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US Securities and Corporate Governance

Securities Enforcement

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SEC Division of Enforcement No Longer Recommending Settlement Offers Contingent on Waivers

In a Statement released on February 11, 2021, Acting SEC Chair Allison Herren Lee announced that, in a return to the longstanding practice of the SEC Division of Enforcement (the “Division”), the Division will no longer recommend a settlement offer conditioned on the grant to the company of a waiver from automatic disqualifications triggered by certain securities law violations and sanctions.  Such automatic disqualifications can, for example, prevent a company from being considered a Well-Known Seasoned Issuer (WKSI), engaging in certain private securities offerings under Rule 506 of Regulation D, and serving in certain capacities for an investment company.

In taking this action, Acting Chair Lee noted that while in many instances a waiver may be appropriate, the waiver determination should, as a policy matter, be made separately from considerations relating to the settlement of an enforcement case.  She further noted that waivers should not be used as a bargaining chip in settlement negotiations, and that reinforcing this critical separation ensures that both processes are fair and that consideration of requested waivers is “forward-looking and focused on protecting investors, the market, and market participants from those who fail to comply with the law.”  Going forward, waiver requests will be reviewed by the SEC’s Divisions of Corporation Finance and Investment Management under standards separate from the law enforcement mandate.

Lessons from GameStop: Small Investors “100% Don’t Care” About Risk

Like KC Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes eating green beans in a recent commercial, even though he “100% [doesn’t] like them,” it appeared the Reddit r/WallStreetBets group that banded together to buy GameStop shares “100% don’t care” about market risk and potential investment losses.  

Inspired by social media cheerleaders, thousands of small investors acted with irrational exuberance, driving the share price from less than $20 on January 15, 2021 to $483 on January 28, 2021 before it closed that day below $200, and plummeted more than 40% to $53 on February 4.  

Average investors watched in disbelief as trading markets were turned upside down by investors who appeared to ignore financial and other disclosures, disregarding the risks of possible complete loss of their investments.

Understandably, the executives of GameStop and some players on the social media investor radar screen have so far declined to comment.  The social media blitz was completely outside control of the issuer’s management and they likely don’t have sufficient information to attempt to explain it.  To wit, one of GameStop’s reactions to the inexplicable volatility was to restrict trading in its shares.

Regardless of how this saga ultimately ends for GameStop, it has raised important questions like whether a company should keep its trading window closed even after earnings are announced and the company has disclosed all material nonpublic information.  Normally, there “ought not” be any liability concerns for an issuer in such a situation, but that could be risky when judged in hindsight.  Large

Defense Bill Significantly Bolsters SEC’s Disgorgement Authority

Introduction

The National Defense Authorization Act (“NDAA”) became law on January 1, 2021 after Congress overrode a presidential veto of the legislation. While the NDAA appropriates funds for defense-related activities and the then-President objected to the legislation based primarily on collateral issues like liability for online content, the Act also will have a significant impact on securities law enforcement.  The legislation included language that significantly bolsters the power of the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) to obtain disgorgement of ill-gotten gains from securities law violators who are unjustly enriched. This is a reversal of fortune for the SEC, which has lost a string of recent notable court cases that curtailed its disgorgement authority.

Summary

The NDAA’s SEC-friendly provisions both solidify the agency’s authority to obtain disgorgement through its enforcement actions and provide a materially longer statute of limitations in which the SEC can file these actions. First, Section 6501 of the NDAA amends Section 21(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”) to expressly authorize the SEC to obtain disgorgement as a remedy for violations of the securities laws. Prior to this amendment, the Exchange Act authorized the SEC to seek “any equitable relief that may be necessary or appropriate,”1 and courts routinely awarded the agency disgorgement as an equitable remedy. But this longstanding practice was hampered by two recent Supreme Court opinions, Kokesh v. SEC and Liu v. SEC.

