Fittingly, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) came into March like a lion. In addition to numerous SEC enforcement actions being filed this month, there were important developments with respect to the SEC’s enforcement and examination programs.  This notice briefly describes three of these SEC developments.

March 3:  SEC Division of Examinations Releases 2021 Examination Priorities

The SEC’s Division of Examinations (formerly the Division of Compliance and Examinations) released its 2021 Examination Priorities.  The Division publishes examination priorities annually to provide insights into its current approach to conducting examinations of registered broker-dealers and investment advisers and to highlight the areas it believes present potential risks to investors and market integrity.

Some of the key SEC examination priorities identified in the release are:

  • Compliance with Regulation Best Interest and whether registered investment advisers have fulfilled their fiduciary duties of care and loyalty.
  • Whether firm business continuity and disaster recovery plans are accounting for the growing risks associated with climate change.
  • Adequacy of the compliance programs of registered investment advisers.
  • Compliance with anti-money laundering requirements.
  • Firm exposure to LIBOR and firm preparations for the discontinuation of LIBOR.


Continue Reading SEC Roars Into March With Significant Enforcement Developments

There has been significant discussion lately about the need to restrict or improve the disclosure of trades made by corporate executives under 10b5-1 plans. In late 2019, I co-authored a series for Corporate Counsel discussing why public companies should consider updating their insider trading policies and training (see below with links to the article series).  In part three of the series, I discussed the regulatory focus on 10b5-1 plans, the stock trading plans that corporate executives routinely rely on to trade company stock.

Despite the legitimacy and legality of 10b5-1 plans, they have come under scrutiny by the media, academics and government officials for being subject to manipulation by corporate insiders.  My article summarized two pieces of legislation that had been introduced in Congress seeking to require the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to formally review the regulations governing 10b5-1 plans and determine whether additional trading restrictions were warranted.

Executive Trades Under 10b5-1 Plans Scrutinized

While these bills have stalled in Congress, government officials have continued to scrutinize executive trades made under 10b5-1 plans and call for additional restrictions on the scope and use of these plans.  Two seniors SEC officials recently took the time to express concerns about 10b5-1 plans shortly before leaving their posts.  In a speech on November 19, 2020, outgoing SEC Chairman Jay Clayton expressed concern about situations where trading occurs (or does not occur) around times that 10b5-1 plans are implemented, amended or terminated.


Continue Reading Insider Trading Policies and Training: Time for Another Refresher?

Bass, Berry & Sims attorneys Kevin Douglas, Eric Knox and Sehrish Siddiqui were co-presenters alongside Stephanie Bignon, Assistant General Counsel, Delta Air Lines and Priya Galante, Vice President, Assistant General Counsel & Assistant Secretary, AutoZone at the Society for Corporate Governance’s Southeastern Chapter webinar earlier this month.

This program, titled, “Preparing for the Upcoming Proxy

Since the Bass, Berry & Sims Corporate & Securities Practice hosted its 2nd Annual Corporate & Securities Counsel Public Company Forum in December 2020, the Biden Administration has proposed a new Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Chairman. Below is an update from our 2021 Financial Reporting & Disclosure Considerations panel discussion, in which Bass, Berry & Sims member Scott Holley reviews some potential areas of focus for the SEC under the new administration.

On January 18, then-President-elect Biden announced that he intended to nominate Gary Gensler to serve as chair of the SEC. Gensler, a former Goldman Sachs executive, served as the chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission during a portion of the Obama administration. Under Gensler’s leadership, it is expected that the SEC’s efforts will include an increased focus on enforcement efforts as well as disclosures relating to climate change risk and diversity and inclusion efforts of boards of directors. Gensler’s recent service as a professor at MIT, where he taught courses on blockchain technology, digital currencies and financial technology, could also shape his agenda at the SEC.


Continue Reading Public Company Forum Update: Reg. S-X Investment Test & SEC Focus under New Administration

In one of her first official actions as Acting Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC or Commission), Allison Herren Lee reversed a major policy implemented by recently departed SEC Chairman Jay Clayton involving the SEC enforcement settlement process.  This decision could significantly impact the SEC settlement process by causing uncertainty for settling entities as to the business consequences of a settlement.  In a rare rebuke, two fellow SEC Commissioners promptly issued a statement decrying the Acting Chair’s decision.

Collateral Consequences of SEC Settlements

The federal securities laws contain provisions that impose restrictions on entities found to have violated certain statutes or regulations or that become subject to certain court-imposed injunctions or administrative orders.  These restrictions, commonly referred to as “collateral consequences,” range from prohibiting a settling entity (and possibly its affiliates) from taking advantage of certain exemptions under the federal securities laws to disqualifying an entity from engaging in specific business activities.  SEC settlements regularly trigger collateral consequences against settling SEC-regulated entities, like broker-dealers, hedge funds, investment advisers, and public companies.  For example, a public company issuer that settles with the SEC could be automatically disqualified from being considered a Well-Known Seasoned Issuer under Rule 405 of Regulation C.  Alternatively, a settlement could prohibit a settling investment adviser from providing advisory services to an investment company or from receiving cash fees for solicitations.

Given the serious collateral consequences an SEC settlement can trigger, and the fact that such consequences often are unrelated to the misconduct at issue in the corresponding SEC settlement, the SEC is authorized to grant disqualification waivers.  The SEC routinely grants waivers to prevent disproportionate and unintended consequences resulting from a settlement.


