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Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Reconsidering SEBI disgorgement

by Renuka Sane and S. Vivek.

SEBI disgorgement is a regulatory remedy to recover wrongful gains from entities that have violated securities laws. It is justified based on the equitable principle that no one should benefit from their own wrong. This seems like a non-controversial, even obvious, ground for regulatory action that has 'compelling intuitive appeal'. However, there are basic conceptual issues that are not clearly settled, not just India but in other jurisdictions as well. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has considered three cases on disgorgement over the last few years - in one case, it held that disgorgement was beyond the powers of the Federal Trade Commission, overruling decades worth of practice, and in another, upheld Securities and Exchange Commission's power to seek disgorgement but with important conceptual restrictions.

These are trends that the Securities and Exchanges Board in India (SEBI) should be watching carefully. Lack of conceptual clarity about the remedy can put years of regulatory action at risk, if the basis of the remedy is questioned in a case before superior Courts. Further, a study of how SEBI orders are interpreting disgorgement powers and if they are consistent with the conceptual justifications is critical. SEBI disgorgement does not have any statutory limit - the order can direct recovery of all the wrongful gain, whatever they may be. This exercise of of vast discretion by SEBI Whole-Time Members (who are executive members of the regulator and typically do not have substantial judicial training), without transparent statutory or conceptual guidance, raises regulatory governance concerns.

In a new working paper, Reconsidering SEBI disgorgement, we study disgorgement from three perspectives:

  1. The theory of disgorgement: Disgorgement is a distinct remedy that must be distinguished from other remedies such as compensation, restitution, and penalties. Disgorgement is different from compensation because compensation is focussed on the loss suffered by claimants whereas disgorgement is focussed on the gains made by the wrongdoer. While disgorgement and restitution are both gain-based remedies, there is a subtle yet important difference. Restitution is focused on reversing a wrongful gain of the defendant based, for example, on a wrong or incorrect transfer from the plaintiff. Here, the (wrongful) gain made by the defendant is equal to the loss suffered by the plaintiff - the property in question (money, for example), is returned to status quo. Disgorgement, on the other hand, strips the defendant of its gains, even if such gains are not made from the plaintiff, and even if the plaintiff does not suffer any loss. Accordingly, the loss suffered by the plaintiff need not correlate to the defendant's gain that is clawed back through disgorgement. The objective for disgorgement is to have a deterrence effect, and not to merely reverse an illegal transfer. Penalties are also generally imposed for the purpose of deterrence, among others. However, while disgorgement amounts must be equal to the gains made by the wrongdoer, penalties can be imposed merely on the basis of the violation and need not correlate exactly to the gains, if any, made by the wrongdoer.

  2. The evolution of disgorgement at SEBI: SEBI had even in the early years tried exercising powers to claw back illegal gains (disgorgement), or compensate victims in insider trading cases, with mixed success at appellate fora. Subsequently, parliamentary and expert committees over the years have recommended providing SEBI with clear powers to trace the illegal gains made by wrongdoers and return such gains to their victims. Before such powers could be formalised through statute, disgorgement was used by SEBI Whole-Time Members (WTMs) as a quasi-judicial innovation in their orders,and received approval from the Securities Appellate Tribunal. Since, at that time, SEBI WTMs did not have the power to impose monetary penalties, SEBI disgorgement was justified as a 'remedial' power which only returns the wrongdoer to status quo, and hence can be distinguished from a punishment. Further, as there was no express statutory provision at the time for SEBI disgorgement, it was traced back to 'equitable' powers of SEBI WTMs.

    In 2014, the Securities and Exchange Board of India Act, 1992 (SEBI Act), was amended to clarify that SEBI disgorgement was part of SEBI's remedial powers. The amendment also stated that the amounts so clawed back are not to be deposited with the Consolidated Fund of India as in the case of penalties; instead, they are retained by SEBI's Investor Protection and Education Fund, to be used in terms of SEBI's own regulations. Interestingly, despite tracing its origins to Parliamentary and expert committees which discussed disgorgement powers in the context of using the proceeds to compensate victims, the amendment did not require SEBI to even attempt to distribute the amounts to victims. Since then, SEBI's power to direct disgorgement without clear statutory limits has been entrenched. Gradually, SEBI also received judicial recognition for its power to impose interest on the disgorgement amount. These rates are calculated from the date of the violation, sometimes going back 10 years or more (as opposed interest on penalties which is typically calculated from the date of non-payment after the SEBI order). Further, the initiation of proceedings for disgorgement or penalties, remains with SEBI and it is unclear how it is exercised.

    These vast powers are conferred on the regulator on the basis that SEBI disgorgement is only 'remedial' and is returning the wrongdoer to status quo. The use of the term 'disgorgement' while at the same time emphasising the return to status quo creates some confusion between the related albeit distinct remedies of disgorgement and restitution. In this context, we study whether in practice what kind of remedy SEBI disgorgement actually is, regardless of its nomenclature. Further, as a legal matter, returning the wrongdoer status quo is critical as a point of distinction from SEBI penalties; if the wrongdoer is left worse-off, it could be argued that SEBI disgorgement is a penalty by another name.

  3. The practice of disgorgement at SEBI : If SEBI's case for disgorgement is based on clawing back illegal gains and returning the wrong-doer to status-quo, do they actually do so? We use all the SEBI disgorgement orders between January 1, 2018, and July 15, 2021, and find that in 9% of the cases there is no finding that the noticee has made a benefit or avoided a loss, and yet noticees have been ordered to disgorge. In none of the cases is there a finding that the direction brings the noticee back to status-quo and does not leave them worse off - a critical element in the justification for SEBI disgorgement and its characterization as a remedial power. Further, it is interesting that SEBI disgorgement is usually used for insider trading, and fraudulent trading offences, for which the SEBI Act allows penalties to be issued up to three times the profits made. Why is disgorgement, and not penalties, being used in these cases?

Our results suggest that lawmakers and the SEBI Board must review how SEBI disgorgement is conceptualised and what goals it serves. It should scrutinise how disgorgement orders are being issued under the existing framework so that they are consistent with the justifications for remedial measures (such as, allowing deductions for legitimate expenses and a transparent and careful system to determine causation of the gains from the wrong). A holistic look at remedies available for securities law violations is required so that they serve all the goals required for stakeholders - deterrence, compensation, and restitution.

S. Vivek is a researcher with the Regulatory Governance Project at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru. Renuka Sane is a researcher at NIPFP. Author names are in alphabetical order.

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