The Commissioners and senior officials of the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC” or “Commission”) addressed the public on February 23-24 at the annual “SEC Speaks” conference in Washington, D.C. Throughout the conference, many speakers referred to the new energy that SEC Chairman Jay Clayton had brought to the Commission since his confirmation in May 2017. The speakers also seemed relieved that the SEC was finally operating with a full set of commissioners since the recent additions of Robert J. Jackson, Jr. and Hester M. Peirce. Clayton’s address introduced the main refrain of the conference: that the SEC under his leadership is focused on the long-term interests of Main Street investors. Other oft-repeated themes included the challenges presented by cybersecurity and the fast-paced developments in cryptocurrency and blockchain. To address these shifts in focus, the Enforcement division plans to add more resources to the retail, cybersecurity and cryptocurrency spaces.
Following are the key litigation and enforcement takeaways.
Main Street Investors
Commissioner Kara Stein picked up on Clayton’s Main Street investors focus when she asked whether increasingly complex and esoteric investments, such as product strategies and structures that utilize derivatives, were appropriate for retail investors. She explained that it was not a question whether the financial industry could develop and sell these products, but whether it should. She said it was not clear that financial professionals fully understood the products they were selling, and that even if brokers and advisers made disclosures regarding the potential outcomes and risks to investors, complete disclosures might not even be possible due to the products’ complexity. Both SEC and FINRA Enforcement have brought actions related to the sales practices of inverse and leveraged ETFs, as well as the purchase and sale of complex products. Stein opined that gatekeepers needed to remember the real people behind every account number when they were advising clients on how to handle these types of products.
Steven Peikin, Co-Director of the Division of Enforcement, described the SEC’s Share Class Selection Disclosure Initiative as one way in which Enforcement was trying to help Main Street investors. The Initiative was created to address the problem of investment advisers putting their clients into higher fee share classes when no fee or lower fee classes were available. The SEC is incentivizing advisers to self-report this issue by promising not to impose any penalties, and only requiring them to disgorge their profits to investors. Peikin encouraged investment advisers to take advantage of this opportunity, indicating that if the Commission learned that an adviser had engaged in this conduct and did not self-report, it would be subject to significant penalties. The Chief of the SEC’s Broker-Dealer Task Force shared that AML programs and SAR-filing obligations are also a priority for the Enforcement division and OCIE exams. READ MORE
On February 7, 2018 the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) announced its 2018 National Exam Priorities. The priorities, formulated with input from the Chairman, Commissioners, SEC Staff and fellow regulators, are mostly unchanged from years past (New Year, Similar Priorities: SEC Announces 2017 OCIE Areas of Focus, Orrick.com). However, the publication itself is presented in a more formal wrapper that begins with a lengthy message from OCIE’s leadership team describing the Office’s role and guiding principles, including that they are risk-based, data-driven and transparent, and that they embrace innovation and new technology.
OCIE’s principal 2018 priority, not surprisingly, appears to be the protection of retail investors, including seniors and those saving for retirement. OCIE specifically stated that it will focus on the disclosure of investment fees and other compensation received by financial professionals; electronic investment advisors – sometimes known as “robo-advisors”; wrap fee programs in which investors are charged a single fee for bundled services; and never-before-examined investment advisors. As to the latter, OCIE indicated that in the most recent fiscal year, it examined approximately 15 percent of all investment advisors, up from 8 percent five years before. It remains to be seen whether that increasing trend will continue.
Noting that the cryptocurrency and initial coin offering (ICO) markets “present a number of risks for retail investors,” OCIE included them as a priority for the first time. Examiners will focus on whether financial professionals maintain adequate controls and safeguards over the assets, as well the disclosure of investment risks.
Other 2018 priorities are compliance and risks in critical market infrastructure; cybersecurity protections, which OCIE states are critical to the operation of our markets; and anti-money laundering programs. In addition, OCIE has prioritized its examinations of FINRA and MSRB to ensure that those entities continue to operate effectively as self-regulatory organizations subject to the SEC’s oversight. READ MORE
On December 13, 2017, in Re Investors Bancorp, Inc. Stockholder Litigation (“Bancorp”), the Supreme Court of Delaware held that when stockholders have approved an equity incentive plan that gives the directors discretion to grant themselves awards within a shareholder approved plan limit, and a stockholder properly alleges that the directors improperly exercised that discretion, then the stockholder ratification defense is unavailable to dismiss the suit, and the directors will be required to prove the entire fairness of the awards to the corporation. The Bancorp case involved a generous shareholder approved plan limit and upholds the adage that bad facts make bad law.
