June 2016

Photo by Chad Cooper
Photo by Chad Cooper

Good, but not surprising, news for issuers considering a Regulation A+ offering. Back in May 2015, Massachusetts and Montana sued the SEC in an attempt to invalidate the Regulation A+ rules.  Montana had attempted to obtain an injunction to prevent the Regulation A+ rules from going into effect last June, but was denied.  Now, the DC Circuit has officially rejected the lawsuit brought by the two states.

As we have discussed, Regulation A+ is a vast improvement over the previous version of Regulation A.  The biggest improvement, state pre-emption, was the most controversial (from the states’ perspectives).  Because Regulation A is already a more burdensome exemption than Regulation D (private offerings) due to the need for SEC review and qualification, pre-empting state securities laws for Tier II offerings was a welcome improvement.  The North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA), which represents the state securities regulators, was strongly against pre-emption.  NASAA is largely seen as the force behind the lawsuits by Montana and Massachusetts.

I will boil down the details of the lawsuit into a sound bite. The states argued that the SEC acted beyond its authority in enacting rules that pre-empted state securities laws.  The court disagreed and said that Congress, in passing the JOBS Act, pre-empted the state laws.

Massachusetts and Montana could appeal, but I doubt that they will. The validity of the states’ argument was not well grounded because the JOBS Act clearly states that the new Regulation A+ exemption would be a “covered security” – which means state law is pre-empted by federal law.

In any event, the conclusion of the lawsuit provides additional clarity for Regulation A+ offerings. We expect that Regulation A+ will become more widely used as bankers and issuers become more comfortable with the exemption.

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© Michael Sutton-Long

In recent weeks, the SEC has given public companies some new menu items, including the following:

  • On June 1, the SEC adopted an “interim final rule” that permits companies to include a summary of business and financial information in Annual Reports on Form 10-K.  The rule implements a provision of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or FAST Act, in keeping with the new trend to give statutes names that someone thinks make nifty acronyms. (Of course, the connection between this rule and surface transportation remains a mystery.)
  • On June 13, the SEC issued an order permitting companies to file financial statement data in a format known as “Inline XBRL” rather than filing such data in exhibits to a filing.

Here is a quick review of these new menu items.

The new, improved 10-K summary – The rule permitting a 10-K summary is interesting in several respects.  First, companies have long been able to provide summaries; in other words, there doesn’t seem to have been any reason for the “new” rule.  Second, as noted, it permits but does not require the use of summaries; thus, companies that have not provided summaries in the past and don’t want to now don’t have to. Continue Reading The SEC’s summer menu

Photo by Carlo De Pieri
Photo by Carlo De Pieri

President Barack Obama signed into law Wednesday, May 11th, a bill that will provide protection for trade secrets on the federal level.

This new legislation, called the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016, or DTSA, has been hailed by commentators as an extremely significant addition to federal intellectual property law. The DTSA was created as an amendment to the Economic Espionage Act of 1996 to provide civil remedies for trade secret violations under federal law. While some potential issues exist, I believe that this new law should be beneficial to many companies because of the possible increased trade secret protection and aggressive potential remedies that it will provide.

Trade secret protection in the U.S. has primarily been available under applicable state law. The Uniform Trade Secrets Act provides some consistency, and it has been adopted by 48 states. The trade secret laws of the various states are not totally uniform, however, and this has sometimes made it difficult for companies to protect their trade secrets under the various state laws. Legal actions involving trade secret protection have generally been brought in state courts. Since the DTSA is a federal law, more trade secret actions will now be able to be brought in federal court, providing an additional potential venue for these actions.

The DTSA does not replace or preempt existing state laws. As a result, this could be an advantage to companies as it may provide a separate method of protecting their trade secrets. The DTSA also defines trade secrets a little more broadly, using “public economic value” as the heart of the trade secret definition. This broader definition of what constitutes a trade secret may expand the range of information that a company can claim as a trade secret.

That said, there is a potential problem here: the DTSA does not provide a uniform system of trade secret law and instead establishes a federal level of trade secret law on top of the existing states’ trade secret laws. This could increase the number and the complexity of legal actions involving trade secrets. Therefore, a company that wishes to assert a trade secrets action will need to analyze which court — state or federal — will be more advantageous, and this will likely vary with the different circumstances of each situation.

