Attorney: Tamar A. Weinrib
Pomerantz Monitor November/December 2015
At a conference last year, SEC Chair Mary Jo White began by asserting that “strong enforcement of our securities laws is critical to protecting investors and maintaining their confidence and to safeguarding the stability of our markets.” She went on to suggest that one of the SEC’s primary roles is to “bring wrongdoers to account and to send the strongest possible message of deterrence to would-be fraudsters.”
However, often the message sent is hardly one of deterrence. Many an SEC settlement amounts to nothing more than a mere “cost of business” for the wrongdoer, which is ultimately borne by the shareholders, particularly where the settlement terms do not require any accountability. Indeed, it was for precisely this reason that Judge Rakoff initially rejected the SEC’s $285 million settlement with Citigroup in 2011 that stemmed from the bank’s sale of mortgage-backed securities that cost investors $700 million but yielded a $160 million profit for the bank. Judge Rakoff referred to the settlement, which required no admission of wrongdoing, as “pocket change.”
Although the SEC has obtained admissions of wrongdoing in some cases, the Citigroup settlement was not unique in its failure to require Citigroup to either admit or deny liability (indeed Judge Rakoff rejected a settlement between the SEC and Bank of America in 2009 for similar reasons) but it prompted Judge Rakoff to proclaim that it “is neither fair, nor reasonable, nor adequate, nor in the public interest.” Just last month, the SEC entered into yet another settlement with two units of Citigroup that holds no one at the bank accountable for selling municipal bonds to wealthy clients for six years as a safe money option despite the innate risk resulting from considerable leverage, which caused investors to lose an estimated $2 billion. This settlement, for $180 million, like the settlement in 2011, did not require Citigroup to either admit or deny wrongdoing. Once again, it is the innocent investors who will bear the settlement cost.
The SEC is not alone in its zeal to settle claims with no accountability. The New York State Attorney General announced a settlement with Bank of America and former CEO Ken Lewis in 2014 over statements made in connection with the 2008 BofA and Merrill Lynch merger. Specifically, the SEC accused BofA of failing to reveal the truth about $9 billion in losses at Merrill Lynch before voting to approve the merger. After the merger, BofA needed a federal bailout partly because of the increasing losses at Merrill Lynch, and investors suffered when shares took a nosedive. The $25 million settlement did not require any admission of wrongdoing by either BofA or Lewis. Moreover,
BofA ultimately paid the $10 million of the settlement amount that Lewis was supposed to pay. In other words,
Lewis walked away from the settlement unscathed and therefore undeterred. Settlements such as these are ineffectual at deterring future misconduct by either the settling party or other entities and executives.
The question, however, is what the consequences are of the alternative. There exists a particularly sharp double-edged sword when considering the nature of the “deterrent.” The obvious concern is that if regulators continue to enter settlements that require no admissions of wrongdoing, those settlements will unlikely deter future misconduct but rather create a cost of business that further victimizes, rather than protects, investors. However, on the flip side, if regulators were to require admissions of wrongdoing as a condition to any settlement, the risk is that far fewer such actions/investigations would result in a settlement. Companies hesitant to admit any wrongdoing lest an investor or other party use that admission against it in a private lawsuit will not as readily agree to settle, which will undoubtedly result in protracted and costly litigation with uncertain outcomes. The question is what is the true goal --- to deter future misconduct as regulators consistently proclaim or to settle as many actions as possible, thereby avoiding the costs of lengthy litigation and the withering of budgetary constraints?
Perhaps the greatest deterrent to securities fraud would be criminal prosecutions of individual wrongdoers, which is the prerogative of the Justice Department. The track record there has, if anything, been even spottier. The recent spate of insider trading convictions has been drastically undermined by the Second Circuit’s landmark ruling in the Newman case, which raises the bar dramatically for insider trading convictions. Other types of securities fraud criminal convictions of individuals are almost completely nonexistent.