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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Second Circuit Clarifies Standard For Reviewing Enforcement Agency Consent Judgments

On June 4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated and remanded a district court’s decision to reject a proposed settlement between the SEC and a financial institution in a securities fraud suit. SEC v. Citigroup Global Markets Inc., No. 11-5227, 2014 WL 2486793 (2d Cir, Jun. 6, 2014). In November 2011, the SEC and the financial institution entered into a consent judgment to resolve allegations that the institution violated securities laws in connection with certain mortgage-backed securities. Consistent with the SEC consent judgment convention at the time, the institution did not admit or deny any of the allegations as part of the agreement. Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York rejected the agreement and held that because the parties agreed to settle without the institution having to admit or deny any of the underlying factual allegations, the settlement would deprive the public “of ever knowing the truth in a matter of obvious public importance,” and the court lacked evidence sufficient to determine whether the agreement was in the public interest. On appeal, the Second Circuit held 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.” The court held that in evaluating whether an SEC consent decree is “fair and reasonable” one must review (i) the basic legality of the decree; (ii) whether the terms are clear; (iii) whether the decree resolves the actual claims in the complaint; and (iv) whether the decree is “tainted by improper collusion or corruption.” The court also ruled that the district court abused its discretion by requiring that the agreement establish the “truth” of the allegations, explaining that trials are meant to determine truth, while consent decrees are about “pragmatism.” Finally, the court held that the district court abused its discretion to the extent that it withheld approval of the settlement because it believes the SEC failed to bring the proper charges, which is the exclusive right of the SEC to decide.

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Senate Banking Committee Leaders Seek Regulators’ Views On Virtual Currencies

On May 19, the Senate Banking Committee’s chairman and ranking member, Senators Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Mike Crapo (R-ID), sent a letter to the leaders of the Treasury Department, the SEC, the CFTC, the OCC, the FDIC, and the Federal Reserve Board regarding recent developments in the use of virtual currencies and their interaction with the global payment system. The Senators ask the regulators a series of questions related to the role of virtual currencies in the U.S. banking system, payment system, and trading markets, and the current role of federal regulators in developing local, national, and international enforcement policies related to virtual currencies. The Senators also seek the agencies’ expectations on virtual currency firms’ BSA compliance, and ask whether an enhanced regulatory framework for virtual currencies is needed.

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DOJ, SEC Announce More Charges In Broker-Dealer Foreign Bribery Case

On April 14, the DOJ and the SEC announced additional charges in a previously announced case against employees of a U.S. broker-dealer related to an alleged “massive international bribery scheme.” The DOJ announced the arrest of the CEO and a managing partner of the New York-based U.S. broker-dealer on felony charges arising from an alleged conspiracy to pay bribes to a senior official in Venezuela’s state economic development bank in exchange for the official directing financial trading business to the broker-dealer. The SEC, whose routine compliance examination detected the allegedly illegal conduct, announced parallel civil charges against the same two executives. Broker-dealer employees charged earlier in the case pleaded guilty last August for conspiring to violate the FCPA, the Travel Act, and anti-money laundering laws, as well as for substantive counts of those offenses, relating, among other things, to the scheme involving bribe payments. In November 2013, the Venezuelan bank senior official pleaded guilty in Manhattan federal court for conspiring to violate the Travel Act and anti-money laundering laws, as well as for substantive counts of those offenses, for her role in the scheme.

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SEC Announces Cybersecurity Examination Initiative

On April 15, the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations announced that it will be conducting cybersecurity examinations of more than 50 registered broker-dealers and registered investment advisers. The examinations will assess each firm’s cybersecurity preparedness and collect information about the industry’s recent experiences with certain types of cyber threats. Specifically, examiners will focus on (i) cybersecurity governance; (ii) identification and assessment of cybersecurity risks; (iii) protection of networks and information; (iv) risks associated with remote customer access and funds transfer requests; (v) risks associated with vendors and other third parties; (vi) detection of unauthorized activity; and (vii) and experiences with certain cybersecurity threats. The SEC included with the announcement a sample document and information request it plans to use in this examination initiative.

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SEC Re-opens Comment Period On Asset-Backed Securities Proposals

On February 25, the SEC re-opened the comment period on two asset-backed securities proposals. Prior to passage of the Dodd-Frank Act, the SEC proposed to require that, with some exceptions, prospectuses for public offerings of asset-backed securities and ongoing Exchange Act reports contain specified asset-level information about each of the assets in the pool in a standardized tagged data format. In 2011, the SEC re-opened the comment period on those proposals given additional requirements included in the Dodd-Frank Act. During that comment period, some commenters raised concerns about the reporting of certain sensitive asset-level data. The SEC is now seeking additional comment on a potential method to address privacy concerns related to the dissemination of such information. The proposed method would require issuers to make asset-level information available to investors and potential investors through a Web site that would allow issuers to restrict access to information as necessary to address privacy concerns. Comments on the proposal are due by March 28, 2014.

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SEC Action Targets Unregistered Cross-Border Brokerage, Investment Advisory Services

On February 21, the SEC released an administrative order against a foreign financial institution that provided cross-border securities services to thousands of U.S. clients. The SEC asserted that the institution’s employees traveled to the U.S. to solicit clients, provide investment advice, and induce securities transactions despite not being registered to provide brokerage or advisory services. The order states that over a period of at least seven years, the institution served as many as 8,500 U.S. client accounts that contained an average total of $5.6 billion in securities assets. The institution admitted it was aware of federal broker-dealer and investment adviser registration requirements related to the provision of certain cross-border broker-dealer and investment adviser services to U.S. clients. After another foreign institution became subject to a federal investigation for similar activities, the institution began to exit the business, though the SEC order states it took years to do so. The order requires the company to disgorge more than $82 million, pay more than $64 million in prejudgment interest, and pay a $50 million civil penalty. In addition, the institution must retain an independent consultant to, among other things, confirm the institution has completed the termination of the business, and evaluate policies and procedures that could detect and prevent similar activity in the future.

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SEC Examinations To Target Never-Before Examined Investment Advisers

On February 20, the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) launched a previously-announced initiative directed at investment advisers that have never been examined, focusing on those that have been registered with the SEC for three or more years. OCIE plans to conduct examinations of a “significant percentage” of advisers that have not been examined since they registered with the SEC. The examinations will focus on compliance programs, filings and disclosure, marketing, portfolio management, and safekeeping of client assets. The SEC plans to host regional meetings for investment advisers to learn more about the examination process.

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SEC Announces Cybersecurity Roundtable

On February 14, the SEC announced that it will host a roundtable on March 26, 2014, to discuss cybersecurity challenges for market participants and public companies. The roundtable will be held at the SEC’s Washington, D.C. headquarters and will be open to the public and webcast live on the SEC’s website.

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