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In brief

Based on public statements, including a recent speech discussing the operation of the Division of Enforcement’s COVID-19 Steering Committee (Enforcement speech), it is clear that the SEC Enforcement Staff (the Staff) is already thinking ahead to the types of enforcement investigations and actions that may follow the COVID-19 Crisis. In doing so, the Staff likely will draw on its experience following the 2008 global financial crisis (2008 Crisis) to identify potential patterns of misconduct that occur during periods of extraordinary market volatility and financial stress. Below we discuss the various areas that the SEC Enforcement Division is currently focused on, as well as our analysis of the enforcement actions arising out of the 2008 Crisis, with a particular focus on the asset management industry.


Contents

As discussed below, a key lesson from the 2008 Crisis is that public companies and asset managers, even in the midst of tackling the immediate problems of a crisis, should develop the situational awareness to identify conduct or deficiencies that may be subject to hindsight scrutiny by the SEC. And when issues are identified, firms should take reasonable steps to document their processes and analyses, augment or amend their policies and/or disclosures and make necessary adjustments to their business and plans to protect clients and/or investors, so when the SEC comes knocking after this crisis, they can demonstrate their good faith judgment and efforts.

Enforcement actions arising from the 2008 Crisis may inform COVID-19 cases

When we reviewed prior enforcement actions from the 2008 Crisis, we found they generally shared one or more of the following themes:

  • Failure to adequately disclose “bad news” in the face of red flags, including a variety of valuation and liquidity issues
  • Crisis, as a form of real life stress test, with the result that certain products or investments are exposed as riskier than represented (either at sale or in subsequent reporting or disclosures) or certain financial operations or controls are proven to be deficient
  • Actual “bad acts” taken in response to the crisis, such as insider trading, market abuse, risky trading strategies, and mismanagement of redemption requests

With these themes in mind, we expect that SEC enforcement investigations coming out of the COVID-19 Crisis will cover: (i) public companies with operations or finances impaired by the crisis; (ii) investment vehicles with underlying assets affected by the current crisis; and (iii) investment advisers and broker-dealers with business operations impacted by this crisis, or whose sales practices will be reviewed with the benefit of hindsight in the wake of market impacts from the crisis. These categories are not mutually exclusive, and some of the enforcement risks discussed below may apply to varying degrees for all market participants.

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*Originally published on Investment Adviser Association1

Author

Peter K.M. Chan is a member of Baker McKenzie’s North American Financial Regulation and Enforcement Practice, which provides our clients with a full range of regulatory advice and enforcement counseling. Peter brings two decades of experience at the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to his litigation and counseling work. His tenure at the SEC, as well as a stint as Special Assistant US Attorney in the Northern District of Illinois, have given Peter experience with civil and criminal matters. At the SEC, Peter served as assistant regional director in the Chicago regional office, where he led investigations and litigations of high-profile enforcement cases. In the course of his SEC career, he handled corporate issuer disclosure and reporting violations, financial fraud, auditor independence violations, insider trading, broker-dealer misconduct and failure to supervise cases, hedge fund and investment company fraud, and Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley violations. As the head of the Municipal Securities and Public Pensions Unit at the SEC's Chicago office, he oversaw cases involving municipalities and public pensions throughout the Midwest, including disclosure failures by states, cities, and underwriters in municipal bond offerings; pay-to-play and public corruption; and securities fraud victimizing municipalities and public pensions. Peter also served in national leadership roles within the SEC's Enforcement Division. Peter acted as national leader of the Municipalities Continuing Disclosure Cooperation (MCDC) Initiative. He also served as co-chair of the Priorities and Resources Subcommittee of the Division of Enforcement Advisory Committee and was one of the original architects of the SEC Financial Reporting and Audit Task Force. Peter's experience in criminal securities fraud cases includes serving as Special Assistant US Attorney in the Northern District of Illinois in a criminal investigation into market abuse by a Chicago broker-dealer, resulting in guilty pleas by several senior executives at the firm. In 2014, Peter received the SEC's prestigious Paul R. Carey Award for his [e]xceptional personal commitment and effectiveness as a member of the Division of Enforcement.

Author

Jennifer L. Klass serves as the Co-chair of Baker McKenzie's Financial Regulation and Enforcement Practice in North America. Jen is an experienced investment management lawyer with particular focus on investment adviser regulation and the convergence of investment advisory and brokerage services. She regularly represents clients before the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), both in seeking interpretative guidance and in managing examination and enforcement matters. Jen is a leading practitioner in digital investment advice and the use of FinTech in the asset management industry. Jen provides practical advice that is informed by her experience as Vice President and Associate Counsel at Goldman, Sachs & Co., where she represented the asset management and private wealth management businesses.

Author

Amy serves as the Co-chair of Baker McKenzie’s North American Financial Regulation and Enforcement Practice, which provides our clients with a full range of regulatory advice and enforcement counseling. Previously, Amy has served as chief litigation counsel at the US Securities and Exchange Commission's (SEC) Philadelphia regional office and managed a team of lawyers overseeing a wide variety of enforcement matters and investigations.

Author

A. Valerie Mirko is a partner in Baker McKenzie’s Financial Regulation and Enforcement Practice Group in North America. Valerie has substantial experience in federal and state securities laws and regulations affecting the financial services industry, with a focus on the investment adviser and brokerage industries. Valerie has a background in both regulatory advice and enforcement counseling. Immediately prior to joining the Firm, Valerie was General Counsel of the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA). As General Counsel, Valerie advised NASAA’s Board of Directors on developments in the federal securities laws and their impact on state securities regulations. Valerie provided advice on, among other areas, the SEC Regulation Best Interest rule set, fiduciary duty/standards of care, preemption, retail enforcement issues, investment adviser oversight, and data privacy. She also supervised all of NASAA's securities-related legal work and was a resource on multistate enforcement investigations and settlements. Valerie also provided governance support on key NASAA Regtech projects and regulatory coordination initiatives between state and federal regulators. Valerie was a frequent speaker at regulator-only roundtables and training events. Earlier in her career, Valerie advised broker-dealers and investment advisers on regulatory matters and enforcement investigations as an associate at a Washington law firm and held legal and compliance roles at Oppenheimer & Co., Inc., and Merrill Lynch (now BofA Securities). Valerie is currently a member of the adjunct faculty at the George Washington University Law School and a subcommittee chair within the DC Bar Corporation, Finance, and Securities Law Community.