SEC Enforcement Expanding Efforts Regarding Coronavirus Impacts

As we described several weeks ago, the SEC across the agency is going to be vigilant in its efforts to regulate, examine and enforce the federal securities laws regarding coronavirus/COVID-19. More recently, the SEC Division of Enforcement (“SEC Enforcement”) has stepped to the forefront of these efforts.

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SEC Announces Next Step in Pandemic Response Efforts, Forms Cross-Divisional COVID-19 Market Monitoring Group

As we noted earlier this month, the SEC has sought to proactively combat fraud related to the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic and related economic crisis by suspending the trading of at least eleven different companies since February 7, 2020. On Friday, April 24th the SEC announced another major step in its related efforts to protect investors — the formation of a Cross-Divisional COVID-19 Market Monitoring Group.

According to the SEC, the group is intended to assist the Commission and staff in analyzing “the effects of COVID-19 on markets, issuers and investors—including our Main Street investors” and to work with other regulators and public sector entities such as the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets, the Financial Stability Oversight Council, and the Financial Stability Board. This initiative is broadly linked to Chairman Clayton’s longstanding interest in supporting “the long-term interests of the Main Street investor.”

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COVID-19: SEC Announces Trading Suspensions and Focuses on Potential Fraud

The SEC has suspended the trading of eleven companies for issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic since February 7, 2020. Of those eleven suspensions, seven have come since April 3rd. Most of the suspensions follow the recent statement from the co-directors of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement that “the Enforcement Division is committing substantial resources to ensuring that our Main Street investors are not victims of fraud or illegal practices in these unprecedented market and economic conditions.” In addition, the SEC this week updated an investor alert about possible investor scams related to the pandemic.

The reasons for the suspensions range from possible confusion about the name of a company to suspicious statements from companies about having “FDA-approved” at-home COVID-19 test kits, supposed new technology for non-contact human temperature screening, or the ability to produce a vaccine or protective gear.

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SEC OCIE and Enforcement Are Still Watching

As the world is navigating through COVID-19 and as we are focused on our health and well-being as we self-quarantine and engage in social distancing to do our part to stop the spread, our markets remain open, active, and volatile, and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) has recently made clear that they will continue to be an active overseer.

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Delaware Supreme Court Upholds Federal Forum Selection Provisions Requiring Securities Claims Be Brought in Federal Court

In its highly anticipated decision in Salzberg v. Sciabacucchi, No. 346, 2019 (Del. Mar. 18, 2020), the Delaware Supreme Court confirmed the facial validity of a provision contained in certificates of incorporation of many companies requiring that claims under the Securities Act of 1933 (the Securities Act) be brought only in federal court and not in a state court. The decision reverses the Delaware Court of Chancery’s decision.

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SEC Disgorgement: Looking to the Future

On March 3, 2020, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Liu v. SEC, No. 18-1501. This article summarizes what transpired at the hearing, in which the arguments centered on a challenge to the ability of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) to obtain disgorgement as an “equitable remedy” for securities law violations.

During the oral arguments, the Justices’ questions indicated that they appeared reluctant to entirely do away with disgorgement, but rather their queries focused on whether limitations should be placed on the SEC’s continuing use of disgorgement as an equitable remedy. Specifically, the Justices expressed interest in exploring parameters and limitations regarding how disgorgement is calculated and whether the SEC or defrauded investors are entitled to any disgorged funds.

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In Enforcement Action, SEC Underscores Heightened Scrutiny of KPIs in MD&A Reporting

In February, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced a settlement with Diageo plc, a London-based producer of liquor, wine and beer, for failure to make required disclosures of known trends and uncertainties, thereby rendering its required periodic filings materially misleading with respect to its financial results. The enforcement action provided immediate insight into how the Securities and Exchange Commission would act on its recent guidance related to disclosing key performance indicators and other metrics in MD&A reporting. The enforcement action makes it clear that public issuers should expect increased scrutiny of any metrics used to assess business performance and ensure they have appropriate disclosure controls and procedures in place.

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Trump Budget Proposes Folding the PCAOB into the SEC by 2022

According to a White House budget issued on February 10, 2020, the White House is considering transferring the authority of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB or Board) to the SEC by 2022 in order to eliminate duplication between the two regulators and to “reduce regulatory ambiguity.” See A Budget for America’s Future.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 established the PCAOB as a nonprofit corporation to oversee the audits of public companies in order to protect investors and the public interest by promoting informative, accurate, and independent audit reports. This was done in response to accounting scandals at major companies such as Enron and Worldcom. The SEC has oversight authority over the PCAOB, including the approval of the Board’s rules, standards, and budget. And, of course, the SEC has authority to broadly enforce the securities laws against, among others, auditors of public companies and registered broker-dealers. The PCAOB, however, rather than focusing on the entire range of securities law violations, typically focuses on violations of audit quality standards as embodied in its rules. For example, the PCAOB recently charged Pricewaterhouse Coopers’ Mexican affiliate firm with violating its Rule 3520, which requires a registered public accounting firm to be independent of the firm’s issuer audit clients. See In the Matter of Pricewaterhouse Coopers, S.A., PCAOB Release No. 105-2019-017 (Aug. 1, 2019). Moreover, many of the PCAOB staff members have public auditing experience, often with “Big Four” firms. Although the SEC also hires accountants, the agency would need to ramp up its hiring dramatically if it were to assume the PCAOB’s existing regulatory authority.

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