The SEC’s recent decision to take disclosure of political activities off the SEC’s agenda is a policy mistake, as it ignores the best research on the point, described below, and perpetuates a key loophole in the investor-relevant disclosure rules, allowing large companies to omit material information about the politically inflected risks they run with other people’s money. It is also a political mistake, as it repudiates the 600,000+ investors who have written to the SEC personally to ask it to adopt a rule requiring such disclosure, and will let entrenched business interests focus their lobbying solely on watering down regulation mandated under the Dodd-Frank Act and the 2012 securities law statute, rather than having also to work to influence a disclosure regime.
Posts Tagged ‘SEC’
The recent financial crisis and subsequent events  show the dangers that can result when banks trade for their own accounts while disregarding their customers’ interests. During the financial crisis, U.S. taxpayers were forced to cover losses sustained by major financial institutions that resulted from speculative proprietary trading activities.  While several factors combined to cause the financial crisis, proprietary trading by major financial institutions was a key contributor to that crisis.  In particular, proprietary trading by deposit-taking institutions exposed a bank’s capital—and FDIC-insured deposits—to unacceptable risks and saddled taxpayers with massive losses. 
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.
Last week the Securities and Exchange Commission released its regulatory agenda, and this agenda no longer includes rules requiring public companies to disclose their spending on politics. The agenda now includes only overdue rules that the SEC is required to develop under Dodd-Frank and the JOBS Act. While we are disappointed by the SEC’s decision to delay its consideration of rules requiring disclosure of corporate political spending, we hope that the SEC will consider such rules as soon as it is able to devote resources to rulemaking other than that required by Dodd-Frank and the JOBS Act. The submissions to the SEC over the past two years have clearly demonstrated the compelling case and large support for requiring such disclosure.
We co-chaired a committee of ten corporate and securities law professors that filed a rulemaking petition urging the SEC to develop rules requiring public companies to disclose their spending on politics. In the two years since the petition was submitted, the SEC has received more than 600,000 comment letters on our petition—more than on any other rulemaking project in the Commission’s history. The overwhelming majority of these comments—including letters from institutional investors and Members of Congress—have been supportive of the petition. At the end of 2012, the Director of the SEC’s Division of Corporate Finance acknowledged the widespread support for the petition, and the Commission placed the rulemaking petition on its regulatory agenda for 2013.
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.
On Nov. 12, 2013, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Lawson v. FMR LLC, a case in which the Court is expected to clarify whether the whistleblower protections of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (“SOX”) cover employees of private companies that contract with public companies. Section 806 of SOX prohibits a publicly-traded company—or any officer, employee, contractor, subcontractor, or agent of a publicly-traded company—from retaliating against an “employee” who reports suspected violations of Securities and Exchange Commission rules or federal fraud laws. The word “employee” in the statute is not defined. The issue before the Court is whether the whistleblower protections are limited to employees of public companies or extend as well to employees of privately held contractors and subcontractors of public companies.
The Lawson Case
The defendants are privately-held companies that, by contract, provide advisory and management services to the Fidelity family of mutual funds. The Fidelity Funds are publicly-held entities organized under the Investment Company Act of 1940. The Fidelity Funds have no employees of their own but rather are overseen by a board of trustees that rely on private companies such as the defendants to provide advisory and management services. Plaintiffs are two putative whistleblowers who were employees of the defendant advisors and managers. After plaintiffs raised concerns about the management of Fidelity Funds, one plaintiff was terminated and the other plaintiff resigned claiming a constructive discharge of their employment.
The SEC settled claims against a registered investment adviser (the “Adviser”), its affiliated broker-dealer (the “Broker-Dealer”), and the founder, owner, and president of each (the “CEO”) that related to (1) investments in Class A shares of underlying funds made by funds managed by the Adviser (the “Funds”) and (2) commissions paid by the Funds to the Broker-Dealer for trades in exchange-traded funds (“ETFs”). Without admitting or denying its findings, the Respondents agreed to the settlement order (the “Order”), available here, which this post summarizes.
On August 28, 2013, a consortium of U.S. banking, housing and securities regulators (the “Agencies”)  re-proposed the joint regulations (the “Re-Proposed Rules”), to implement Section 15G of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. Section 15G requires the Agencies to prescribe joint regulations to require “any securitizer to retain an economic interest in a portion of the credit risk for any asset that the securitizer, through the issuance of an asset-backed security, transfers, sells or conveys to a third party.”  This has popularly been referred to as a “skin in the game” requirement intended to align the interests of those originating or aggregating loans with the interests of investors in securitizations of those loans. The Re-Proposed Rules are the Agencies’ second attempt at rulemaking under Section 15G, the first coming with proposed joint regulations released on April 14, 2011 (the “Initial Proposed Rules”). 
Both the Initial Proposed Rules and the Re-Proposed Rules would generally require a “securitizer” to retain at least 5 percent of the credit risk associated with the assets backing a securitization transaction, subject to various exemptions and offsets. The Initial Proposed Rules prescribed some basic forms of risk-retention that could be used in any type of securitization, as well as some forms of risk-retention that would apply only to specific types of securitizations (such as those involving revolving asset master trusts, which are common to credit-card and automobile floorplan securitization, CMBS transactions, certain federal agency securities issuances, and ABCP conduits).  The Re-Proposed Rules appear to be dramatically simpler than the Initial Proposed Rules and address many of the more significant issues presented by the Initial Proposed Rules. Nevertheless, the Re-Proposed Rules present a number of issues of their own.
In our paper, Do Fraudulent Firms Engage in Disclosure Herding?, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, we present two new hypotheses regarding the strategic qualitative disclosure choices of firms involved in potentially fraudulent activity. First, these firms have incentives to herd with industry peers in order to escape detection. Second, these firms have incentives to locally anti-herd with the same peers on specific aspects of disclosure consistent with achieving fraud-driven objectives. We use text-based analysis of firm disclosures and compare disclosures across firms involved in SEC enforcement actions to benchmarks based on industry, size and age, and also to each firm’s own disclosure before and after SEC alleged violations.
We hypothesize that firms involved in potentially fraudulent activity face tensions when providing qualitative disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the agency tasked with enforcing anti-fraud laws. Our focus is on the Management’s Discussion and Analysis section of the 10-K, which is where managers have a high level of discretion to describe the key issues facing their firms and to describe their performance in detail. A primary motive is to escape detection, and managers who assume that the SEC is less likely to scrutinize disclosures that resemble industry peers, or that such disclosure is less likely to raise red flags, have incentives to herd with industry peers. On the other hand, the same objectives that lead managers to commit fraud may also provide incentives to anti-herd in their disclosure from industry peers. However, these latter incentives are likely more localized, and anti-herding would be predicted only on disclosure dimensions that might help managers to achieve these objectives.
In wake of ethics opinion, lawyers in New York—if not elsewhere—must think hard before considering whether to participate in the Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Award Program.
A recent SEC whistleblower award of $14 million may offer a persuasive incentive for lawyers to blow the whistle on a client’s perceived wrongdoing. However, a subsequent ethics opinion from the Committee on Professional Ethics of the New York County Lawyers’ Association will give lawyers pause. As the SEC whistleblower award program gains momentum, New York lawyers may be well-advised to wait for the courts to determine whether the SEC’s rules can pre-empt state rules of professional conduct.