In its final Private Fund Adviser Rules adopted last year, the SEC dropped one of the more controversial proposed rules—the proposal to prohibit contractual exculpation or indemnification provisions that would shield or indemnify the adviser in matters involving the adviser’s negligence or breach of fiduciary duty.  On its face, this was a concession to the fund management industry. However, the Rule’s Adopting Release asserted that the SEC believed the provision was not needed because the antifraud provisions of the Advisers Act already prohibited certain provisions that would be covered by the proposal. Because the SEC’s interpretation was based on current law (there is no grandfathering or “implementation date” in the future), we predict that contractual indemnification or exculpation provisions will remain firmly in the SEC’s sights for 2024. SEC exams and enforcement proceedings are likely to focus on these provisions, and they may be implicated in GP/LP disputes as well.

Economic headwinds and the interest rate environment that developed over the course of 2023 increased financial stress on portfolio companies and portend heightened litigation risk in 2024 for portfolio companies and their private fund sponsors. Specifically, interest rate increases that accelerated through 2022 continued in 2023, and compounded existing economic stressors including tight liquidity and inflation coming out of 2020 and 2021, as well as increased cost and other burdens related to ESG and regulatory compliance. These pressures put portfolio companies in often unsustainable financial positions, causing them to prematurely seek liquidity events, violate debt covenants with lenders, and resort to bankruptcy, all of which has led to an increase in disputes and litigation, which we expect to continue in 2024.

In a wave of SEC rulemaking this past year, representing a “new world order” event akin to Dodd-Frank, the SEC has provided itself with a fresh set of tools to increase regulatory and enforcement scrutiny on private funds. Among other things, certain of the rules could result in fundamental changes to market practices and greater disclosure to LPs. While ongoing litigation will determine the fates of the Private Fund Adviser Rules, the Short Sale Disclosure Rule, and the Securities Lending Rule, and while other rules are awaiting final adoption, the SEC concerns underlying the rulemaking will continue regardless.   

To understand the litigation and regulatory risks that are coming in 2024 for private capital, it is helpful to look back briefly on recent events. Arguably, the single most important event over the last 18 months was the rapid increase in interest rates by the central banks in the United States, England, and Europe. From March 2022 to August 2023, the Federal Reserve increased interest rates at the fastest clip in more than 40 years, to break inflation that had reached the highest levels since the 1970s.

On Friday, September 1, 2023, a lawsuit was filed with the federal Court of Appeals in the Fifth Circuit challenging the validity and enforceability of the recently adopted Private Fund Adviser Rules under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (the “Advisers Act”).  (Please see our prior alerts for a description of the Rules’ provisions and their applicability to non-U.S. investment advisers.)  The lawsuit was filed in the form of a Petition for Review pursuant to Section 213(a) of the Advisers Act, which authorizes such a petition for persons “aggrieved” by the actions of the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “Commission” or the “SEC”).

On August 24, 2023, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued its much-anticipated decision in Kirschner v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, holding that the syndicate term loans at issue were not securities. As noted in our earlier blog post, the SEC declined the court’s request to file an amicus brief, forgoing the opportunity to provide its views on the issue and influence the outcome of the appeal.[1]

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Yesterday, the five SEC commissioners voted 3-2, along party lines, to approve the Private Fund Adviser Rules. The final Rules scale back from what was initially proposed 18 months ago, in ways that are likely to be a relief to many private fund advisers. (For a summary of the initial proposal, please see our previous Alert.) Even in their current form, however, the Rules still impose many new obligations and introduce new prohibitions that are likely to significantly alter business practices, and impose new administrative burdens and costs, across many registered and exempt private fund advisers. All private fund advisers should therefore review their practices in light of the new Rules in order to assess whether and how their practices and documentation will need to change before the Rules’ compliance dates.

Participants in the syndicated loan markets may have been relieved last month when the SEC declined to file the amicus brief requested by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Kirschner v. JP Morgan Chase Bank. In an unusual turn of events, the SEC choose not to weigh in on whether the syndicated term loans at issue are securities. In a July 18, 2023 letter to the court, the SEC explained that “despite the best efforts to respond to the court’s request, the Staff was not in a position to file a brief on behalf of the Commission.” Id. Whatever the reason, the SEC’s decision leaves the Second Circuit panel without the agency’s views, and to speculate over the agency’s reasons for its clearly very deliberate decision not to act.

The SEC suffered a significant loss last week in its ongoing legal battle with Ripple over the XRP digital token. While the District Court held that Ripple’s initial sales of XRP to institutional investors constituted the sale of unregistered securities, it was a Pyrrhic victory as the court held