Regulators Jointly Approve Final Risk Retention Rule

On October 22, coordinated by the Department of Treasury, six federal agencies – the Board of Governors, HUD, FDIC, FHFA, OCC, and SEC – approved a final rule requiring sponsors of securitized transactions, such as asset-backed securities (ABS), to retain at least 5 percent of the credit risk of the assets collateralizing the ABS issuance. The final rule, which largely mirrors the proposed rule issued in August 2013, defines a “qualified residential mortgage” (QRM) and exempts securitized QRMs from the new risk retention requirement. Government-controlled Fannie and Freddie are exempt from the rule. Most notably, the final rule’s definition of a QRM parallels with that of a qualified mortgage as defined by the CFPB. Further, initially part of the proposed rule, the final rule does not include down payment provisions for borrowers. The final rule will be effective one year after publication in the Federal Register for residential mortgage-backed securities, and two years after publication for all other types of securitized assets.

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SEC Finalizes Rule To Adopt Updated EDGAR Filer Manual

Recently, the SEC issued a final rule to update its EDGAR system to support changes to the disclosure, reporting, and offering process for asset-backed securities. Specifically, EDGAR will be revised to update Volume I: General Information, Volume II: EDGAR Filing, and Volume III: N-SAR Supplement. The EDGAR system is scheduled to reflect the updates on October 20.

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SEC Appoints Marc Wyatt As Deputy Director Of National Exam Program

On October 20, the SEC appointed Marc Wyatt as the Deputy Director of the agency’s Office of Compliance and Inspection Examinations (OCIE). In September 2012, Wyatt joined the SEC as a senior specialized examiner with a concentration on examinations of advisers to private equity funds and hedge funds. In his new role working with the OCIE staff, Wyatt will oversee the examinations of SEC-registered investment advisers, investment companies, broker-dealers, self-regulatory organizations, clearing agencies, and transfer agents. Prior to joining the SEC, Wyatt served as Stark Investments’ chief executive, in addition to spending time at Merrill Lynch UK and at Alex. Brown as a senior investment banker.

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FINRA Issues Guidance Notice To Warn Against Settlements Barring Whistleblower Tips

This month, FINRA issued guidance notice 14-40 to remind firms that “it is a violation of FINRA Rule 2010 (Standards of Commercial Honor and Principles of Trade) to include confidentiality provisions in settlement agreements or any other documents, including confidentiality stipulations made during a FINRA arbitration proceeding, that prohibit or restrict a customer or any other person from communicating with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), FINRA, or any federal or state regulatory authority regarding a possible securities law violation.” Additionally, the notice addresses FINRA’s Code of Arbitration Procedure for Customer Disputes, emphasizing that the parties involved in the arbitration discovery process must “cooperate with each other to the fullest extent practicable in the voluntary exchange of documents and information to expedite the arbitration process.” FINRA further specifies that “stipulations between the parties or confidentiality orders issued by an arbitrator as part of the discovery process regarding the non-disclosure of the documents in question outside the arbitration of the particular case do not restrict or prohibit the disclosure of the documents to the SEC, FINRA, any other self-regulatory organization, or any other state or federal regulatory authority.”

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SEC Delegates Authority to Invest Whistle-Blower Fund

On September 26, the SEC amended its rules to delegate authority to its CFO, Kenneth Johnson, to request that the Treasury Secretary invest a portion of the SEC’s Investor Protection Fund. The fund, comprised of over $439 million as of FY 2013, is used to award whistleblowers and fund certain IG activities. Johnson’s discretion includes determining what portion of the Fund’s monies are not required to meet current needs and thus available for investment as well as which investment maturities are most suitable. The SEC anticipates this amendment, effective September 29, 2014, will “streamline” its operations.

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SEC Announces Largest Whistle-Blower Award In Program’s History

On September 22, the SEC announced that it expects to award more than $30 million to a whistleblower who provided key information in connection with an ongoing fraud enforcement action. The award will be the largest to date for the SEC’s whistleblower program and the fourth award to a whistleblower living overseas. The program offers rewards to whistleblowers who provide high-quality, original information that results in an SEC enforcement action with sanctions exceeding $1 million. Awards are funded by an investor protection fund established by Congress and financed by sanctions imposed on securities law violators. Awards can range from ten to thirty percent of the money collected from the enforcement action.

