February 18, 2022

Regulation by Enforcement: SPACs & the Investment Company Act

In recent months, long-time SPAC structures that were spelled out in hundreds of registration statements reviewed by the Staff of Corp Fin have been called into question, most notably in a lawsuit filed by former SEC commissioner & NYU Law School professor Robert Jackson & Yale Law School professor John Morley. That lawsuit challenges Pershing Tontine’s compliance with the Investment Company Act, and calls into question underlying assumptions about the availability of an exemption from that statute that have been relied upon by SPACs for years.

That’s private litigation, not an enforcement proceeding – but its allegations concerning non-compliance with the Investment Company Act have been commented on favorably by current and former senior SEC officials. What’s more, in a recent article, one of those former officials, Harvard Law School professor John Coates, states that the SEC’s past inaction in the face of widespread belief in the availability of the exemption should not be an impediment to future enforcement proceedings:

Does the claim, then, reduce to a claim that a regulatory agency with a limited budget should be held to legally have given up authority if it does not bring an enforcement action when it could, even when the issue has been part of what even its promoters say was until 2020 a “backwater” of the capital markets?

No, I don’t think so.  I think the claim reduces to a claim that an enforcement proceeding alleging that the typical SPAC structure violated the Investment Company Act would raise due process issues that could be avoided if the SEC opted to  address these newly articulated concerns through rulemaking. I hope that’s the path that the agency will choose to take.

John Jenkins