SEC Chair Reveals Rulemaking Initiatives for 2015

On February 20, SEC Chair Mary Jo White delivered remarks regarding the agency’s 2014 accomplishments, including transformative rulemakings and enforcement, and its 2015 objectives. With respect to rulemaking, White outlined three specific areas that the SEC intends to enhance in 2015: (i) reforming market structure; (ii) risk monitoring of the asset manager industry; and (iii) raising capital for smaller companies. She stated the SEC is reviewing the current market structure and operations of the U.S. equity markets and working to “enhance the transparency of alternative trading system operations, expand investor understanding of broker routing decisions, address the regulatory status of active proprietary traders, and mitigate market stability concerns through a targeted anti-disruptive trading rule.” White described the SEC’s current asset management industry as “increasingly complex,” and noted that the SEC is reviewing three sets of recommendations to address this complexity and is paying “particular attention to the activities of asset managers.” Finally, White stated that the SEC will focus on implementing Regulation A+ and crowdfunding, both mandates of the JOBS Act, to assist smaller issuers with raising capital.

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SEC Proposes Hedging Disclosure Rule

On February 9, the SEC issued a proposed rule implementing Section 955 of the Dodd-Frank Act. The rule would require directors, officers, and other employees of public companies to disclose in proxy and information statements whether they use derivatives and other financial instruments to offset or “hedge” against the decline in equity securities granted by the company as compensation, or held, directly or indirectly, by employees or directors. The proposed rule would apply to equity securities of a public company, its parent, subsidiary, or any subsidiary of any parent of the company that is registered with the SEC under Section 12 of the Exchange Act.  Public comments will be accepted for 60 days following publication in the Federal Register.

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SEC Names New Chief Counsel in Trading and Markets

On February 11, the SEC named Heather Seidel as Chief Counsel of the Division of Trading and Markets, effective immediately. Seidel will oversee the Office of Chief Counsel, which provides legal and policy advice to the Commission, issues interpretations on matters arising under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, and manages the division’s enforcement liaison functions. She previously served as an Associate Director within the division’s Office of Market Supervision.

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FINRA Announces Head of Newly Created Data Analytics Office

On February 11, FINRA announced that, effective February 23, Erozan Kurtas will join the industry regulator as Head of the newly-established Office of Advanced Data Analytics and will also assume the role of Senior Vice President. Kurtas will be responsible for enhancing the agency’s data analytics abilities and improving how the agency “analyzes and uses the data it currently gathers from firms.” Kurtas previously led the SEC in the advancement of the National Exam Analytics Tool software system, which allowed examiners “to analyze systematically large amounts of trading data to detect insider trading, improper allocation of investment opportunities and other misconduct.”

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DOJ and State AGs Announce Settlement with Credit Rating Agency

On February 3, the DOJ announced a settlement agreement with a large credit rating agency and its parent company for $1.375 billion – a record amount according to the DOJ – in connection with the agency’s alleged “scheme to defraud investors in structured financial products known as Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities (RMBS) and Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs).” In 2013, the DOJ, along with 19 states plus the District of Columbia, brought the lawsuit against the agency for misrepresenting the securities’ true credit risks through inflated ratings, which led investors to suffer substantial losses right before the financial crisis. While the agency is neither admitting to nor denying the allegations, it has agreed to (i) “retract an allegation that the United States’ lawsuit was filed in retaliation for the defendant’s decision with regard to the credit of the United States;” (ii) abide by the consumer protection statutes set forth by the settling states and DC; and (iii) answer requests from any of the states and DC regarding information on potential violations of the consumer protection laws.

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SEC Publishes Industry Alert on Cybersecurity

On February 3, the SEC released a set of publications – a Risk Alert and an Investor Bulletin – assessing the level of cybersecurity at broker-dealers and advisory firms and highlighting best practices that allow investors to help protect their online accounts. The Risk Alert contains observations based on examinations of more than 100 broker-dealers and investment advisers. The examinations focused on how the firms (i) identify cybersecurity risks; (ii) establish cybersecurity policies, procedures, and oversight processes; (iii) protect their networks and information; (iv) identify and address risks associated with remote access to client information, funds transfer requests, and third-party vendors; and (v) detect unauthorized activity.

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California Public Employees’ Retirement System Settles with Credit Rating Agency

On February 3, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) announced a $125 million settlement with a large credit rating agency and its parent company to resolve charges made in connection with the agency’s inflated ratings of three structured investment vehicle notes that collapsed during the financial crisis. The CalPERS settlement is separate from the DOJ’s settlement with the same credit rating agency. The state-operated retirement system will collect an additional $176 million from the State of California’s $210 million received from the DOJ settlement, for a total of $301 million.

