Enforcement cases, where the enforcers have total discretion about what to do, don't often motivate dissents from one of those enforcers, but one did recently before the SEC, in a case where a CPA CFO misstated earnings, and agreed to a Rule 102(e) suspension, or, if you like, a "wrist slap." Commissioner Aguillar thought that the CPA role was crucial.
Accountants—especially CPAs—serve as gatekeepers in our securities markets. They play an important role in maintaining investor confidence and fostering fair and efficient markets. When they serve as officers of public companies, they take on an even greater responsibility by virtue of holding a position of public trust.
Aguillar appears to be worried that CPAs are getting pled down into relatively innocent offenses even when there is strong evidence of intentional fraud.
I am concerned that this case is emblematic of a broader trend at the Commission where fraud charges—particularly non-scienter fraud charges—are warranted, but instead are downgraded to books and records and internal control charges. This practice often results in individuals who willingly engaged in fraudulent misconduct retaining their ability to appear and practice before the Commission.
So there you go, a commissioner who is particularly insistent on holding the accounting profession to high standards, and thinks the SEC is too willing to plead down everything. As an empirical matter, it is difficult to know whether the SEC is indeed guilty of Aguillar's charge (though he is, presumably, an expert on the matter). It's hard to know how much conduct is going unprosecuted, and for settleed cases, whether stiffer charges would have been likely to stick.
You'd think that the state that's home to the center of American business would take a Delaware-style light touch approach to overseeing it. But instead, the New York paradigm is to take ambitious politiicans, blend with broadly worded supervisory or anti-fraud statutes like the Martin Act, and come up with stuff that, to my ears, sounds almost every time like it is off-base, at least in the details. So:
- Eliot Spitzer pursued research analysts for the sin of sending cynical emails even though they issued buy recommendations, despite that fact that analysts never issue negative recommendations, and if cynical emails are a crime, law professors are the most guilty people in the world.
- I still don't understand what Maurice Greenberg, risk worrier par excellence, did wrong when he was running AIG. I do know that after he was forced out by Spitzer, the firm went credit default swap crazy.
- Maybe there's something to the "you didn't tell your investors that you changed the way you did risk management for your mortgage program" prosecutions, but you'll note that it is not exactly the same thing as "you misrepresented the price and/or quality of the mortgage products you sold" prosecutions, which the state has not pursued.
- Eric Schneiderman's idea that high frequency trading is "insider trading 2.0" is almost self-evidently false, as it is trading done by outsiders.
- Federal regulators wouldn't touch Ben Lawsky's mighty serious claims that HSBC or BNP Paribas were basically enabling terrorist financing.
- And now Lawsky is going after consultants for having the temerity to share a report criticizing the bank that hired them to review its own anti-money laundering practices with the bank, who pushed back on some, but not all of the conclusions.
The easiest way to understand this is to assume that AGs don't get to be governor (and bank supervisors don't get to be AGs) unless people wear handcuffs, and this is all a Rudy Giuliani approach to white collar wrongdoing by a few people who would like to have Rudy Giuliani's career arc.
But another way to look at it is through the dictum that the life of the law is experience, not logic. The details are awfully unconvincing. But these New York officials have also been arguing:
- Having analysts recommending IPO purchases working for the banks structuring the IPO is dodgy.
- HFT is front-running, and that's dodgy.
- This new vogue for bank consulting is dodgy, particularly if it's just supposed to be a way for former bank regulators to pitch current bank regulators on leniency.
- If we can't understand securitization gobbledegook, we can at least force you to employ a burdensome risk management process to have some faith that you, yourself, understand it.
- And I'm not saying I understand the obsession with terrorism financing or what the head of AIG did wrong.
Their approach is the kind of approach that would put a top banker in jail, or at least on the docket, for the fact that banks presided over a securitization bubble in the run-up to the crisis. It's the "we don't like it, it's fishy, don't overthink it, you're going to pay for it, and you'll do so publicly" approach. It's kind of reminiscent of the saints and sinners theory of Delaware corporate governance. And it's my pet theory defending, a little, what otherwise looks like a lot of posturing.
