Despite the progress made during the last year, both with respect to financial reform and reform of the Securities and Exchange Commission's enforcement program, there's more work to do, according to at least one SEC official.
While he praised some of the progress made to date, SEC Commissioner Luis Aguilar, in a Feb. 5 speech, said more change is needed, both by the SEC and lawmakers crafting regulatory reform.
"Whether reform legislation comes soon or not, the SEC must continue its own revitalization," Aguilar said in remarks at the SEC Speaks conference in Washington, D.C. In particular, he flagged two issues he says would go "a long way to truly empowering our staff and removing barriers from their path."
First, he repeated his call for the SEC to revisit its 2006 Penalty Statement, which he described as "a misguided approach to how to weigh factors one considers when deciding whether to seek a corporate penalty."
"Every day these guidelines are in place they adversely impact the cases we are working on," Aguilar said.
Under that framework, which prioritizes the presence or absence of a direct benefit to the company as a result of the violation and the degree to which the penalty will recompense or further harm the injured shareholders, Aguilar said, "the conduct itself becomes of secondary importance, and the Commission fails to appropriately focus on deterrence."
He also called for the establishment of a uniform audit trail for securities trading to provide the staff quicker access to information regarding trades. Currently, the staff relies on information from the Electronic Blue Sheet system and information from the self-regulatory organizations, which he described as "an outdated, patchwork approach."
Aguilar advocated replacing the current system with a searchable repository of trading data that would provide the staff with a "near real-time view of market activity." He said such a system should be scalable to allow for the inclusion of new products and practices in securities markets, and ideally the derivatives markets.
As previously reported, SEC Commissioner Mary Schapiro noted in a speech at the same event that the commission will consider staff recommendations in the spring to have the SROs develop and implement a consolidated audit trail that captures customer and order event information across markets to help improve market surveillance.
Meanwhile, Aguilar noted that promised e-proxy changes and investor education efforts are coming. He said the SEC soon will establish educational efforts to help investors "understand e-Proxy and their rights" and amend its rules so that the process "is less confusing to investors."
Under the current rule, companies can post their proxy materials online and send shareholders a notice that they're available without sending a full set of paper materials unless requested. However, data showed that participation by retail investors plummeted at some companies that used the so-called "notice only" model, sparking criticism by some, including Aguilar, who urged the SEC to either fix or scrap e-proxy.
Aguilar said he'll be "watching to see if the amendments result in real improvement."
He also reiterated his call for the SEC to be self-funded. While an early draft of the Senate financial regulation reform bill provided for self-funding, it's unclear whether that provision will make it into any final legislation. As recently reported, the President's recent budget request of $1.258 billion for fiscal 2011 would increase the Commission's coffers by roughly $139 million, or 12 percent over its fiscal 2010 funding level, and would enable the agency to add hundreds of staff positions.
In order for reforms to be sustainable, Aguilar said existing rules must be "implemented fully and enforced." For example, pointing to the recently adopted Proxy Disclosure Enhancement rule, which requires greater disclosure about board member qualifications, Aguilar said the usefulness of that disclosure to investors will depend on how well the rule requirements are implemented.
"To that end, I commend those who will work to meet not only the letter of the law, but the spirit as well," he said.
His remarks were part of a broader speech lamenting the lack of progress on financial regulatory reform. Despite the "intense focus" on financial reform over the last year, Aguilar said "very little has changed."
"There have been many speeches given and many preliminary steps taken toward regulatory reform, but for all the activity, reform itself has yet to be achieved," he said. For example, he said over-the-counter derivatives, hedge funds, and municipal securities markets "still lack appropriate regulation, and our inspection and enforcement efforts in these areas continue to be severely undermined."
Aguilar also chastised the use of the reform process by some as an "opportunity to weaken strong investor-focused laws arising from lessons learned in prior crises." In particular, he has criticized the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act passed by the House in December because it would exempt non-accelerated filers—which he says account for 50 percent of all U.S. public companies—from having an outside audit of their internal controls as required under Section 404(b) of Sarbanes-Oxley. The Senate draft bill was silent on that issue.
Meanwhile, he lauded two initiatives he advocated last year: the creation of the Investor Advisory Committee and the streamlining of the formal order process, which delegated the power to issue a subpoena to senior staff. Aguilar said the change has resulted in "a huge improvement in the speed and efficiency" by which the enforcement staff can conduct an investigation.