On December 7, 2009, NERA released its most recent update on trends in the numbers and values of settlements of SEC enforcement actions. The latest study, which is as of September 30, 2009 and complete through the end of the SEC’s 2009 fiscal year, shows that the number of settlements during the year declined for the second straight year, but the average settlement amount increased, and the median settlement amount held steady. NERA’s December 7 press release regarding the study can be found here.


As the report notes, because the 2009 settlements largely relate actions initiated in earlier periods, they may or may not be indicative of what reasonably may be expected in the SEC’s current heightened enforcement environment.


In addition, the reports observations about the high frequency of individual participation in the settlement of SEC enforcement actions may provide important additional context for Judge Rakoff’s recent high profile rejection of the proposed settlement of the SEC’s enforcement action involving the Merrill Lynch bonuses.


First, with respect to the numbers of settlements, the report shows that there were 626 settlements in fiscal 2009, compared to 673 in fiscal and 717 in fiscal 2007. Among other things, the report notes that fiscal 2009 was a year characterized by staff turnover and transition for the agency’s top leadership, which may be relevant to understanding the relative decline in the numbers of settlements.


Monetary payments were a component of 58.6% of company settlements and 58.9% of individual settlements for FY 2009. The average monetary SEC settlement during fiscal 2009 was $10.7 million, compared to only $4.7 million in fiscal 2008, but the increased 2009 average is largely a reflection of several very large settlements during fiscal 2009, including, for example, the $350 million Siemens paid in settlement of the FCPA enforcement action the agency filed against the company. Removing the settlements in excess of $100 million reduces the FY 2009 average to $4.4 million.


By contrast to the average, the median SEC enforcement settlement was about $1.0 million, about equal to the prior fiscal year’s median.


Among largest source of SEC enforcement actions are cases involving alleged misstatements. In an interesting analysis of the relationship between individual and corporate settlements in misstatement cases, the report notes that between the enactment of SOX and the end of FY 2009, the SEC had reached settlements in 353 cases involving alleged misstatements by corporate companies. Of these 353 settlements, 62 involved only the company, 99 cases involve only individual directors or employees, but the remaining 192 cases involved both the company and individuals.


In other words, individuals participate to a greater or lesser extent in the vast majority of SEC enforcement actions involving misstatements. As the report points, this pattern presents interesting additional context for Judge Rakoff’s high profile rejection of the SEC’s proposed settlement of the Merrill Lynch bonus enforcement action. Judge Rakoff faulted the proposed settlement because it fined the company (and its shareholders) but not the supposedly blameworthy individuals.


The report notes that this outcome is likely to spur the SEC to pursue individuals with "renewed vigor" and indeed SEC officials have made statements to that effect. The SEC’s own settlement patterns show that in general it is the agency’s practice to involve individuals in settlement of restatement cases.


The report reflects a number of different interesting findings, and also contains some helpful and interesting tables, including lists of the ten largest corporate and individual post-SOX settlements, as well as interesting data showing relating to the number of insider trading settlements – somewhat unexpectedly, the number of inside trading settlements hit a post-SOX low during fiscal 2009.


The report concludes with the observation that the full impact of the reforms that the SEC has only just begun to initiate "is likely yet to be seen." The report suggests that the trends observed in the most recent report are likely to change in the periods ahead.


SEC Files Enforcement Action Against Former New Century Officials: Perhaps as a reflection of the newly more active SEC, on December 7, 2009, the SEC filed an enforcement action in the Central District of California against three former New Century Financial Corporation officials.


The SEC’s complaint, which can be found here, alleges that the three defendants violated the securities laws failed to disclose important negative information, including dramatic increases in early loan defaults, loan repurchases, and pending loan repurchase requests. Defendants knew this negative information from numerous internal reports they regularly received, including weekly reports ominously referred to internally as "Storm Watch." The SEC’s December 7 litigation release about the action can be found here


The timing of the SEC’s enforcement action against the three New Century officials stands in interesting contrast to the private securities class action lawsuit filed against certain former New Century officials. The private securities, which was the first of the subprime related securities class action lawsuits when it was first filed in February 2007, is nearly three years old. The court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss almost exactly a year ago.



 The more interesting question is whether the filing of the New Century action represents the first in a series of enforcement actions related to the subprime meltdown and credit crisis. In light of the new environment at the agency and the pressure it is under to reestablish its regulatory credentials, there may well be further actions yet to come.