9 minute read

Securities and Exchange Commission

Securities Laws

Before the October 29, 1929, STOCK MARKET crash on Wall Street, a company could issue stock without disclosing its financial status. Many bogus or severely undercapitalized corporations sold stock, eventually leading to the disastrous plunge in the market and an ensuing panic. From the havoc wreaked by the crash came the first major piece of federal securities legislation, the Securities Act of 1933 (15 U.S.C.A. § 77a et seq.). The act regulates the primary, or new issue, market. The following year, Congress provided for the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission when it enacted far-reaching securities legislation in the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (15 U.S.C.A. § 78a et seq.). These two laws, along with the Trust Indenture Act of 1939 (15a U.S.C.A. §§ 77aaa–77bbbb), the Investment Company Act of 1940 (15 U.S.C.A. §§ 80-1–80a-64), the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (15 U.S.C.A. §§ 80b-1–80b-21), and the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 (15 U.S.C.A. §§ 79a–79z-6) make up the bulk of federal securities laws under the jurisdiction of the SEC.

In addition to federal statutory authority, the SEC has broad rule-making authority. It has used this power to fashion procedural and technical rules, define terms used in the laws, and make substantive rules implementing the laws. The SEC also devises forms that must be used to fulfill various requirements in the statutes and rules. Moreover, the SEC engages in a significant amount of informal lawmaking through the distribution of SEC releases containing its opinions on questions of current concern. These releases are disseminated to the press, companies and firms registered with the SEC, and other interested persons. In addition to these general public statements of policy, the SEC also responds to individual private inquiries.

Securities Act of 1933 The Securities Act of 1933 regulates the PUBLIC OFFERING of new issues. All public offerings of securities in inter-state commerce or through the mails must be registered with the SEC before they can be offered and sold, subject to exemptions for specifically enumerated types of securities, such as government securities, nonpublic offerings, offerings below a certain dollar amount, and intrastate offerings. The registration provisions apply to issuers of securities or others acting on their behalf. Issuers must file a registration statement with the SEC containing financial and other pertinent data about the issuer and the securities that are being offered. The Securities Act of 1933 also prohibits fraudulent or deceptive practices in the offer or sale of securities, whether or not the securities are required to be registered.

A major part of the SEC work is to review the registration documents required by the 1933 act and determine when registration is required. Registration with the SEC is intended to allow potential investors to make an informed evaluation regarding the worth of securities. Registration does not mean that the commission approves of the issue or that the disclosures in the registration are accurate, nor does it insure an investor against loss in the purchase.

Registration requires extensive disclosure on behalf of a corporation. For example, full disclosure includes management's aims and goals; the number of shares the company is selling; what the issuer intends to do with the money; the company's tax status; contingent plans if problems arise; legal standing, such as pending lawsuits; income and expenses; and inherent risks of the enterprise. Registration consists of two parts: a prospectus, which must be furnished to every purchaser of the security, and other information and attachments that need not be furnished to purchasers but are available in SEC files for public inspection. A registration statement is generally effective 20 days after filing, but the SEC has the power to delay or suspend the effectiveness of the registration statement. When a disclosure or registration statement becomes effective, it is called a prospectus and is used to solicit orders for the security.

Securities Exchange Act of 1934 The Securities Exchange Act of 1934 transferred responsibility for administration of the 1933 act from the FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION to the newly created SEC. The 1934 act also provided for federal regulation of trading in already issued and outstanding securities. Other provisions include disclosure requirements for publicly held corporations; prohibitions on various manipulative or deceptive devices or contrivances; SEC registration and regulation of brokers and dealers; and registration, oversight, and regulation of national securities exchanges, associations, clearing agencies, transfer agents, and securities information processors.

The SEC has broad oversight responsibilities for the self-regulatory organizations within the securities industry. For approximately 140 years prior to 1934, stock exchanges regulated their own members. Self-regulation continues to be an important component of the industry, but as of 2003 the SEC provides additional regulation, including authority to review disciplinary actions taken by a self-regulatory organization. The 1934 act also established the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board and conferred oversight power upon the commission. The Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board formulates rules for the municipal securities industry. The commission has the authority to approve or disapprove most proposed rules of the board.

The 1934 act seeks to provide the public with adequate information about companies with publicly traded securities. Subject to certain exemptions, disclosure requirements apply not only to companies with securities listed on national securities exchanges but to all companies with more than 500 shareholders and more than $5,000,000 in assets. Companies must file detailed statements with the SEC when first registering under the 1934 act and must provide periodic reports as prescribed by the commission.

