On July 25, 2017, the SEC’s Division of Enforcement issued a Report of Investigation (the “Report”) that concluded that the tokens issued in an initial coin offering (“ICO”) by a decentralized autonomous organization called “The DAO” were “securities” and that the ICO itself should either have been registered with the SEC under the Securities Act of 1933 or qualified for an exemption therefrom. Importantly, the Report does not conclude that all ICO tokens are securities or that ICOs must either be registered or satisfy the requirements for an exemption from registration. The Report provides important guidance, however, to blockchain startups and other entities seeking to raise capital in the United States through ICOs as to how to structure those offerings from a regulatory standpoint.

Initial Coin Offerings

An initial coin offering is a crowdfunding technique used primarily by blockchain startups in which the issuer sells cryptocurrency tokens or coins that entitle the purchaser to certain rights ranging from access to the issuer’s product or service once it is available (similar to pre-order based non-equity crowdfunding on sites such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo) to a share in the issuer’s profits (similar to equity based crowdfunding). Purchasers also typically have the right to resell their tokens on an online exchange. Purchasers make their contributions in the form of either fiat currency (e.g., U.S. dollars) or, more typically, virtual currency (e.g., bitcoin or ether). The offering and sale of the tokens are made directly to the public using blockchain technology to bypass conventional capital markets intermediaries and regulatory regimes. Advertising and information releases occur on the issuer’s website and on online forums such as Bitcointalk and Reddit.

Looming over the emerging ICO industry is the issue of whether ICOs are offerings of securities. Some issuers have chosen not to take the risk of offering and selling unregistered securities in the United States and have instead offered and sold ICO tokens only to non-U.S. persons. Among the most popular non-U.S. markets are Singapore, one of the first jurisdictions to adopt a regulatory sandbox and other regulatory relief initiatives for fintech companies, and Switzerland, whose “Crypto Valley” is a major center of blockchain startups. Other issuers in the U.S. have attempted to steer clear of possible regulation by limiting rights of token holders to access to products or services upon availability.

The DAO Initial Coin Offering

The DAO was a virtual entity referred to as a decentralized autonomous organization (i.e., not a corporation, LLC or other legal entity) formed to sell virtual tokens to raise capital for future projects, a variation on an investment fund.  DAO token holders would have the right to share in the earnings from the projects and could otherwise monetize their investments in DAO tokens by reselling them in online platforms serving as secondary markets.  The idea behind this virtual organization was to replace traditional corporate governance and decision making with smart contract coding on a blockchain.  But in addition to the automated governance structure, the DAO did have a human component as well in the form of “curators” who maintained ultimate control over which proposals would be submitted to and voted on by token holders and then funded by the DAO. A majority vote of the DAO token holders was required for a project to be funded.

The SEC’s Analysis

Section 5 of the Securities Act requires that every offer and sale of securities in the United States either be registered with the SEC or satisfy the requirements of an exemption from registration.  But are ICO tokens securities?  Under Section 2(a)(1) of the Securities Act, a security includes an “investment contract”, which was determined in the seminal case of SEC v. W.J. Howey Co. to mean an investment of money in a common enterprise with a reasonable expectation of profits to be derived from the entrepreneurial or managerial efforts of others.   In determining whether an investment contract exists, the investment of “money” need not take the form of cash. Investors in the DAO used ETH to make their investments. The Report makes clear that such investment is the type of contribution of value that can create an investment contract under Howey.

The Report then found that investors who purchased DAO tokens were investing in a common enterprise and reasonably expected to earn profits through that enterprise when they contributed ETH to the DAO in exchange for DAO tokens. The DAO’s various promotional materials informed investors that the DAO was a for-profit entity whose objective was to fund projects in exchange for a return on investment. The Report also found that investors expected profits to be derived from the managerial efforts of others—specifically, the DAO’s founders and curators. Because the investors did have an ostensible management role – voting on proposed projects — the central issue was whether the efforts of “others” were undeniably significant and essential to the failure or success of the enterprise. In this regard, the Report found that the DAO’s investors relied on the managerial and entrepreneurial efforts of the founders and the DAO’s curators to manage the DAO and put forth project proposals that could generate profits for the investors. The founders of the DAO also held themselves out to investors as experts in Ethereum, the blockchain protocol on which the DAO operated, and told investors that they had selected persons to serve as curators based on their expertise and credentials. Although DAO token holders were afforded voting rights, the SEC determined that such rights did not provide the holders with meaningful control over the enterprise because (1) their ability to vote for contracts was largely “perfunctory” (they could only vote on proposals that had been cleared by the curators); and (2) their pseudonymity and dispersion made it difficult for them to communicate or join together to effect change or exercise meaningful control.

A second major issue weighing on the ICO industry has been whether the online platforms on which ICO tokens are traded need to be registered under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 as national securities exchanges.   Section 3(a)(1) of the Exchange Act defines an “exchange” as any group or entity that “provides a marketplace or facilities for bringing together purchasers and sellers of securities or for otherwise performing with respect to securities the functions commonly performed by a stock exchange…”.  Under Exchange Act Rule 3b-16(a), a trading system meets the definition of “exchange” under Section 3(a)(1) if the platform “(1) brings together the orders for securities of multiple buyers and sellers; and (2) uses established, non-discretionary methods (whether by providing a trading facility or by setting rules) under which such orders interact with each other, and the buyers and sellers entering such orders agree to the terms of the trade”. Alternatively, a platform could operate as an alternative trading system exempted from the definition of “exchange” if it registers as a broker-dealer, files a Form ATS with the SEC to provide notice of its operations and complies with the other requirements of Regulation ATS. The Report concluded that the platforms on which the DAO tokens were traded were exchanges under the foregoing Rule 3b-16(a) criteria, and thus should have been registered, because they provided users with an electronic system that matched orders from multiple parties to buy and sell DAO tokens for execution based on non-discretionary methods.

