Gripped by the Bernard Madoff scandal, a new administration in Washington and new regulators on Capitol Hill, this has been a tumultuous period for Wall Street, and an increase in settlements by the Securities and Exchange Commission in the first quarter has left many wondering if there will be greater enforcement going forward.

Elaine Buckberg, the co-author of NERA Economic Consulting's SEC Settlements Trends: 1Q10 Update, said in an interview Tuesday that it is very unusual for an increase in settlements to occur in the first quarter. Even more interesting, is that settlements rose in tandem with a decline in the number of settlements that came with a financial component.

While there were nearly twice as many settlements in the first quarter compared to a year earlier, the percentage of company settlements that included a monetary component declined to 41% from 56%.

“This could mean the SEC is taking on every infraction and violation even if for some reason or another it doesn’t warrant financial penalty. Or this is a house cleaning,” Buckberg said. “Only time is going to tell.”

The increase in settlements may be temporary - a sign of increased staffing and restructuring under Mary Schapiro’s new leadership at the SEC. Critics have questioned whether Schapiro has done enough to beef up financial regulations.

The largest settlement in the quarter was a $43.7 million settlement with Value Line Inc., which was accused of obtaining discounted trade commissions from certain brokerage firms, but failing to pass these negotiated discounts through to the funds, instead retaining the difference between the full and discounted commission, the report revealed.

The second-largest settlement was the $25 million settlement with JP Morgan Securities Inc. [JPM] for alleged undisclosed payments made to friends and political allies of Jefferson County, Ala., officials, to obtain business there. The SEC alleged that more than $8.2 million in undisclosed payments were made, and that in exchange JPMorgan was selected as an underwriter for bonds with a total value of $3 billion and was selected as the counterparty on interest rate swaps with a total value of $2 billion.

One SEC settlement that has garnered a lot of attention is concerned allegation that Bank of America [BAC] misled shareholders and the federal government about its merger with Merrill Lynch. Earlier this month, a federal judge in New York said he will not decide until Friday whether to accept the SEC’s settlement.

Buckberg said that it is unclear if the SEC is acting more strictly in a post-Madoff environment. She said the regulator’s enforcement strategy will only become clear over a longer term. “If we see the same thing next quarter that will start to be a meaningful signal.”


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