The SEC’s 2017 Enforcement Priorities And Results

No more broken windows!  In a series of speeches by various top brass at the SEC followed by the publication of the SEC Enforcement Division 2017 Report on results and priorities, the SEC has confirmed both directly and through its actions that the era of “broken windows” enforcement is over. The broken windows policy was first shepherded by Mary Jo White in 2013 and was one in which the SEC committed to pursue infractions big and small and to investigate, review and monitor all activities. The idea was that small infractions lead to bigger infractions, and the securities markets have had the reputation that minor violations are overlooked, creating a culture where laws were treated as meaningless guidelines.

Michael Piwowar has been a critic of broken windows since its inception. In a speech to the Securities Enforcement Forum in 2014, Mr. Piwowar stated, “[I]f every rule is a priority, then no rule is a priority.” He continued, “[I]f you create an environment in which regulatory compliance is the most important objective for market participants, then we will have lost sight of the underlying purpose for having regulation in the first place. Rather than enabling vital and important economic activity, we will have unnecessarily shackled it – and our country will be far worse off from the absence of such activity.”

Given the power to make a change, Commissioner Michael Piwowar and Chair Jay Clayton have signaled an adjustment in enforcement priorities throughout the year. In February 2017, then acting Chair Michael Piwowar revoked the subpoena authority from SEC staff, leaving the Division of Enforcement with the sole authority to approve a formal order of investigation and issue subpoenas. Mr. Piwowar had been a vocal critic of both the staff subpoena power and the manner in which the power was created since its inception. He has also been a vocal critic of the SEC’s investigative power, believing it has too much power and too little oversight. For more on the SEC subpoena power, Mr. Piwowar’s views, and the early stage setting for the current enforcement priorities.

In his October 4, 2017 testimony on the SEC’s Agenda, Operations and Budget before the Committee on Financial Services, Chair Jay Clayton reiterated his commitment to rooting out bad actors and fraud, including pump-and-dump schemes, insider trading, and serious reporting and disclosure violations. Certainly, a review of published enforcement proceedings has illustrated that commitment. Mr. Clayton also laid the groundwork for more focused enforcement, stating, “I have asked the Division of Enforcement to evaluate regularly whether we are focusing appropriately on retail investor fraud and investment professional misconduct, insider trading, market manipulation, accounting fraud and cyber matters. I believe our Main Street investors would want us to focus on these areas.”

In July 2017, Chair Clayton announced a top priority and philosophy of protecting “Main Street investors,” which buzzwords are now repeated often in SEC communications, including press releases and speeches.

On October 26, 2017, Steven Peikin, co-director of the SEC Division of Enforcement, confirmed the death knell for the broken windows policy. In a speech, Mr. Peiken told conference attendees that the SEC would “have to be selective and bring a few cases to send a broader message rather than seep the entire field.” Mr. Peiken also suggested stronger communication between the Division of Enforcement and investigative targets, and an environment that fosters cooperation. In that regard, the SEC should communicate the benefits of cooperation and specifically how a company can merit cooperation credit. In that regard, the SEC will again encourage self-reporting and remediation, a prior policy that lost its wind in the 2001 Enron crisis.

Clearly, the change is driven by more than philosophy. The SEC budget has effectively been frozen, and more money needs to be spent on cybersecurity matters than ever before.  The SEC Division of Enforcement could have at least 100 fewer investigators and supervisors over the next year, as those lost to attrition will not be replaced.

Mary Jo White’s policy of forcing admissions of guilt in enforcement settlements may also have reached its pinnacle. In June 2013, the SEC announced that it would require that a settling party admit wrongdoing as part of a settlement to act as a further deterrent and bolster public accountability. In addition to reputational damage, this policy had legal evidentiary significance that could be used in civil matters, including shareholder lawsuits.

In his October 2017 speech, Mr. Piekin talked about the admissions policy, stating, “I think when people resolve cases with the commission [and] neither admit nor deny but agree to all the points of relief, I don’t think most people in the world say, ‘Boy, they really got away with that.’” That doesn’t mean the policy will disappear, but it may revert to its prior reiteration, where only those with related criminal cases will be asked for a guilt admission.

Division of Enforcement Annual Report on Results and Priorities

On November 15, 2017, the Division of Enforcement issued its annual report (Annual Report) on results and priorities, reiterating the mission and focus on the protection of Main Street investors. The Annual Report cites five core principles, including: (i) focus on Main Street (retail) investors, including accounting fraud, sales of unsuitable products, pursuit of unsuitable trading strategies, pump-and-dump schemes and Ponzi schemes; (ii) focus on individual accountability to maximize deterrence and prevent recidivists from continuing improper activities; (iii) keeping pace with technological changes, including all cybersecurity matters; (iv) imposing sanctions that support enforcement goals; and (v) constantly assessing the allocation of resources.

The Annual Report reiterates initiatives announced earlier this year, including the new Cyber Unit and Retail Strategy Task Force , while confirming its commitment to long-standing enforcement goals. The top current goals include risks posed by cyber-related misconduct; issues raised by the activities of investment advisers, broker-dealers, and other registrants; financial reporting and disclosure issues involving public companies; and insider trading and market abuse.

During fiscal year ended (FYE) September 2017, the SEC brought 754 enforcement proceedings,  returned $1.07 billion to harmed investors and obtained judgment and orders for more than $3.789 billion in disgorgement and penalties. During FYE ended September 2016, the SEC brought 868 actions and obtained judgements and orders for more than $4 billion in disgorgement and penalties.

Broken down by type of case, the most cases were brought related to issuer reporting violations including audit and accounting problems, followed by securities offerings, then investment advisor or investment company violations, then broker-dealer violations, followed by insider trading, then market manipulation. A number of cases were also brought for public finance abuse, FCPA violations and transfer agent issues.

Interestingly, the SEC suspended trading in 309 companies in FYE 2017, a 55% increase from 2016. Trading suspensions are generally related to market manipulation and microcap fraud, and are a very successful tool to stop these problems in their tracks. Asset freezes were pretty even in both years, with 35 court-ordered asset freezes in 2017 and 33 in 2017. Likewise, the imposition of bars and suspensions has remained a constant, with 625 in 2017 and 650 in 2016.