Key Takeaways

It’s unclear why the SEC determined to issue an investigative report rather than pursue an enforcement action against the DAO, its promoters and the exchanges on which the ICO tokens were traded. The underlying conclusions, however, are not surprising. Virtual currencies such as bitcoin and ether are “value” and ICOs in which purchasers have a reasonable expectation of profit through the efforts of the issuer’s promoters are securities offerings which must either be registered or qualify for an exemption. Giving investors “perfunctory” voting rights on proposals presented by promoters’ agents will not be enough to overcome a presumption that the investors expect a profit through the efforts of others. It’s worth noting that the SEC did not address ICOs of so called “access tokens” in which purchasers are given only a right to future products or services but no opportunity for profit. Such ICOs would need to be structured very carefully to ensure that contributors have no “reasonable expectation of profit”, and it’s unclear whether as a practical matter issuers will be able to raise significant amounts without offering a profit incentive. Finally, the Report puts ICO platforms on notice that electronic systems that match orders from multiple parties to buy and sell tokens based on non-discretionary methods must register either as a national securities exchange or as a broker dealer under Regulation ATS.

Since 2014, many private company mergers and acquisitions intermediaries have chosen not to register as broker-dealers. That’s because a 2014 SEC no-action letter took the position that intermediaries that limited their activities to representing private companies in M&A deals were not required to register with the SEC as broker-dealers.  But as a no-action letter, the relief provided was limited to the specific facts presented, and the letter implied that such relief would not be available to any intermediary that engaged in any of several listed activities. Greater certainty may be on the way, however, in the form of a small part of proposed legislation recently passed by the House of Representatives that would effectively codify the SEC’s 2014 no-action position and even expand on it.

Background

Section 15(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 requires any broker-dealer engaging in interstate commerce to register with the SEC and be subject to its regulatory regime. The term “broker” is defined broadly in Section 3(a)(4) of the Exchange Act to include any person who effects transactions in securities on behalf of others, and the SEC has historically interpreted the meaning of “effects transactions in securities” to include anyone engaged in significant aspects of a securities transaction, including solicitation, negotiation and execution. The inclusion of a transaction based or success fee has long been interpreted as a strong presumption that the intermediary receiving the fee must register as a broker-dealer.

So is an acquisition of a company considered to be a securities transaction such that intermediaries should have to register as broker-dealers? The broker-dealer regulations were designed to prevent abuses in the form of high pressure selling tactics and third party custody of funds, two aspects that typically don’t apply to M&A deals. Moreover, in a typical M&A transaction, unlike a stock trade, the acquiror usually engages in its own exhaustive due diligence of the target and the intermediary does not custody funds. Nevertheless, the U.S. Supreme Court thought otherwise and in 1985 opined that an M&A transaction involving a target’s stock is a securities transaction, and consequently many M&A advisors began registering as broker dealers.

The 2014 No-Action Letter

In the 2014 no-action letter, the SEC Division of Trading and Markets stated that it would not recommend enforcement action to the SEC if an intermediary were to effect securities transactions in connection with the transfer of ownership of a privately-held company. The letter listed a bunch of deal activities that would make the relief unavailable, however, including providing financing for the deal, custodying funds or securities, arranging for a group of buyers and sale of a company to a “passive” buyer.

Financial CHOICE Act of 2017

On June 8, 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Financial CHOICE Act of 2017, which repeals or modifies significant portions of Dodd-Frank but also includes a broad range of important provisions aimed at facilitating capital formation pro-growth policies generally, including an exemption from broker dealer registration for private company M&A intermediaries.   Like the 2014 no-action letter, the Financial CHOICE Act would deny the exemption to any broker intermediating an acquisition of a shell company or a transaction involving the public offering of securities or engaging in the custody of funds or securities. But unlike the 2014 no-action letter, the Financial CHOICE Act would not exclude brokers that put together groups of buyers or provide acquisition financing, or intermediate a sale of a company to a passive acquiror.  One feature present in the Financial CHOICE Act that was not included in the 2014 no-action letter is a size of target test. Specifically, under the Financial CHOICE Act, the exemption is only available if the target has gross revenues below $250 million and EBITDA below $250 million in the fiscal year ending immediately before the fiscal year in which the services of the M&A broker are initially engaged with respect to the transaction.

The legislation has moved to the Senate, and hopefully any final version would include some form of private company M&A broker-dealer registration exemption. Of particular significance in the proposed legislation is the apparent allowance for a non-registered broker to organize groups of buyers which would enable private equity club deals. Nevertheless, even if the legislation passes, private company intermediaries should consider carefully the consequences of non-registration (or withdrawal of those already registered). These would include complications under certain state regulatory regimes and exclusion from the possibility of intermediating public company deals or deals involving targets exceeding either the gross revenue or EBITDA thresholds.

