SEC lax in monitoring exempted firms’ compliance, inspector general report says

June 30, 2011

The Securities and Exchange Commission doesn’t just enforce the rules that govern Wall Street. When asked, it often grants individual companies exemptions from those rules.

But companies that win special breaks often fail to comply with the conditions that come with them, the SEC’s inspector general said in a report released Thursday.

What’s more, the agency has no formalized process for monitoring whether companies live up to their end of the bargain, the report said.

Although the agency routinely inspects financial firms, “only in rare cases” did the examiners focus on that question, the report said.

The inspector general’s report was another in a series the office has written criticizing the SEC’s performance. Others have addressed the agency’s purchase of useless information technology, its leasing of downtown Washington offices it did not need and could not afford, and its failure to stop the Ponzi scheme by Bernard Madoff and R. Allen Stanford’s alleged fraud.

The SEC both writes and polices a panoply of rules, many of them highly technical, that are meant to protect clients of investment firms and shareholders in public companies. But it routinely gives companies a green light to disregard specific requirements.

For example, in May 2010, the SEC gave credit rating agencies relief from rules meant to avoid conflicts of interest in their high-stakes business, the report said. Credit rating agencies, such as Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, rate the creditworthiness of bonds and other securities. They have been criticized for contributing to the housing bubble — and the financial crisis that followed — by assigning top ratings to investments tied to toxic mortgages.

In some cases, the SEC tells companies they don’t have to follow certain rules. In other cases, it issues “no action” letters in which it assures firms that if they stay within certain parameters they will not run afoul of the law and need not fear enforcement action.

The office of the inspector general, headed by H. David Kotz, called on the agency to do more to monitor exemptions. When companies fail to abide by the conditions, they could be making “significant violations of the securities laws,” the report said.

Instead of treating the exemptions as risk factors worthy of heightened scrutiny, some SEC staff members take the opposite view, the report said. They assume that companies that have gone to the trouble of requesting relief from the rules “present a reduced risk,” the report said.

In a written response to the report, SEC staff members said they generally agree with the recommendations. However, some of the steps the inspector proposed would take “significant resources,” the staff said.

SEC Chairman Mary L. Schapiro has repeatedly pleaded with Congress to increase the agency’s budget, warning that a lack of resources “places our markets and America’s investors at risk.”

The agency gives companies relief from the rules for a variety of reasons, the staff said. Some rules are ambiguous and, in a rapidly changing industry, some may not address current realities, the staff said.

In general, firms that seek relief “do so because they are attuned to compliance issues,” the staff said.

The inspector general backed up his report with examples the SEC staff had already documented in routine examinations of financial firms. The agency staff gave the inspector general 477 reports that at least touched on whether companies were complying with the conditions of their special breaks.

The inspector general’s office reviewed 72 of those reports and found that SEC examiners noted compliance problems in 44 of them.

In one case, the SEC issued a no-action letter telling a firm that if it released “performance data” it should disclose additional information to avoid misleading prospective clients. The firm published the performance data without the additional disclosures, the report said.

Another case showed that seeking an exemption isn’t necessarily proof that a firm is attuned to the rules; the company was operating as if had been granted an exemption even though the SEC had not yet approved its request.

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