A Look Back at SEC Enforcement Actions in Fiscal Year 2021

As 2021 draws to a close, it is a fitting time to revisit some of the main enforcement actions taken by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) through fiscal year (FY) 2021, which ended on September 30th, 2021.

In total, the number of new enforcement actions filed by the SEC in FY 2021 increased by 7% over the previous year, with 434 new enforcement actions. While the total number of enforcement actions – including new actions along with other “follow-on” or open proceedings  – decreased slightly year over year in FY 2021, the SEC remained committed to its role as “cop on the beat for America’s securities laws,” as described by Chair Gary Gensler. [1] The SEC maintained a sharp focus on protecting the integrity of the country’s capital markets through enforcement actions against bad actors even in the face of the persisting COVID-19 pandemic persisted.

In announcing its progress on enforcement actions during FY 2021, the SEC concentrated on several key priority areas. Some of these priority areas, per a recent SEC Press Release, included “holding individuals accountable,” “ensuring gatekeepers live up to their obligations,” “rooting out misconduct in crypto,” “policing financial fraud and issuer disclosure,” “cracking down on insider trading and market manipulation,” and “swiftly acting to protect investors.” [1]

While focusing on “holding individuals accountable,” the SEC noted that during FY 2021, it successfully lodged charges against top-level executives of corporate powerhouses. including CEOs at both Wells Fargo and Nikola, an alternative-fuel trucking company. [1]

In “ensuring gatekeepers live up to their obligations,” the SEC focused its attention on auditors and attorneys from various backgrounds who had behaved improperly, unprofessionally, or failed in their duties when auditing other companies. [1]

The SEC was able to further its “rooting out misconduct in crypto,” objective by carefully studying misconduct within the emerging cryptocurrency market, and subsequently charging both entities and individuals who fraudulently offered digital asset securities, such as bitcoin, thereby defrauding investors. [1] These actions garnered particular concern, given the largely unregulated state of the cryptocurrency space.

Beyond cryptocurrency concerns, the SEC also proved its focus on “policing financial fraud and issuer disclosure,” by continuing to diligently trace potentially fraudulent activities within the market. In doing so, the SEC uncovered possible violations of securities laws, and also investigated disclosures made by public companies which improperly failed to note potential COVID-19 pandemic impacts on their businesses. [1]

During FY 2021 the SEC also had its eyes on “cracking down on insider trading and market manipulation” by pursuing charges for insider trading relating to a biopharmaceutical company acquired by COVID-19 vaccine manufacturer Pfizer, Inc., as well as an insider trading ring connected to confidential data regarding Netflix’s subscriber growth over time. [1]

In pursing its myriad enforcement actions, the SEC also focused on “swiftly acting to protect investors” throughout FY 2021. Many cases involved the SEC filing emergency actions or restraining orders against defendants in Ponzi schemes, as well as suspending trading of more than 20 “meme stocks,” as concerns about market volatility reached a head in early 2021. [1]

In all, the SEC’s FY 2021 enforcement actions resulted in obtaining “judgments and orders for nearly $2.4 billion in disgorgement and more than $1.4 billion in penalties.” [1] Furthermore, FY 2021 was the highest year ever for whistleblower awards, as the whistleblower program awarded $564 million to just over 100 whistleblowers, and surpassed $1 billion in lifetime awards paid out. [1]

As the world rebuilds and adapts to life in the midst of a global pandemic, the SEC looks poised to continue its work in closely monitoring and enforcing federal securities laws through enforcement actions, with the ultimate aim of protecting not only capital markets, but also investors of all backgrounds.


[1] https://www.sec.gov/news/press-release/2021-238



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