On June 8, 2017, the House of Representatives passed the Financial CHOICE Act of 2017 on a vote of 233-186. Congress loves acronyms, and here “CHOICE” stands for Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Financial Choice ActEntrepreneurs. Although the thrust of the bill is focused on repeal or modification of significant portions of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 and addresses a number of other financial regulations, it also includes a broad range of important provisions aimed at facilitating capital formation, including:

  • Exemption of private company mergers and acquisitions intermediaries from the broker-dealer registration requirements of the Exchange Act;
  • Expansion of the private resale exemption contained in Section 4(a)(7), which codified the so-called “Section 4(a)(1½)” exemption for resales of restricted securities by persons other than the issuer, by eliminating information requirements and permitting general solicitation, so long as sales are made through a platform available only to accredited investors;
  • Exemption from the auditor attestation requirement under Section 404(b) of Sarbanes-Oxley of companies with average annual gross revenues of less than $50 million;
  • Creation of SEC-registered venture exchanges, a new class of stock exchanges that can provide enhanced liquidity and capital access to smaller issuers;
  • Exemption of small offerings that meet the following requirements: (i) investor has a pre-existing relationship with an officer, director or shareholder with 10 percent or more of the shares of the issuer; (ii) issuer reasonably believes there are no more than 35 purchasers of securities from the issuer that are sold during the 12-month period preceding the transaction; and (iii) aggregate amount of all securities sold by the issuer does not exceed $500,000 over a 12-month period;
  • Exemption from the prohibition in Regulation D against general solicitation for pitch-type events organized by angel groups, venture forums, venture capital associations and trade associations;
  • Streamlining of Form D filing requirements and procedures with the filing of a single notice of sales and prohibiting the SEC from requiring any additional materials;
  • Exemption from the Investment Company Act for any VC fund with no more than $50 million in aggregate capital contributions and uncalled committed capital and having not more than 500 investors;
  • Exempting Title III crowdfunding shareholders from the shareholder number trigger for Exchange Act registration;
  • Amendment of Section 3(b)(2) of the Securities Act (the statutory basis for Regulation A+) to raise the amount of securities that may be offered and sold within a 12-month period from $50 million to $75 million; and
  • Allowing all issuers, not just emerging growth companies, to submit confidential registration statements to the SEC for nonpublic review before an IPO, provided that the registration statement and all amendments are publicly filed not later than 15 days before the first road show.

In the coming weeks, I intend to blog in greater detail about a few of these reform efforts, including the proposed broker-dealer exemption for M&A intermediaries, venture exchanges and crowdfunding fixes.

NYSEThe fate of the Financial CHOICE Act is unclear. A variety of interest groups have expressed strong opposition to the bill, and it appears unlikely the Senate will pass it in its current form. My hunch is that the more controversial aspects of the bill relate to the Dodd-Frank repeal and other financial services reforms. I also believe that there is greater potential for general consensus building around capital markets reform, as was demonstrated in connection with the passage of the JOBS Act five years ago, so that any final version that ultimately gets passed will hopefully include much if not all of the reforms summarized above.

Venture capital funds routinely negotiate for a right of redemption – the right to require the company to buy out their shares after a certain period of time if an exit has not occurred – as a key element of their exit strategy. But according to a recent case in Delaware, the VCs and the company‘s board members could be Delaware Court of Chanceryliable to common stockholders if they cause the company to engage in transactions to generate funds for redemption to the detriment of the common stockholders.

Frederick Hsu Living Trust v. ODN Holding Corporation, et. al. involves a $150 million investment by venture capital firm Oak Hill Capital Partners in a holding company formed to own Oversee.net. The investment terms included a right in favor of Oak Hill to demand redemption of its shares for its $150 million investment amount beginning five years after the closing. The following year, the terms of the redemption feature were made more favorable to Oak Hill by imposing on the company a contractual obligation to “take all reasonable actions (as determined by the [company’s] Board of Directors in good faith and consistent with its fiduciary duties)” to raise capital if the funds legally available are insufficient to satisfy the company’s redemption obligation in full.

Not long after its initial investment, Oak Hill bought out one of the company’s founders and gained control over a majority of the company’s voting power and the board. The complaint alleged that, two years later, Oak Hill concluded that exercising its redemption right was the most effective way to achieve the return of its capital, that the company lacked the cash to redeem any shares and that the company should change its business plan from pursuing growth to accumulating cash in order to maximize redemptions. The company then stopped making acquisitions, sold off most of its profitable business lines, changed the management team and approved bonuses that would be payable if the company redeemed at least $75 million of preferred stock. The board subsequently approved and the company executed two redemptions in the aggregate amount of $85 million and paid related bonuses in the amount of approximately $2.4 million. Essentially, the complaint alleged that the directors breached their fiduciary duties by prioritizing the interests of the preferred stockholders over those of the common.

In cases involving directors’ fiduciary duties, courts will generally follow the business judgment rule and give deference to, and not second-guess, directors’ decisions. In cases where the board is not constituted with a majority of disinterested directors or otherwise does not act through a special committee of disinterested directors, however, directors’ actions are examined not by the business judgment rule but by the entire fairness standard, effectively shifting the burden to the defendants to establish both that the process and price were fair. In ODN Holding, none of the directors was deemed to be disinterested, so the focus of the case was on whether or not the process undertaken by the board was fair.

Under Delaware law, board members generally have a legal duty to advance the best interests of the corporation, meaning that they must seek to promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders. But in a world of many types of stock and stockholders — record and beneficial holders, long-term holders, short term traders, activists – the question is: which stockholders? In his opinion in ODN Holding, Vice Chancellor Laster stated that a board’s obligation to promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of stockholders runs generally to the common stockholders as the residual claimants, which he said was justified because a corporation has a perpetual life and the common stockholders’ investment is locked in.

In ODN Holding, abandoning a growth strategy and selling off businesses was essentially a zero sum game: the cash generated by the sale of businesses benefited the preferred stockholders because it funded redemptions, but it hurt the common because it left the company without any means to sustain itself. The board chose to benefit the preferred at the expense of the common. But it could have chosen to keep the company intact, redeem preferred shares incrementally over the long run and thus leave open the possibility of creating residual value for the common. That strategy would have been unappealing to the preferred, who clearly wanted their capital returned sooner rather than later.