One-sided seizures

The DTSA contains fairly aggressive potential remedies that may be advantageous to companies which believe that a trade secret violation has occurred. The provision that has drawn the most interest is the ability of a court to issue an ex parte seizure order in certain extraordinary circumstances. Continue Reading New federal law provides additional protection for trade secrets

It’s almost exactly one year to the day since I took Senator Elizabeth Warren to task for what I believed was an unwarranted and particularly vicious attack on the SEC – or, rather, Chair White’s tenure at the SEC.  Apparently, Senator Warren decided to celebrate the anniversary with another attack on the SEC and Chair White at a Senate Banking Committee hearing.  (You can watch the entire unpleasantness here, including Senator Warren’s refusal to allow Chair White to answer any of her questions before launching another attack.)

This time, the attack was directed to the SEC’s “effective disclosure” project – something that many companies and investors support – claiming that by pursuing this project the SEC is putting companies’ interests ahead of investor protection and demanding that Chair White provide evidence to justify that investors are suffering from information overload.  Her comments to Chair White included the following: “Your job is too look out for investors, but you have put the interests of the Chamber of Commerce and their big business members at the top of your priority list.”

Really?  Perhaps Ms. Warren should ask some investors to testify.  She might learn that many investors do not read disclosure documents, particularly proxy statements (which will soon contain the pay ratio disclosures that she once said should be the SEC’s highest priority), because they are too long and investors just don’t have the time.  She might also learn that many investors applaud the SEC’s initiative, because it is designed to enhance some disclosures rather than just eliminate them.  Continue Reading Senator Warren strikes again

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©killaee

Over the years, the PCAOB has developed a reputation for pursuing zombie proposals – proposals that appear to be dead due to widespread opposition and even congressional action.  Remember mandatory auditor rotation?  It practically took a stake through the heart to kill that one off, and I’m informed that even after it was presumed to be long gone some PCAOB spokespersons were telling European regulators that it might yet be adopted.

Well, here we go again.  The latest zombie proposal (OK, reproposal) would modify the standard audit report in a number of respects, the most significant of which would be to require disclosure of “critical audit matters”.  The headline of the PCAOB’s announcement of the reproposal says that it would “enhance” the auditor’s report; not clarify, just “enhance”.   And, as is customary whenever the PCAOB proposes to change the fundamental nature of the audit report, the proposal starts out by sayng that’s not the intention at all: “The reproposal would retain the pass/fail model of the existing auditor’s report,” it says.  It seems to me to lead to the opposite result – the introduction of critical audit matter (“CAM”) disclosure could easily lead to qualitative audit reports; one CAM would be viewed as a “high pass”, two would be ranked as a medium pass, and so on, possibly even resulting in numerical “grades” based upon the number of CAMs in the audit report.  And let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that any audit firm would ever issue a clean – i.e., CAM-free – opinion.  I just can’t envision that happening, ever.

Continue Reading Another zombie from the PCAOB

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Until recently, I’ve firmly believed that the SEC’s use of the bully pulpit can be effective in getting companies to act – or refrain from acting – in a certain way.  Speeches by Commissioners and members of the SEC Staff usually have an impact on corporate behavior.  However, the use of non-GAAP financial information – or, more correctly, the improper use of such information – seems to persist despite jawboning, rulemaking and other attempts to stifle the practice.

Concerns about the (mis)use of non-GAAP information are not new.  In fact, abuses in the late 1990s and early 2000s led the SEC to adopt Regulation G in 2003.  It’s hard to believe that Reg G has been around for 13+ years, but at the same time it seems as though people have been ignoring it ever since it was adopted.  Over the last few months, members of the SEC and its Staff have devoted a surprising amount of time to jawboning about the misuse of non-GAAP information; for example, the SEC’s Chief Accountant discussed these concerns in March 2016; the Deputy Chief Accountant spoke about the problem in early May 2016; and SEC Chair White raised the subject in a speech in December 2015.  And yet, the problem seems to persist.

Continue Reading Mind the GAAP