The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Division of Enforcement recently issued its 2019 Annual Report (ENF Annual Report), which you can read in full here. Of course, the headline is always how many cases did the Enforcement Staff bring and how much money did they collect and distribute and, for fiscal year 2019,1 the Staff was likely relieved to announce that on each score they had, well, scored.

Fiscal year 2019 represented the best year that the Enforcement Division has had since 2016, as the chart below demonstrates.

Fiscal Year Total Number of Enforcement Actions Number of "Standalone" Actions Total Penalties and Disgorgement Collected
2015 807 508 $4.19 billion
2017 754 446 $3.79 billion
2018 821 490 $3.945 billion

 

As you can see, the number of cases brought for 2016 was improved by MCDC, the Municipalities Continuing Disclosure Cooperation self-reporting initiative, which encouraged municipal bond underwriters and issuers to self-report misstatements and omissions in municipal bond offering documents. Similarly, the 2019 enforcement action tally was improved by the SCSD, the Share Class Selection Disclosure Initiative, which invited investment advisers to self-report, if they had failed to make the required disclosures related to the selection for customers of mutual fund share classes that paid the adviser or an affiliated broker-dealer a 12(b)-1 fee, when a lower cost share class was available.

However, while the SCSD certainly directly targeted investment advisers, a closer look at the numbers over time suggests to us that advisers were in the crosshairs even before the Initiative was announced.

The Enforcement Division and the SEC, as a whole, continues to focus on "retail investors" and investors saving for retirement as "Principle 1" of its five core principles.2 As the financial services industry has shifted toward fee-based, investment advisory programs, and as the SEC largely has ceded the "hands on" retail broker-dealer regulatory space to FINRA, to focus on examinations of registered investment advisers, these shifts, together, have culminated in steady, consistent increases in enforcement actions against investment advisers.

This ongoing focus on investment advisers also is consistent with the SEC’s internal staffing decisions. The Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) had previously transferred a number of examiners from the broker-dealer program to its investment advisers program. And Enforcement’s Asset Management Unit remains the largest national specialized unit in the division. Such a commitment in resources creates a bureaucratic momentum to do more cases against investment advisers.

In 2015,3 cases against Investment Advisers and Investment Companies comprised 15.6% of the total enforcement actions for the year; for each of 2016 and 2017, those numbers nudged up to 18%; then the total increased again to 22% in 2018; and finally, this past year, the number jumped to 36%, with the help of SCSD.4

The Division Staff also has been quite focused on the return of money to "harmed investors," and fiscal year 2019 was the best year for that particular statistic in the past five years, as noted below.

Money Distributed to Harmed Investors

2015 2016 2017 2018

2019

$158 million $140 million $1.073 billion $794 million $1.197 billion

But a closer look at the source of the funds returned reveals that, while the distributions may have actually occurred this year, these funds derive from cases and conduct dating back several, even many, years. See ENF Annual Report at p. 17. See also, e.g., In the Matter of Citigroup Alternative Investment LLC, AP File No. 3-16757 (noting that the settled Commission Order was entered in August 2015, relating to conduct that occurred between 2002 and 2008, but the Order directing distribution of almost $185 million to "harmed investors" issued in September 2019).

This is of interest because most of the types of cases the Enforcement Division routinely pursues do not, by their very nature, result in distributions to harmed investors. In fiscal year 2019, securities offering and market manipulation cases comprised 138 of the 526 cases (26%). See ENF Annual Report at p. 28 (for all statistics in this paragraph). Unfortunately, given the nature of these matters - Ponzi schemes, affinity frauds, and other types of scienter-based frauds - generally there is little or no money left to distribute. The biggest money generators year over year tend to be FCPA matters (18 cases, or 3% for 2019), but those cases do not lend themselves to distributions, since there is not a straight line to harmed investors. The same can be said for issuer reporting/audit and accounting cases (92 cases/17% for 2019); the SEC's broker-dealer cases (38 cases/7%), which tend toward larger market structure cases; as well as insider trading cases (30 cases/6%; public finance abuse cases (14 cases/3%); and the SRO/Exchange (3 cases/1%) and other similar matters.

The most obvious exceptions to this list are cases against investment advisers, which manage to serve multiple stated goals of the Division, and the Commission more broadly. Enforcement actions against investment advisers, in most instances, can most directly be said to serve and protect the interests of retail investors and, usually, the settlement of such matters return monies to "harmed investors" in a timely manner, efficiently, since the advisers themselves often undertake the distributions. ENF Annual Report at p. 2. For all of the noted reasons, and based on what we are seeing among our clients and in the market more broadly, we anticipate that when we review next year's Annual Report, the Division will be reporting on more investment adviser focused enforcement actions.