The court was careful to draw a distinction between preferred stockholders and lender/creditors. Unlike creditors, preferred stockholders have no legal right to fixed payments of interest and no maturity date with the prospect of capital repayment and remedies for default. The court went on to state that a redemption right, even one that has ripened, does not convert a preferred holder into a creditor, and doesn’t give the holder an absolute right to force the corporation to redeem its shares no matter what. That’s because redemption rights are subject to statutory, common law and contractual limitations. As a stockholder in a Delaware corporation, Oak Hill’s rights were subject to the requirements of Section 160 of the Delaware General Corporations Law. As a matter of common law, redemptions cannot be made when the corporation is, or would be rendered, insolvent. By contract, under the terms of the preferred stock itself, redemptions could only be made out of “funds legally available,” and the board only had an obligation to generate funds for redemptions through “reasonable actions” as determined by the board in good faith and consistent with its fiduciary duties.

The opinion states that a board does not owe fiduciary duties to preferred stockholders when considering whether or not to take corporate action that might trigger or circumvent the preferred stockholders’ contractual rights, i.e., redemption rights. Preferred stockholders are owed fiduciary duties only when they do not invoke their special contractual rights and instead rely only on rights shared equally with the common stock.

It should be noted that Oak Hill’s preferred stock did not carry a cumulative dividend, a common feature of preferred stock which would have otherwise steadily increased the amount of the liquidation preference. Had Oak Hill’s preferred stock included cumulative dividends, the board might have stronger grounds to conclude that there was no realistic scenario for the company ever to generate proceeds sufficient to satisfy the preferred’s liquidation preference (as supplemented by the cumulative dividends) and then to have any value left over for the common, in which case the board would have been justified in liquidating the company with all proceeds going to the preferred.

It also bears emphasizing that ODN Holding was decided on a motion to dismiss, a pleading-stage decision, in which the plaintiff is given the benefit of the doubt. The court left open the possibility that the trial court could find that, even without the obligation to pay cumulative dividends, the directors could have reasonably concluded that the company’s value as a going concern would never exceed Oak Hill’s $150 million liquidation preference and so selling substantially all the assets with all proceeds going to the preferred and nothing left for the common was defensible because the common was effectively worthless. But that issue would have to be determined at trial, not on a motion to dismiss.

Key Take-Aways: Companies should tread very carefully in embarking on a series of transactions to generate funds for redemption when the board is not constituted with a majority of disinterested directors. Directors must treat preferred stockholders, even those with ripened redemption rights, differently than creditors, whose contractual rights have far less legal restrictions and whose rights need not be balanced against those of the common stockholders. Where a board contemplates a course of action to benefit the preferred, they must be prepared to prove that doing so was value maximizing because the preferred holders’ liquidation preference exceeded the company’s value as a going concern, effectively rendering the common stock worthless. And finally, from the investors’ perspective, negotiating for and securing cumulative dividends would help bolster that last argument.

exitEvery founder of a growth startup dreams of a big, successful exit — a sale of the company for millions of dollars. But that dream could be shattered if the investors are able to cause the company to be sold prematurely with proceeds only equal to or barely exceeding the investors’ liquidation preferences, leaving little or nothing for the founders. Such a proposed deal will almost always be opposed by the founders, believing that the company could achieve a much higher valuation if it remained independent for a bit longer. Whether or not such a deal gets consummated over the objections of the founders depends on state law provisions and negotiated contractual terms that combined will determine the one factor that ultimately matters: control over the deal process.

Background: Liquidation Preference and Investment Horizon

In a typical round of venture funding, the investors receive a liquidation preference, i.e., the right to receive first dollars (after creditors are paid) up to an agreed amount in any sale of the company. In a company’s first institutional funding round (typically designated as Series A), a liquidation preference of 1X plus annual dividends of 8% is “market”, i.e., the investors get an amount off the top equal to the amount they invested plus accumulated dividends before the common shareholders receive anything. Later rounds (Series B, Series C, etc.) may have liquidation preferences of higher multiples of dollars invested, e.g., 1.5X, 2X, etc. A more investor friendly variation is what’s called participating preferred, in which the investors, after receiving their liquidation preference, then share pro rata in the remaining proceeds with the common shareholders, often up to some maximum amount.

So if a VC is not sanguine about a portfolio company’s long term prospects, he may be happy to sell the company for an amount equal to his liquidation preference, particularly at a point several years into the investment. In this regard, the time horizons of founders and institutional investors are inherently in conflict. A venture fund’s limited partnership agreement will typically limit the fund’s life tomoney vs. time ten years, with the initial three years designated for sourcing investments and the remaining seven for exits. With certain exceptions, a fund manager is required to distribute any profits to the fund’s limited partners by the expiration of that ten-year period, which is why a VC’s investment horizon in any given portfolio company is typically three to seven years. Consequently, a VC will often favor a quick exit because it offers a higher risk-adjusted return, and eliminates further risk to their investment. In other words, the VC might believe there’s some likelihood the company’s valuation may increase, but why risk it if he’s entitled to his liquidation preference, particularly if the wind-down of his fund is imminent? Free of such timing constraints, a founder on the other hand would almost always prefer to buy more time, particularly when the company’s projections show an upward trajectory. The founder’s problem, though, is that acquirors will generally value a company based primarily upon historical data, and will either ignore or heavily discount projected metrics.

