On July 30, 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) advanced a novel theory of fraud against the former CEO (Marc Sherman) and CFO (Edward Cummings) of Quality Services Group, Inc. (“QSGI”), a Florida-based computer equipment company that filed for bankruptcy in 2009. The SEC alleged that the CEO misrepresented the extent of his involvement in evaluating internal controls and that the CEO and CFO knew of significant internal controls issues with the company’s inventory practices that they failed to disclose to investors and internal auditors. This case did not involve any restatement of financial statements or allegations of accounting fraud, merely disclosure issues around internal controls and involvement in a review of the same by senior management. The SEC’s approach has the potential to broaden practical exposure to liability for corporate officers who sign financial statements and certifications required under Section 302 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (“SOX”). By advancing a theory of fraud premised on internal controls issues without establishing an actionable accounting misstatement, the SEC is continuing to demonstrate that it will extend the range of conduct for which it has historically pursued fraud claims against corporate officers.
Posts Tagged ‘Disclosure’
It almost goes without saying that the first half of 2014 brought with it the most significant development in securities litigation in decades: the U.S. Supreme Court decided Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc.—Halliburton II. In Halliburton II, the Court declined to revisit its earlier decision in Basic v. Levinson, Inc.; plaintiffs may therefore continue to avail themselves of the legal presumption of reliance, a presumption necessary for many class action plaintiffs to achieve class certification. But the Court also reiterated what it said 20 years ago in Basic: the presumption of reliance is rebuttable. And the Court clarified that defendants may now rebut the presumption at the class certification stage with evidence that the alleged misrepresentation did not affect the security’s price, making “price impact” evidence essential to class certification.
On June 25, 2014, the UK Government published the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill  which, among other things, proposes that all UK companies (other than publicly traded companies reporting under the Disclosure and Transparency Rules (DTR5)) be required to maintain a register of people who have significant control over the company. The Bill is part of the UK Government’s initiative to implement the G8 Action Plan to prevent the misuse of companies and legal arrangements agreed at the Lough Erne G8 Summit in June 2013, which we discussed in our client alert entitled “Through the Looking Glass: The Disclosure of Ultimate Ownership and the G8 Action Plan” (June 20, 2013).  In broad terms, the G8 Action Plan is designed to ensure the integrity of beneficial ownership and basic company information and the timely access to that information by law enforcement and tax authorities.
A firm’s reputation is a valuable asset. Arguably, conventional wisdom suggests that a reputable firm will always act in the best interest of their clients to preserve the firm’s reputation. For example, in his testimony/defense of Goldman Sachs before Congress, the Chairman and CEO Lloyd Blankfein states, “We have been a client-centered firm for 140 years and if our clients believe that we don’t deserve their trust, we cannot survive.” In our forthcoming Review of Financial Studies article entitled Complex Securities and Underwriter Reputation: Do Reputable Underwriters Produce Better Securities?, we examine the extent to which this conventional wisdom holds with complex securities.
Recently issued SEC staff guidance addresses concerns that have been raised about proxy advisory firms by emphasizing that the investment adviser that retains and pays a proxy advisory firm is uniquely positioned to monitor the proxy advisory firm and is required to actively oversee the firm if it wants to benefit from the firm’s services to discharge its fiduciary duty. As a result of the greater oversight exercised by all of their investment adviser clients, the proxy advisory firms will presumably respond by enhancing their policies, processes and procedures, as well as the transparency of these policies, processes and procedures. In turn, the corporate community may indirectly benefit to some degree.
Over the past several years, judicial decisions involving Citizens United, McCutcheon and SpeechNow.org have lifted caps on total political contributions, and also expanded the number of avenues through and amounts which companies can lawfully contribute to political campaigns. Corporate donations can still be made to recipients like political action committees and third-party organizations (such as trade associations). Now, however, companies can also contribute directly to campaigns and to organizations that support candidates and political causes, including Section 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations.
Legal and economic issues involving mandatory public disclosure have centered on the appropriateness of either Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rules or the D.C. Circuit review of SEC rule-making. In this longstanding disclosure universe, the focus has been on the ends of investor protection and market efficiency, and implementation by means of annual reports and other SEC-prescribed documents.
In 2013, these common understandings became obsolete when a new system for public disclosure became effective, the first since the SEC’s creation in 1934. Today, major banks must make disclosures mandated not only by the SEC, but also by a new system developed by the Federal Reserve and other bank regulators in the shadow of the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision and the Dodd-Frank Act. This independent, bank regulator-developed system has ends and means that diverge from the SEC system. The bank regulator system is directed not at the ends of investor protection and market efficiency, but instead at the well-being of the bank entities themselves and the minimization of systemic risk. This new system, which stemmed in significant part from a belief that disclosures on the complex risks flowing from modern financial innovation were manifestly inadequate, already dwarfs the SEC system in sophistication on the quantitative aspects of market risk and the impact of economic stress.
In our paper, Carrot or Stick? The Shift from Voluntary to Mandatory Disclosure of Risk Factors, we investigate public companies’ disclosure of risk factors that are meant to inform investors about risks and uncertainties. We compare risk factor disclosures under the voluntary, incentive-based disclosure regime provided by the safe harbor provision of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, adopted in 1995, and the SEC’s subsequent disclosure mandate, adopted in 2005.
Irregularities in financial statements lead to inefficiencies in capital allocation and can become costly to investors, regulators, and potentially taxpayers if left unchecked. Finding an effective way to detect accounting irregularities has been challenging for academics and regulators. Responding to this challenge, we rely on a peculiar mathematical property known as Benford’s Law to create a summary red-flag measure to capture the likelihood that a company may be manipulating its financial statement numbers.
Many financial markets have recently become subject to new regulations requiring transparency. In our recent NBER working paper, The Effects of Mandatory Transparency in Financial Market Design: Evidence from the Corporate Bond Market, we study how mandatory transparency affects trading in the corporate bond market. In July 2002, the Trade Reporting and Compliance Engine (TRACE) program began requiring the public dissemination of post-trade price and volume information for corporate bonds. Dissemination took place in four phases over a three-and-a-half year period, with actively traded, investment grade bonds becoming transparent before thinly traded, high-yield bonds.