other involving Verizon. We are pleased to report that the first judicial test of these transactions in court under ERISA, the Federal benefits statute, has resulted in a victory for the parties involved in the transaction. And, while the decision was based only on a request for preliminary injunctive relief, and while future litigation will be based on the manner in which future de-risking transactions are structured (including on the key issue of annuity provider selection and suitability), the decision validates the central thesis of pension de-risking and provides an important and helpful roadmap through some of the potential ERISA challenges to these transactions.
On September 25, 2012, a federal judge in Connecticut resolved an apparent tension between the anti-retaliation provision of the Dodd-Frank Act (“Dodd-Frank” or the “Act”) and the definition of “whistleblower” under that Act in a way that broadly interprets the protections afforded to employees who report issues they “reasonably believe” constitute violations of the securities laws, even where the employee has never raised the issue with the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”). The decision by Judge Stefan R. Underhill in Kramer v. Trans-Lux Corp., No. 3:11-cv-01424, 2012 WL 4444820 (D. Conn. Sept. 25, 2012), appears to be the first in which a judge has allowed a whistleblower anti-retaliation claim under Dodd-Frank to proceed past the motion to dismiss stage. 
Under Judge Underhill’s ruling, whistleblower protection extends to all individuals who report or disclose, either internally or to the SEC, alleged violations that are “required or protected” under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, 18 U.S.C. § 1513(e), or any other law, rule, or regulation subject to the jurisdiction of the SEC. The Kramer ruling could embolden corporate employees to claim whistleblower protection for a broad range of activities.
Judge Paul Crotty of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York recently held that Goldman Sachs & Co. did not have a duty to publicly disclose the receipt of a Wells Notice from the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”). Prior to this decision, no court had ever been asked to consider disclosure obligations with respect to Wells Notices. Going forward, this decision may inform companies’ consideration of whether and when to publicly disclose receipt of a Wells Notice.
The case, Richman v. Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., centered on allegations by class action plaintiffs against Goldman relating to the firm’s role in a synthetic collateralized debt obligation (“CDO”) called ABACUS 2007 AC-1 (“Abacus”). In January 2009, Goldman’s SEC filings disclosed ongoing governmental investigations related to the Abacus transaction. Between July 2009 and January 2010, the SEC issued Wells Notices to Goldman and two Goldman employees involved in the Abacus transaction, notifying them that Enforcement Division staff “intend[ed] to recommend an enforcement action.” The SEC filed a complaint against Goldman and one of its employees in April 2010, which Goldman settled for $550 million in July 2010. Plaintiffs alleged that Goldman’s failure to disclose its receipt of the Wells Notices was an actionable omission under Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5 of the Exchange Act, and that Goldman had an affirmative legal obligation to disclose its receipt of the Wells Notices under applicable regulations.
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals dealt a blow to the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and its long-standing practice of seeking broad federal court injunction orders directing defendants to refrain from any future violations of securities laws, often referred to as “obey-the-law” injunctions. In SEC v. Goble, No. 11-12059, 2012 WL 1918819 (11th Cir. May 29, 2012), the Eleventh Circuit vacated the “obey-the-law” injunctions entered against defendant Richard Goble, the founder of North American Clearing, Inc. (“North American”), because the injunctions did not satisfy Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65(d)(1), which requires that injunctions describe, “in reasonable detail. . . the act or acts [sought to be] restrained or required.” Although the decision appears to widen an existing gap between the Eleventh and Second Circuits on the propriety of “obey-the-law” injunctions in SEC settlements, the full impact of the Goble decision remains unclear. The Eleventh Circuit’s strongly worded opinion and careful analysis could prompt other courts to question the benefit and efficacy of the SEC’s frequent practice of seeking such broad “obey-the-law” injunctions.