State Law

So in a sale of the company proposed by the investors and opposed by the founders, who determines whether the deal gets consummated? The starting point is state law. The corporate statute of the state of the company’s incorporation will dictate the minimum vote threshold needed from shareholders. Some state statutes are more protective of common shareholders (founders almost always hold common shares) by requiring approval of the common holders voting separately as a class, essentially a group veto, and/or may require a supermajority vote, which gives the common the ability to block a deal if they collectively own enough shares to prevent the majority from meeting the vote threshold. States that are less protective of common shareholders will require only approval of a simple majority of holders of all shares outstanding, without requiring a separate class vote. That’s the Delaware model. New York voting rightscorporations organized before 1998 must secure a two-thirds majority of all holders unless their charter provides for a simple majority (simple majority for post-1998 corporations), and a separate class vote is required to approve a merger if the shareholders receive stock of the acquiror or another entity containing attributes not included in the target’s charter for which the target’s shareholders would have been required to approve in a separate class vote under New York law.

Another source of state law that impacts control over the deal process is case law regarding a director’s fiduciary duty. Before a proposed acquisition even gets to a shareholder vote, it must be approved first by a majority of the target company’s board, whose actions must be consistent with the directors’ fiduciary obligations. These include primarily the duty of care (generally, the obligation to be informed and diligent) and the duty of loyalty (essentially, the obligation to put the interests of the company and the shareholders above a director’s personal interests and not have any conflicts). Shareholders have a right to sue directors for breaches of fiduciary duty, and common shareholders will have a stronger or weaker case in attacking approval of the sale of a company as a violation of fiduciary duty depending on how favorable a particular state’s fiduciary duty case law is to the common holders. Delaware fiduciary duty case law is regarded as board friendly.

Contractual Terms

Some of the most important terms negotiated by VCs in a venture investment are the ones impacting control, both at the board level and the shareholder level. As mentioned above, a sale of the company must first be approved by a majority of the directors. The allocation of board seats is determined by negotiation during each round of funding. Although a fair outcome would be for investors to receive board representation in proportion to their share ownership (e.g., two of five seats when owning 40% of the outstanding shares), the investors will often negotiate for and receive disproportionate representation on the board and sometimes even a majority. A typical board composition arrangement might be a five-person board consisting of two directors designated by the investors, two directors selected by the common shareholders and one independent industry expert mutually selected by the common holders and the investors. But if the industry expert is someone with whom the investors have a preexisting relationship, human nature is such that he will view the investors as a source of future opportunities and tend to side with them, thus giving the investors an effective majority.

Other key control rights negotiated for by VCs are so-called protective provisions, which give the investors a veto over major decisions, including a sale of the company. Here, the battle is over what transactions or decisions make the list, and what vote threshold is required within the class of preferred. But a veto is only a right to block, not a right to approve. It doesn’t give the preferred the right to compel the company to consummate a deal opposed by the requisite holders. That’s where drag-along rights come into play.

Drag-along rights give investors the power to require other holders to vote in drag alongfavor of a deal the investors are proposing, sometimes conditioned on board approval. If a sufficient number of shares are so encumbered, the investors can ensure that holders of a requisite percentage of the outstanding shares or close enough to it vote to approve a deal favored by the investors.

So Who Controls the Deal Process?

Putting it all together, investors are more likely to control the deal process if all or at least some of the following are true: the company is incorporated in a state that does not require a class vote of the common to approve a sale of the company, the state has fiduciary duty case law favorable to directors, the investors have an actual or effective majority of the board and the investors control the cap table either outright or through a combination of ownership and drag along rights. In limited cases, the common shareholders will nevertheless be able to negotiate for a share of the proceeds in sub-liquidation preference deals, getting the preferred to relinquish some of the amount they’re otherwise contractually entitled to. Such an outcome is more likely to occur where the investors are able to approve a deal at the board level, but the common shareholders have one or more of the other factors in their favor, such as ownership of enough shares to block the vote or the benefit of common shareholder favorable fiduciary duty state case law. Or sometimes, the VCs just want to sweeten the pot to create the appearance of fairness to preserve a good reputation. But the VCs will rarely just give anything anyway; they’ll likely condition any common shareholder liquidation preference carveout on the recipients signing a release.

On March 22, the Subcommittee on Capital Markets, Securities, and Investment of the Financial Services Committee conducted a hearing entitled “The JOBS Act at Five: Examining Its Impact and Ensuring the Competitiveness of the U.S. Capital Markets”, focusing on the impact of JOBS Act at 5the JOBS Act on the U.S. capital markets and its effect on capital formation, job creation and economic growth. The archived webcast of the hearing can be found here. Most people won’t have the patience to sit through two hours and 44 minutes of testimony (although the running national debt scoreboard on the right side of the home page showing in real time the national debt increasing by $100,000 every three seconds, and by $1 million every 30 seconds, etc., is eyepopping). At the risk of being accused of having too much time on my hands, but as an act of community service, I watched the hearing (or at least most of it) and will offer some takeaways.

Raymond Keating, Chief Economist of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, testified about some disturbing trends in angel and VC investment. The value and number of angel deals is down from pre-recession levels.  VC investment showed the most life but a decline in raymond keating2016 is troubling. So what’s going on?  Keating believes it’s about reduced levels of entrepreneurship stemming in large part from regulatory burdens that limit entrepreneurs’ access to capital and investors’ freedom to make investments in entrepreneurial ventures. He also testified on the need for further reform, particularly in Regulation Crowdfunding under Title III which allows companies for the first time to raise capital from anyone, not just accredited investors, without filing a registration statement with the SEC, and identified the following reform targets:

