The SEC Wants to Know What’s Next for Blockchain: Are You Keeping Up?

On October 12, 2017, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission’s Investor Advisory Committee met to discuss Blockchain technology and its impact on the securities industry. While Blockchain is best known as the decentralized accounting system that make transactions in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies possible, the panel of industry professionals and academics emphasized its potential to transform “mainstream” financial recordkeeping in a way that makes executing and recording all financial transactions more secure and efficient.

SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, who oversaw the proceedings, explained that the Commission seeks to explore the ways in which Blockchain can promote robust and competitive markets, while ensuring that investors are protected and federal securities laws are applied to transactions in cryptocurrencies made possible by the technology.

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Supreme Court Likely to Decide Whether to Hear SEC ALJ Issue This Term

As the U.S. Supreme Court commenced a new term last week, one issue of substantial interest to many readers of this blog is whether the Court will address the constitutionality of the Securities & Exchange Commission’s use of administrative law judges (“ALJs”) to adjudicate enforcement proceedings. The issue, which we have covered extensively in past posts, essentially comes down to whether SEC ALJs are Officers subject to the Constitution’s Appointments Clause, or whether they are merely employees, who do not require appointment by the President or a Presidential appointee. The SEC currently selects ALJs through an internal administrative process, pursuant to 5 USC 3105.

Advocates on both sides of a clear circuit split have already filed petitions for writ of certiorari. Most recently, on September 29, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice Solicitor General’s office filed a certiorari petition on behalf of the SEC asking the Court to review the Tenth Circuit’s December 2016 holding in Bandimere v. SEC. That holding, which was denied en banc review by the Tenth Circuit in May, found that SEC ALJs were “inferior Officers” and thus are subject to the Appointments Clause. After the Tenth’s Circuit ruling in Bandimere, the SEC stayed all administrative ALJ proceedings that could be appealed to the Tenth Circuit pending resolution of the issue by the Supreme Court or further order of the Commission.

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SEC Chairman Testifies About SEC’s Direction and 2016 Cyberattack

On September 26, 2017, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton testified before the Senate’s Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee regarding the direction of the SEC under his Chairmanship. He also took the opportunity to address the 2016 cyberattack on EDGAR, the agency’s electronic filing system.

As in his first public speech as SEC Chair, in July 2017, Chairman Clayton’s testimony reveals his focus on issues related to cybersecurity, capital formation, and enforcement actions addressing traditional forms of fraud and misconduct. His testimony further reveals his position that regulations should be retroactively evaluated and relaxed as necessary, in order to account for the direct and indirect costs of compliance.

Below are key highlights of Chairman Clayton’s testimony:

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The SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations Warns Investment Advisers: “Don’t Mislead or We Will Proceed!”

On September 14, 2017, the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) issued a Risk Alert in which it highlighted a number of compliance issues it had identified relating to the so-called Advertising Rule (Rule 206(4)-1 of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (“Advisers Act”)).

The Advertising Rule imposes four specific provisions that prohibit investment advisers from making certain references, representations, and statements in advertisements that are deemed to be fraudulent, deceptive, or manipulative (Advisers Act Rule 206(4)-1(a)(1)-(a)(4)). It further prohibits advertisements that contain untrue statements of material fact, or are otherwise false or misleading (Advisers Act Rule 206(4)-1(a)(5)).

Specifically, the Advertising Rule prohibits advertising that refers to any testimonial regarding an adviser’s advice, analysis, report, or service; advertising that refers to past recommendations that were or would have been profitable to any person, with limited exceptions; advertising, representing, through graphs, charts, formulas, or other devices, that a decision to buy or sell a security can be made on the sole basis of that representation; and advertising containing any statements that any report, analysis, or service will be provided free of charge, unless it will be furnished free and without any obligation. The Advertising Rule also expressly prohibits an adviser, directly or indirectly, from publishing, circulating, or distributing any advertisement that contains any untrue statement of a material fact, or which is otherwise false or misleading. READ MORE

Cryptocurrencies: Are They Securities?

Cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin, have been in the news a lot lately, but many people still don’t know what they are—or whether they’re regulated.  Here’s a quick rundown.

What Are Cryptocurrencies?

Cryptocurrencies are decentralized digital cash systems.  Eschewing centralized control, such as a bank or government, cryptocurrencies instead rely on pseudonymous peer-to-peer networks—think Napster of yore—in which all actors in the network must recognize and reflect a transaction.  To illustrate how this works, if Person A has an apple and trades it to Person B for her orange, Person A cannot thereafter trade that apple to Person C because everyone knows from a public ledger that Person A has already traded his one apple.

