Is the SEC capable of blushing? Increasingly, there are occasions in which the Securities and Exchange Commission takes positions so inconsistent with the protection of investors and its own history and so deferential to the industry that one has to ask: What were they thinking? How can a federal agency be that tone deaf? This column will, first, examine the SEC’s new policy toward when “bad actors” can use the vastly expanded Rule 506 and, second, focus on how these rules will likely be gamed.
In a delightful essay, Ron Gilson and Jeff Gordon remind us that the times have changed and the Williams Act belongs in their view to the era of the Beatles. (Personally, I have trouble believing that Sgt. Pepper was really that long ago. Next, they will try to tell me that John Lennon is dead). Even if they are right, I must respond with a counter-truism. Plus ca change, plus la meme chose. And I will raise their bid, by invoking two other familiar maxims: First, power corrupts, and absolute power is at least within view for institutional … Read more
The Institute for the Fiduciary Standard, a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of fiduciary principles, has awarded its first ever Tamar Frankel Fiduciary Prize to Robert A.G. Monks, the corporate governance activist and scholar. The Frankel Fiduciary Prize is intended to recognize contributions to “the preservation and advancement of fiduciary principles in public life” and is named after Professor Tamar Frankel of the Boston University Law School, a leading scholar in this field.
Professor John C. Coffee, Jr. of Columbia University Law School, the Chairman of the Nominating Committee that made this selection, explained the Committee’s decision, saying:
“Bob … Read more
In a move that appears at once to be shrewd, savvy and largely symbolic, the SEC has modified its longstanding policy that it will not require a defendant to admit or deny liability, or facts that might establish its liability, in a settlement with the SEC. Now, such an admission may be required “when appropriate.”1 Whatever the outcome in the SEC’s mandamus appeal of Judge Jed S. Rakoff’s Citigroup decision,2 Rakoff has effectively won the war, even if he loses the Citigroup battle. Although denying that Rakoff influenced them, the SEC conceded (effectively, if not formally) that its policy was
In a free-swinging and provocative attack, Brandon Gold, a graduating Harvard Law School student, argues (1) that third party bonuses, paid by hedge funds or others soliciting proxies, to their director nominees are acceptable and even desirable, and (2) that a proposed bylaw, drafted by Wachtell, Lipton, that would disqualify nominees who were parties to any such agreement or understanding or who have received such compensation from third parties is invalid. Only the second of these questions involves much nuance, but both are worth exploring.
Mr. Gold’s first assertion that such “pay for performance” compensation arrangements for directors are desirable … Read more
This is the season for report cards and grades. The securities laws are enforced by the plaintiff’s bar and the SEC. How well are they doing? What grades do they deserve?
I. Private Enforcement
In terms of private litigation, 2012 saw only 53 court-approved securities class action settlements, which was a 14-year low. This was not unexpected because settlements follow in the wake of class action filings in earlier years, and class action filings were well down in 2009 and 2010. This decline seems likely to continue, as securities class action filings were also down sharply in 2012, with only … Read more
The Institute For The Fiduciary Standard, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., has created a prize—to be known as the Tamar Frankel Fiduciary Prize—which will be awarded annually to a person who has made a “significant contribution to the preservation and advancement of fiduciary principles in public life.” The award is named after Professor Tamar Frankel, an expert on fiduciary duties and investment management and a longtime Professor at Boston University Law School.
The chairman of the Nominating Committee is Professor John C. Coffee, Jr. of Columbia University Law School. Nominations are invited from the public, but the deadline … Read more
This is the heyday of institutional investor activism in proxy contests. Insurgents are running more slates and targeting larger companies. They are also enjoying a higher rate of success: 66% of proxy contexts this year have been at least partially successful. The reason is probably the support that activists have received from the principal proxy advisors: Institutional Shareholder Services (“ISS”) and Glass Lewis & Company. According to a recent N.Y. Times Dealbook survey, ISS has backed the insurgent slate in 73% of the cases so far in 2013.
