The Securities and Exchange Commission announced that Merrill Lynch has agreed to pay a $10 million penalty to settle charges that it was responsible for misleading statements in offering materials provided to retail investors for structured notes linked to a proprietary volatility index.

Misleading Investors in Structured Notes

According to the SEC’s order instituting a settled administrative proceeding, the offering materials emphasized that the notes were subject to a 2 percent sales commission and 0.75 percent annual fee.  Due to the impact of these costs over the five-year term of the notes, the volatility index would need to increase by 5.93 percent from its starting value in order for investors to earn back their original investment on the maturity date.  But the offering materials failed to adequately disclose a third cost included in the volatility index known as the “execution factor” that imposed a cost of 1.5 percent of the index value each quarter.

The notes were issued by Merrill Lynch’s parent company Bank of America Corporation, and Merrill Lynch had principal responsibility for drafting and reviewing the retail pricing supplements.  The SEC’s order finds that Merrill Lynch did not have in place effective policies or procedures to ensure its personnel drafted and approved disclosures that adequately disclosed the impact of the execution factor.

This is the agency’s second case involving misleading statements by a seller of structured notes. In October 2015, UBS AG agreed to pay $19.5 million to settle charges that it made false or misleading statements and omissions in offering materials provided to U.S. investors in structured notes linked to a proprietary foreign exchange trading strategy.

“This case continues our focus on disclosures relating to retail investments in structured notes and other complex financial products.  Offering materials for such products must be accurate and complete, and firms must implement systems and policies to ensure investors receive all material facts,” said Andrew J. Ceresney, Director of the SEC Enforcement Division.

Michael J. Osnato, Chief of the SEC Enforcement Division’s Complex Financial Instruments Unit, added, “This case demonstrates the SEC’s ongoing commitment to creating a level playing field when it comes to the sale of highly complex financial products to retail investors.”

The SEC’s order finds that Merrill Lynch violated Section 17(a)(2) of the Securities Act of 1933, which prohibits obtaining money or property by means of material misstatements and omissions in the offer or sale of securities.  Without admitting or denying the findings, Merrill Lynch agreed to cease and desist from committing or causing any similar future violations and pay a penalty of $10 million.

THE BURDEN FOR PLAINTIFFS IN CLAIMS OF BREACH OF FIDUCIARY DUTY

In Houseman v. Sagerman, the Delaware Chancery Court’s dismissal of the stockholder plaintiff’s claim for breach of fiduciary duty underscores the heightened pleading standard necessary to support such a claim by plaintiffs against a corporation’s directors arising out of allegations that the directors breached their duty in the process taken to approve the transaction.

The plaintiffs alleged that Universata’s board of directors conducted an imperfect process in regards to obtaining of the best price for stockholders. Two years after the merger between Universata, Inc. and Healthport Technologies, Inc. closed, the plaintiffs filed, among two other causes of action, the claim of breach of fiduciary duty. The plaintiffs allege that the director acted in bad faith by “knowingly and completely fail[ing] to undertake their responsibilities” to maximize shareholder value.

The Court, however, did not agree with the plaintiffs. The Court noted that the directors had, in fact, satisfied their duty of loyalty by taking into account, and acting upon, the advice of both their legal counsel and their financial advisor, Keyblanc. The allegations in the complaint showed that the Board had ultimately decided, after considering bids from several additional interested parties and negotiating the terms with Healthport, that it had obtained everything that the Board felt it could get.

Additionally, the plaintiffs failed to allege any facts that would prove a motive on the part of the directors to act in “bad faith.” The Court observed that the directors had a personal financial interest in obtaining the best price possible, dispelling the notion that the directors’ interests were not aligned with the interests of the company’s public stockholders.

According to the Court, the plaintiffs failed to plead sufficient facts to show that the board of directors of Universata “utterly failed to undertake any action to obtain the best price for stockholders.” The motion to dismiss, filed by certain directors and financial advisors of Universata, was therefore granted by the Court.

The Court, while recognizing that the approach the Board took was “less then optimal,” nevertheless granted the motion to dismiss, as the plaintiffs failed to meet the pleading standard. The decision in Houseman serves as a reminder to plaintiffs to be mindful of the high pleading burden that must be met to support a claim of breach of fiduciary duty.

 

EMPLOYERS: MAKE SURE YOUR STOCK OPTION PLAN ALLOWS YOUR GRANTEES THE ABILITY TO DEFER TAXABLE INCOME

The Code 83 regulations contain an important exception to the non-transferability rule that arises mostly with stock option grants, despite the fact that restricted stock grants are the type most often impacted by Code Section 83.

The exception to the regulations relates to profits realized under “short-swing” transactions. Under Section 16(b) of the Securities Act of 1934, any profit realized by an insider on a “short-swing” transaction must be disgorged by the company or a stockholder acting on the company’s behalf. “Short-swing” transactions are the non-exempt purchases and sales (or sales and purchases) of companies’ equity securities within a period of less than six months. In the event that a company grants a stock option that is not made under the applicable Section 16(b) exemption, it is deemed a non-exempt purchase.” Generally, the shares underlying the option are subject to the Section’s restrictions for six months after the date of the grant. Any sale of these shares within the six-month period following the grant date could be matched with the “purchase” and violate the Section.

With fairness in mind, it seems to follow that if a sale of shares would subject someone to potential SEC penalties, taxation on those shares would be delayed until the risk of liability lapses. Section 83 of the Code has always recognized this point. The Code Section 83 also recognizes that if a seller is restricted from selling shares of stock previously acquired in a non-exempt transaction within the past six months because of potential liability under Section 16(b), the shares are deemed to be subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture. This risk of forfeiture does not lapse, and as a result, the grantee will not realize taxable income until six months after which the acquisition of the shares by the grantee took place.

A question remained, however, regarding whether a subsequent non-exempt purchase could further extend the substantial risk of forfeiture. The final regulations answers this question, explaining with a new example that the Internal Revenue Service and the Treasury to not respect this type of strategy. The new example clearly notes that any options granted in a non-exempt manner will only be considered subject to substantial risk of forfeiture for the first six months after the date of the grant of the shares.

This new example means that the risk of disgorging any profits under Section 16(b) generally will not have any impact on the substantial risk of forfeiture analysis.

With this new example, the IRS is essentially eliminating any opportunity to abuse the Section 16(b). The IRS is reminding grantees that transfer restrictions alone cannot delay taxation. As a result, employers should be careful to ensure that their grants contain a valid substantial risk of forfeiture to allow the grantees the ability to defer taxable income.

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