The security of the public ledger is then of paramount importance—so how do cryptocurrencies ensure ledger security?  They rely on people called miners.  Miners are basically the bookkeepers of the public ledger, and anyone with the time, energy, and equipment can be a miner.  When a transaction occurs, it is not immediately added to the public ledger; instead, a miner must first confirm it.  To do so, miners generate a complicated code that: (1) memorializes the data relating to the transaction; (2) refers to the previous confirmed transaction in the system (a sequential timestamp of sorts); and (3) complies with the particular cryptocurrency’s specific requirements.  This is a challenging and necessary task that protects the public ledger—a transaction won’t be confirmed if a code can’t be generated that aligns with previous ledger entries.  Using the earlier example, once Person A’s apple-orange trade has been confirmed, he can’t trade the apple again because any code generated after that reflects that he has already traded his apple.  Without an acceptable code, no new transaction can be confirmed.

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Supreme Court to Decide Whether Covered Class Actions May Be Litigated in State Court

As the beginning of the next US Supreme Court term nears, one case in particular has caught our attention, as the question presented asks whether state courts have jurisdiction over certain securities class actions. The case before the Supreme Court that will hopefully decide the matter is Cyan v. Beaver County Employees Retirement Fund. The ultimate question is—will the Supreme Court issue an opinion that stays the trend of plaintiffs pursuing 1933 Act cases in state court over federal court? READ MORE

“It’s Complicated:” The Evolving Case Law on How Relationships Impact Insider Trading Liability

Last Wednesday, former SAC Capital Advisors manager Mathew Martoma lost a bid to overturn his 2014 insider trading conviction in the Second Circuit.  United States v. Martoma, No. 14-3599, 2017 WL 3611518 (2d Cir. Aug. 23, 2017).  Martoma, the latest in a string of important insider trading decisions, is significant because the Second Circuit departed from the “relationship test” that had been central to Second Circuit insider trading cases in recent years.  See United States v. Newman, 773 F.3d 438 (2d Cir. 2014).  The departure was based on a 2016 Supreme Court decision, Salman v. U.S., in which the Court rejected the “relationship test” as set forth in Newman, and reaffirmed the standard set in Dirks v. SEC, 463 U.S. 646, 103 S. Ct. 3255, 77 L. Ed. 2d 911 (1983), holding that where a close relationship exists between the tipper and tippee, the government is not required to show that the insider received a benefit of a “pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.”  Martoma had appealed his conviction before Salman was issued, and relied heavily on the Second Circuit’s relationship test outlined in Newman.

In Newman, the Second Circuit overturned the insider trading convictions of two portfolio managers who were “remote tippees,” individuals who traded on inside information but with one or more layers of individuals between them and the insider who originally provided the information.  The insiders in Newman were friends with the tippees but did not gain any personal benefit in exchange for the information provided.  The government argued in that case that it only needed to show that the tippees traded on “material, nonpublic information they knew insiders had disclosed in breach of a duty of confidentiality.”  However, the Second Circuit rejected that argument, explaining that the government was required to show that the insider shared confidential information in exchange for a personal benefit, and that the remote tippees were aware of that fact.  The Second Circuit also held that where there is no quid pro quo exchange for confidential information given by a tipper to a tippee, such information only amounts to a “personal benefit” when the tipper has a “meaningfully close personal relationship” with the tippee.  To meet the test, that relationship must “generat[e] an exchange that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.”  (Emphasis added.)  Essentially, if there was no potential for financial gain resulting from the gift of information, no personal benefit existed under Newman.  In the immediate aftermath of Newman, many insider trading prosecutions within the Second Circuit became untenable and were dropped.

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SEC Updates Revenue Recognition Guidance for Bill-and-Hold Arrangements

Last Friday, the SEC issued two releases regarding guidance on revenue recognition, along with a related Staff Accounting Bulletin. These releases are notable for all SEC registrants, as they update prior revenue recognition guidance.