All this may be well and good. Shareholders certainly have the right … Read more
Something new and significant is taking shape. For a variety of reasons—the impact of the JOBS Act, the growing popularity of equity private placements, the appearance of new trading markets for venture capital and other non-reporting companies—a new tier of companies is growing rapidly that is composed of issuers that are not “reporting” companies, but that do have a significant number of shareholders. In terms of the size of their shareholder class, these companies overlap with public companies, but they trade in the dark—and actively. More importantly, as their number grows, it is predictable that existing and new trading venues will begin to compete to attract and capture the trading interest in these stocks. This column will call these firms “semi-public companies” to reflect their intermediate status, midway between truly private firms (such as early stage venture capital startups and family-held firms) and public companies. Read more
Empirical scholars of corporate law are uncovering a rapidly changing and depressing pattern in M&A litigation. This new research dates from a series of articles in 2012 by Professors John Armour, Bernard Black and Brian Cheffins, which announced that Delaware was “losing” its cases, as plaintiff’s attorneys migrated to other jurisdictions where they could expect lower dismissal rates and/or higher fee awards. This year, a newer study by Professors Matthew Cain and Steven Davidoff covers 1,117 merger transactions between 2005 and 2011 and reports more surprising and complex findings.  But the key question has not been faced by these … Read more
The current scope of the insider trading prohibition is arbitrary and unrationalized. Both sides in the debate should be able to agree on this, as the current scope is at the same time both underinclusive and overinclusive. On the one hand, if a thief breaks into your office, opens your files, learns material, nonpublic information, and trades on that information, he has neither breached a fiduciary duty nor “feigned fidelity” to the source and is presumably immune from insider trading liability under current law. On the other hand, if an employee of an acquiring firm seeks to test out information about a potential target with a friend at a major investor in the target and that investor later acquires more stock in the target based on that conversation, it is possible under SEC v. Obus that the employee will be deemed to have violated Rule 10b-5 on theory that he made a gift of the information, even though no payment or economic benefit is paid to the alleged tipper. This is considerably grayer behavior than that of the thief. Thus, drawing lines so that the thief escapes liability, while the inquiring employee does not, seems morally incoherent. Nor are such lines doctrinally necessary. Read more
A dramatic reversal occurred in the capital markets, beginning around 2000, and its causes and implications appear to have been widely misunderstood. From 1980 to 2000, an average of 310 operating companies did initial public offerings (IPOs) each year, but from 2001 to 2011, this number fell by over two-thirds to only 99 operating companies per year.1 This decline cannot be explained by macro-economic conditions as Gross Domestic Product more than doubled over this period.
Moreover, this decline has been even more precipitous in the case of smaller IPOs (hereinafter defined to mean IPOs of companies with pre-issuance annual … Read more
On January 14, Robert S. Khuzami and George S. Canellos published their response in the National Law Journal to my earlier column, “SEC Enforcement: What Has Gone Wrong?” Their column—“Unfair Claims, Untenable Solution”(available here)—minces no words, but in my judgment continues to miss the forest for the trees. In responding, I want to emphasize that I am criticizing policies, not individuals. I have no doubt that both men are able lawyers who have worked hard to improve the SEC’s performance.
In their response, Khuzami and Canellos focus primarily on whether the median value of SEC settlements has … Read more
The humbling of two global banks in recent weeks has been greeted very differently on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Still, from the perspective of either side, large fines for interest rate rigging by Swiss bank UBS, and money-laundering by HSBC, point to the same conclusion: from now on, banks must protect their reputations as their most valuable asset.
On the US side, there has been considerable grumbling about the “lenient” treatment meted out to HSBC and UBS. Associations with Mexican drug cartels and Iranian militants or documented solicitation of price fixing usually attract the attention of federal prosecutors. Yet, … Read more
A disturbingly persistent pattern has emerged in U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement cases that involves three key elements: (1) The commission rarely sues individual defendants at large financial institutions, settling instead with the entity only; (2) when it does sue individual defendants, it frequently loses; and (3) the penalties collected by the commission from corporate defendants are declining and, in any event, are modest in proportion to the profits obtained.
In November, the SEC sued and settled with JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Credit Suisse Group A.G. for a collective $417 million, but named no individual defendants. This continues … Read more
For a number of years, commentators have noted that securities “reform” legislation seems to be passed only in the wake of major stock market crashes, with this pattern dating back to the South Sea Bubble. Some have argued that this pattern demonstrates the undesirability of such legislation, arguing that laws passed after a market crash are invariably flawed, result in “quack corporate governance” and “bubble laws,” and should be discouraged. Recently, this criticism has been directed at both the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the Dodd-Frank Act. The forthcoming Cornell Law Review article, The Political Economy of Dodd-Frank: Why Financial Reform Tends … Read more