On Tuesday, December 10, five federal regulatory agencies, the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Office of the Comptroller and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, jointly released the long awaited and hotly contested “Final Rules Implementing the Volcker Rule.” The Rules and supplement, together more than 900 pages long, are already generating comment and controversy for their complexity and severity—or lack thereof, depending on who you ask. The Rules become effective on April 1, 2014 with final conformance expected by July 21, 2015.
A Product of Hard Times
Paul Volcker, an economist, former Federal Reserve Chairman and former chairman of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board, initially proposed a (seemingly) simple rule restricting certain risk-taking activity by American banks in a 3-page letter to President Obama in 2009. Speculative activity, for example, proprietary trading, was believed to have contributed to the “too big to fail” position that the nation’s largest banks found themselves in at the height of the Financial Crisis in 2008 and 2009. The Volcker rule thus proposed prohibiting banks from engaging in short-term proprietary trading on their own account. It also proposed limiting the relationships that banks could have with hedge funds and other private equity entities. Not long after its proposal, the rule was made into law in Section 619 of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, to take effect upon the issuance of implementing regulations. READ MORE
In 2006, Bear Stearns agreed to a $250 million “neither admit nor deny” settlement with the SEC to settle charges that it facilitated late trading and deceptive market timing by its hedge fund customers. $160 million of that settlement payment was characterized in the SEC’s Order as disgorgement of profits, even though Bear Stearns contended its own profits from the trades were less than $17 million. J.P. Morgan (the successor to Bear Stearns) sought D&O insurance coverage for the portion of the disgorgement payment that was attributable to the profits of its hedge fund customers, rather than revenue it received. The insurers denied the Bank’s claim on the ground that New York public policy prohibits insurance coverage for disgorgement payments. Disgorgement, the reasoning goes, is the return of ill-gotten gains and therefore payment for intentionally caused harm. The insurers also argued that disgorgement does not qualify as a “loss” or “damage” under terms of the insurance policies. The trial court agreed and dismissed Bear Stearns coverage suit against its D&O insurers.
On June 11 the New York Court of Appeal reinstated Bear Stearns’s coverage action. J.P. Morgan Securities Inc., et al. v. Vigilant Ins. Co., et al., 2013 N.Y. LEXIS 1465 (June 11, 2013). The Court of Appeal held that the Court must look beyond the labels of the SEC Order and even beyond its findings that the Bank’s securities law violations were willful. Those findings, the Court held, were not sufficient to conclusively establish that Bear Stearns intentionally caused harm. In short, the Court of Appeal allows the possibility of coverage for disgorgement if the insured can demonstrate that the payment, although labeled “disgorgement”, is actually payment for something else that might otherwise qualify for insurance coverage.
The June 11 ruling is notable for another reason – it came the week before SEC Chairwoman Mary Jo White announced that the SEC would depart in some cases from its long-established practice of “neither admit nor deny” settlements. It is an open question whether the Court of Appeal would have allowed J.P. Morgan/Bear Stearns’ coverage action to proceed if its settlement with the SEC had not included a neither admit nor deny provision. The Court’s willingness to look beyond the disgorgement label further highlights the importance of avoiding binding admissions wherever possible, so as to leave open every possible coverage avenue.
In 2008, Rajat Gupta made a handful of short phone calls to his friend Raj Rajaratnam. The information that Gupta conveyed to Rajaratnam in those phone calls is now likely to cost Gupta millions of dollars, two years in prison, and the loss of his livelihood. These are the fateful consequences of the government’s use of wiretapping to uncover evidence of insider trading on Wall Street.
In June 2012, after a weeks-long trial and relying heavily on recorded conversations between Gupta and Rajaratnam, a jury convicted Gupta of three counts of federal securities fraud and one count of criminal conspiracy. The jury found that Gupta, a former director of Goldman Sachs, had provided Rajaratnam with material non-public information regarding Goldman’s then-unreported financial results and an imminent investment by Berkshire Hathaway at the height of the financial crisis. Though the court found that Gupta did not receive “one penny” in return for providing the information, he was convicted and ultimately sentenced by Judge Jed Rakoff to two years in prison and assessed a $5 million fine, a heavy penalty for his gratuitous generosity to his friend, Rajaratnam. To prove insider trading, the government is not required to prove that the “tippee” receive any direct financial benefit in recompense for transmitting material nonpublic information in violation of a duty of nondisclosure.
It is important to note that Gupta’s brief phone calls, which later became the key evidence used against Gupta in the criminal trial, were recorded by federal criminal prosecutors without Gupta’s knowledge or consent. (The SEC can seek to obtain wiretap evidence from criminal proceedings through civil discovery.) While the nation debates NSA snooping, this is a reminder that the Department of Justice could be listening to and recording your most sensitive domestic telephone conversations with court authorization. Gupta’s criminal prosecution was only possible because federal law enforcement officials had obtained warrants to record telephone communications of Gupta’s friend, Rajaratnam – telephone conversations that happened to include Gupta – based on evidence of possible insider trading. Gupta’s criminal conviction was then used to underpin his civil liability. The use of federal wire taps, previously the weapon of choice in organized crime prosecution, to generate the evidence needed to pursue both criminal and civil insider trading cases is a watershed moment in securities enforcement. READ MORE