Our mid-year report one year ago presented an exciting opportunity to discuss a time of great change at the SEC. A new Chair and a new Director of Enforcement had recently assumed the reins and begun making bold policy pronouncements. One year later, things have stabilized somewhat. The hot-button issues identified early in the new SEC administration—admissions for settling parties, a growing number of trials (and, for the agency, trial losses), and a renewed focus on public company accounting—remain the leading issues a year later, albeit with some interesting developments.
Posts Tagged ‘Insider trading’
In the European Union insider trading has been regulated much more recently than in the United States, and it can be argued that, at least traditionally, it has been more aggressively and successfully enforced in the United States than in the European Union. Several different explanations have been offered for this difference in enforcement attitudes, focusing in particular on resources of regulators devoted to contrasting this practice, but also diverging cultural attitudes toward insiders. This situation has evolved, however, and the prohibition of insider trading has gained traction also in Europe. Few studies have focused on the substantive differences in the regulation of the phenomenon on the two sides of the Atlantic.
Following the publication of Michael Lewis’ new book, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt (“Flash Boys”), plaintiffs’ lawyers and US government regulators have increasingly focused their attention on financial institutions participating in high-frequency trading (“HFT”). Less than three weeks after the release of Flash Boys, private plaintiffs’ lawyers filed a class action lawsuit against 27 financial services firms and 14 national securities exchanges (with additional defendants likely to be named later) alleging that the defendants’ HFT practices in the US equities markets violated the anti-fraud provisions of the federal securities laws. Plaintiffs’ lawyers filed a separate action against The CME Group, Inc. (“CME”) and The Board of Trade of the City of Chicago (“CBOT”) containing similar allegations in US derivatives markets.
I have participated in this event for many years and have always considered this conference to be all about the compliance and legal issues that are most important to the integrity of our securities markets. Now, as Chair of the SEC, I would like to thank you for the work you do day in and day out to protect investors and keep our markets robust and safe.
In about a week, I will have completed my first year at the SEC. It has been quite a year. We have made very good progress in accomplishing the initial goals I set to achieve significant traction on our rulemaking agenda arising from the Dodd Frank and JOBS Acts, intensify our review of the structure of our equity markets, and enhance our already strong enforcement program.
A recent and groundbreaking decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasburg might shatter the entire structure of the Italian and European regulation of market abuse (insider trading and market manipulations). The case is “Grand Stevens and others v. Italy”, and was decided on March 4, 2014.
The facts can be briefly summarized as follows. In 2005, the corporations that controlled the car manufacturer Fiat, renegotiated a financial contract (equity swap) with Merrill Lynch. One of the goals of the agreement was to maintain control over Fiat without being required to launch a mandatory tender offer. Consob, the Italian securities and exchange commission, initiated an administrative action against the corporation and some of its managers and consultants, accusing them of not having properly disclosed the renegotiation of the contract to the market. The procedure resulted in heavy financial fines (for some individuals, up to 5 million euro), and additional measures prohibiting some of the people involved from serving as corporate directors and practicing law. At the same time, a criminal investigation was launched for the same facts. It is not necessary here to discuss the merits of the controversy, it is sufficient to mention that the sanctioned parties challenged the sanctions in Italian courts, but did not prevail.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has broadened the Securities and Exchange Commission’s power to seek civil disgorgement of profits from insider trading violations even where an individual did not personally profit from the illegal trades.
In its panel opinion in SEC v. Contorinis, decided on February 18, the Second Circuit upheld a trial court order requiring that Joseph Contorinis, the former managing director of the Jeffries Paragon Fund, disgorge more than US$7 million in unlawful profits obtained by the fund as a result of Contorinis’s trading on material nonpublic information. This is despite the fact that he did not trade with his own personal assets and his personal compensation from the trades amounted to only US$427,875.
Marked by leadership changes, high-profile trials, and shifting priorities, 2013 was a turning point for the Enforcement Division of the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC” or the “Commission”). While the results of these management and programmatic changes will continue to play out over the next year and beyond, one notable early observation is that we expect an increasingly aggressive enforcement program.
Last year, in our annual survey (discussed on the Forum here) of the white collar and regulatory enforcement landscape, we noted that the trend toward ever more aggressive prosecutions reflected a “gloomy picture” for large companies facing such investigations. Our assessment remains the same, as the pattern of imposing massive fines and extracting huge financial settlements from companies continued unabated in 2013. For example, on November 17, 2013, DOJ announced that it had reached a $13 billion settlement with JPMorgan to resolve claims arising out of the marketing and sale of residential mortgage-backed securities—the largest settlement with a single entity in American history. Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay more than $2.2 billion to resolve criminal and civil investigations into off-label drug marketing and the payment of kickbacks to doctors and pharmacists. Deutsche Bank agreed to pay $1.9 billion to settle claims by the Federal Housing Finance Agency that it made misleading disclosures about mortgage-backed securities sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. SAC Capital entered a guilty plea to insider trading charges and was subjected to a $1.8 billion financial penalty—the largest insider trading penalty in history. And in the fourth largest FCPA case ever, French oil company Total S.A. agreed to pay $398 million in penalties and disgorgement for bribing an Iranian official. Not to be outdone, the SEC announced that it had recovered a record $3.4 billion in monetary sanctions in the 2013 fiscal year.
In my paper, Financial Conglomerates and Chinese Walls, which was recently made available on SSRN, I examine the effectiveness of Chinese walls, or information barriers, in preventing financial conglomerates from misusing non-public information in their trading and other activities. In recent years, empirical evidence has shown that financial conglomerates’ Chinese walls fail in important contexts, allowing firms to trade using non-public information they garner from their clients. Nevertheless, Chinese walls continue to have the legal effect of allowing financial conglomerates to discharge the otherwise incompatible client duties they owe under agency law. These incompatible duties arise due to the inflexible application of agency law and to financial conglomerates’ organizational structure, under which firms act for numerous clients across a broad and diverse range of financial activities, accumulating vast quantities of non-public information in doing so. As agents, firms are duty-bound to disclose material information in their possession to clients, and yet to do so is to breach duties of confidence owed to other clients. Chinese walls help financial conglomerates to reconcile their otherwise incompatible duties.
It is a great honor to have been asked to give the Fifth Annual Judge Thomas A. Flannery Lecture. And it is especially meaningful to be joined tonight by Tom Flannery’s daughter Irene, son Tom, and so many friends, colleagues, and former law clerks who knew and served with him.
I unfortunately did not have the privilege of knowing and working with Judge Flannery. But one of the great benefits of being asked to speak tonight is that it gave me the opportunity to come to know him a little—through learning about his many impressive career accomplishments and through reading his own words and those of others about him. I wish I had known him. He was indeed a remarkable man, lawyer, and judge.
As all here know, Judge Flannery was a highly-respected Assistant United States Attorney, United States Attorney, trial lawyer, and jurist on this court for over 35 years. In fact, he spent most of his life within a few miles of this courtroom.
As part of the Historical Society’s Oral History Project for this Circuit, Judge Flannery gave an interview in 1992. It is a fascinating account of his professional life and the life of this court. Judge Flannery said that his view of the justice system was shaped in great part by watching police court trials here in Washington as a law student.