On August 22, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) announced that it settled litigation with a major investment bank, other related companies, and several individuals over alleged violations of federal and state securities laws in connection with private-label mortgage-backed securities purchased by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac between 2005 and 2007. In 2011, FHFA, as conservator for the two GSEs brought suit in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York seeking relief for damages that allegedly resulted from a failure to adequately disclose risks related to the subject MBS offerings. Under the terms of the settlement, the bank is required to pay $3.15 billion to repurchase securities that were the subject of the claims in FHFA’s lawsuit. The difference between that amount and the securities’ current value is approximately $1.2 billion. According to FHFA, that difference is sufficient to effectively make the two GSEs whole on their investments. With this settlement, FHFA has resolved sixteen of the eighteen RMBS suits it filed in 2011. For details on those settlements, please see FHFA’s update on private-label securities suits. For specifics relating to how the August 22 settlement will impact each of the GSEs, please see the purchase and settlement agreements with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
On August 26, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas held that the Bitcoin investments at issue are “investment contracts” and “securities” within the meaning of the Securities Act of 1933 and the Exchange Act of 1934. S.E.C. v. Shavers, et al., No. 4:13-CV-416, (E.D. Tex. Aug. 26, 2014). The Court found that the Bitcoin investments in the case satisfy the “investment of money” prong established by the Supreme Court in S.E.C. v. W.J. Howey & Co., 328 U.S. 293, 298-99 (1946), because Bitcoin has a measure of value, can be used as a form of payment, and is used as a method of exchange. The essence of an investment contract, the court reasoned, was the contribution of an exchange of value, rather than “money” in the narrow sense of legal tender only. The SEC alleged that the Defendants made a number of solicitations aimed at enticing lenders to invest in Bitcoin-related investment opportunities. The Court granted the Defendants’ motion to reconsider its prior decision on subject-matter jurisdiction, but denied the Defendants’ motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.
On August 27, the SEC adopted revisions to rules governing the disclosure, reporting and offering process for asset-backed securities (ABS) and adopted new requirements for credit rating agencies registered with the SEC to increase governance controls, enhance transparency, and increase credit rating agency accountability. The adopted ABS reforms will make it easier for investors to review and analyze the credit risk of ABS. The revised ABS rules will (i) require issuers to provide standardized asset-level disclosures for ABS backed by residential mortgages, commercial mortgages, auto loans, auto leases, and debt securities; (ii) provide investors with an additional three days to analyze a preliminary prospectus prior to the first sale of securities in the offering; (iii) revise the eligibility requirements for ABS shelf offerings and require additional changes to the procedures and forms related to shelf offerings; and (iv) revise reporting requirements to include expanded and additional information in the prospectus disclosure for ABS. The new rules adopted for credit rating agencies registered with the SEC require these agencies to (i) consider certain identified factors with respect to establishing, maintaining, and enforcing an internal control structure and file an annual report to the SEC regarding the agency’s internal control structure; (ii) implement conflict of interest controls to prevent inappropriate considerations from affecting a credit agency’s production of credit ratings; (iii) require public disclosure of credit rating performance statistics and histories; (iv) implement procedures to protect the credibility and transparency of rating methodologies, including disclosure requirements regarding the same; and (v) establish standards to ensure that credit analysts meet certain training, experience, and competence thresholds.
On August 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that forum selection clauses, requiring “all actions and proceedings” related to the transactions between the parties to be brought in court, supplant FINRA’s arbitration rule that would otherwise apply. Goldman, Sachs & Co. v. Golden Empire Schools Financing Authority, Nos. 13-797-CV, 13-2247-CV, 2014 WL 4099289 (2nd Cir. Aug. 21, 2014). Underwriters and broker-dealers of auction rate securities brought declaratory and injunctive relief actions against issuers, seeking to enjoin FINRA arbitration of their disputes involving the securities. The parties’ broker-dealer agreements contained forum selection clauses requiring “all actions and proceedings arising out” of the transactions to be brought in court. The district courts enjoined the arbitrations based on the forum selection clauses. The Second Circuit affirmed, holding that FINRA Rule 12220, which states that members must arbitrate a dispute if arbitration is requested by the customer, is superseded by the agreements containing a forums selection clause whose language is all-inclusive and mandatory. The Second Circuit’s decision accords with a similar ruling by the Ninth Circuit, but marks a split on the issue from the Fourth Circuit, which found that a nearly identical forum selection clause did not supersede the FINRA rule.
