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
Almost a year into the new administration, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Enforcement released its annual report last week, providing a recap of the SEC’s enforcement results over the past 12 months, as well as some insight into its direction for the coming year. Overall, the report suggests that the SEC will increase its focus on addressing harm to “Main Street” investors and that pursuing individuals will continue to be the rule, not the exception.
During fiscal year 2017, the SEC pursued 754 enforcement actions, 446 of which were “stand-alone” actions (as opposed to “follow-on” actions which seek to bar executives from practicing before the Commission or to deregister public companies). This represents a drop from the prior year in which the SEC pursued 784 enforcement actions, 464 of which were stand-alone actions. The bulk of the Division’s 446 stand-alone actions in FY 2017 focused on issuer advisory issues, issuer reporting, auditing and accounting, securities offerings, and insider trading—all areas that saw a relatively similar number of cases in FY 2016. Actions involving public finance abuse represented the only significant decrease in the number of cases versus the prior year. In FY 2016, the SEC brought nearly 100 public finance abuse actions compared to fewer than 20 in FY 2017. READ MORE
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.
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
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.
Last week, proxy advisory firm Institutional Shareholders Services (“ISS”) published its semi-annual report of the top 100 U.S. securities class action settlements and top 50 SEC settlements of all time, as of December 31, 2016. The report adds thirteen new class action settlements from last year – making 2016 the most represented year in the report’s settlement rankings – along with two new top SEC settlements.
The ISS report ranks, among other things, the top 100 shareholder class action settlements ever reached in the U.S. for actions filed on or after January 1, 1996, when the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act was implemented. ISS’s June 2017 report reflects that there were 137 court-approved securities class action settlements in the US in 2016, remaining steady with 2015. Notably, however, 13 of the 137 class action settlements were among the top 100 shareholder class action settlements, resulting in a total approved settlement fund of over $5.6 billion, the largest in a single year. The largest of these 13 settlements was in Lawrence E. Jaffe Pension Plan v. Household International, Inc., et al., Case No. 02-CV-05893 (N.D. Ill.), which was based on claims of fraudulent misrepresentations concerning allegedly illegal sales techniques, predatory lending practices, and accounting manipulations. In December 2016, the Northern District of Illinois approved a final settlement fund of $1.58 billion, resulting in the seventh largest securities class action settlement in U.S. history. READ MORE
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.
This week, the Supreme Court heard argument regarding whether the SEC’s actions to disgorge ill-gotten gains are subject to a five-year statute of limitations for “any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture.”
The appeal stems from an SEC action alleging that between 1995 and 2006, Charles Kokesh, a New Mexico-based investment adviser, misappropriated a staggering $35 million from two investment advisory companies that he owned and controlled, squandering the money of tens of thousands of small investors. While Kokesh moved into a gated mansion and bought himself a personal polo court (complete with a stable of 50 horses), he allegedly concealed his massive ill-gotten earnings by distributing false proxy statements to investors and filing dozens of false reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
In 2009, the SEC brought a civil enforcement action against Kokesh in the District of New Mexico alleging violations of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, and the Investment Company Act of 1940. The jury found violations of all three acts, and the district court ordered Kokesh to disgorge the $35 million he misappropriated (plus interest) and pay a $2.4 million civil monetary penalty for the “egregious” frauds he committed within the prior five years. While the district court ordered disgorgement of all of Kokesh’s ill-gotten gains since 1995, the civil monetary penalty it imposed was constrained by the five-year statute of limitations found in 28 U.S.C. § 2462, which applies to claims throughout the U.S. Code for “any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture.” READ MORE
Last week, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission filed a petition for rehearing en banc with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, imploring the court to reconsider a divided panel’s ruling on the unconstitutionality of its administrative law judges in Bandimere v. SEC. In that ruling (detailed here), the Tenth Circuit overturned the Commission’s sanctions against Mr. Bandimere because the SEC administrative law judge (“ALJ”) presiding over Mr. Bandimere’s case was an inferior officer who should have been constitutionally appointed (rather than hired) to the position, in violation of the Appointments Clause of the United States Constitution.
Primarily relying on its prior submissions and Judge Monroe G. McKay’s dissent in the panel’s original ruling, the SEC argues that the original decision reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of ALJs and Supreme Court precedent, and risks throwing essential features of the agency into disarray. In particular, the SEC questioned the majority’s opinion that Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868 (1991), was dispositive in equating special trial judges of tax court to the ALJs to find that the ALJs are inferior officers who must be constitutionally appointed. The SEC distinguishes the roles of its ALJs from those of the special tax court trial judges by noting differences in their power and function. First, the special trial judges are vested with authority, including the power to enforce compliance with their orders, that is different in degree and kind from the powers given to ALJs. For example, both the special trial judges and ALJs have the power to issue subpoenas, but unlike the special trial judges, ALJs have no authority to enforce subpoenas. ALJs can only request the Commission to seek enforcement of the subpoenas in district court. In addition, unlike the special trial judges, ALJs cannot use contempt power—a hallmark of a court—to enforce any order it may issue. Second, the function between the special trial judges and ALJs differ because the Tax Court in Freytag was required to defer to the special trial judge’s factual finding unless “clearly erroneous, whereas the SEC decides all questions of fact and law de novo.
Just before the clock struck 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit weighed in on the constitutionality of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission’s (“SEC” or “Commission”) administrative law judges. In Bandimere v. SEC, the Tenth Circuit overturned Commission sanctions against Mr. Bandimere because the SEC administrative law judge (“ALJ”) presiding over Mr. Bandimere’s case was an inferior officer who should have been constitutionally appointed to the position in violation of the Appointments Clause of the United States Constitution.
The SEC originally brought an administrative action against Mr. Bandimere in 2012, alleging he violated various securities laws. An SEC ALJ presided over the fast paced, “trial-like” hearing, and the ALJ ultimately found Mr. Bandimere liable, barred him from the securities industry, imposed civil penalties and ordered disgorgement. The SEC reviewed that decision and reached the same result. Mr. Bandimere, therefore, appealed the SEC’s decision to the Tenth Circuit. READ MORE