The Securities and Exchange Commission will get new powers to protect small investors from penny stock fraud and to fine lawbreakers under a reform bill passed unanimously by the House Monday.
The same bill was passed by the Senate last week, and President Bush is expected to sign it into law.The House also unanimously passed another bill that will enhance the SEC's ability to cooperate with foreign securities regulators in the investigation of international fraud cases.
"These bills represent a powerful new expansion of the enforcement weapons available to combat the problems of securities fraud in general and the penny stock market in particular," said Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the SEC. Markey was one of the penny stock bill's sponsors.
"We have begun to reverse the rapacious and deregulatory 1980s with proper legislative protections for the small investor," he said.
An earlier Senate version did not contain a penny stock provision but was similar in most other ways to the Securities Enforcement and Penny Stock Reform Act passed by the House on July 23. A compromise bill including penny stock provisions was passed unanimously by the Senate last week after a month of negotiations between House and Senate staffers.
The new bill will give the SEC the authority to bar crooked promoters and consultants from selling penny stocks, highly speculative securities that sell for a few dollars or less.
While not illegal, penny stocks are prone to fraud and are considered to be very risky at best. They are usually not traded on any stock exchange and, thus, information amount them is hard to come by.
The bill also would tighten disclosure requirements for some types of penny stocks.
It also would:
- give the SEC the power to order alleged wrongdoers to "cease and desist" illegal activities without first having to go to court and obtain a restraining order;
- widen SEC authority to seek court orders barring convicted securities law violators from serving as officers or directors of companies with publicly-traded stock;
- enact numerous reforms in the selling of penny stocks;
- authorize new civil penalties for securities violators of up to $100,000 per violation for an individual and up to $500,000 for companies and other entities.
Previously, the SEC had the power to impose fines only in insider trading cases. For other violations such as fraudulent sales techniques, the agency had no mid-level sanction. It could only enjoin violators from repeating their activities or revoke their license, which some have called the regulatory equivalent of the death penalty.
Monday's vote follows House and Senate approval of another reform bill last week that will allow the SEC to regulate the controversial computerized strategy of program trading in times of extreme market turbulence.
That bill also would give the SEC authority to monitor large stock trades and the parent holding companies of brokerages. It would also allow the agency to close the markets - with the president's approval - in market emergencies.