On August 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reissued its original opinion affirming a district court’s holding that FIRREA’s NCUA extender statute circumvents the three-year repose period found in Section 13 of the Securities Act. Nat’l Credit Union Admin. Board v. Nomura Home Equity Loan Inc., Nos. 12-3295, 12-3298, 2014 WL 4069137 (10th Cir. Aug. 19, 2014). Extender statutes define the time period for government regulators to bring actions on behalf of failed financial organizations. The NCUA sued a number of RMBS issuers for violations of federal securities laws on behalf of two credit unions that the NCUA had placed into conservatorship. The defendant RMBS issuers countered that the suit was untimely under the applicable three-year statute of limitations in the Securities Act. The court originally held in 2013 that the NCUA’s claim was timely pursuant to the relevant extender statute, but its opinion had been vacated and remanded for further consideration in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in a similar case under a federal environmental statute. The court distinguished its case by first determining that the relevant statute was “fundamentally different” from the one in the Supreme Court’s case because the extender statute “plainly establishes a universal time frame for all actions brought by [the] NCUA.” The court rejected the argument that placed a distinction between statutes of limitations and statutes of repose by noting that extender statutes “displace all preexisting limits on the time to bring suit, whatever they are called.” The court then found that the extender statute’s surrounding language, statutory context, and statutory purpose supported its original decision that the NCUA’s suit was timely. Accordingly, the court reinstated its original opinion.
On August 18, FINRA announced a complaint against a financial services and investment firm, alleging that the firm was responsible for systematic supervisory and AML violations in connection with providing direct market access and sponsored access to broker-dealers and non-registered market participants. Specifically, FINRA claims that from January 2008 through August 2013, the firm failed to “ensure appropriate risk management controls and supervisory systems and procedures,” thereby allowing its market access customers to “self-monitor and self-report” possibly manipulative trades. Moreover, FINRA asserts that during the relevant time period, the firm was made aware of these potential regulatory and compliance risks though numerous industrywide notices, disciplinary decisions taken against other industry participants, and multiple self-regulatory organization inquiries and examinations. The firm may request a hearing before the FINRA disciplinary committee. If FINRA’s charges stand, the firm could face suspension, censure, and/or monetary penalties.
On August 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a district court’s holding that the Dodd-Frank Act’s antiretaliation provision does not apply extraterritorially. Liu Meng-Lin v. Siemens AG, No. 13-4385, 2014 WL 3953672 (2nd Cir. Aug. 14, 2014). A foreign worker was allegedly fired by his foreign employer for internally reporting violations of U.S. anti-corruption rules, which he claimed violated the antiretaliation provision of the Dodd-Frank Act. This provision prohibits an employer from firing or otherwise discriminating against any employee who makes a disclosure that is required or protected under Sarbanes-Oxley or any other law, rule, or regulation subject to the SEC’s jurisdiction. The court first determined that the facts alleged in the complaint revealed “essentially no contact with the United States” and rejected an argument that the foreign company voluntarily subjected itself to U.S. securities laws by listing its securities on the New York Stock Exchange. The court also held that, given the longstanding presumption against extraterritoriality and the absence of any “explicit statutory evidence that Congress meant for the provision to apply extraterritorially,” the cited provision does not apply to purely foreign-based claims.