Steve Davidoff Solomon and I have put together a paper on the litigation between the government and the preferred shareholders of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Do give it a look and let us know what you think. Here's the abstract:
The dramatic events of the financial crisis led the government to respond with a new form of regulation. Regulation by deal bent the rule of law to rescue financial institutions through transactions and forced investments; it may have helped to save the economy, but it failed to observe a laundry list of basic principles of corporate and administrative law. We examine the aftermath of this kind of regulation through the lens of the current litigation between shareholders and the government over the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. We conclude that while regulation by deal has a place in the government’s financial crisis toolkit, there must come a time when the law again takes firm hold. The shareholders of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, who have sought damages from the government because its decision to eliminate dividends paid by the institutions, should be entitled to review of their claims for entire fairness under the Administrative Procedure Act – a solution that blends corporate law and administrative law. Our approach will discipline the government’s use of regulation by deal in future economic crises, and provide some ground rules for its exercise at the end of this one – without providing activist investors, whom we contend are becoming increasingly important players in regulation, with an unwarranted windfall.
In the American Journal of International Law, Dick Stewart has an excellent piece on Remedying Disregard In Global Regulatory Governance: Accountability, Participation, and Responsiveness. I've got a commentary on it over at AJIL Unbound. A taste:
It may also be the case that as these bodies weave increasingly elaborate cross-border regulatory webs, they have no choice but to resort to something that looks quite law-like. In financial regulation, I view global administration as a sort of administration that has increasingly adopted stable bedrock principles that would be familiar to any international economic lawyer; indeed, given the importance of the cross-border work done to oversee financial institutions, it would be surprising if a measure of consistently applied rules, reason-giving, and transparency were not adopted. The banks being supervised would certainly find it arbitrary if done differently.
Do give the rest a look.
Over at DealBook, I've got something on the financial regulatory reform that Europeans, in particular, love. Give it a look. And let me know if you agree with this bit:
Can a supervisory college work in lieu of a vibrant global resolution authority regime? The problem with these colleges is not that they are implausible, but that they have not really been tried in a crisis. The best-known supervisory college outside of the European Union was created in 1987 to monitor the Luxembourg-based, but international, Bank of Credit and Commerce International. Rumors of widespread fraud in the management of the bank were plentiful, but the collegiate approach did not mean that these problems were nipped in the bud. Although coordinated supervision led regulators to close many of bank’s branches at once after the bank’s accountant resigned and its insolvency became obvious, it is not clear whether Bank of Credit and Commerce International is a college success story or cautionary tale.
There are other reasons to worry about relying on colleges. The collegiate approach is meant to encourage communication more than action. Colleges operate as peers, convened by the home banking regulator, without the sort of hierarchy of decision-making and direction that leads to coordinated action.
I wanted to finish up my discussion of administrative enforcement by considering alternatives. We often take regulatory enforcement for granted. A securities regulator, for example, naturally will have the power to seek out violations of the securities laws and sanction violations. As is common in administrative law, scholars, courts, and Congress start with the assumption that expertise in the industry is the most important input into the enforcement calculus. If an agency is familiar with an industry, it will make good enforcement choices.
In my forthcoming article in the Minnesota Law Review, I argue that this question is actually much more complex than we usually assume. In particular, prosecutorial discretion has strong generalist aspects that largely do not depend on the regulatory subject matter. Giving enforcement authority to a specialist agency instead of a generalist enforcer (such as the Department of Justice) trades one type of expertise for another. Furthermore, specialists inherently see enforcement actions more narrowly. As a result, we shouldn’t see enforcement by regulatory agencies as inevitable or automatic.
Since it is still in draft form, I’d very much appreciate any and all comments. Thanks again to Erik for the chance to blog this week.
I blogged yesterday about administrative enforcement, an area that lies at the intersection of criminal and administrative law. Among other topics, my scholarship has considered the civil penalty process. In particular, what are the inputs and incentives that shape administrative agency penalties?