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FinCEN Fines NY-Based Securities Broker-Dealer for Anti-Money Laundering Shortfalls

On January 27, FinCEN fined a New York securities broker-dealer firm $20 million for violating the BSA. According to the press release, the firm failed to (i) establish an adequate anti-money laundering program; (ii) conduct proper due diligence on a foreign correspondent account; and (iii) comply with Section 311 of the USA Patriot Act. These failures resulted in customers engaging in suspicious trading, including prohibited third-party activity and illegal penny stock trading, without it being detected or reported. The firm must pay $10 million of the $20 million penalty to the US Department of the Treasury. The remaining $10 million will be paid to the SEC to settle a parallel enforcement action.

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SEC Schedules Proxy Voting Roundtable

On January 27, the SEC announced that it will host a roundtable to discuss ways to improve the proxy voting process, focusing most specifically on universal proxy ballots and retail participation in the proxy process. Divided into two panels, the roundtable will focus on (i) “the state of contested director elections and whether changes should be made to the federal proxy rules to facilitate the use of universal proxy ballots by management and proxy contestants;” and (ii) “strategies for advancing retail shareholder participation in the proxy process.” The roundtable is scheduled to take place on February 19 in Washington, D.C.

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SEC Announces First-Ever Enforcement Action Against Credit Ratings Agency

On January 21, the SEC announced a settlement with a credit rating agency in connection with its rating of certain commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS). The ratings agency agreed to pay the SEC more than $58 million for allegedly (i) misrepresenting its conduit fusion CMBS ratings methodology; (ii) publishing a “false and misleading article purporting to show that its new credit enhancement levels could withstand Great Depression-era levels of economic stress;” and (iii) failing to maintain and enforce internal controls regarding changes to its surveillance criteria. In a separate administrative order, the SEC instituted a litigated administrative proceeding against the former head of the agency’s CMBS Group for “fraudulently misreprent[ing] the manner in which the [ratings agency] calculated a critical aspect of certain CMBS ratings in 2011.”

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SEC Announces 2015 Examination Priorities

On January 13, the SEC announced its Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations’ examination priorities for 2015. The examination priorities cover a wide range of financial institutions and focus on three areas: (i) protecting retail investors, especially those saving for or in retirement; (ii) assessing market-wide risks, including cybersecurity compliance and controls; and, (iii) using data analytics to identify signals of potential illegal activity. As to the risks to retail investors, the SEC noted that such investors are being sold products and services that were formerly characterized as alternative or institutional, including private funds, illiquid investments, and structured products. In addition, financial services firms are offering information, advice, products, and services to help retail investors plan for retirement. The SEC intends to assess the risks to retail investors that can arise from these trends.

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SEC Adopts New Rules, Regulatory Framework for Swap Data Repositories

On January 14, the SEC adopted new rules for security-based swap data repositories (SDRs), which store swap trading data. The rules require SDRs to register with the SEC and set reporting and public dissemination requirements for security-based swap transaction data. That reporting requirement, known as Regulation SBSR, outlines information that must be reported and publicly shared for each security-based swap transaction. The new rules are designed to increase transparency in the security-based swap market and are anticipated to reduce risks of default, improve price transparency, and hold financial institutions accountable for misconduct. The rules implement mandates under Title VII of the Dodd-Frank Act and will become effective 60 days after publication in the Federal Register. Persons subject to the new rules governing the registration of SDRs must comply with them by 365 days after they are published in the Federal Register.

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SEC Fines Stock Exchanges

On January 12, the SEC fined two stock exchanges $14 million dollars for allegedly violating the Exchange Act by failing to accurately describe in their rules the order types being used on the exchanges. In its investigation, the SEC found that while operating under rules that described a single “price sliding” process for handling buy or sell orders, the exchanges actually offered three variations of “price sliding” order types. The SEC found that the “exchanges’ rules did not completely and accurately describe the prices at which those orders would be ranked and executable in certain circumstances, and they also failed to describe the execution priority of the three order types relative to each other and other order types.” Additionally, the SEC found that the exchanges disclosed certain information regarding how the order types operated to only some and not all of their members. The SEC determined that not all market participants were aware of how these order types operated. In addition to the $14 million penalty, the SEC order requires both exchanges, among other things, to (i) create and implement written policies and procedures related to the development of order types, and (ii) provide sufficient resources and regulatory staff to ensure regulatory functions are independent from their commercial interests. This is the SEC’s largest penalty against national securities exchanges.

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NCUA Files Latest Suit Over Purchased RMBS

On December 23, the NCUA announced its latest suit against a major bank. Filed in the SDNY, the 122-page complaint alleges that the bank violated state and federal laws by failing to fulfill its duties as trustee to 27 RMBS trusts. The NCUA is suing the bank in its capacity as liquidating agent for five failed federal credit unions who purchased the RMBS. This latest suit comes less than a week when the NCUA filed a similar suit against another large global bank.

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SEC Publishes List of Rules Scheduled For Review

On December 29, pursuant to section 610 of the Regulatory Flexibility Act, the SEC published a list of rules scheduled for review by the agency. The list is intended to invite public comment on whether the rules should be continued, amended, or rescinded to minimize economic impact on small entities. Comments are due by January 28, 2015.

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