In Bancorp, the company’s stockholders approved an equity plan for employees and directors that gave Bancorp Inc.’s board of directors discretion to allocate up to 30% of all option or restricted stock shares available under the plan as awards to themselves. After stockholders approved the equity plan, the board approved grants to themselves of just under half of the stock options available to the directors and nearly thirty percent of the shares available to the directors as restricted stock awards.
Each director’s grant far surpassed the median pay at similarly sized companies and the median pay at much larger companies. The awards were also over twenty-three times more than the median award granted to other companies’ non-employee directors after mutual-to-stock conversions. The court determined that the plaintiffs alleged facts that the directors breached their fiduciary duties by awarding excessive equity awards to themselves under the equity plan and that a stockholder ratification defense was not available for a motion to dismiss. READ MORE
On October 12, 2017, the United States made permanent its lifting of a longtime general embargo on trade and investment with Sudan. As a result, U.S. individuals and companies are now generally free to engage in transactions involving Sudan, the Government of Sudan or many formerly sanctioned Sudanese persons without a license from the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). While this presents opportunities for new business in Sudan, any U.S. person considering business relating to Sudan should be aware of the legal restrictions that remain in place and the risks associated with such an undertaking.
For almost two decades, Executive Orders (EOs) by Presidents Bill Clinton (EO 13067) and George W. Bush (EO 13412), along with the Sudanese Sanctions Regulations (SSR), have generally prevented U.S. persons from conducting transactions involving the Government of Sudan or certain sanctioned Sudanese persons, importing goods or services of Sudanese origin, exporting any goods or services to Sudan, or performing any contract “in support of an industrial, commercial, public utility, or governmental project in Sudan,” among other things. This trade and investment embargo was prompted by findings that the Government of Sudan was engaged in support for international terrorism, efforts to destabilize its neighboring countries, and myriad human rights violations.
On January 13, 2017, President Obama issued EO 13761, which observed that the dangerous and unstable situation in Sudan that had prompted sanctions by his predecessors “has been altered by Sudan’s positive actions over the past 6 months.” In particular, the order praised Sudan for “a marked reduction in offensive military activity, culminating in a pledge to maintain a cessation of hostilities in conflict areas in Sudan, and steps toward the improvement of humanitarian access throughout Sudan, as well as cooperation with the United States on addressing regional conflicts and the threat of terrorism.” The order, which was one of President Obama’s final acts in office, called for a conditional return of U.S. trade and investment transactions with Sudan with permanent revocation of sanctions after a six-month monitoring period and approval by certain U.S. agencies. Consistent with this order, OFAC issued a temporary general license on January 17, 2017, authorizing transactions that were previously prohibited by the aforementioned sanctions. As it turns out, the January 17 general license marked the end of the main set of sanctions against Sudan. READ MORE
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.
On July 19, 2017, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) published a new rule that has the potential to significantly increase the number of class action lawsuits brought by consumers against their financial services providers. Although consumer advocates applaud the rule, critics argue that the rule will lead to an explosion of frivolous lawsuits. Congress, for its part, is currently taking steps to stop the rule from ever taking effect.
The rule would no longer allow a financial services provider to use mandatory arbitration clauses to stop its consumers from bringing class action lawsuits against that provider. Mandatory arbitration clauses require that disputes between parties to a contract must be resolved by privately appointed arbitrators rather than the courts, with few exceptions. According to the CFPB, financial services providers have used arbitration clauses in consumer contracts to block class action lawsuits, forcing each consumer to pursue individual claims. A CFPB study from March 2015 further claims that mandatory arbitration clauses are harmful to consumers because companies avoid paying full relief to all those harmed and are therefore not sufficiently deterred from engaging in the misconduct moving forward. READ MORE
Startups need funding, and most startups want to raise money with as little legal red tape as possible. But when a startup takes investment money, it is issuing securities, and federal securities laws generally require a company – or “issuer” – to register the offering and sale of any securities with the Securities Exchange Commission (“SEC”). The bad news is that most early-stage companies don’t have the legal resources to comply with the SEC’s registration and reporting requirements. The good news is that Congress and the SEC recognize this and so have created certain exemptions from the registration requirement.
