In April 2021, the SEC released several public statements that may have begun to cool a superheated SPAC market. FINRA soon followed suit, announcing in July 2021 a regulatory sweep aimed at SPACs. Now, for the first time, a criminal case has been filed in connection with a company that came to market as part of the 2020 SPAC explosion.
While 2021 has been exceptionally lucrative for SPAC sponsors – even more so than 2020’s “Year of the SPAC” – U.S. regulators appear emphatic that 2021 be the year of SPAC supervision. In April, the SEC released guidance on SPACs and related risks, highlighted by its novel argument that the entire lifespan of the SPAC – from IPO to deSPAC transaction – may be considered part of the offering for purposes of securities law liability. After this bombshell, it appears other regulators do not want to miss out on making their voices heard.
The SEC has continued to pursue a number of insider trading cases this year, both large-scale and small. Some of those matters involved trades that yielded relatively small amounts of profits: $40,000-$60,000. Why does the enforcement division spend resources on these smaller cases? First, they serve as a reminder that violations can be identified, even if trades are relatively small. And the cases are relatively easy to prove when a connection to an insider source can be readily identified. More importantly, these cases demonstrate that the SEC is uncovering new leads through data analysis.
It is worth noting that the FY 2018 budget recently published by the White House proposes eliminating the SEC’s annual $50 million “Reserve Fund,” created under Dodd-Frank and used to advance the SEC’s technological resources. Although the budget is unlikely to be passed in its current form, cutting this fund may affect the SEC’s funding to mine and analyze large data sets.
Last week, FINRA sought approval from the SEC for a proposed change to the FINRA arbitration rules, under which monetary awards requiring the parties to pay each other damages would be offset, so the party owing the larger award would be required to pay only the net difference. If the arbitrators do not intend monetary awards to be offset, they must specifically say so in the award.
In an April 15, 2016 speech to the Brookings Institution, FINRA CEO Richard G. Ketchum addressed the fundamental question of whether the equity markets are sufficiently fair, flexible, and efficient to encourage the participation of retail investors. Ketchum described the substantial concerns of some investors regarding these issues and outlined recent action by FINRA to alleviate these concerns, including the steps FINRA will take to assess a firm’s culture of compliance.
As we reported here, in its 2016 Regulatory and Examination Priorities Letter, FINRA recently announced a new initiative to formalize FINRA’s assessments of firm culture. The need to review broker-dealers’ cultural values with respect to compliance arose in the wake of repeated compliance breakdowns that have harmed investors. Ketchum’s speech to the Brookings Institution provides additional insight into these examinations.
The recently issued 2016 Regulatory and Examination Priorities Letter discloses FINRA’s new initiatives on market integrity and firm culture and reflects a focus on firms’ supervision regarding conflicts of interest and technology. Regulatory concern over many of these issues has been previously reported in this blog here, here, here and here.
The FINRA Dispute Resolution Task Force issued its final report last week, making certain recommendations designed to improve the arbitration process. More notably, however, the Task Force reported that it was unable to reach agreement on a number of more controversial issues, reflecting deep divisions among practitioners in this area.
Reflecting increased regulatory willingness to discipline principals and supervisors, FINRA recently announced that it had imposed an industry bar on the former president of a defunct broker-dealer, along with five registered representatives who likewise were barred in all capacities. FINRA also barred two former principals from continuing to act in a principal capacity and imposed additional sanctions on other former employees.