2023’s excitement for generative artificial intelligence (AI) prompted the SEC to respond on multiple fronts – stump speeches, rulemaking, new exam priorities and sweeps and previewing potential enforcement actions. SEC Chair Gary Gensler raised concerns regarding potential conflicts and investor harm resulting from the proliferation of AI and warned that an AI-caused financial crisis is nearly unavoidable absent regulation. The SEC adopted a number of initiatives in 2023 to respond to these perceived risks. 

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.

The SEC’s recent enforcement settlement involving a fund manager highlights the SEC’s focus on an investor’s “control purpose” triggering the requirement to file on a Schedule 13D as opposed to a short-form 13G. At issue was HG Vora Capital Management’s 5% interest in a public company, and whether it had

Go to any private equity event in the last 12 months, and “energy transition” will have been discussed, meaning the shift in energy production away from fossil‑based systems to low or zero carbon ones. As fund managers continue to raise funds focused on investments in this sector, we see no reason for this trend to change in 2023.

The ever-increasing web of ESG regulation is of course highly relevant for such funds and their investments, but the sector-relevant risks are much wider. There are four risks of which fund managers need to be aware.

Last month, we predicted that a renewed focus by the SEC on insider trading, MNPI and related internal controls would be one of the Top Ten Regulatory and Litigation Risks for Private Funds in 2022. Last week, the SEC’s Division of Examinations (“EXAMS”) issued a timely risk alert relating to Investment Adviser Material Non-Public Information (MNPI) Compliance Issues.

The SEC’s EXAMS risk alert specifically highlighted a handful of common deficiencies noted under Section 204A of the Advisers Act and Rule 204A-1 under the Advisers Act (the “Code of Ethics Rule”).

Over the past few years, the SEC has brought fewer insider trading and Material Non-Public Information (MNPI)-related cases compared to historical numbers. We expect to see a reversal of that trend in 2022.

The SEC has provided some hints of its renewed focus on insider trading. First, even though the overall number of insider trading cases was down last year, the SEC brought two “first of kind” cases involving MNPI. The SEC successfully defeated a motion to dismiss its first “shadow trading” insider trading case – charging an individual with trading in the securities of an issuer based on MNPI he had obtained regarding another issuer. And the SEC brought its first case against an alternative data provider when it charged App Annie and its founder with making fraudulent misrepresentations in connection with its use of confidential information.

If 2021 was the year in which regulators and investors enthusiastically embraced environmental, social and governance (“ESG”) considerations, by creating new legal and regulatory frameworks, then 2022 will be the year for asset managers to identify and confront the practical challenges of integrating legal requirements and stakeholder expectations into investment policy and performance.

The SEC prevailed on a motion to dismiss a closely watched lawsuit alleging that a company employee had engaged in insider trading based on news about a not-yet-public corporate acquisition when he purchased securities of a third-party company that was not involved in the deal. The January 14, 2022 decision in SEC v. Panuwat (N.D. Cal.) marks the first time a court has considered the theory of “shadow trading,” which involves trading the securities of a public company that is not the direct subject of the material, nonpublic information (“MNPI”) at issue.

The Panuwat ruling does not appear to break new ground under the misappropriation theory of insider trading under the particular facts alleged. But the “shadow trading” theory warrants attention because it can have wide-ranging ramifications for traders, including hedge funds.