In Kokesh, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that disgorgement constituted a “penalty” rather than “equitable relief” and was therefore subject to the five-year statute

SEC Rule 144 Proposals Target “Toxic” Convertible Securities and Paper Filings

Last week the SEC proposed to amend Rule 144 in order to:

  • Eliminate tacking for shares underlying market-adjustable securities of unlisted companies
  • Update and simplify certain filing requirements, including mandating electronic filing of Form 144s

Elimination of tacking for shares underlying market-adjustable securities of unlisted companies

The proposals would amend Rule 144(d)(3)(ii) to eliminate “tacking” for securities acquired upon the conversion or exchange of the market-adjustable securities of an unlisted company – that is, a company without any securities listed, or approved for listing, on a national securities exchange. As a result, the holding period for the underlying securities — either six months for securities issued by a reporting company or one year for securities issued by a non-reporting company — would not begin until the conversion or exchange of the market-adjustable securities.

In the SEC’s view, the change is needed because applying Rule 144 “tacking” provisions to market-adjustable securities undermines one of the key premises of Rule 144, which is that holding securities at risk for an appropriate period of time prior to resale can demonstrate that the seller did not purchase the securities with a view to distribution and as a result is not an underwriter for the purpose of Securities Act Section 4(a)(1).

In transactions involving market-adjustable securities, the discounted conversion or exchange features in these securities typically provide holders with protection against investment losses that would occur due to declines in the market value of the underlying securities prior to conversion or exchange. Often,

SEC affirms NYSE rule changes allowing primary capital raises by issuers in direct listings

Yesterday, by another 3-2 vote, the SEC approved changes to NYSE listing rules relating to primary direct listings after conducting a “de novo” review following objections raised by certain investors and commentators.

In August, using delegated authority, the SEC’s Division of Trading and Markets had approved changes to NYSE listing rules to allow companies to raise capital in connection with a direct listing on the NYSE without a firm commitment offering.  Shortly afterwards, the SEC notified the NYSE that the rule changes had been stayed following receipt of notice from the Council of Institutional Investors (CII) that the CII was submitting a petition for a full Commission review of the delegated approval by the Division.

The Commission conducted a de novo review, considering the CII petition and comments submitted.  The majority decided to affirm the rule change – described in our earlier post – as consistent with applicable law.  The CII’s principal concerns, which were shared by Commissioners Lee and Crenshaw, related to:

  • The lack of an underwriter and corresponding due diligence, resulting in reduced investor protection
  • The reduced ability for shareholders to recover damages for false or misleading disclosures, due to the judicial doctrine of “traceability,” under which courts have held that plaintiffs lack standing to pursue claims if they cannot trace their purchased shares back to the offering covered by the registration statement

In response to these concerns, the SEC majority concluded:

  • Primary direct listings will be registered under the Securities Act and subject

SEC Shows no Goodwill for Issuer

December 16, 2020

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SEC Shows no Goodwill for Issuer

December 16, 2020

Authored by: Ashley Ebersole

The SEC sued Sequential Brands on December 11 in Manhattan federal court, alleging that it failed to accurately calculate and disclose impairments to its goodwill in 2016 and early 2017.  According to the Complaint, this resulted in Sequential’s misleading investors by filing incomplete periodic reports, and failing to maintain both accurate books and records or a system of accounting controls to assure accurate transaction reporting.      

Goodwill is an intangible asset recorded when one company pays more than net fair value to purchase another company.  GAAP mandates that acquiring companies assess potential impairments to their goodwill at least once a year and after any “triggering events,” and that any impairments to goodwill be recorded.  As alleged in the SEC’s Complaint, Sequential‘s annual goodwill testing beginning in fall 2016 that identified no goodwill impairment.  But weeks later, the company performed two additional internal calculations in December 2016 using the same methodology employed in its annual testing (and described in public filings).  These calculations indicated that Sequential’s goodwill was likely impaired, but the company did not share these results with its auditor.  The SEC alleges that rather than recording this impairment, Sequential performed a third, qualitative assessment that concluded goodwill was not impaired, but failed to account for internal fair value calculations and significant negative developments in its business.  Sequential thus avoided recording any goodwill impairment in 2016, which the Complaint says preserved its operating income at an inflated level, conveyed a false impression of financial health, and led to its filing

SEC Penalizes Public Company for Misleading Disclosures of COVID-19 Impact

In its first enforcement action against a public company for misleading disclosures regarding COVID-19’s business impact, the SEC released a December 4 Order Instituting Proceedings against The Cheesecake Factory Inc. and accepted its offer of settlement for a civil penalty of $125,000.  The charges arose from conduct in the period as the COVID-19 pandemic was first spreading across the United States.