A standard model used to describe the penalty process emphasizes economic theories of deterrence. Financial penalties are a mechanism to raise the price for violations either to make misconduct completely unprofitable or, in the alternative, to force violators to internalize the costs of violations. I’ve pointed out one way that this theory may break down – administrative agencies might not focus on deterrence at all. Instead, their penalties may be crafted to achieve retributive ends.
In our recent Harvard Law Review article, For-Profit Public Enforcement, Margaret H. Lemos and I looked at penalties from another perspective: public enforcers may have self-interested reasons to maximize civil penalty recoveries. These incentives are widely recognized in private enforcement. Class action lawyers, for example, operating on a contingency fee basis have straightforward reasons to maximize recoveries.
Perhaps less obviously, public enforcement lawyers can have comparable incentives to impose large penalties. These incentives work most clearly in cases where enforcement agencies keep a portion of the civil penalties imposed. This structure is common in the asset forfeiture process used in connection with many criminal cases and also exists in other state and federal enforcement contexts. Even when penalties are turned over to the general treasury, enforcers may have reputational incentives to maximize penalties. Both agencies as a whole and individuals working in enforcement agencies may seek to build a reputation as an aggressive enforcer for reasons other than deterrence.
Assuming that these claims are right and that civil penalties can be driven by retributive or self-interested goals, is this a problem? Perhaps, perhaps not. Self-interested public enforcement may push enforcers to emphasize financial recoveries over other tools of regulatory control, such as injunctive relief. However, if our default assumption is that administrative agencies underenforce and usually do not impose adequate penalties, the pressure of self-interest may correct this trend to some degree.
The presence of retribution in civil penalties has similarly mixed effects. Of course, if penalties are supposed to be carefully calculated to deter, retributive ends will hamper this goal. On the other end, we now widely recognize the role of norms in shaping compliance behavior. Retributive punishment done well can shape and reinforce industry norms.
Usually thought of as unusually receptive, for a financial regulator, at least, to legislative pressure, the SEC, perhaps in a testament to its recent obsession with insider trading, has done the opposite and filed suit against Congress, subpeonaing a congressman and his aide to see whether the aide disclosed news to a lobby/law firm about health funding that caused a bunch of stock prices to spike ahead of the announcement of the new policy. DOJ is in on the game as well.
Congress is, it appears, displeased:
“What the SEC has done is embark on a remarkable fishing expedition for congressional records -- core legislative records,” [congressional lawyer] Kircher said in a court filing. “The SEC invites the federal judiciary to enforce those administrative subpoenas as against the Legislative Branch of the federal government. This court should decline that invitation.”
The so-called speech and debate clause in the Constitution protects members of Congress and staff from any outside inquiry into legislative business.
It is pretty juicy, and we'll outsource why to corp counsel. I'm just ballparking here, but a conversion between an aide and a lobbyist would seem to be deeply, deeply covered by the speech and debate clause, as unappetizing as it might seem. Here's a note on the clause, and here's the Heritage Foundation, which does these recaps pretty well.
And here's corp counsel:
the DOJ and SEC have sent subpoenas to Rep. David Camp, Chair of the House Ways & Means Committee, and Congressional Staffer Brian Sutter, regarding whether they tipped traders about a change in health care policy in the wake of a long-running investigation. And on Friday, as noted in this WSJ article, the SEC filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of New York seeking to compel the subpoenas. Possible grand jury to follow.
Here’s an excerpt from David Smyth’s blog about the case:
This is fascinating to me for so many reasons, among them: (1) the potential Constitutional cluster we’re about to witness; (2) the real test this poses for the recently passed STOCK Act’s effectiveness; and (3) another example of Mary Jo White’s severe distaste for those who defy Commission subpoenas.
And here’s an excerpt from the latest WSJ article:
“It’s not unheard of for an agency to serve a subpoena to Congress, but for an agency to sue is—if not unprecedented—at least very rare,” said Michael Stern, who was senior counsel to the U.S. House from 1996 to 2004. “It shows that there is a serious conflict; the SEC really wants the information and the House really wants it protected,” he said.