  • Issuer Cap. Currently, issuers are capped at $1 million during any rolling twelve-month period. There’s been a push to increase that cap, perhaps to $5 million.
  • Investor Cap. Currently, investors with annual income or net worth of less than $100,000 are limited during a 12-month period to the greater of $2,000 or 5% of the lesser of annual income or net worth, and if both annual income and net worth exceed $100,000, then the limit is 10% of the lesser of income or net worth. The proposal here would be to change the application of the cap from the lower of annual income or net worth to the higher of annual income or net worth.
  • Funding Portal Liability. Currently, funding portals can be held liable for material misstatements and omissions by issuers. That poses tremendous and arguably unfair risk to funding portals and may deter funding portals from getting in the business in the first place. The proposal here would be that a funding portal should not be held liable for material misstatements and omissions by an issuer, unless the portal itself is guilty of fraud or negligence. Such a safe harbor for online platforms would be similar to the protection that traditional broker dealers have enjoyed for decades. A funding platform is just a technology-enabled way for entrepreneurs to connect with investors, and they don’t have the domain expertise of issuers and can’t verify the accuracy of all statements made by issuers.  Part of the role of the crowd in crowdfunding is to scrutinize an issuer, a role that should remain with the investors, not with the platform.
  • Syndicated Investments. Many accredited investor crowdfunding platforms like AngeList and OurCrowd operate on an investment fund model, whereby they recruit investors to invest in a special purpose vehicle whose only purpose is to invest in the operating company. Essentially, a lead investor validates a company’s valuation, strategy and investment worthiness. Traditionally, angel investors have operated in groups and often follow a lead investor, a model which puts all investors on a level playing field.
  • $25 Million Asset Registration Trigger.  Under current rules, any Regulation CF funded company that crosses a $25 million asset threshold would be required to register under the Securities Exchange Act and become an SEC reporting company. Seems inconsistent with the spirit of Regulation Crowdfunding, which for the first time allows companies to offer securities to the public without registering with the SEC.

As to the continuing challenge for companies to go and remain public, Thomas Quaadman, Vice President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, testified that the public markets are in worse shape today than they were five years ago and that we have fewer than half the public companies quaadmantoday than we had in 1996, a number that has decreased in 19 of the last 20 years. Mr. Quaadman blamed this in part on an antiquated disclosure regime that is increasingly used to embarrass companies rather than provide decision useful information to investors. In order to rebalance the system and reverse the negative trend, he suggested a numbere of reform measures the SEC and Congress should undertake. The disclosure effectiveness proposal should be a top priority for the SEC to bring the disclosure regime into the 21st century. We need proxy advisory firm reform that brings transparency, accountability and oversight to proxy advisory firms. Also, there should be recognition that capital formation and corporate governance are inextricably linked and there should be reform of the shareholder proposal process under Rule 14a-8.

Snap IPOThe just completed IPO of Snap Inc. has received enormous buzz and plenty of press coverage, mostly about its eye-popping valuation and offering proceeds, the big winners among the founders and early investors and the millennials who bought shares. But not nearly as much attention has been given to Snap’s tri-class capital structure and the nature of the shares that were actually issued in the IPO: the shares of Class A Common Stock sold in the IPO are non-voting. By its own admission, Snap may have pulled off the first ever IPO of non-voting stock.

Snap’s capital now consists of the non-voting Class A shares held by public investors, Class B shares snapIPO2with one vote per share held by early round investors, employees and directors and Class C shares with ten votes per share held by the founders. As a result of the Class C common stock that they hold, co-founders Evan Spiegel and Robert Murphy will be able to exercise voting rights with respect to an aggregate of 215,887,848 shares, representing approximately 88.5% of the voting power immediately following the offering. Consequently, Spiegel and Murphy, and potentially either one of them alone (see below), have the ability to control the outcome of all matters submitted to stockholders for approval, including election, removal, and replacement of directors and any merger or sale of all or substantially all of the assets.

Multiple class structures are not unusual, and several high profile companies went public with them in recent years. What’s unusual here is that whereas the shares sold in those other multiple class structure IPOs had at least some voting rights (typically, one vote per share vs. 10 for the founder class), Snap’s public offering shares have no voting rights. Technically, Delaware law would permit holders of Snap’s Class A non-voting stock nevertheless to vote with one vote per share on any proposal to amend the certificate of incorporation in any way that would adversely affect the holders of the Class A. For example, if a proposed amendment provided for the Class A to rank junior to the Class B and Class C with respect to dividends or acquisition proceeds, a Class A vote would be required and the holders of a majority of Class A shares could defeat that amendment. Such a proposal would be extremely rare, however, and the Class A holders would have no say in the much more typical matters of board elections and any proposed sale of the company.

Multiple share classes are especially useful to public technology companies because they give them the freedom to innovate without the constraints of “short termism” and also serve as a deterrence to takeover bids because of activists’ inability to manipulate the voting machinery for election of directors.

Snap’s Class A common stock will be its only class registered under Section 12 of the Securities Exchange Act, and because the Class A is non-voting, Snap will not be required to file proxy statements except for a rare case where a vote of the Class A common stock is required (see above). Nevertheless, Snap indicated in its S-1 that it will provide Class A holders any information that it provides voluntarily to Class B and Class C holders.

What makes Snap’s structure even more unusual is survivability and portability.  According to Snap’s S-1, If Spiegel’s or Murphy’s employment is terminated (which, because of their control, could only happen if they turn on each other), they will continue to have the ability to exercise the same significant voting power and continue to control the outcome of all matters submitted to stockholders for approval. A founder’s Class C shares will automatically convert into Class B shares, on a one-for-one basis, nine months following such founder’s zuckerbergdeath or on the date on which the number of outstanding Class C shares held by such holder represents less than 30% of the Class C (or 32,383,178 shares) held by such holder at the time of the IPO. Facebook, on the other hand, amended its certificate of incorporation so that Mark Zuckerberg’s majority voting control is good only while he is an executive at the company.