Under the 1934 act, the SEC also regulates the solicitation of proxies. Proxies are voting solicitations allowing stockholders to participate in the annual or special meetings of stockholders without actually attending the meeting; the proxy empowers someone else to vote on behalf of the shareholder. Detailed SEC regulations delineate the form of proxies and the information that must be furnished to stockholders. A registered company must furnish each stockolder, before every stockholder meeting, a proxy statement and a proxy form on which he or she can indicate approval or disapproval of each proposal expected to be introduced at the meeting. Companies must file with the commission copies of the proxy statement and the proxy form. The SEC may comment on the proxy statement and insist on changes before it is mailed to security holders.

The WILLIAMS ACT of 1968 (Pub. L. No. 90-439, 82 Stat. 454) amended the 1934 act to address recurring problems arising in tender offers and corporate takeovers. A tender offer is a formal request that stockholders sell their shares in response to a large purchase bid; the buyer reserves the right to accept all, none, or a certain number of shares tendered for sale. A takeover occurs when a corporation assumes control of another corporation through an acquisition or merger. Pursuant to the law as amended, any person or group that takes ownership of more than 5 percent of any class of specific registered securities must file a statement within 10 days with the issuer of the security and with the SEC. This statement provides the background of the purchaser, the source of funds used in the purchase, the purpose of the purchase, the number of shares owned, and any relevant contracts, arrangements, or understandings. In addition, no person may make a tender offer unless he or she has first filed with the SEC and provided certain specific information to each offeree. A tender offer must remain open for a minimum of 20 days and at least 10 days after any change in the terms of the offer.

The Securities Act of 1934 also requires any person who beneficially owns, whether directly or indirectly, more than 10 percent of a class of certain registered securities and every officer or director of every company with specific registered securities to report to the SEC. Reports must be filed at the time the status is acquired and at the end of any month in which such a person acquires or disposes of any EQUITY securities of that company. This provision is designed to discourage short-term trading by preventing corporate insiders from unfairly using nonpublic information.

Investment Company Act of 1940 Pursuant to the Investment Company Act of 1940, investment companies must register with the SEC. Investment companies are companies engaged primarily in the business of investing, reinvesting, or trading in securities. They may also be companies with more than 40 percent of their assets consisting of investment securities, that is, securities other than those of majority-owned subsidiaries and government securities. Among other types of companies, this act covers "openend companies," commonly known as mutual funds. The SEC regulatory responsibilities under this act encompass sales load, management contracts, the composition of boards of directors, capital structure of investment companies, approval of adviser contracts, and changes in investment policy. In addition, a 1970 amendment imposed restrictions on management compensation and sales charges.

The act prohibits various transactions by investment companies, unless the commission has first made a determination that the transaction is fair. Moreover, the act permits the SEC to bring a court action to enjoin the execution of mergers and other reorganization plans of investment companies if the plans are unfair to security holders. The SEC also has the power to impose sanctions pursuant to administrative proceedings for violation of this act and may file suit to enjoin the acts of management officials involving breaches of fiduciary duties or personal misconduct and may bar such officials from office.

Investment Advisers Act of 1940 This act provides for SEC regulation and registration of investment advisers. The act is comparable to provisions of the 1934 act with respect to broker-dealers but is not as comprehensive. Generally speaking, an investment adviser is a person who engages in the business of advising others with respect to securities and does so for compensation. Certain fee arrangements are prohibited; adverse personal interests in a transaction must be disclosed. Moreover, the SEC may define and prohibit certain fraudulent and deceptive practices.

Other Securities Laws The Trust Indenture Act of 1939 applies to public issues of debt securities in excess of a certain amount. This law prescribes requirements to ensure the independence of indenture trustees. It also requires the exclusion of certain types of exculpatory clauses and the inclusion of certain protective clauses in indentures. In addition, the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 (15 U.S.C.A. §§ 79a–79z-6) was enacted to correct abuses in the financing and operation of electric and gas public utility holding companies; SEC functions under these provisions were substantially completed by the 1950s.

In the wake of major corporate scandals involving the Enron Corporation and the Arthur Andersen accounting firm, Congress enacted the SARBANES-OXLEY ACT OF 2002 (also known as the Public Company Accounting Reform and Investor Protection Act). The act imposes new disclosure requirements when companies file financial reports. It mandates that the SEC, by rule, requires the principal executive officer and principal financial officer to certify in each annual or quarterly report the accuracy and completeness of the information contained in the report. A knowing violation of this section is punishable by up to 10 years in jail and a $1 million fine. A willful violation is punishable by up to 20 years in jail and a $5 million fine. The act authorizes the establishment of a Public Company Accounting Oversight Board to oversee the accounting profession. The SEC appoints the five-person board. The board is charged with developing standards and enforcing them with appropriate sanctions. It must file an ANNUAL REPORT with the SEC.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Secretary to SHAsSecurities and Exchange Commission - Securities Laws, Sec Enforcement Authority, Further Readings