A criticism of the SEC that you’ll sometimes hear is that it’s mostly a bunch of lawyers, and two things that are broadly true of lawyers as a class is that they are good at close readings of dense texts and terrified of math. This means, some might say, that the agency is ill-equipped to regulate the high-tech quantitative world of modern finance. So it’s obscurely pleasing to read that the SEC’s office of quantitative research is rolling out a new program that applies high-tech quantitative methods to, basically, close reading of dense texts:

An initial step in the SEC’s new effort [to crack down on accounting fraud] is software that analyzes the “management’s discussion and analysis” section of annual reports where executives detail a company’s performance and prospects.

Officials say certain word choices appear to reveal warning signs of earnings manipulation, and tests to determine if the analysis would have detected previous accounting frauds “look very promising,” said Harvey Westbrook, head of the SEC’s office of quantitative research.

Companies that bend or break accounting rules tend to play a “word shell game,” said Craig Lewis, the SEC’s chief economist and head of the division developing the model. Such companies try to “deflect attention from a core problem by talking a lot more about a benign” issue than their competitors, while “underreporting important risks.”

It’s also pleasing to hear that a CFO’s guilty conscience over his earnings manipulation seeps directly into his prose. Though the article is a little light on the details of the SEC’s earnings-manipulation model, which I guess makes sense, since “companies and their lawyers are expected to respond to the crackdown by trying to outsmart the agency’s computers,” which I would really like to see.1 That could be a mixed bag; the Journal hints that it might result in easier-to-read but more grandiose filings:2 Read more »

“SEC Charges Institutional Shareholder Services …” is the sort of start to a headline that might make you think, ha ha ha SEC, always going after the bit players who keep big companies honest rather than the dishonest companies themselves. How’s Egan-Jones doing? But that wouldn’t be fair, for one thing because ISS – which tells lazy shareholders how to vote on proxy proposals and mergers and stuff – is kind of a Goliath itself these days, though not as much as it was last week. And also because this is really quite intensely bad:

From approximately 2007 through early 2012, an ISS employee (“the ISS Employee”) provided information to a proxy solicitor concerning how more than 100 of ISS’ institutional shareholder advisory clients (i.e., institutional investment managers) were voting their proxy ballots. In exchange for vote information, the proxy solicitor gave the ISS Employee meals, expensive tickets to concerts and sporting events, and an airline ticket. The ISS Employee, who had access to all of ISS’ clients’ proxy voting information, gathered the information by logging into ISS’ voting website from home or work and used his personal email account to communicate voting information to the proxy solicitor.

I mean! It’s not that bad for, like, the world, in the sense that institutional shareholders’ voting plans aren’t really nuclear launch codes or anything. I guess you could get up to some nefarious things with them – insider trading on close votes, etc. – but it sounds like they were mostly used for typical proxy-solicitor purposes.1 Which are mostly (1) calling up the shareholders and being all “hey why don’t you vote for us rather than for the other side?” and (2) impressing their clients with the extent of their knowledge about who’s voting how. I mean, why hire proxy solicitors if not for their knowledge of how investors are voting? You could call the shareholders yourself. One hopes. Read more »

You don’t have to agree with everything the SEC does to respect the way they do it: passive-aggressively. Felix Salmon this morning discussed “the problematic JOBS Act, where the SEC has done a good job of stalling on various silly yet Congressionally-mandated reforms,” and the SEC’s similar strategy of “being sensible and dragging its feet” on Congressional dedecimalization proposals. If you’re a regulatory agency tasked by Congress with implementing a new law, and you don’t feel like it, the best approach is always to commission a study.

Is that what’s going on with ratings agency reform proposals?

The 2010 Dodd-Frank financial-overhaul law requires the SEC to create a board that would assign a rating firm to evaluate structured-finance deals or come up with another option to eliminate the conflicts that could arise when debt issuers pay rating firms to rate their bonds. … Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.) proposed the legislation, which is known as the Franken Amendment.

… Mr. Franken defended his proposal Tuesday to attendees at the round table, including SEC commissioners and SEC Chairman Mary Jo White. He also called on the agency to make changes to the credit-rating industry.

“My plea today is that you take action,” Mr. Franken said. “Millions of Americans lost their jobs because the credit rating agencies didn’t do their jobs,” he said.1

The agency published a report in December – six months late – that was widely expected to announce regulatory changes. Instead, the report proposed more discussion and the convening of a round table.

So hahahaha SEC you suck but the problem seems genuinely hard doesn’t it? Read more »

  • 16 Apr 2013 at 2:40 PM

CIBC Banker Used His Networking Skills For Evil

To get in trouble for insider trading, the information you trade on has to be “inside” information in some sense. Just standing outside a company’s offices and seeing who walks in, and extrapolating from that, is probably not insider trading. Seeing where corporate jets land is mostly not insider trading, to the point that it was once a feature of Dealbreaker, though in general my advice to you is never to use “well Dealbreaker does it” as a rationale for anything. Certainly there are gray areas.

Here’s a delightful new SEC insider trading case. Richard Bruce Moore, a managing director in the private equity coverage group at CIBC’s investment bank, spent a lot of time with his buddy and client, a managing director and LBO deal manager at the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. In addition to golf and such, “Moore contacted the CPPIB Managing Director at least once a month about deal opportunities and about the possibility of CIBC providing financing for those deals.” In early 2010 Moore noticed that his buddy was becoming less available, which set his sponsor-coverage-spidey-sense a-tingle, and so he did what any good coverage banker would do:

Sometime in March 2010, Moore asked how the CPPIB Managing Director’s other deals were going. The CPPIB Managing Director told Moore that he was working on something interesting and active. Moore then inquired about the possibility of assisting the CPPIB as an investment banker on the deal.

This got a soft ding – “The CPPIB Managing Director did not disclose the parties to the deal, but responded that, as far as CBIC participation, they would have to wait and see how it went” – and so he followed up a few days later with an email asking if CPPIB needed any debt on that deal. This got a little more information: Read more »

Unfortunately, the book says that it cannot be thrown at the SEC when the SEC is operating—or not operating, for that matter—in an investigative capacity. Read more »

New rules. Read more »

SAC Can’t Even Put Ten Days Of Insider Trading Behind It

Once upon a time there was a settlement between the SEC and Citigroup over some bad stuff that Citi did, or maybe did, since the settlement did not require Citi to admit any guilt. But then the judge overseeing the case, Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York, bravely stood up and said: No, this settlement is Not Right, in small part because of that not-admitting-guilt thing.1 And lo he was a hero throughout the land, except in the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which will likely reverse him.

I’m sure Judge Rakoff’s colleague Victor Marrero didn’t hold up SAC Capital’s proposed settlement with the SEC last week with the express goal of getting financial bloggers to say on Twitter that “Victor Marrero is the new Jed Rakoff,” but … kind of, right?

Here you can read the New Yorker‘s John Cassidy getting all exercised about the settlement, saying that “To his credit, Judge Marrero has, at least for now, refused to go along with this travesty.” I guess a lot of people don’t like this not admitting or denying thing that’s all the rage in SEC settlements these days (and, to be fair, always). But there’s an important difference between the two cases; Judge Rakoff had a reason for rejecting the Citi settlement, and Judge Marrero doesn’t particularly seem to have a reason for rejecting the SAC one.2 Read more »