Tag: securities and exchange commission

Free Speech? What’s Free Speech?

Internet site Gawker says that Ashton Kutcher’s editorship of Details magazine was “a brazenly self interested and highly misleading act of journalism.” He helped produce a special online version of the mag that featured tech companies he’s invested in without disclosing that fact.

Having disclosed it for him—the article is called “Ashton Kutcher Is a Massive Whore“—Gawker now reports on how federal officials are looking over their glasses at the television personality and entrepreneur.

“It’s certainly a possibility that a case like this could be investigated,” assistant Federal Trade Commission director Richard Cleland tells the Times of Kutcher’s Details special online issue, in which eight of 12 recommended products in one article were Kutcher investments. “If you’re out there promoting individual products that you have a specific investment in, it needs to be disclosed… If you have a significant economic investment that is not otherwise apparent, that may potentially affect the credibility of your endorsement, and I see that as a potential problem.” The FTC has made a priority out of online conflicts of interest.

It’s also possible Kutcher violated SEC rules. You’re not supposed to promote a company you partly own—say, in a magazine—if you know it’s soon to go public. And if a company’s shares trade on private secondary markets you must abide by federal rules on deceptive marketing, which a former SEC lawyer told the Times were “very broad… These rules apply any time there is a securities transaction.”

You see, in the land of the free—where the government’s founding charter says it “shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech”—you can’t just say any old stuff you want to in a magazine! Say things that help your business interests too much and you are obviously outside of what the quaint old Constitution says. The First Amendment is fuzzy on this. “[M]ake no law” might mean “make a law if you have a good reason.” Duh, Ashton! You’re pretty, but maybe not very smart, saying what you want in the United States of America.

This episode itself illustrates why “make no law” works despite the fact that it allows sharp business practices. Gawker and other media outlets are actively curing any information deficit with plainly worded articles like “Ashton Kutcher Is a Massive Whore.” This is in aid of the caveat emptor rule, which works even better when people know they need to think for themselves and look for assistance from outlets like Gawker, of which there are an endless supply thanks to the Internet.

Caveat supplicantem if you think that the government is going to protect your interests as a consumer better than you can. Not even close. So there is no good reason for overturning the First Amendment here.

Government to Punish S&P for Downgrade

It’s a little too early to really tell what is going on here, but it certainly looks suspicious to me that a week after the rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded the U.S. government, we now have the Securities and Exchange Commission starting an insider-trading investigation of who inside S&P worked on the downgrade. This comes on top of an announced Senate probe into S&P’s decision.

I’ve long argued for reducing the role and influence of the rating agencies when it comes to financial regulation. One of the few things the Dodd-Frank Act got correct was pushing for a reduction in regulators’ reliance on the rating agencies. But still, it is nothing short of hypocritical for the same parties who complained that the agencies were too late on mortgages to complain they are too early when it comes to the federal government.

The decisions by the other two major ratings agencies, Fitch and Moody’s, to not downgrade U.S. debt was just as important as S&P’s decision. Are they going to be investigated too? My bet is not. You really have to wonder what our country has come to when you cannot speak an obvious truth without getting investigated by the government. So much for free speech.

SEC Incompetence

There has been much speculation that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) released its charges against Goldman Sachs on the eve of a Senate vote on new finance regulation in order to help Democrats win that vote.  Perhaps that theory is wrong: It now looks more likely that the SEC timed its Goldman case in order to divert attention away from two SEC inspector general (IG) reports criticizing the commission.

In one of the reports, the SEC IG found that several of the top staffers at the SEC were spending their days surfing the web for porn, rather than looking for securities fraud.  One senior manager spent almost 8 hours a day looking a porn, getting to the point where he even filled up his government issued hard-drive with porn.  His actions were not some isolated incident.  Over 30 employees were found to have regularly used SEC computers to download and view porn.  Some of the senior employees had salaries as high as $222,000 a year.  Sounds like nice work, if you can get it.

But the porn charges are the least of the SEC’s worries.  Also released was the IG’s report on the SEC’s failure to stop the Stanford Ponzi scheme.  The report shows a clear pattern of incompetence at the SEC.  Given the SEC’s failure to act on the Madoff scheme, and the repeated warnings about Stanford, one has to wonder how good SEC investogators are at discovering fraud if they don’t even pursue the clear-cut cases brought to them.

The IG report does help explain the SEC’s poor track record.  The SEC’s head of enforcement made it very clear that the staff was “to bring more Wall Street types of cases.”  Perhaps ones like the recent Goldman case?  The head of enforcement even goes so far as to ask the staff working on the Stanford case, “What are you bringing these cases for?”  Clearly the SEC only seems to care about fraud if its catches a big headline.  Since the SEC was first warned about Stanford, investors placed about $8 billion more into the Ponzi scheme, far more than the damages alleged in the Goldman case.

If anything should expose the current financial regulatory bill being debated in the Senate as a fraud, it should be the fact that it leaves the SEC still standing.  Even worse, it reduces Congressional oversight of the SEC by removing it from the appropriations process.

Litan Warns Dodd Bill Would Harm Startups

I haven’t been following the debate over Sen. Dodd’s financial overhaul closely enough to have an opinion on the overall package, but Mike Masnick flags one aspect of the legislation that seems really troubling. Bob Litan explains:

Under existing law, startup companies can raise money easily and quickly from “accredited investors” – individuals with substantial wealth or income. There is no need for the companies or the investors to gain approval from any state or regulatory official.

All of this would change if Section 926 of the Dodd bill is included in any final reform legislation. That section would require, for the first time, companies seeking angel investment to make a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which would have 120 days to review it. This would both raise the cost of seeking angels and delay the ability of companies to benefit from their funding.

The negative impact of the SEC filing requirement would be aggravated by the proposed doubling of the net worth or income thresholds required for investors to be “accredited.”

It’s hard to overstate how important a favorable regulatory climate is to the success of startups. Some of the most important startups have been founded by 20-somethings without the resources to hire lawyers or navigate regulatory bureaucracies. And startups frequently find themselves within weeks of insolvency before they have a big breakthrough. Having a crucial round of funding delayed by four months can be the difference between success and failure. If this description of the bill is accurate (and I have no reason to doubt that it is), this provision would be very bad for the future of high-tech innovation in the United States.