Erik, thank you for that introduction. It is a pleasure to join the Conglomerate for a week. My scholarly interests have recently focused on federal administrative enforcement – enforcement actions by agencies like the SEC, the CFTC, as well as a host of lower profile entities. This is a fascinating area of public law combining two scholarly literatures. Administrative enforcement actions share much in common with criminal cases. They are brought by public entities to vindicate public wrongs. However, the administrative context deeply shapes this type of enforcement. For example, unlike most prosecutor's offices, administrative enforcement bodies tend to be industry-specific.
As a result, administrative enforcement can go wrong in two different ways– the “criminal law” way or the “administrative law” way. Administrative agencies face the challenges of regulatory capture, inadequate or incorrect information, or simply the wrong incentives to engage in appropriate regulatory action. Criminal enforcement, though, often struggles with procedural fairness as well as the difficult task of assigning the correct level of punishment to different forms of misconduct.
Take, for example, this last issue: the fundamental question of penalty levels. Administrative agencies commonly use financial penalties to punish regulatory violations. How should these penalties be set? Which cases require the largest penalties and which only need more modest sanctions?
Criminal law scholars will recognize this question as an inquiry about theories of punishment. Speaking broadly, criminal law considers a couple of approaches. Utilitarian theories of punishment (e.g., deterrence, rehabilitation, incapacitation) seek to punish conduct to produce beneficial social outcomes. Retributive theories emphasize desert – punishment occurs because the violator deserves punishment, not because it produces a social benefit.
So what do federal agencies do? As I argue here, administrative agencies almost uniformly talk about deterrence, but usually engage in retribution. When setting penalty levels, agencies move penalties up or down in response to facts that justify retributive punishment but do not adjust penalties in the way deterrence requires. For instance, building on Gary Becker’s justifiably famous work, Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach, most deterrence theories emphasize the role of the probability of detection in setting penalty levels. To deter appropriately, penalties need to increase when violations are harder to detect and punish. In practice, though, administrative agencies place little weight on this issue. Instead, agencies are deeply concerned with issues like mens rea, a topic far more central to retributive theories of punishment.
Is this retributive bent in administrative enforcement surprising? Perhaps not. A large literature suggests that most people are intuitively retributive when making punishment choices. In social science experiments, study participants set penalties based on retributive concerns, but do not adjust punishment levels in ways that would be required to deter appropriately. In this way, administrative agencies look like the rest of us. We mostly care about desert even when we talk about deterrence.
I've been on a bit of an international and administrative law kick these days, but as always, the case study is financial regulation. If you're interested in Sovereignty Mismatch And The New Administrative Law, available from the Washington University Law Review and here, you know what to do. Here's the abstract:
In the United States, making international policymaking work with domestic administrative law poses one of the thorniest of modern legal problems — the problem of sovereignty mismatch. Purely domestic regulation, which is a bureaucratic exercise of sovereignty, cannot solve the most challenging issues that regulators now face, and so agencies have started cooperating with their foreign counterparts, which is a negotiated form of sovereignty. But the way they cooperate threatens to undermine all of the values that domestic administrative law, especially its American variant, stands for. International and domestic regulation differ in almost every important way: procedural requirements, substantive remits, method of legitimation, and even in basic policy goals. Even worse, the delegation of power away from the United States is something that our constitutional, international, and administrative law traditions all look upon with great suspicion. The resulting effort to merge international and domestic regulatory styles has been uneven at best. As the globalization of policymaking is the likely future of environmental, business conduct, and consumer protection regulation — and the new paradigm-setting present of financial regulation — the sovereignty mismatch problem must be addressed; this Article shows how Congress can do so.
Comments and concerns welcome.
It is pretty fishy to argue that tenure deprives students of the right to an education (as opposed to being a reasonable call by the legislature that it is a way to vindicate that right), and one is taking one's chances when the first citation in an opinion is to Brown v. Board of Education, but that's what a California court just held and did. I'm guessing the deans at the state's various law schools will wait to see how this one plays out before sending out the pink slips.
