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
Derivatives regulators continue to take actions that pull virtual currencies – also known as digital currency or cryptocurrency, the best known of which is bitcoin – into their regulatory schemes. In December, the National Futures Association (NFA), the futures industry’s self-regulatory organization, issued three Notices to Members that expand the notification and reporting requirements for futures commission merchants (FCMs), introducing brokers (IBs), commodity pool operators (CPOs) and commodity trading advisers (CTAs) trading in virtual currencies and related derivatives. In issuing these directives, the NFA cited the fact that a number of CFTC-regulated trading venues were in the process of offering derivatives on virtual currency products and stated that it was expanding the notification and reporting requirements due to the volatility in the underlying virtual currency markets.
Specifically, the NFA’s notices:
- direct each FCM for which NFA is the DSRO to immediately notify NFA if the firm decides to offer its customers or non-customers the ability to trade any virtual currency futures product. NFA also requires each FCM to report on its daily segregation reports the number of customers who traded a virtual currency futures contract (including closed out positions), the number of non-customers who traded a virtual currency futures contract (including closed out positions), and the gross open virtual currency futures positions (i.e. total open long positions, total open short positions);
- direct each IB to immediately notify NFA if it solicits or accepts any orders in virtual currency derivatives. NFA also requires each IB that solicits or accepts orders for one or more virtual currency derivatives to notify NFA by amending its annual questionnaire, by answering this question: Does your firm solicit or accept orders involving a virtual currency derivative (e.g. a bitcoin future, option or swap)? In addition, starting with the current quarter, IBs that solicit or accept orders for virtual currency derivatives will also be required to report the number of accounts they introduced that executed one or more trades in a virtual currency derivative during each calendar quarter;
- direct each CPO and CTA to immediately notify NFA if it executes a transaction involving any virtual currency (such as bitcoin) or virtual currency derivative (such as a bitcoin future, options or swap) on behalf of a pool or managed account. NFA’s Notice requires that CPOs and CTAs provide such notice by amending their annual questionnaire, to which NFA added questions that inquired, for CPOs, whether the firm operates a pool that has executed a transaction involving a virtual currency or virtual currency derivative and, for CTAs, whether the firm offers a trading program for managed account clients that have transacted in a virtual currency, or managed an account that transacted in a virtual currency derivative. In addition, beginning with the current quarter, the NFA is requiring CPOs and CTAs to report on a quarterly basis the number of their pools or managed accounts that executed at least one transaction involving a virtual currency or virtual currency derivative.
Last week, several securities industry groups filed critical responses to the SEC’s plan for an audit trail. While most groups that commented on the SEC’s proposed regulation supported implementing the proposal, several had concerns regarding the cost for investors and firms, and the protection of private data.
The need to detect and investigate reported allegations of wrongdoing within a corporation has long been a fact of corporate life. In the last 15 years, however, a combination of circumstances has contributed to an explosion of activity in this area. Among the contributing factors was Congress’ passage of laws and related agency regulations encouraging and, in some cases, mandating that employees report suspected corporate misconduct; creating financial incentives for employees to do so; and prohibiting retaliation against those who report. For companies, understanding their obligations pursuant to this statutory regime and the unsettled issues still surrounding it is crucial both for purposes of complying with applicable law and responding appropriately to alleged wrongdoing. Recently Orrick attorneys drafted an article for the Review of Securities & Commodities Regulation that discusses certain significant whistleblowing provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (“Sarbanes-Oxley”) and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank”), as well as best practices for responding to tips where these statutes apply.
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Real estate investment trust American Realty Capital Properties (“ARCP”) recently announced the preliminary findings of an Audit Committee investigation into accounting irregularities and the resulting resignation of its Chief Financial Officer and Chief Accounting Officer. The events surrounding ARCP are a case study of how, within a matter of weeks, an internal report of concerns to the Audit Committee can lead to both internal and external scrutiny: an internal investigation and review of financial reporting controls and procedures, on the one hand; media coverage, securities fraud litigation, and an inquiry by the Securities Exchange Commission, on the other.
A federal judge in Illinois hollowed out much of the SEC’s case against two former executives of Nicor Gas. SEC v. Fisher, et al., No. 07-4483 (N.D. Ill.) (Zagel, J.) (Order). Although the court allowed the SEC’s substantive Section 10(b) and 17(a) fraud claims to proceed, the court granted summary judgment to the executives with respect to all claims for civil penalties and injunctive relief. The Order makes clear that to survive summary judgment on injunctive relief, like any other claim, the SEC must put forth concrete evidence, not just “rank speculation.” Accordingly, the SEC’s claims will proceed to trial only for the equitable remedy of disgorgement of profits.
In 2008, the SEC brought fraud charges against three former executives of Nicor Gas, a utility company providing Northern Illinois with natural gas. The SEC alleges that from 1999 to 2002, these executives manipulated Nicor’s earnings through accounting gimmicks and transactions that took advantage of Nicor’s low cost of inventories in a rising gas price environment without disclosing the practice or its effect on earnings. READ MORE