Monday, March 14, 2011

Musings on the Alberta decision on federal securities legislation

Last week, the Alberta Court of Appeal issued a ruling that the federal government did not have the power under the Constitution Act, 1867 to adopt federal securities legislation. The ruling was in response to a reference by the Alberta government challenging the federal legislation.

The court began by noting that securities law is one of the four pillars of financial regulation (the others being banking, insurance and trust companies) and that, of the four, only banking is regulated federally and only then because of an express head of power in the Constitution. The court also noted that provincial jurisdiction over securities law has traditionally been upheld as an exercise of the "property and civil rights" power.

The federal government argued that it had the authority under the "general" trade and commerce power first set out by the Privy Council in 1881 in Citizens Insurance Co. of Canada v. Parsons. That case also held that the federal government could have jurisdiction over international and interprovincial trade, but the government did not assert these latter aspects as the proposed legislation would govern transactions within a province.

The general trade and commerce power was fleshed out by the Supreme Court in 1989 in General Motors of Canada Ltd. v. City National Leasing. That case set out a non-exclusive, five-point test for determining whether the federal government had a valid basis for legislating:

1. The legislation must be part of a general regulatory scheme;
2. The legislation must be concerned with trade as a whole, not a particular industry;
3. The legislation must establish a scheme subject to continuing oversight by a regulatory authority;
4. The provinces jointly or severally do not have the constitutional authority to enact similar legislation; and
5. The failure of one or more provinces to enact legislation would thwart the purpose of the legislation in other parts of the country.

The court conceded that the legislation was part of a regulatory scheme with continuing oversight by a regulatory authority, but found the legislation failed to meet the other tests. It did not consider the act to regulate "trade" but "a particular industry, namely that which raises money from the general public." It also found that the provinces do have the constitutional authority to enact securities legislation, and that the fact that the federal act will not initially apply nationally (as it allows provinces to opt in to the federal regime) means the fifth criterion is not met.

The court held that it is not enough that federal legislation be desirable or that it would impose uniform regulation across the country. If that were sufficient, any federal legislation would be valid and the property and civil rights power would have little meaning. It stated that the same argument could be used to justify federal regulation of insurance, which the courts have repeatedly held is a matter for exclusive provincial jurisdiction.

Although the federal government did not try to justify the legislation as an attempt to regulate international or interprovincial trade, the court held that securities legislation is at its core the regulation of raising funds from members of the general public, that securities are a form of property and that trading in that property is a series of contractual and property arrangements, none of which involves the cross-border movement of property. The court also noted that Canadian companies have relied upon access to international capital markets since Confederation.

A Critique

In my view, the court has taken an overly restrictive view of the nature of securities legislation. While it is true that the first provincial acts governed the sales of securities to local investors, the industry (and the scope of regulation) has grown substantially since then, to encompass regulation of issuers (not only of disclosure, but shareholder rights and corporate governance issuers), brokers, stock exchanges, self-regulatory organizations and clearing corporations to name but a few. It is much more than raising funds.

I think it would be better to think of the pith and substance (to use a term beloved of constitutional lawyers) of securities regulation not as regulation of capital raising or sales practices but as regulation of the capital markets as a whole. I believe that market participants, including foreign investors, see a Canadian capital market, not separate Ontario and Alberta ones, and that a failure by any one province to regulate its capital markets properly will damage the reputation of the capital markets as a whole. An argument can certainly be made that effective regulation of national capital markets can only be done at the federal level. This was the rationale in the General Motors case, which held that competition could only be effectively regulated at the national level.

A secondary matter is that much of securities legislation today has an extraprovincial effect. This is particularly true for Ontario, where a company that has raised money in the province or listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange becomes a "reporting issuer" subject to ongoing regulation by the OSC. Most of the TSX/S&P Index issuers were incorporated outside the province, meaning that OSC rules have a broad impact on corporate activity that may only marginally touch upon the province.

I also don't believe that trading does not involve cross-border elements. While it is true that a sale by a Victoria Investor to a Miami Investor on the TSX involves a number of discrete steps, it is equally true that the exchange and the clearing corporation are acting on a national basis. Furthermore, the fact that the trade occurred on the TSX may be happenstance, as an order may have been required to be routed there to meet "best price" obligations.

The court states that the argument for federal regulation could be applied to insurance, but I don't think so. Although insurance companies operate nationally, it is fundamentally a series of bilateral contracts. If I take out an insurance policy (or a mortgage with a trust company), that is the beginning and the end of the transaction. There is no interprovincial aspect to my dealings(even if my insurer lays off its risk to a foreign re-insurer), which there easily could be in a trade in securities.

The argument that the legislation fails to meet the final test because of the opt in feature ignores the fact that the government is attempting to introduce the legislation in the most politically palatable manner, and insisting that the scope be national from the beginning is, to quote Voltaire, an example of the perfect being the enemy of the good. It would certainly put the cat among the pigeons if the court's ruling is interpreted to mean that the federal government cannot act in an incremental manner, but has the authority to occupy the whole field in one fell swoop.

What the Court Got Right

The Court quite properly didn't get into an analysis of whether federal regulation would be better or more desirable. These are political, not legal, arguments. If the federal government has the power to regulate, it can, no matter how disastrous the outcome may be. Similarly if it does not, it cannot no matter how inefficient and fragmented the markets may be under provincial jurisdiction.

The court also rebuked the federal government for arguing that federal regulation was necessary to address systemic risk, noting that there were no prudential provisions in the draft federal act dealing with systemic risk.

Interprovincial Trade

I'm somewhat perplexed that the federal government isn't attempting to justify the legislation under the interprovincial trade test. While it's true that the draft legislation regulates transactions within a province, limiting the scope of the federal power to interprovincial matters would still allow federal regulation of the vast bulk of securities law matters. In this respect, it would be similar to the United States, where state regulators still have authority over intrastate transactions. It is also the approach that the federal government took when adopting the Grain Futures Act in 1939, allowing it to regulate trading on the Winnipeg Commodity Exchange. It's interesting how few people in this industry realize that the Winnipeg exchange was regulated only at the federal level until 2000, when Manitoba enacted its Commodity Futures Act and the Manitoba Securities Commission assumed oversight authority.