Federal agencies and prosecutors are being criticized for seeking so few indictments against individuals in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and its resulting banking failures. This article analyzes why—contrary to a longstanding historical trend—personal liability may be on the decline, and whether agencies and prosecutors should be doing more. The analysis confronts fundamental policy questions concerning changing corporate and social norms. The public and the media perceive the crisis’s harm as a “wrong” caused by excessive risk-taking. But that view can be too simplistic, ignoring the reality that firms must take greater risks to try to innovate and create value in the increasingly competitive and complex global economy. This article examines how law should control that risk-taking and internalize its costs without impeding broader economic progress, focusing on two key elements of that inquiry: the extent to which corporate risk-taking should be regarded as excessive, and the extent to which personal liability should be used to control that excessive risk-taking.
Posts Tagged ‘Liability standards’
This post deals with certain of the liability provisions of the federal securities laws: §§ 11, 12, 15 and 17 of the Securities Act of 1933 (the “Securities Act”), and §§ 10, 18 and 20 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (the “Exchange Act”). It does not address other potential sources of liability and sanction, such as federal mail and wire fraud statutes, state fraud statutes and common law remedies, RICO and the United States Securities and Exchange Commission’s (“SEC”) disciplinary powers.
On December 22, 1995, the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (the “Reform Act” or “PSLRA”) became law after the Senate overrode President Clinton’s veto. Pub. L. No. 104-67, 109 Stat. 737 (1995). Where relevant, this post discusses changes and additions that the PSLRA made to the liability provisions of the Securities Act and the Exchange Act.
In our recent ECGI working paper, A Strict Liability Regime for Rating Agencies, we study how to induce Credit Rating Agencies (CRAs) to produce ratings as accurate as the available forecasting technology allows.
Referring to CRAs, Paul Krugman wrote that: “It was a system that looked dignified and respectable on the surface. Yet it produced huge conflicts of interest. Issuers of debt […] could choose among several rating agencies. So they could direct their business to whichever agency was most likely to give a favorable verdict, and threaten to pull business from an agency that tried too hard to do its job.”
However, the conflicts of interest stemming from the issuer-pays model and rating shopping by issuers are not sufficient to explain rating inflation. Because ratings are valuable only as far as they are considered informative by investors, in a well-functioning market, reputational sanctions should prevent rating inflation.
The buck, so to speak, does not necessarily stop with the individual who personally violates the U.S. Commodity Exchange Act (“CEA”), which regulates a wide array of commodities and financial derivatives trading, including swaps (in addition to traditional futures contracts and physical commodities trading) in U.S. markets or otherwise engaged in by or with any U.S. person. Rather, as illustrated by a recent court ruling permitting regulatory charges to go forward against the former CEO of MF Global, Jon Corzine, liability can extend to senior managers, even if they are not regulatory supervisors and have not culpably participated in any misconduct.
On March 5, 2014, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit agreed to constitute an en banc panel to reconsider a decision issued by the court in Trek Leather Inc. et al. v. United States.  The entire court will reconsider a July 30, 2013 decision issued by a three-judge panel holding that the government had to prove officers and/or shareholders had aided or abetted fraud, or otherwise took actions that justified piercing the corporate veil, in order to hold them personally liable for US customs law violations committed by a corporate entity.  If the full court overrules the three-judge panel, the benefits of incorporation would be mitigated with respect to an officer or shareholder’s actions that result in US customs law violations.
In prior articles (see, e.g., Regulating Shadows: Financial Regulation and Responsibility Failure, 70 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 1781 (2013)), I have argued that shadow banking is so radically transforming finance that regulatory scholars need to rethink certain of their basic assumptions. In a forthcoming new article, The Governance Structure of Shadow Banking: Rethinking Assumptions About Limited Liability, I argue that the governance structure of shadow banking should be redesigned to make certain investors financially responsible, by reason of their ownership interests, for their firm’s liabilities beyond the capital they have invested. This argument challenges the longstanding assumption of the optimality of limited liability.
“This Order contains no findings that an officer, director or employee of Alcoa knowingly engaged in the bribe scheme.”
There are several notable aspects of aluminum producer Alcoa, Inc.’s (“Alcoa”) recent FCPA settlement. The $384 million in penalties, forfeitures and disgorgement qualify as the fifth largest FCPA case to date. Further, it is remarkable that such a large monetary sanction was imposed when the criminal charges brought by the U.K. Serious Fraud Office against the consultant central to the alleged bribery scheme were dismissed on the grounds that there was no “realistic prospect of conviction.” Perhaps most striking, however, is the theory of parent corporate liability that the settlement reflects. Although there is no allegation that an Alcoa official participated in, or knew of, the improper payments made by its subsidiaries, the government held the parent corporation liable for FCPA anti-bribery violations under purported “agency” principles. Alcoa serves as an important marker in what appears to be a steady progression toward a strict liability FCPA regime.
The tax status of so-called “carried interests,” held by private equity fund sponsors (and benefitting, in particular, the individual managers of those sponsors) is the subject of this post. A decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit holding that a private equity fund was engaged in a trade or business for purposes of the withdrawal liability provisions of ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) has caused considerable comment on the issue of whether a private equity fund might also be held to be in a trade or business (and not just a passive investor) for purposes of capital gains tax treatment on the sale of its portfolio companies. Proposed federal income tax legislation, beginning in 2007 and continuing into 2013, also has raised concern as to the status of capital gains tax treatment for holders of carried interests. The following post addresses both of these developments.
On September 30, 2013, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)—quietly, and with little fanfare—released an informal statement of policy in the form of frequently asked questions (FAQ), in which it addressed its recent case against Ted Urban.  In doing so, the SEC shed light on when and how the agency will seek to hold legal and compliance personnel responsible for failing to supervise employees on the business side.
As many will recall, the Urban case was closely watched by securities legal and compliance professionals, who worried that a decision by the commissioners could be used by enforcement staff to make such professionals easier targets in future enforcement actions. Ultimately, the commissioners dismissed the case. That said, given the circumstances surrounding the case’s dismissal, legal and compliance officers were left with little guidance as to whether the case against Urban could be used against them to establish supervisor liability.
On September 23, 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued a decision clarifying the standard for aiding and abetting liability under the Commodities Exchange Act (“CEA”). The decision, in In re Amaranth Natural Gas Commodities Litigation, No. 12-2075-cv (2d Cir. Sept. 23, 2013), affirmed a judgment of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, which dismissed a putative class action filed by purchasers of natural gas futures contracts against J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., J.P. Morgan Chase Bank, Inc. and J.P. Morgan Futures, Inc. (“JPMorgan”). The purchaser plaintiffs claimed that Amaranth, a hedge fund for which JPMorgan provided clearing broker services, manipulated natural gas futures prices on the NYMEX commodities exchange, and that JPMorgan aided and abetted Amaranth’s manipulation.