First, the SEC updated its guidance for criteria to be met in order to recognize revenue when delivery has not occurred, i.e., bill-and-hold arrangements. The SEC’s guidance now follows that of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (“FASB”) Accounting Standards Codification (“ASC”) Topic 606, Revenues from Contracts with Customers. Per ASC Topic 606, revenue may be recognized when or as the entity satisfies a performance obligation by transferring a promised good or service to a customer, and a good or service is transferred when the customer obtains control of that good or service. In the context of bill-and-hold arrangements, ASC Topic 606 provides specific guidance that certain indicators must be met to show that control has been transferred, including: (i) a substantive reason for such an arrangement where the customer has declined to exercise its right to take physical possession of that product; (ii) the product must be identified separately as belonging to the customer; (iii) the product currently must be ready for physical transfer to the customer; and (iv) the entity cannot have the ability to use the product or direct it to another customer. Until a registrant adopts ASC Topic 606, however, it should continue to follow the older guidance for revenue recognition. In conjunction with the SEC’s release, the SEC’s Office of the Chief Accountant and Division of Corporate Finance also released a bulletin that brings existing SEC staff guidance into conformity with ASC Topic 606.

The SEC also published new guidance with respect to accounting for sales of vaccines and bioterror countermeasures to the Federal Government for placement into the pediatric vaccine stockpile or the strategic national stockpile. In light of the updated ASC Topic 606 referenced above, the SEC states that vaccine manufacturers should now recognize revenue and provide disclosures when vaccines are placed into Federal Government stockpile programs because control of the enumerated vaccines (i.e., childhood disease, influenza and others) will have been transferred to the customer.

Second Circuit Ruling Creates Challenge for Securities Class Action Plaintiffs

The Second Circuit recently considered the extraterritorial application of the U.S. securities laws in the private securities class action context, bringing some clarity to an area of the law that is increasingly important given the globalization of financial markets.

In re Petrobras Securities, 862 F.3d 250 (2nd Cir. 2017), was an appeal of a class certification order in a securities class action related to an alleged multi-year money-laundering and kickback scheme involving Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. (“Petrobras”), the Brazilian state-owned oil and gas company. The district court had certified two classes of investors who purchased Petrobras American Depository Shares (ADS) and debt securities, and who brought misrepresentation claims under the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 against Petrobras, its subsidiaries, and its underwriters. Morrison v. National Australia Bank Ltd., 561 U.S. 247 (2010), held that the anti-fraud provisions of the securities laws have no extraterritorial effect, and as a consequence apply only to transactions in securities that occur on a U.S.-based exchange or that are otherwise “domestic.” Petrobras ADS shares satisfied the first requirement, but the company’s debt securities are traded over-the-counter, not on a U.S. exchange. Prior decisions had limited “domestic” transactions to ones where (1) the purchaser “incurred irrevocable liability within the United States to take and pay for a security . . . or to deliver a security” or (2) “legal title to the security . . . transferred in the United States” (see, e.g., Absolute Activist Value Master Fund Ltd. v. Ficeto, 677 F.3d 60, 68 (2d Cir. 2012)), but how this test implicated the standards for class certification was not clear. READ MORE

The “Pharma Bro” Trial—Who Really Won?

After a five-week trial, a jury of five men and seven women convicted notorious pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli of securities fraud on August 4, 2017. Shkreli had been charged with two counts of securities fraud, three counts of conspiracy to commit securities fraud, and three counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud for operating a sophisticated Ponzi scheme in which he looted the assets of his pharmaceutical company to pay off defrauded investors in his hedge funds. The jury convicted Shkreli of two counts of securities fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud but acquitted him of five other counts, including the wire fraud charges.

Shkreli gained notoriety in 2015, when he was head of Turing Pharmaceuticals, for increasing the price of a life-saving drug from $13.50 to $750 per pill. However, Shkreli’s conviction stems from his time before Turing, when he managed two hedge funds, MSMB Capital Management and MSMB Healthcare Management. The government alleged that between 2009 and 2012, Shkreli induced investments of around $3 million from eight investors in MSMB Capital and $5 million from thirteen investors in MSMB Healthcare by misrepresenting key facts, including the funds’ performance and assets under management, and omitting key facts, such as significant trading losses at another fund Shkreli had previously managed. Shkreli allegedly also withdrew money from the funds for personal use and produced false performance reports touting profits as high as forty percent. MSMB Capital ceased trading after a series of trading losses in early 2011, and MSMB ceased operating in late 2012. In September 2012, Shkreli notified both funds’ investors that he was winding down the funds, that he had doubled their investments net of fees, and that investors could have their interests redeemed for cash, even though the funds had no money. At trial, Shkreli’s attorney argued that the hedge funds’ investors had not only received all of their money back but made significant profits. READ MORE