SDNY Judge Approves RMBS Consent Judgment But Questions Second Circuit’s Standard For Reviewing Agency Consent Judgments
On August 5, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York Judge Jed Rakoff approved a consent judgment between the SEC and a financial institution to resolve allegations that the institution violated securities laws in connection with certain mortgage-backed securities. SEC v. Citigroup Global Markets Inc., No. 11-7387, 2014 WL 3827497 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 5, 2014). Earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated and remanded the district court’s earlier decision to reject the proposed settlement, holding that the proper standard for reviewing a proposed enforcement agency consent judgment is whether the proposed consent decree is fair and reasonable, and in the event the agreement includes injunctive relief, whether “the public interest would not be disserved.” On remand, Judge Rakoff approved the consent judgment stating that based on the underlying record, “the Court cannot say that the proposed Consent Judgment is procedurally improper or in any material respect fails to comport with the very modest standard imposed by the Court of Appeals.” Judge Rakoff noted his concern, however, that “as a result of the Court of Appeals decision, the settlements reached by governmental regulatory bodies and enforced by the judiciary’s contempt powers will in practice be subject to no meaningful oversight whatsoever.”
On August 6, the Structured Finance Industry Group released the first edition of a “comprehensive set of proposed industry standards” to promote growth in the private label RMBS market. The SFIG explains that the project “seeks to reduce substantive differences within current market practices through an open discussion among a broad cross-section of market participants,” and, where possible establish best practices related to: (i) representations and warranties, repurchase governance, and other enforcement mechanisms; (ii) due diligence, disclosure, and data issues; and (iii) roles and responsibilities of transaction parties and their communications with investors. The paper is the first in an iterative process, and touches on only a few of the items identified in a sprawling master agenda. With regard to representations and warranties, the paper discusses fraud, regulatory compliance, and objective independent review triggers. For due diligence, data and disclosure, the paper considers underwriting guidelines disclosure and due diligence extract to investors. Finally, the paper addresses the role of transaction parties and bondholder communication.
On July 24, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) sent a letter to Attorney General Holder raising questions about the DOJ’s “inclination to enter into settlement agreements with respect to mortgage securities fraud” claims. The Chairman notes that large RMBS settlements to date have been predicated on violations of FIRREA, which allows the DOJ to initiate lawsuits seeking civil money penalties. The letter suggests the DOJ’s decision not to litigate or secure a criminal plea diverges from the agency’s strategy in other contexts. Chairman Issa asks the DOJ to produce, by August 14, all documents and communications since January 2011 referring or relating to two recent major RMBS settlements, as well as any policies in effect during that time governing the decision to conclude pre-suit negotiations.
On July 23, FINRA announced that the SEC approved a new rule prohibiting FINRA-supervised firms and registered representatives from conditioning settlement of a customer dispute on—or otherwise compensating a customer for—the customer’s agreement to consent to, or not to oppose, the firm’s or representative’s request to expunge such information from the Central Registration Depository (CRD) system. The CRD system is an online registration and licensing system for the securities industry, which contains information regarding members and registered representatives, such as personal information, registration, and employment history, as well as disclosure information including criminal matters, regulatory and disciplinary actions, civil judicial actions, and information relating to customer complaints and disputes. The information FINRA makes public through BrokerCheck is derived from CRD. Brokers who wish to have a customer dispute removed from the CRD system and, thereby, from BrokerCheck, must obtain a court order confirming an arbitration award recommending expungement relief. FINRA will announce the effective date of the new rule in a regulatory notice to be published shortly.