As recounted in the SEC’s Order, Cheesecake Factory repeatedly made 8-K current report filings in March and April 2020.  Those disclosures presented a misleading optimistic assessment that its restaurants were “operating sustainably at present” under an off-premises (takeout and delivery) dining model.  The Order further detailed that the restaurant chain’s “operating sustainably” assessment failed to account for corporate expenses, and its misleadingly positive portrayal was contrary to the reality that Cheesecake Factory was losing $6 million cash per week and its cash on hand could support only a few more months of operations.  Finally, in the latest iteration of “you cannot characterize as a possibility that which has already occurred,” Cheesecake Factory was penalized for the March disclosure that it was “evaluating additional measures to further preserve financial flexibility.”  This omitted that the company had already determined to take some measures, as exemplified by its late March notification to landlords that it would not be making April rent payments.

While just the first of its kind, this action is consistent with the Division of Corporation Finance’s March 25, 2020 Disclosure Guidance that cautioned reporting companies regarding disclosure

The SEC Experiments: Proposed Amendments to Include Certain Gig Workers in Compensatory Offerings under Rule 701 and Form S-8

The SEC recently voted to approve proposed amendments to Rule 701 and Form S-8 governing the offer or sale of securities to employees through compensation programs.  The proposed amendments provide for a temporary, five-year expansion of Rule 701 and Form S-8 to permit public and private companies to issue securities as compensation to certain “platform,” or “gig” workers, subject to various conditions.

Rule 701 provides an exemption from registration under the Securities Act of 1933, as amended, for the sale of securities by privately held companies to compensate employees, consultants, advisors and certain others under written compensatory benefit plans or written agreements.  Form S-8 is used by SEC reporting companies to register the sale of public company securities to employees, consultants and advisors.  Neither Rule 701 nor Form S-8 currently covers issuances to platform workers.

The proposed amendments to Rule 701 would allow a non-reporting company to offer and sell securities to “platform workers,” who are defined in the amended rules as workers who, pursuant to a written contract or agreement, provide services to an issuer or a third party through the issuer’s “internet-based marketplace platform or through another widespread, technology-based marketplace platform or system.”  The proposed amendments to Form S-8 would permit a reporting issuer to include that same category of workers in compensatory offerings registered on Form S-8.  The proposed amendments also include conditions that are designed to limit the possibility that the amended rules could result in offers and sales of securities for capital-raising, rather than

SEC Proposes Significant Amendments to Rule 701 and Form S-8 to Better Align with Current Employment Practices

The SEC recently approved proposed amendments to rules governing the offer or sale of securities to employees through compensation programs. The proposed changes to Rule 701 — which exempts sales of securities by privately held companies made to compensate employees, consultants and advisors — and Form S-8 – which is the form used to register the sale of public company securities to employees and others — are designed to modernize the framework for compensatory securities offerings in light of the significant evolution in such offerings and the composition of today’s workforce.

We have prepared a client alert describing the amendments that can be found here.

New SEC Enforcement Priorities Likely Under Biden Administration

November 18, 2020

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BCLP Washington Partner Ashley Ebersole was quoted Nov. 13 by Compliance Week regarding possible new enforcement priorities at the Securities and Exchange Commission under a Biden administration. Much will hinge on selection of a new SEC chairman, as current Chairman Jay Clayton has announced his intent to step down at year end before his term officially is scheduled to end in June 2021. “Selection of the new SEC chair, whether from inside the agency or outside, will signal much in terms of the likely approach,” said Ebersole, a former SEC attorney. He also noted that compliance officers “should be prepared for a continued SEC enforcement focus on pursuing fraud involving Main Street investors, but also a likely redoubling of efforts to sanction conduct by financial institutions.”

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