Washington Law Review


Small Investments, Big Losses: The States’ Role in Protecting Local Investors from Securities Fraud

June 19, 2017 | 92 Wash. L. Rev. 567

Abstract: The securities regulation landscape has changed dramatically in recent years. Federal laws have increasingly preempted the regulatory power of states, while at the same time expanding the universe of securities offerings that are not subject to registration at the federal level. These political and policy choices reflect a balancing of two sometimes competing goals: protecting investors and facilitating capital formation. While policies centered on preemption and deregulation might reduce the cost of raising capital, these could also lead to more pervasive securities fraud. Any resulting increase in fraudulent practices is likely to disproportionately affect small securities offerings that are local in nature, for which the deterrent effect of private securities litigation and public enforcement is weaker. This places unsophisticated and non-wealthy investors, those less capable to absorb financial losses, at a disproportionate risk of fraud. From a broader economic perspective, the social welfare implications of such fraudulent securities offerings may be significant even when the amounts involved in each individual transaction appear to be relatively trivial to the casual observer.

This Article identifies and theorizes the under-regulation of small-scale securities transactions that results from the confluence of federal preemption and the weakness of traditional enforcement mechanisms that are better suited to large-scale fraud. This Article is also the first to identify and analyze the economic and policy implications of two existing and potential trends in state regulation that might mitigate this state of affairs. In the last two decades, a growing number of states have broadened the remedies available to their securities commissioners in administrative actions to include the ability to request or order restitution on behalf of injured investors. The second trend is at a more nascent stage. Recently, some states have experimented with public insurance-type schemes that allow defrauded investors to recover a portion of their losses. The renewed emphasis on compensating victims of fraud highlighted by these developments is encouraging, but more states should follow suit. To that end, this Article makes a series of normative suggestions to improve the effectiveness of these state legislative responses and to promote their more widespread adoption.


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