February 5, 2021

Section 13(d) Reform: On the SEC’s Agenda?

A recent Olshan blog discussing what activists might expect from a Gary Gensler led SEC raised the possibility that Section 13(d) reform just might find its way on to the SEC’s agenda. This excerpt explains these efforts might garner bipartisan support:

At the CFTC, Mr. Gensler demonstrated an ability to balance progressive political pressures with competing industry interests. Should he take a similarly pragmatic approach if confirmed to lead the SEC, one of the areas where a coalition can be brokered between different interest groups is reform of Section 13(d) of the Exchange Act. Adopted in 1968 as part of the Williams Act, Section 13(d) instituted a rigorous beneficial ownership disclosure regime that requires stockholders to promptly notify issuers if they accumulate significant stock positions.

Ever since, corporations and their advisors have agitated for increasingly stringent investor reporting obligations. Likewise, progressives skeptical of hedge funds and activism in general have also trained their sights on parts of Section 13(d). As a testament to the appeal of this sentiment to both the business community and progressives, legislation (the “Brokaw Act”) was introduced in the Senate in 2017 to intensify oversight of activist hedge funds through Section 13(d) reform by Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and former Senator David Perdue (R-GA), each a member of the peripheral wing of their respective party.

The blog suggests that in addition to potentially shortening the reporting window, the SEC’s efforts could include expanding the definition of “beneficial ownership” to include derivative instruments that are not subject to settlement in the underlying security.

Rule 10b5-1 Plans: Glass Lewis Offers Up “Best Practices”

Rule 10b5-1 plans are one of the “great divides” between those of us who are lawyers for public companies and literally everyone else who follows public company issues.  Most of us are borderline paranoid about crossing the t’s & dotting the i’s to make sure these plans provide the protection they’re supposed to provide (we even have an 87-page handbook devoted to that!). Most of them think these plans are a total scam – and point to the windfalls reaped by execs at Pfizer & Moderna for trades under 10b5-1 plans that seemed particularly well-timed to coincide with positive Covid-19 vaccine news.

That divide is one reason why I was kind of surprised by a recent Glass Lewis blog offering up some thoughts on “best practices” for 10b5-1 plans. These include typical suggestions like “cooling off” periods & public disclosure – but as this excerpt notes, the ultimate goal of these and other best practices is to provide transparency about the plan and its implications:

Other forms of best practice include avoiding the use of multiple, overlapping plans, avoiding short-term plans (most plans are six months to two years) and avoiding making changes to existing plans. All of these best practices help simplify the flow of publicly available information and present a clear way for insider trading rules to be followed. They help to avoid situations where executives are put into the spotlight, as was the case for Pfizer and Moderna – and ensure that when things do go public, the market has the information it needs to put things in context.

Now, since the blog’s title is “Operation Warp Pay,” I expected this discussion of best practices to be followed by a smackdown of the trading by the execs of these pharma companies.  Surprisingly, that wasn’t the case.  While the media reaction to Pfizer & Moderna’s 10b5-1 trading plans suggest that more could have been done on the transparency front, Glass Lewis concludes that the trades were essentially benign examples of lawful transactions under Rule 10b5-1.

Market Mania: History Doesn’t Repeat Itself, But It Often Rhymes

Have you ever heard of the Piggly Wiggly short squeeze? This article tells the story of the last time individual investors & Wall Street went toe-to-toe over a stock. It happened nearly a century ago, but it shows that Mark Twain was right when he said that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” (In case FT puts this behind their pay wall, this Of Dollars & Data blog also recounts the tale).

Also, check out Bruce Brumberg’s interview with former SEC enforcement lawyer John Reed Stark for a discussion of some of the legal issues involved in last week’s shenanigans.

John Jenkins