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Can the SEC stand up to billionaires like Elon Musk? : NPR




Can the SEC stand up to billionaires like Elon Musk?  : NPR

Tesla CEO Elon Musk participates in the start of production at Tesla’s “Gigafactory” in Grünheide, southeast of Berlin, Germany, on March 22. The billionaire, who has been at odds with regulators before, is in their binoculars again while he tries to buy Twitter. This raises questions about the Securities and Exchange Commission’s ability to monitor the rich and powerful.

Patrick Pleul / Pool / AFP via Getty Images


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Patrick Pleul / Pool / AFP via Getty Images


Tesla CEO Elon Musk participates in the start of production at Tesla’s “Gigafactory” in Grünheide, southeast of Berlin, Germany, on March 22. The billionaire, who has been at odds with regulators before, is in their binoculars again while he tries to buy Twitter. This raises questions about the Securities and Exchange Commission’s ability to monitor the rich and powerful.

Patrick Pleul / Pool / AFP via Getty Images

Elon Musk has hurled insults and insulted the Securities and Exchange Commission and has even expressed complete contempt for Wall Street’s chief of police.

Musk called the SEC “bastards” at a recent conference. He twitret a vulgar insinuation in 2020. He said, “I do not respect the SEC,” in an interview from 2018. And after garnering a significant stake in Twitter this year, Musk submitted necessary paperwork 11 days late.

“You know, Elon Musk basically says, ‘Come on.’ I dare you, “said Christine Chung, a professor at Albany Law School. She used to be a lawyer in the SEC’s law enforcement department.

Musk continues to support the SEC even though the agency has taken several actions against him, from fining him millions of dollars to accusing him of securities fraud. In a recent letter, the SEC asked Musk to elaborate on public comments he made about Twitter and also explain why he did not submit a mandatory disclosure in time.

All of this revives a debate about whether the SEC has sharp enough teeth to rein in powerful and wealthy leaders like Musk.

Late submission is a “slam-dunk case” against Musk

Much of Musk’s recent behavior has raised eyebrows. Former SEC Commissioner Joseph Grundfest says it seems pretty clear that Musk broke the law with the late submission. When someone collects more than a 5% stake in a public company, the person has 10 days to tell the SEC, but Musk took his time.

– In practical terms, it seems to me that this is about as close to a slam-dunk case as you will find, says Grundfest, who is now a professor at Stanford Law School. “The younger lawyer at the SEC should be able to write a very strong complaint.”

But Grundfest is not convinced that accusing Musk of a breach of disclosure would do much. That offense usually carries a fine of around $ 100,000.

“For a guy like Elon Musk, it’s a pocket money,” says Grundfest. “It’s handsome money. It’s bupkis. You take it out of small change.”

Musk, the world’s richest man, has an estimated net worth of $ 227 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

“It really is not going to make any difference,” Grundfest adds. “It’s not going to change behavior. He will chuckle.”

Elon Musk, who has offered to buy Twitter for $ 44 billion, has more than 96 million followers on the social media platform.

Chris Delmas / AFP via Getty Images


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Chris Delmas / AFP via Getty Images


Elon Musk, who has offered to buy Twitter for $ 44 billion, has more than 96 million followers on the social media platform.

Chris Delmas / AFP via Getty Images

The 60 minutes interview with Musk

In 2018, Musk laughed at the SEC in one 60 minutes interview with correspondent Lesley Stahl, who asked the Tesla boss about his decision to settle with the agency over a tweet.

“I want to be clear,” said Musk in the interview. “I do not respect the SEC. I do not respect them.”

The SEC had sued him for sending “misleading tweets” that “led to significant market disruption”. Most notably, Musk tweeted that he “considered taking Tesla private for $ 420.” He claimed he had “financed” to do so. The SEC claimed he did not.

Musk and Tesla agreed to pay $ 20 million each, and the electric car maker agreed to “put in place additional controls and procedures to monitor Musk’s communications,” including his tweets, according to an SEC news release.

However, that kind of muzzle has hardly worked. Musk has continued to slander the SEC publicly, and he recently asked a court to overturn his settlement. In April, a federal judge denied.

Millions vs. billions and trillions

Former SEC officials are wondering if the agency is equipped to monitor a world where companies are worth trillions of dollars, where the world’s richest people are worth hundreds of billions and where tweets drive the stock market.

Congress created the Securities and Exchange Commission nearly a century ago after many Americans lost money in the stock market crash of 1929. The SEC’s primary mission is “to protect investors,” according to the website.

It was meant to be a powerful organization – both a regulator and a law enforcement agency. But in the face of market manipulation and other ill-treatment, the possibilities are limited. For example, it can not lead to criminal charges.

Congress created the Securities and Exchange Commission after the stock market crash of 1929, when many people lost money. Its primary mission is to “protect investors,” according to the website.

Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images


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Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images


Congress created the Securities and Exchange Commission after the stock market crash of 1929, when many people lost money. Its primary mission is to “protect investors,” according to the website.

Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images

Chung says it is worth asking, “Does the SEC carry out its mission in a way that is fair and just, no matter how rich and powerful you are?”

For example, in the wake of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, many Americans wondered why no top executives were prosecuted. And although financial institutions were forced to pay civil fines, these fines were pocket money for banks with trillions of dollars in assets.

“If people feel that the markets are rigged, or that the markets are fundamentally unfair, and that your wealth and power can dictate what happens to you, they may be less likely to trust the market that tells us about the value of companies like Twitter. “claims Chung.

And when it comes to resources, there is a big gap between the SEC and the leaders and organizations it regulates. To put this in perspective, Musk’s net worth is more than 100 times the SEC’s annual budget.

“The SEC drives their Model T in a way, when everyone else is out there in their sports cars,” says Chung.

Basj emojis

Although the SEC does not bring charges against Musk, the Tesla chief is pushing boundaries and testing standards in a way we have not seen before, according to attorney Marc Fagel, who used to head the SEC’s San Francisco regional office.

He highlights a recent back and forth on Twitter between Musk and Twitter boss Parag Agrawal.

What started as a meaningful exchange of views on how social media companies count their users, ended with Musk posting a poop emoji.

“We have dull tools in the securities laws that are designed to punish fraud,” says Fagel. “But if someone sends a stern emoji and investors decide to buy or sell shares on it, the Securities Act is not really made to protect them at that time.”

The special tweet did not lead to a dramatic move in Twitter’s share price, but several of Musk’s other tweets have done so, including one in which he stated that his agreement for the company was “temporarily pending”.

Musk seems to have found out something, says Fagel. In this new world, by using the social media platform that Musk is trying to buy, you can mess with markets, and it “does not really reach the level of fraud.”

Sure, it can hurt investors, but under current law, the SEC can’t do much.





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