After the SEC settled with Citigroup over misreprsentations made about a toxic security it sold during the financial crisis for a centimillion dollar fine among other things, Judge Rakoff rejected the settlement for failing to contain "cold, hard, solid facts established either by admissions or trials." I've been pretty critical of the decision, which was always headed for reversal. Not that Judge Rakoff cares: his familiarity with the agency (he once was in it), his generally respected status as a judge, and rumblings of discontent by other courts asked to approve other settlements once he fired his shot across the SEC's bow has led to a change in approach by the agency; I talked about the new policy here.
The problem with the decision was twofold, according to the Court of Appeals, at least as I interpret it.
Problem 1: Doctrinally, a settlement decision is an exercise of enforcement discretion, and enforcement discretion is basically unreviewable because the alternative - making it reviewable - would thrust the courts into the heart of what the executive branch does. Because the SEC wanted continuing court supervision of Citigroup as a consequence of the settlement, Rakoff did, indeed, have something to do. But if the SEC had simply dismissed its suit in exchange for the payment of a fine, which is less onerous than a fine plus continuing supervision by a court, Rakoff would have had, literally, no role to play in the resolution of the case. So requiring cold, hard facts to be established as a condition of signing off on a deal was a radical increase in the oversight of the SEC by a court.
No surprise, then, that the Second Circuit said that "there is no basis in the law for the district court to require an adminision of liability as a condition for approving a settlement between the parties. The decision to require an admission of liability before entering into a consent decree rests squarely with the SEC."
Problem 2: Settlements are not about right and wrong, while admissions of guilt are. Settlements are about moving on. We don't expect private parties to establish whether management caused the bankruptcy or someone else did, whether that product really was dangerous, or was misused by consumers, or whatever. And these can be matters of great public import. So it was never clear why the government, even though, yes, it is a state actor, should be treated very differently.
No shock, then, that the Second Circuit has said that "consent decrees are primarily about pragmatism" and "normally compromises in which the parties give up something they might have won in litigation and waive their rights to litigation."
According to the appellate court, the right way to review consent decrees is for procedural clarity and, as far as the public interest is concerned, with Chevron deference to reasonable decisions by the agency. It's not totally clear what that deference means - the court faulted Rakoff for figuring out whether the public interest in the truth was served by the deal when he should have been deciding "whether the public interest would be disserved by entry of the consent decree." But there you go.
Anyway, I think this stuff is interesting, because it's a tool in the regulatory arsenal, and indeed, my first baby law professor article was on just that.
Or so you could conclude if you look at my latest in DealBook:
The Business Roundtable has protested that it “is all too rare that agencies ask whether the original problem a regulation was issued to address has been solved or could be addressed more cost-effectively.”
Congress has heard these complaints. Bills with bipartisan sponsorship that would create an independent commission to recommend the repeal of antiquated rules are proceeding through both the House of Representatives and Senate.
But this is a case where the cure is dubious and the disease exaggerated.
Two bright spots yesterday from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. First, the OCC announced a new policy of rotating examiners among banks. Second, this recommendation stemmed from a peer review of the OCC by international financial regulators. With multiple eyes, all bugs are shallower.
In Governor Tarullo’s closely watched speech on bank regulation (I already blogged on the idea of a sliding scale of regulation based on bank size), he also argued for ending the IRB approach to capital requirements. How does IRB translate into Plain(er) English: DIY capital requirements for big banks. Tarullo’s argument is based in part on obsolescence: all the increases to capital in Dodd-Frank and Basel III dwarfed the IRB component. But it is also based on the fact that DIY capital requirements was a spectacularly bad idea (something I wrote about back when). Big banks have built in incentives (courtesy of government guarantees, explicit and implicit) to lower their capital and increase their leverage. Tarullo’s coming to bury not praise this part of Basel II calls for revisiting some of Joe Norton’s prescient work critiquing that accord as a political economy product of lobbying by behemoth banks. If we take New Governance and its experimentalism seriously, it is vital that we look at experiments that failed.