September 7, 2021

Bad News Bundling: Commissioner Crenshaw Renews Criticism of Enforcement Penalty Policy

In a statement published on Friday, SEC Commissioner Caroline Crenshaw says that the Kraft Heinz settlement shows why “corporate benefits” shouldn’t be part of SEC Enforcement’s penalty equation. She first caused a stir with this position at a March CII speech that called into question the 15-year enforcement policy.

Commissioner Crenshaw says that when Kraft announced the SEC investigation back in February 2019, it “bundled” that news with other negative information – a dividend cut and a $15.4 billion write down of goodwill. That makes it hard to tell whether any part of the resulting stock price drop was a reaction to the investigation news. She also says that the company initially estimated that the procurement issues would only increase cost of products sold by $25 million, but by mid-2019, the reporting errors ended up totaling $208 million.

Because this chain of events could make it more difficult for private litigants to recover damages, Commissioner Crenshaw believes that the SEC’s penalties should be more closely linked to misconduct & deterrence. Here’s her conclusion:

A recent analysis determined that it results in dramatically fewer successful recoveries by private securities litigants who, unlike the SEC, must prove that corporate stock price losses were directly attributable to the specific bad news. In this study researchers also concluded that information bundling resulted on average in $21.17 to $23.45 million lower recoveries for shareholders.

In considering the appropriate penalty to impose in actions brought by the SEC, I am concerned about corporate issuers benefiting from information bundling. To the extent corporations thereby make it more difficult to measure corporate benefit, that merely reinforces my inclination in setting penalties to focus more heavily on other factors, such as punishing misconduct and effectively deterring future violations.

Liz Dunshee