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SEC Finalizes Rule On Asset-Backed Securities

On September 24, the SEC issued a final rule adopting significant revisions to regulations governing the disclosure, reporting, registration and the offering process for asset-backed securities (“ABS”). The revised rules aim to increase investor protection in the ABS market by making it easier for investors to review and analyze the credit risk of ABS, and limit reliance on the ratings provided by credit agencies. The rule mandates that issuers provide standardized asset-level disclosures for ABS backed by residential mortgages, commercial mortgages, auto loans, auto leases, and debt securities at the time of the offering and on an ongoing basis. The rule also modifies asset-level disclosures for RMBS and securities backed by auto loans and leases in order to reduce potential privacy risks to obligors. The rule requires ABS issuers using a shelf registration statement to file a preliminary prospectus at least three business days before the first sale of securities in the offering. Further, the regulations revise the eligibility requirements for ABS shelf offerings and require additional changes to the procedures and forms related to shelf offerings. Specifically, the rules adopt four transaction requirements for ABS shelf eligibility (certification by the CEO, asset review provision, dispute resolution provision, and disclosure of investors’ requests to communicate) and remove the prior investment-grade rating requirement in order to reduce undue reliance on credit ratings. The rule will become effective on November 24, 2014.

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Eastern District Court Of Texas Enjoins Bitcoin Investment Scheme And Orders Founder To Pay Civil Penalty

On September 18, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas held that the defendant’s bitcoin investment program was a Ponzi scheme, and enjoined the founder and the investment program from violating Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Sections 5 and 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933. S.E.C. v. Shavers, No. 4:13-CV-416 (E.D. Tex. Sep. 18, 2014). The court ruled that the founder knowingly and intentionally operated the bitcoin investment program as a sham and Ponzi scheme by repeatedly making misrepresentations, both to investors and potential investors alike, concerning: (i) the use of their bitcoins; (ii) how he planned to generate the promised returns; and (iii) the safety of the investments. The founder used new bitcoins received from investors to make payments on outstanding bitcoin investments, and diverted investors’ bitcoins for his own personal use. The court granted Plaintiff’s uncontested motion for summary judgment or, in the alternative, for default judgment, and, in addition to the injunctions, ordered Defendants jointly and severally liable for disgorgement of approximately $40 million in profits, and ordered each Defendant to pay civil penalties in the amount of $150,000.

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Eastern District Court of Texas Holds that Bitcoin Investments Are Securities

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.

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SEC Approves Final ABS And NRSRO Rules

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.

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Federal, State Mortgage-Related Investigations Yield Largest Ever Civil Settlement

On August 21, the DOJ announced that a large financial institution agreed to resolve federal and state mortgage-related claims through what the DOJ characterized as the largest ever civil settlement with a single entity. The agreement actually resolves numerous federal and state investigations related to various alleged practices conducted by the institution and certain former and current subsidiaries that it acquired during the financial crisis. Such allegations relate to the packaging, marketing, sale, arrangement, structuring, and issuance of RMBS and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), as well as the underwriting and origination of mortgage loans. In total, the institution agreed to pay $9.65 billion in penalties and fines and provide $7 billion in relief to borrowers. Of the more than $9 billion in civil payments, $5 billion resolves several DOJ investigations related to RMBS and CDOs under FIRREA, as well as the allegedly fraudulent origination of loans sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or insured by the FHA. The origination investigations centered on alleged violations of the False Claims Act in the selling of, or seeking of government insurance for, loans alleged to be defective. Other penalty payments resolve RMBS-related claims by the SEC, the FDIC, and several states. In total, the state participants will receive nearly $1 billion, with California and New York obtaining the largest amounts at $300 million each. An independent monitor will be appointed to oversee the borrower relief provisions, which will require the institution to: (i) offer principal reduction loan modifications; (ii) make loans to “credit worthy borrowers struggling to obtain a loan”; (iii) make donations to certain communities harmed during the financial crisis; and (iv) provide financing for affordable rental housing. The institution also agreed to provide funding to defray any tax liability that will be incurred by borrowers who receive certain types of relief if Congress fails to extend the tax relief coverage of the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007.

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Federal Appeals Court Affirms Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Protections Do Not Apply Outside U.S.

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.

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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.”

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SEC Approves FINRA Rule To Prohibit Conditioning Customer Settlements On Expungement

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.

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FINRA Targets Brokers’ Routing Of Orders

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.”

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