On December 11, 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives approved by a 223-202 vote "The Wall Street Report and Consumer Protection Act of 2009," H.R. 4173 (here). The sprawling 1279-page Bill, which must be reconciled with competing financial reform legislation pending in the Senate, would institute a number of reforms and initiatives that would have a dramatic effect on the financial services industry.
In addition to the many higher profile institutional reforms, the Bill also incorporates a number of revisions and amendments that could significantly impact both SEC enforcement actions and private securities litigation.
The Bill’s high profile reforms include, among other things, the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency; the creation of a Financial Stability Council to identify large, interconnected firms that could put the financial system at risk; the creation of a single federal banking regulator; and the introduction of various regulatory reforms regarding financial derivatives and credit default swaps. The Bill also required hedge funds and private equity funds to register with the SEC.
As reflected on the RiskMetrics Corporate Governance Risk & Governance Blog (here), the House Bill also introduces a number of corporate governance reforms, including an annual "say on pay" mandate and authorization for the SEC to issue a proxy access rule. The bill includes a permanent exemption for small issuers (those with less than $75 million in market cap) from the outside auditor attestation requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
In addition to these higher profile initiatives, the House bill also incorporates variety of legislative revisions to the federal securities laws that could affect securities litigation. Some of these initiatives were the subject of separate legislative proposals that have now been incorporated into the larger financial reform legislation.
The House Bill’s provisions that potentially could impact securities litigation include the following:
1. Credit Rating Agencies (Section 6003): Clarifies the pleading standard applicable to private securities actions under the ’34 Act against "a nationally recognized statistical rating organization" by specifying that "it shall be sufficient for purposes of pleading any required state of mind for purposes of such action that the complaint shall state with particularity facts giving rise to a strong inference that the nationally recognized statistical rating organization knowingly or recklessly violated the securities laws."
The Section also specifies that NRSRO’s credit rating opinions "shall not be deemed forward looking statements."
2. Mandatory Arbitration (Section 7201): Gives the SEC authority to "prohibit, or impose conditions or limitations on the use of, agreements that require customers or clients of any broker, dealer, or municipal securities dealer to arbitrate any future dispute between them arising under the Federal securities laws."
3. Whistleblower Incentives and Protection (Section 7203): Gives the SEC authority to "pay an award or awards not exceeding an amount equal to 30 percent, in total, of the monetary sanctions imposed in the action or related actions to one or more whistleblowers who voluntarily provided original information to the Commission that led to the successful enforcement of the action."
4. Aiding and Abetting Liability (Section 7207): Amends the ’33 Act and the Investment Company Act of 1940 to provide that for purposes of an action brought by the SEC, "any person that knowingly or recklessly provides substantial assistance to another person in violation of a provision of this Act, or of any rule or regulation issued under this Act, shall be deemed to be in violation of such provision to the same extent as the person to whom such assistance is provided."
Section 7215 also clarifies that recklessness is a sufficient basis on which to impose aiding and abetting liability under the ’34 Act
5. Extraterritorial Application of the Federal Securities Laws (Section 7216): Amends the ’33 Act, the ’34 Act and the Investment Advisors Act of 1934 to clarify that federal court jurisdiction for securities cases includes cases that involves "conduct within the United States that constitutes significant steps in furtherance of the violation, even if the securities transaction occurs outside the United States and involves only foreign investors" or "conduct occurring outside the United States that has a foreseeable substantial effect within the United States."
6. Deadlines for Enforcement Investigations and Compliance Examinations (Section 7209): Introduces, subject to certain specified exemptions, certain time requirements within which the SEC must complete enforcement investigations and compliance examinations. Among other things, the Section provides that, other than with respect to certain "complex action," within 180 days after serving someone with a Wells Notice, the SEC must either initiate an action against the person or provide notice that it does not intend to file an action.
The House Bill also dramatically increases SEC funding, doubling the agency’s budget in five years. The Bill also expands the agency’s subpoena powers and its ability to share and access information gathered by other regulatory and investigative bodies and agencies.
Readers of this blog will also be interested to know that Section 8802 of House Bill also creates a Federal Insurance Office within the Treasury Department. The new Federal Insurance Office would not replace state regulation of insurance. Rather, the new agency would monitor the insurance industry; designate insurers for stricter oversight; assist in the administration of TRIA; coordinate on international insurance regulation; and consult with states on insurance matters of national importance.
It remains to be seen whether any of these provisions will survive the forthcoming legislative process and actually become law. The Wall Street Journal’s front page article about the House Bill (here) indicates that Democratic leadership in the Senate has committed to having a reconciled agreement in principle about the financial reform legislation by the end of December, to have a bill enacted in the first half of 2010.
While the legislation that finally emerges will undoubtedly reflect further changes, it is interesting to observe even at this preliminary stage how some of the proposed initiatives have fared.
For example, though it contains provisions addressing the SEC’s authority to enforce aiding and abetting liability under the ’33 Act and under the Investment Advisors Act, the House Bill, at least, does not contain any provisions along the lines of those proposed last summer by Senator Arlen Specter to overturn Stoneridge. Nor does the House Bill contain any provisions reflecting Senator Specter’s initiative to overturn Iqbal. Of course, because those initiatives originated on the Senate side, they may still be incorporated into the Senate version of the financial reform bill and perhaps even in the final version of the reform legislation that ultimately emerges.
As noted above, the House Bill does incorporate suggested provisions that would clarify federal court jurisdiction in matters involving companies or persons outside the U.S. These provisions mirror the proposed legislation that Representative Paul Kanjorski introduced earlier this fall (as discussed in a prior post, here.) This jurisdictional provision, if enacted, could make the National Australia Bank case, on which the U.S. Supreme Court recently granted a petition for writ of certiorari, of considerably less potential significance, as jurisdictional issues raised in the case would be controlled in future by the new statutory provisions.
Given the current political climate, it seems probable that some form of financial reform legislation will be enacted prior to the 2010 congressional election. The ultimate version may be far different that the Bill approved by the House on Friday. However, if the House Bill is any indication of what might finally emerge, there could be some enormous changes ahead, including among other things significant changes relating to securities litigation and enforcement.
Random Thought: Is there anything more unintentionally ironic and completely self-negating than the phrase "This Page Intentionally Left Blank"? (This Internet being what it is, there is actually a website devoted to the phrase, here.)