The most commonly used exemptions derive from Sections 4(a)(2) and 3(b)(1) of the Securities Act of 1933. Section 4(a)(2) exempts issuer transactions “not involving any public offering,” while Section 3(b)(1) authorizes the SEC to create additional exemptions. The SEC adopted Regulation D (“Reg D”) in 1982 to clarify and expand the exemptions available under these two sections. The SEC further expanded Reg D in 2013 following passage of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act of 2012 (“JOBS Act”).
Until this year, Reg D included three rules – Rules 504, 505, and 506 – that provided specific exemptions from registration. Rules 504 and 505 exempted certain offerings up to $1 million and $5 million, respectively. Rule 506 spelled out two “safe harbors” – 506(b) and 506(c). If an offering met the conditions of either of Rule 506’s “safe harbors,” it would be deemed a transaction “not involving any public offering” and would be exempt under Section 4(a)(2). READ MORE
This week, the United State Supreme Court finally resolved a circuit split and unanimously held that SEC actions seeking to disgorge ill-gotten gains are subject to a five-year statute of limitations on civil fines, penalties or forfeitures under 28 U.S.C. § 2462. This decision is expected to dramatically reduce the SEC’s ability to collect disgorgement in enforcement actions.
The decision arose out of an SEC enforcement action brought in 2009 that alleged between 1995 and 2006, Charles Kokesh, a New Mexico-based investment adviser, misappropriated $35 million from two investment advisory companies he owned and controlled, thereby squandering the money of tens of thousands of small investors. Kokesh was ultimately found liable at trial and the trial court ordered him to disgorge the entire $35 million he was found to have misappropriated plus interest, and pay a civil monetary penalty. Kokesh subsequently challenged the disgorgement order before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, arguing that the SEC’s claim for disgorgement was subject to the five year statute of limitations period codified in Section 2462, and therefore the $35 million disgorgement amount should be significantly reduced by eliminating any ill-gotten gains received prior to 2004—five years prior to the initiation of the SEC enforcement action. A three judge circuit court panel of the Tenth Circuit unanimously disagreed, and upheld the disgorgement order on the basis that disgorgement is not a “penalty” or “forfeiture” as defined in Section 2462, but rather was “remedial” and “does not inflict punishment” because it leaves the wrongdoer “in the position he would have occupied had there been no misconduct.” On this basis, the Tenth Circuit held that Section 2462’s limitations period was inapplicable to disgorgement. READ MORE
The Financial CHOICE Act (or “CHOICE Act 2.0”), which would significantly narrow the SEC’s ability to bring enforcement actions and make it more challenging for it to prevail in such actions, is inching its way towards becoming law. On May 4, 2017, the Financial Services Committee passed the Act and it is now slated to be introduced to the House in the coming weeks. As part of the push by the current administration to deregulate, this bill aims to repeal key provisions of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, including those directed towards the SEC. Although the Act has a long way to go before it is enacted, many of its provisions would have far-reaching consequences and would change the way the SEC operates as we know it.
Should the CHOICE Act 2.0 become law, the following are some of the more important effects it would have on the SEC’s enforcement abilities:
2016 was a high-water mark for SEC enforcement activity; however, with the uncertainties associated with the new administration’s enforcement regime, we could be seeing a downturn going forward. According to a recent report issued by the NYU Pollack Center for Law & Business and Cornerstone Research, the SEC’s 2016 fiscal year (spanning October 1, 2015 – September 30, 2016) saw the highest number of enforcement actions brought against public companies and their subsidiaries since 2009, the year the Pollack Center and Cornerstone Research first began tracking information on such actions. The 92 actions brought against public companies and their subsidiaries last year is more than double the level of enforcement activity from just three years ago and represents the latest in a continuing upward trend of enforcement actions. Also consistent with recent trends, the vast majority of these actions have been brought as administrative enforcement proceedings before SEC ALJs, rather than civil actions in federal court.
The SEC continues to focus most heavily on issuers’ reporting and disclosure obligations, which comprised more than a quarter of the enforcement actions initiated last year. The SEC has consistently emphasized issuer disclosures as an area of enforcement priority and its pattern of activity has, to date, backed that up. Last year also brought enhanced focus on investment advisors and investment companies, with the SEC initiating more actions against those defendants in 2016 than in the previous three years combined. Allegations of foreign corrupt practices and actions against companies making initial or secondary securities offerings also resulted in an increased rate of enforcement activity over prior periods.