Snap’s capital structure has drawn some criticism. In a New York Times piece, Cal Berkley law professor Steven Davidoff Solomon referred to Snap’s IPO as “the most stockholder-unfriendly governance in an initial public offering, ever.” In the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, Rob Kalb and Rob Yates of Institutional Stockholder Services cited a 2016 ISS study that showed that controlled companies had weaker governance standards and tended to underperform “with respect to total stockholder returns, revenue growth, return on equity, and dividend payout ratios.” And the Council of Institutional Investors sent a letter to Snap’s co-founders objecting to the capital structure and urging them to adopt a single class structure. While acknowledging that similar emerging companies with dynamic leadership and promising products have successfully raised capital despite having dual class structures, Snap’s structure is unusual in that the investors would have no voting rights and dual class company performance has been mixed at best.

When Google, Facebook and Under Armour went public, they each did so with a dual-class share structure that at least afforded public stockholders one vote per share. Nevertheless, each company subsequently requested stockholder approval for the issuance of a third class of non-voting shares. In each case, the purpose of creating a new non-voting class was to maintain founder voting control while simultaneously providing insider liquidity.

Despite the overall positive outcomes achieved by Google and Facebook for their stockholders, going public as a controlled company with an unequal-voting-rights structure is no guaranty for financial success. Groupon, Zynga and GoPro each went public with a dual-class structure, received poor ISS corporate governance scores indicating the highest levels of governance risk, and the share price of all three dropped precipitously since their respective IPOs.

Adding salt to the corporate governance wound, Snap is taking advantage of emerging growth company status under the JOBS Act, meaning that it is not required to comply with the auditor attestation requirements under Sarbanes-Oxley and the reduced executive compensation disclosure requirements and may delay adoption of new public-company accounting principles.

In the final analysis, investors will need to decide which Mark the Snap founders better resemble, Facebook’s Zuckerberg or Zynga’s Pincus. And looking beyond Snap, it remains to be seen whether other emerging companies adopt the Snap IPO playbook by launching IPOs with multiple-class structures that preserve founder control and give public stockholders little or no governance voice.

Employees generally must recognize income upon the receipt of employer stock to the extent that the fair market value of the stock received is greater than the amount, if any, paid by the employee for the stock.IRS If the employee is taxed on receipt of the stock, that could be a real problem, as he or she may not have the cash on hand to pay the income tax due if the stock is not readily tradeable on an established market.  The problem is particularly acute when the valuation of the stock has increased dramatically between the option grant date and the exercise date.  The result very often is that employees simply allow their options to expire and thus forfeit a major component of their compensation and the upside potential it represents.

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Empowering Employees Through Stock Ownership Act (the “Bill”). The Bill never received a vote in the Senate.  The Bill sought to alleviate the income tax burden of employees of non-publicly traded companies who exercise options or receive stock in settlement of restricted stock units (“RSUs”).  Empowering Employees Through Stock Ownership ActCompanies, particularly start-up companies, often prefer to compensate their employees with equity awards (such as options or RSUs) in order to conserve cash and attract, retain and incentivize employees by providing them with a stake in the success of the venture.

The Bill

The Bill would permit certain “qualified employees” to elect to defer, for income tax purposes, the inclusion in income of the amount of income attributable to a qualified employee’s receipt of “qualified stock” from an “eligible corporation.”

Qualified Employees

Qualified employees would generally include any employee who has not previously been a one percent stockholder, CEO, CFO, a family member of any of the foregoing or a highly compensated officer.

Qualified Stock

Qualified stock would be any stock of a corporation if (1) an employee receives the stock in connection with the exercise of an option or in settlement of an RSU, and (2) the option or RSU was provided by the corporation to the employee in connection with the performance of services and in a year in which the corporation was an “eligible corporation” (as described below). However, qualified stock does not include stock if an employee may, at the time the employee’s right to the stock becomes substantially vested, sell the stock to, or otherwise receive cash in lieu of stock from, the corporation.

Eligible Corporation

A corporation is deemed eligible with respect to a calendar year if (1) no stock of the corporation is readily tradable on an established securities market during the calendar year or any preceding calendar year, and (2) the corporation has a written plan under which, for the calendar year, not less than 80% of the corporation’s employees are permitted to receive stock options or RSUs with the same rights and privileges to receive qualified stock. In applying the requirement that 80% of employees receive stock options or RSUs, excluded employees and part-time employees are not taken into account.  Employees would not fail to be treated as having the same rights and privileges to receive qualified stock solely because the number of shares available to all employees is not equal in amount.

Deferral

If an employee were to elect to defer income inclusion, the deferral would end and the income would be included for the taxable year that includes the earliest of (1) the date the qualified stock is sold, exchanged or otherwise disposed of; (2) the date the employee first becomes an excluded employee; (3) the first date on which any stock of the employer becomes readily tradable on an established securities market; (4) seven years after the employee’s right to the stock becomes substantially vested; and (5) the date the employee elects to include the amount in income. The amount included in income is the same amount that, but for the election, would have been included in income for the taxable year in which the employee’s right to the stock became substantially vested.

Analysis

The Bill appears to be a step in the right direction to remedy the issue of illiquid option exercise and/or stock settled RSUs. However, the deferral does not apply to employment taxes or state and local taxes, which can result in a substantial tax payment despite the federal income tax deferral (as much as 20% for a New York City resident).  In addition, the deferral period is limited to seven years, which may not be a long enough period to induce employees of certain small pre-IPO companies to exercise their options.  Finally, it is not clear how impactful the Bill would really be given the trend toward phantom equity arrangements.  It will be interesting to see how this issue may be incorporated into the tax reform proposals being crafted in the new Congress.

2016 turned out to be a terrible year for IPOs, both in terms of number of deals and aggregate proceeds.