On July 14, the DOJ, the FDIC, and state authorities in California, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York, announced a $7 billion settlement of federal and state RMBS civil claims against a large financial institution, which was obtained by the RMBS Working Group, a division of the Obama Administration’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force. Federal and state law enforcement authorities and financial regulators alleged that the institution misled investors in connection with the packaging, marketing, sale, and issuance of certain RMBS. They claimed, among other things, that the institution received information indicating that, for certain loan pools, significant percentages of the loans reviewed as part of the institution’s due diligence did not conform to the representations provided to investors about the pools of loans to be securitized, yet the institution allowed the loans to be securitized and sold without disclosing the alleged failures to investors. The agreement includes a $4 billion civil penalty, described by the DOJ as the largest ever obtained under FIRREA. In addition, the institution will pay a combined $500 million to settle existing and potential claims by the FDIC and the five states. The institution also agreed to provide an additional $2.5 billion in borrower relief through a variety of means, including financing affordable rental housing developments for low-income families in high-cost areas. Finally, the institution was required to acknowledge certain facts related to the alleged activities.
On July 8, FINRA released a targeted examination letter it sent to 10 firms to assess their compliance with requirements related to order routing and execution quality of customer orders in exchange listed stocks during the period of January 1, 2014 to present. The letters include numerous requests for information, including requests that each firm explain: (i) how it uses reasonable diligence to ascertain the best market for orders that the firm routes for execution to an exchange, or broker-dealer, so that the resultant price is as favorable as possible for its customer under prevailing market conditions; (ii) how the firm’s exchange order-routing decisions are made for customer non-marketable, customer market, and marketable limit orders; and (iii) how the firm reviews the execution quality of such orders. The letters also include requests related to each firm’s use of the “Smart Order Router.”
New York AG Civil Suit Targets International Bank’s “Dark Pool”, Relationships With High-Frequency Traders
On June 25, New York Attorney General (AG) Eric Schneiderman announced the filing of a civil suit against a large international bank alleging that, from 2011 to the present, the bank violated the Martin Act by making false statements to clients and the investing public about how, and for whose benefit, the bank operates its private securities trading venue, i.e. its dark pool. The AG claims that the bank actively sought to attract high frequency traders to its dark pool, and provided such traders advantages over others trading in the pool, while telling clients and investors that it implemented special safeguards to protect them from such high-frequency traders. Specifically, the AG alleges that the bank: (i) falsified marketing materials purporting to show the extent and type of high frequency trading in its dark pool; (ii) falsely marketed the percentage of high frequency trading activity in its dark pool; (iii) made a series of false representations to clients about its “Liquidity Profiling” service; (iv) falsely represented that it routed client orders for securities to trading venues in a manner that did not favor its own dark pool; and (v) secretly provided high frequency trading firms informational and other advantages over other clients trading in the dark pool. The suit seeks an order requiring the bank to pay damages, disgorge amounts obtained in connection with the alleged activities, and make restitution of all funds obtained from investors in connection with the alleged acts.
On June 23, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the long-standing “fraud-on-the-market” theory, on which securities class actions often are based. Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund Inc., No. 13-317, 2014 WL 2807181 (Jun. 23, 2014). Halliburton petitioned the Court after an appeals court relied on the theory to affirm class certification in a securities suit against the company, even after the appeals court acknowledged that no company misrepresentation affected its stock price. The theory at issue derives from the Court’s holding in Basic Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224 (1988) that a putative class of investors should not be required to prove that each individual actually relied in common on a misrepresentation in order to obtain class certification and prevail on the merits. The petitioner argued that empirical evidence no longer supports the economic theory underlying the Court’s holding in Basic allowing putative class members to invoke a classwide presumption of reliance based on the concept that all investors relied on the misrepresentations when they purchased stock at a price distorted by those misrepresentations. The Court declined to upset the precedent set in Basic, holding that the petitioner failed to show a “special justification” for overruling presumption of reliance because petitioner had failed to establish a fundamental shift in economic theory and that Basic’s presumption is not inconsistent with more recent rulings from the Court. The Court also declined to require plaintiffs to prove price impact directly at the class certification stage, but agreed with the petitioner that a defendant may rebut the presumption and prevent class certification by introducing evidence that the alleged misrepresentations did not distort the market price of its stock.