U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement actions against public companies and subsidiaries fell to the lowest level in seven years in fiscal 2021, reflecting in part the continuing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The NYU Pollack Center for Law & Business and Cornerstone Research said in a report that the SEC filed 53 new actions in the year ended Sept. 30, down 15% from the 62 actions in fiscal 2020 and a steep drop from the record-high 95 actions in 2019.
In addition to the impact of the pandemic, the SEC transitioned to new leadership this year with the appointment of Gary Gensler as chair.
“We have seen declines in filing activity after a change of administration in the past,” report coauthor Sara Gilley, a Cornerstone Research vice president, said, noting that actions dropped in 2013 and 2017, when new SEC chairs also took over.
Despite the decline in public company actions, SEC monetary settlements imposed in 2021 totaled $1.8 billion, up slightly from $1.6 billion the previous year. The average monetary settlement was $38 million, up $10 million from an average of $28 million the previous fiscal year.
The median settlement of $1 million was less than one-third of the average median from 2012 to 2020 and the lowest median since 2015.
The report also found the SEC cited cooperation by 58% of public company and subsidiary defendants in actions settled in 2021, in line with the average over the previous nine years. But there were no defendants that admitted guilt.
“For the first time in 10 years, no public company or subsidiary defendants admitted guilt,” said Stephen Choi, director of the Pollack Center. “It will be interesting to see if this trend changes, as the SEC recently announced a policy to seek admissions in certain cases as a way to improve the deterrent value of enforcement actions.”
The enforcement activity in 2021 included the first C0VID-19 related action against an issuer or subsidiary, the first against a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC), and three cybersecurity actions.