Continue Reading SEC Commissioners Square Off Over Enforcement Settlement Process

Following the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) issuance of interpretive guidance regarding the disclosure of key performance indicators and metrics (KPIs) early last year, we’ve been tracking SEC comments in this area as the SEC fully incorporates the guidance into its disclosure review program. We’ve highlighted a few of the comment letters previously, but several recently issued comment letters caught our attention.

Spotting a KPI

Under the SEC’s KPI guidance, a KPI is one of the key variables through which management evaluates a company’s performance or status, disclosure of which would be material to investors. The SEC guidance states as follows:

“Some companies also disclose non-financial and financial metrics when describing the performance or the status of their business. Those metrics can vary significantly from company to company and industry to industry, depending on various facts and circumstances. For example, some of these metrics relate to external or macro-economic matters, some are company or industry specific, and some are a combination of external and internal information. Some companies voluntarily disclose specialized, company-specific sales metrics, such as same store sales or revenue per subscriber. Some companies also voluntarily disclose environmental metrics, including metrics regarding the observed effect of prior events on their operations.”

The guidance reminds companies that when including metrics in their disclosure companies should consider existing MD&A requirements as well as the extent to which an existing regulatory framework applies, such as GAAP or, for non-GAAP financial measures, Regulation G or Item 10 of Regulation S-K.  Although the SEC guidance instructs companies to consider whether other regulatory disclosure frameworks apply, in practice the lines between a KPI metric and a non-GAAP financial measure can be blurred in some cases.  And because of the SEC Staff’s laser focus on non-GAAP financial measure disclosures the past several years, it is easy to see how some companies may choose to err on the side of categorizing a metric as a non-GAAP financial measure when the metric falls in this blurred area.


Continue Reading Are You Sure That Metric is a Non-GAAP Financial Measure? SEC’s Focus on Key Performance Indicators Continues

On November 17, 2020, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) adopted rules (which are now effective) permitting electronic signatures for SEC filings, provided that certain procedures are followed.   There are potential advantages to the utilization of e-signatures by public companies in SEC filings, including from a facilitation perspective (particularly for filings such as registration statements and 10-Ks which need to be signed by a significant number of individuals) and a record-keeping perspective.

Overview of E-Signature Rules

Before the adoption of the SEC’s e-signature rules which recently became effective, SEC filings needed to be manually signed by the signatories to such filings, and public companies were required to retain such manual signatures for a period of at least five years (and provide such signatures to the SEC upon request).  The amendments to Regulation S-T resulting from these new rules allow for e-signatures instead of manual signatures (manual signatures will continue to be permitted as well) for SEC filings, provided that the following conditions are met:

  • The signatory must present a physical, logical, or digital credential that authenticates the signatory’s identity (this may involve a driver’s license, passcode or a credential chip on a workplace ID).
  • The signature process must provide for non-repudiation, which is defined as “assurance that an individual cannot falsely deny having performing a particular action” (this may involve public-key encryption tools provided by commercially available e-signature platforms).
  • The e-signature must be attached, affixed, or otherwise logically associated with the signature page or document being signed.
  • There must be a timestamp to record the date and time of the signature.


Continue Reading SEC Adopts New E-Signature Rules

You have undoubtedly read about the continuing popularity of special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs).  According to SPACInsider, year-to-date there have been 242 SPAC IPOs, with an average IPO size of $334.9 million. This is remarkable as the next highest year was 2019 when there were 59 SPAC IPOs with an average size of $230.5 million.  See the chart below to show the 2020 spike.

As a refresher, SPACs are public shell companies (i.e., blank check companies) formed to use their IPO proceeds to acquire a private company via merger, share exchange, asset acquisition, reorganization or similar business combination within a specific timeframe, usually 18-24 months.  A SPAC structure essentially creates another mechanism through which a private company can go public, along with a traditional firm commitment underwritten offerings, direct listings (becoming more popular), and others.

SPAC Mergers with Private Companies

The focus of this post is on the back half of the SPAC life: the SPAC merger with the private company.  SPACInsider reports there are approximately 228 SPACs that have completed their IPO and are currently searching for private acquisition targets to take public.  Since most of these SPACs will need to find a target in the next 18-24 months (or less), there will be high demand for private companies that have the maturity, growth prospects, experienced management and operations in place to function as a public company.


Continue Reading Recent SEC Comment Letter Looks Under the Hood at SPAC Merger Diligence

I was recently featured on the Deep Dive with Dave podcast hosted by Dave Lynn from TheCorporateCounsel.net. Dave and I discussed the following questions:

  • Has the SEC staff been commenting on disclosures about COVID-19 in public filings?
  • What areas of comment has the Staff raised regarding COVID-19?
  • What approach has the Staff taken with respect

On November 19, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) continued its brisk pace of end-of-year rulemaking by approving amendments to Items 301, 302 and 303 of Regulation S-K, which collectively govern the disclosures of Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations (MD&A) as well as other selected financial data.  These amendments were initially proposed in January 2020 as part of the SEC’s ongoing effort to improve and modernize the current disclosure regime for both investors and companies.

The amendments will become effective 30 days after they are published in the Federal Register, which means they will probably be effective around the end of January assuming the typical timing for rule publication. At that time voluntary compliance is permitted, so long as registrants provide disclosure responsive to an amended item in its entirety. Compliance is not mandatory until a registrant reports on its first fiscal year ending on or after 210 days following publication, which means that for a calendar year-end filer, the Form 10-K filed in 2022 with respect to the fiscal year ended December 31, 2021.  However, we expect that many companies will welcome the new rules (particularly the elimination of the contractual obligations table and five-year selected financial table, among others) and begin complying sooner.


Continue Reading SEC Adopts Amendments to MD&A and Other Financial Disclosures