This is the third in a series of seven posts about regulatory compliance priorities and enforcement trends. The first post was about the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). Last week’s post was about the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Today’s post will be about the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC). On Thursday January 11, the post will be about the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). On Thursday January 18, the post will be about the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). On Thursday January 25, the post will be about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Finally, on Thursday February 1, the post will be about the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) is the US regulator charged with enforcing federal securities laws and supervising the securities industry, including the market exchanges. The SEC was created in 1934 by the Securities Exchange Act, which is one of the bodies of federal securities law it is now responsible for enforcing. Other significant statutes within the purview of the SEC include the Investment Company Act of 1940 (regulating registration and conduct of investment companies), the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (regulating registration and conduct of investment advisory organizations), and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (regulating accounting practices of public companies and ensuring investor protection).
As indicated by this last piece of legislation, which was introduced into law in the aftermath of a series of corporate scandals such as the Enron bankruptcy, the regulatory scope of the SEC has grown in both breadth and depth as a reaction to financial frauds and crises of the last two decades. This increased emphasis on the role of the SEC in reaction to these events aligns with the SEC’s mandate, which is three-pronged: investor protection, maintenance of fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and facilitation of capital formation. Ensuring that investors can retrieve and rely on information provided by public companies and in the markets in order to make their investment decisions is a major priority for the SEC. Maintaining a level playing field in the markets is therefore the SEC’s objective, and preventing or eliminating market abuse and unfair corporate practices contributes to achieving this goal.
From both its Washington, D.C. headquarters and its regional office, the SEC offers education programs, promulgates rules and guidelines, conducts investigations, supervises self-regulatory organizations in the trading and markets industries, oversees disclosures by public companies, and brings enforcement actions in light of suspected violations of federal securities laws and regulations. Based on this diverse range of activities, the SEC is responsible for exacting competent authority over a wide variety of issues and interests that comprise its regulatory agenda and rule-enforcement practices.
- Cryptocurrencies: The hot topic of 2017, digital currencies derived from blockchain technology such as bitcoin and Ethereum will likely endure in the public attention in 2018 as well. Regulators worldwide have sounded a cautious note about the potential risks of the cryptocurrency markets, and widespread legitimate use of the payment service technology as a disruptor to the banking sector is still in its infancy. There is no unitary approach to protection of users who transact in cryptocurrencies on platforms that do not treat them as customers and supervision of markets where companies use initial coin offerings (ICOs) to offer their tokens without the rigors of securities registration to the public. Innovation has been prioritized over strict supervision; some balance between the two, rather than supremacy of one over the other, needs to be struck. The SEC has issued a concise and clear statement on its preliminary opinion of cryptocurrencies, stopping short of bringing them all into their regulatory scope as securities but providing definitive guidance on its views and a clear indication of the direction its future treatment could take: The SEC Chair’s Cryptocurrency Warning: 5 Things to Know
- Whistleblowers in Silicon Valley: As discussed in this previous post about the CFTC, the SEC has a powerhouse whistleblower program. This has enabled the SEC to encourage individuals to step forward to anonymously report misconduct, corruption, and fraud in exchange for employment protections and compensation. Due to the concentration of the SEC on the securities industry, traditionally these whistleblowers have come from the financial services industry (for an overview of some significant whistleblowers in recent history from this sector, check out this post). However, there’s a new proving ground for whistleblowers who may stand to take advantage of the SEC’s program: Silicon Valley. Venture capital firms and huge private companies which take funds from investment companies or individuals – including Uber, Airbnb, and many other digital giants – are all subject to the rule-making and enforcement authority of the SEC: Silicon Valley could be the next hotspot for SEC whistleblowers
- Cybersecurity as facilitation of market abuse: 2017 was the year of several very public and damaging scandals involving cybersecurity lapses and data breaches. It remains to be seen in 2018 how the disclosure and reporting expectations and requirements for companies suffering hacks and intrusions may be refined or expanded in the wake of public outrage. One concerning theme which emerged in a number of the cases was the perception of or possibility for insider dealing. This was either due to material knowledge of company executives about the breaches before they were publicized or the theft of financial data by hackers. The SEC’s Market Abuse Unit’s Analysis and Detection Center will probably keep busy identifying and analysing patterns in trades that could be suspicious due to their connection or temporal proximity to cyberattacks: SEC, DOJ charge seven with insider trading off stolen bank data
- Prioritizing investor protection amid regulatory rollback: Ponzi schemes, misrepresentations to investors, and fraudulent corporate practices are not going to vanish from the markets any time soon. In fact, as business becomes increasingly global and complex in nature, the risks of these events only grows. At the same time, the overall trend in the United States is toward a regulatory ebb. The emphasis is on leaner and more targeted regulatory action rather than an expanded or wide-ranging supervisory framework. The question remains how major cases such as the SEC’s recent suit against Woodbridge Group over a massive Ponzi scheme will be handled amid this regulatory relaxation: SEC sues bankrupt Woodbridge Group over $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme
- Enforcement decline: Finally, and on a related note, many recent commentators have pointed to a decline in SEC enforcement actions as evidence that the agency’s regulatory touch will be diminished in the near term. However, these numbers may be deceptive; indeed, it could be true instead that this perceived decline is not due to regulatory inaction but quite the contrary. Instead, it could be because of pipeline efficiency in clearing investigation and enforcement actions in the recent period: Has The SEC Gone Soft Under Trump? Enforcement Actions Are Down, But That’s Deceptive
Be sure to check back next week for a round-up on FDA regulatory compliance.