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.
Posts Tagged ‘Securities enforcement’
For nearly 80 years, the Securities and Exchange Commission has been playing a vital role in the economic strength of our nation. Year after year, the agency has steadfastly sought to protect investors, make it possible for companies of all sizes to raise the funds needed to grow, and to ensure that our markets are operating fairly and efficiently.
That is our three-part mission.
But, while commitment to this mission has remained constant and strong over the years, the world in which we operate continuously changes, sometimes dramatically.
When the Commission’s formative statutes were drafted, no one was prepared for today’s market technology or the sheer speed at which trades are now executed. No one dreamed of the complex financial products that are traded today. And, not even science fiction writers would have bet that individuals would so soon communicate instantaneously in so many different ways.
Investors, borrowers, financial institutions, and the economy were not the only casualties of the financial crisis. Regulators were casualties too, and the SEC was one of the hardest hit. Two Harris Polls—one conducted in 2007 before the financial crisis and the other in 2009 after much of the damage had been done—tell the story. Between 2007 and 2009, favorable ratings of the SEC dropped from 71% to 29%, while the percentage of the public rating it fair or poor rose from 25% to 72%. “By a wide margin,” the Harris organization stated, “[this was] the biggest change in an agency’s ratings since these questions were first asked in 2000.” Indeed, the SEC’s 29% positive rating was a full 15 points worse than even the second-lowest rated agency in the survey. Congress attacked the Commission as well, as when Long Island Representative Gary Ackerman burst out in a hearing, “Whose job is it to protect the investors? Because I wanna tell them that they suck at it.” And the press was also merciless, as when reporter Charlie Gasparino urged, “the SEC should be disbanded.”
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.
On November 15, 2013, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC” or “the Commission”) released its Annual Report to Congress on the Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Program (“the Report”). The Report is remarkable for three reasons. First, the Report shows that, despite very significant efforts to publicize the program, the SEC is not seeing a meaningful increase in the number of tips it receives. Indeed, the SEC received essentially the same number of tips in the same categories in 2013 as it did in 2012 (3,283 and 3,001, respectively). Second, consistent with the few awards made under the program, the Report fails to shed any light at all on the SEC’s thought process in making these awards, and provides no insight into how the SEC is applying the highly nuanced factors applicable to award decisions. Finally, the Report does not acknowledge that, for the second year in a row, the largest category of tips were in the “other” category, which suggests that many of these tips are probably meritless, nor does the Report illuminate at all the critical question of how many of the tips the SEC receives actually result in meaningful investigations and cases.
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.
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.
On September 16, 2013, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) charged over 20 firms with violations of Rule 105 of Regulation M of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Rule 105” or “the Rule”), which prohibits the purchase of securities in a secondary offering when the buyer has a short position, as that term is defined in SEC rules, of the same securities established during a specified restricted period.  The same day, the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) issued guidance to firms on issues they had observed regarding compliance with Rule 105 and made suggestions to firms as to how to address the relevant risk. These recent cases, and contemporaneous SEC statements on the subject, suggest that the SEC will continue to focus attention on Rule 105 violations in examinations and enforcement inquires. Companies should therefore take steps to ensure that their policies contain appropriate provisions related to Rule 105 and consider training of relevant staff to avoid such issues.
In the six months since Mary Jo White was sworn in as the Securities and Exchange Commission’s 31st Chairman, the SEC has announced important new policies and initiatives as the agency has begun to utilize new enforcement authority under the Dodd-Frank Act and to redeploy resources. In recent weeks, White and Andrew Ceresney, Co-Director of the Division of Enforcement, have made important public announcements regarding enforcement priorities. Taken together, these policies, initiatives, and announcements signal a shift toward more aggressive enforcement. This advisory discusses these developments.
Approach to Enforcement
From the time of her nomination, White stressed that the SEC would take an aggressive approach to enforcement under her leadership. At her March 12, 2013 confirmation hearing, White pledged that one of her highest priorities as Chairman would be “to further strengthen the enforcement function of the SEC” in a way that is “bold and unrelenting.” White also stated that the SEC would pursue “all wrongdoers – individual and institutional, of whatever position or size” in order to deter wrongdoing and protect the integrity of financial markets. 
Fighting insider trading is clearly at the top of law enforcement’s agenda. In May 2011, Raj Rajaratnam, the former head of the Galleon Group hedge fund, received an eleven-year prison sentence for insider trading, the longest ever imposed. More recently, in July 2013, SAC Capital Advisors, a $15 billion hedge fund, was slapped with a criminal complaint that threatens the fund’s existence, even after having agreed to pay a $616 million civil penalty, the largest-ever settlement of an insider trading action. Yet, despite the high enforcement priority and the high stakes involved, a satisfying theory of insider trading law has yet to emerge. And this is not for want of trying. As Larry Mitchell remarked as early as 1988, “Many forests have been destroyed in the quest to understand and explain the law of insider trading.”
In my forthcoming article, Insider Trading as Private Corruption, to be published next year in the UCLA Law Review, I make the case that insider trading is best understood as a form of private corruption. I begin by arguing that we need a theory of insider trading law that not only makes sense of the law that has developed but also guides the law forward. In my view, such a theory must do two things.