An Empirical Study of Admissions in SEC Settlements

Transparency and accountability were the announced aims of the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) as it unveiled a new policy of requiring some enforcement targets to admit wrongdoing when they settled with the agency. The SEC had come under fire for allowing targets to settle with the agency without admitting or denying wrongdoing. Critics, including prominent judges, put pressure on the agency to require admissions as a way to hold wrongdoers accountable, particularly in the long aftermath of the 2007–2008 financial crisis. In response, the agency announced a policy change in 2013: roughly speaking, it would require admissions when doing so would further public accountability. The empirical study reported in this Article explores how the agency has implemented this policy. We identify and analyze SEC settlements in court and administrative proceedings announced during SEC fiscal years 2010 through 2017 that required any type of admission of wrongdoing from the settling target. The data set includes the full text of the underlying agreements between the SEC and the target. The resulting number of settlements including admissions is low. A few of these settlements were in high-profile cases, but many were against individuals rather than entities and resulted in low or no monetary sanctions. The numbers, however, do not tell the whole story. We examine the text of the agreements to provide a more nuanced picture, revealing the prominent role of factual admissions, but also identifying admissions of wrongdoing, legal violations, and scienter.