Commissioners Peirce and Roisman criticize “unduly broad view” of “internal accounting controls” in Andeavor
In October, the SEC settled charges against Andeavor, an energy company formerly traded on the NYSE and now wholly owned by Marathon Petroleum, in connection with stock repurchases authorized by its board in 2015 and 2016. (See this PubCo post.) Pursuant to that authorization, in 2018, Andeavor’s CEO had directed the legal department to establish a Rule 10b5-1 plan to repurchase company shares worth $250 million. At the time, however, Andeavor’s CEO was on the verge of meeting with the CEO of Marathon Petroleum to resume previously stalled negotiations on an acquisition of Andeavor at a substantial premium. After Andeavor’s legal department concluded that the company did not possess material nonpublic information about the acquisition, Andeavor went ahead with the stock repurchase. Rather than attempting to build a 10b-5 case based on a debatably defective 10b5-1 plan, the SEC opted instead to make its point with allegations that Andeavor had failed to maintain an effective system of internal control procedures in violation of Exchange Act Section 13(b)(2)(B). On Friday, the SEC posted the joint statement of SEC Commissioners Hester Peirce and Elad Roisman, who voted against the settled action, explaining the reasons for their dissents. In sum, they contend that, in the action, the SEC took an “unduly broad view of Section 13(b)(2)(B).”
A couple of weeks ago, the SEC settled charges against Andeavor, an energy company formerly traded on the NYSE and now wholly owned by Marathon Oil, in connection with stock repurchases, authorized by its board in 2015 and 2016. Pursuant to that authorization, in 2018, Andeavor’s CEO directed the legal department to establish a Rule 10b5-1 plan to repurchase company shares worth $250 million. At the time, however, the company’s CEO was on the verge of meeting with the CEO of Marathon Oil to resume previously stalled negotiations on an acquisition of Andeavor at a substantial premium. Of course, a 10b5-1 plan typically doesn’t work to protect against insider trading charges if you have material inside information when you establish the plan, and the SEC’s order highlights facts that, from the SEC’s perspective, make the information appear material—at least in hindsight. But wait—this isn’t even an insider trading case. No, it’s a case about inadequate internal controls—at least, that’s how it ended up. Instead of attempting to make a 10b-5 case based on a debatably defective 10b5-1 plan, the SEC opted instead to make its point by focusing on the failure to maintain effective internal control procedures and comply with them. Companies may want to take note that charges related to violations of the rules regarding internal controls and disclosure controls seem to be increasingly part of the SEC’s Enforcement playbook, making it worthwhile for companies to emphasize, in the words of SEC Chair Jay Clayton, the practice of “good corporate hygiene.”
In his keynote address to Securities Enforcement Forum West 2020, SEC Enforcement Co-Director Steven Peikin discussed some of the efforts of the Division of Enforcement to detect misconduct arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic and related market disruption, including the formation of a steering committee to proactively identify and monitor areas of potential misconduct. Of particular interest here are the focus on insider trading and financial and disclosure-related fraud.
Today, the Co-Directors of the SEC Division of Enforcement, Stephanie Avakian and Steven Peikin, issued a brief cautionary statement regarding market integrity in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic. The statement acknowledged the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 on the securities markets and emphasized the importance of “maintaining market integrity and following corporate controls and procedures.”
As reported on Columbia Law School’s Blog on Corporations and the Capital Markets, the Bharara Task Force on Insider Trading, chaired by former U.S. Attorney for the SDNY, Preet Bharara, and comprising former U.S. Attorneys and staff, academics and judges, has now issued its report and recommendations. The objective of the Task Force was to address the problem that insider trading law “has suffered—and continues to suffer—from uncertainty and ambiguity to a degree not seen in other areas of law, with elements of the offense defined by—and at times, evolving with—court opinions applying particular fact patterns.” Why is that? Because insider trading law is not defined by statute and has instead “developed through a series of fact-specific court decisions applying the general anti-fraud provisions of our securities laws across a broadening set of conduct.” The result has been a lack of clarity that “has left market participants without sufficient guidance” on how to avoid, or defend against, insider trading, made it more difficult for prosecutors to establish their cases and given the public “reason to question the fairness and integrity of our securities markets.”
In 2015, an academic study, reported in the WSJ, showed that corporate insiders consistently beat the market in their companies’ shares in the four days preceding 8-K filings, the period that the researchers called the “8-K trading gap.” The study also showed that, when insiders engaged in open market purchases—relatively unusual transactions for insiders—during that trading gap, insiders “are correct about the directional impact of the 8-K filing more often than not—and that the probability that this finding is the product of random chance is virtually zero.” The WSJ article reported that, after reviewing the study, Representative Carolyn Maloney, D.N.Y., a member of the House Financial Services Committee, characterized the results as “troubling” and said she was preparing legislation to address the issue. Five years later, in January 2020, by a vote of 384 to 7, the House has passed HR 4335, the “8-K Trading Gap Act of 2019.” A substantially similar bill has been introduced in the Senate. Given the remarkably bipartisan vote in the House—and assuming that the legislation isn’t suddenly tinged with politics—the bill appears likely to pass in the Senate as well…sometime.
In remarks on Thursday of last week to the Tulane Corporate Law Institute, SEC Commissioner Robert Jackson discussed what he termed to be “the most pressing issue in corporate governance today: the rising cyber threat.” To support his characterization, Jackson reports that, in 2016, there were over 1,000 data breaches with an aggregate cost of over $100 billion, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center. And the issue has “rocketed to the top of the corporate agenda”: “One recent study showed that nearly two-thirds of executives identified cyber threats as a top-five risk to their company’s future. That shows how quickly this has become a board-level issue.”
In Senate testimony, SEC Chair offers insights into his thinking on a variety of issues before the SEC
In testimony last week before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, SEC Chair Jay Clayton gave us some insight into his thinking about a number of issues, including cybersecurity at the SEC, cybersecurity disclosure, the regulatory agenda, disclosure effectiveness, the shareholder proposal process, climate change disclosure, conflict minerals, compulsory arbitration provisions, stock buybacks, the decline in IPOs and overregulation (including some interesting sparring with Senator Warren). Whether any of the topics identified as problematic result in actual rulemaking—particularly in an administration with a deregulatory focus—is an open question.
by Cydney Posner In a case decided unanimously today, Salman v. United States, SCOTUS upheld the Ninth Circuit affirmation of Bassam Salman’s conviction for insider trading, “adher[ing] to Dirks, which easily resolves the narrow issue presented here.”