According to Renaissance Capital’s U.S. IPO Market 2016 Annual Review, only 105 companies went public on U.S. exchanges in 2016, raising only $19 billion in aggregate proceeds. The deal count of 105 IPOs was downrenaissance 38% from 2015 and the lowest level since 2009.  The $19 billion in aggregate proceeds was down 37% from 2015 and the lowest level since 2003.  In fact, if you remove the financial recession years of 2008 and 2009, the 105 IPOs in 2016 were also the lowest since 2003.  And the drop in deal activity was indiscriminate; both VC- and PE-backed IPOs were at their lowest levels by deal count and proceeds raised since 2009.

The temptation would be to blame the weak IPO market on political election 2016uncertainty, with Brexit and the U.S. election being the biggest culprits. But then how to explain the broader U.S. capital markets, which were hot in 2016. The Dow Jones Industrial Average hovered around 20,000 at year end, and the S&P 500 Index was up 9.5% for the year.  One would expect that the market for IPOs would be pretty strong, as bullish markets normally encourage companies to go public.  To be fair, much of the market gains took place in the latter half of the fourth quarter.  But market weakness doesn’t explain the two-year drought in IPOs for technology companies, considered the mainstay of the IPO market.

Another common theory is that over-regulation, particularly Sarbanes Oxley, has made it much more expensive to go and remain public, thus discouraging many growth companies from doing so. The 2012 JOBS Act tried to remedy this by creating an IPO on-ramp for emerging growth companies, allowing for confidential registration statement filings with the SEC, “testing-the-waters” and scaled disclosure.  The immediate results were encouraging: a dramatic increase in IPO deals and aggregate proceeds in 2014.  Yet IPOs plummeted in 2015 and even further in 2016.

Renaissance Capital’s report points the finger squarely at the public-private valuation disconnect. The tech startup space in 2015 was a mystifying series of mega rounds, sky-high valuations, unicorns and unicornbubble fears. But another trend has been IPOs being priced below the company’s most recent private funding round.  In its pre-IPO round, Square Inc. was valued at approximately $6 billion, but IPO’d at just over half that valuation and then plunged further post-IPO.  Etsy Inc. and Box Inc. both reported $5 billion plus private valuations, only to plunge in the days leading up to their IPOs.  Many, including Benchmark Capital’s Bill Gurley, have blamed the late-stage bidding frenzy on institutional public investors such as mutual funds rushing into late-stage private investing.  Another major contributing factor in the escalation of late stage valuations is the trend toward generous downside protections being given to investors in exchange for lofty valuations, such as IPO ratchets and M&A senior participating liquidation preferences.  The former is simply antidilution protection that entitles the investor to receive extra shares on conversion in the IPO if the IPO price is below either the price paid by the late-stage investor or some premium above that price.  The latter means that, in an acquisition, the investor gets first dollars out ahead of earlier series of preferred and then participates with the common pro rata on an as converted basis.

Renaissance maintains that VC-backed tech companies with lofty late round private valuations chose in 2016 to avoid inevitably lower public-market valuations and had the luxury of remaining private due to ample available cash in the private markets. Mergers and acquisitions offered alternate pathways for other tech companies, such as TransFirst, BlueCoat and Optiv, all of which had previously filed S-1s for IPOs.

Although the private-public valuation disconnect was a major impediment to IPOs in 2015 and 2016, Renaissance believes this phenomenon is close to correcting itself and is optimistic about 2017. Many growth companies have seen their valuations flat or down in new funding rounds to levels that will be more palatable to public investors.  Also, the election results will likely bring a dramatic change in fiscal, regulatory, energy and healthcare policies, all of which should be stimulative to equity markets, new company formation and, ultimately, IPOs.

Another reason for tech IPO optimism for 2017 is Snap, Inc.’s highly anticipated IPO in the first half of 2017. It filed confidentially under the snapJOBS Act, and has begun testing the waters with investors.  The Snap IPO is rumored to raise $4 billion at a valuation of over $25 billion. Another one is Spotify, which raised $1 billion in convertible debt in March 2016 which signals a likely imminent IPO. These two IPOs might raise more capital than all VC-backed tech IPOs in the last two years combined.

Earlier this year, Union Square Ventures Managing Partner Fred Wilson famously referred to corporate VCs as “The Devil”, when he asserted that companies should not be investing in other companies, that they should be buying other companies but not taking minority positions in them, that the “access” rationale for corporate venture is a reason why entrepreneurs should not want them in the room and that startups who take investment from them are “doing business with the devil”.  Ouch!  So why the hostility?

Corporate venture capital refers to venture style investments in emerging companies made by venture capital divisions of large companies, as distinguished from venture investments made by the more google Vtraditional investment funds that most people associate with venture capital. I’ve been seeing corporate VC term sheets with greater regularity lately, so I decided to blog about some of its characteristics, advantages and disadvantages relative to institutional venture capital.

Indeed, corporate VC appears to be on the rise. According to the National Venture Capital Association, corporate venture deployed over $7.5 billion in 905 deals to startups in 2015, a fifteen year high and representing 13% of all venture capital dollars invested for the year but 21% of all deals consummated.  From 2011 to 2015, the number of corporate VC divisions in the United States rose nearly 50% from 1,068 to 1,501   And according to CB Insights, the average corporate VC deal size has consistently been larger than the average institutional VC deal size over the last 14 quarters ended June 2016, with corporate VC deal sizes averaging above $20 million over the previous five quarters.

intel capitalBig technology and healthcare companies have long made venture style investments in startups. Google Ventures, Intel Capital, Dell Ventures and Cisco Investments are veteran corporate VCs that immediately come to mind. But it’s the relatively recent cisco investmentsarrival of new corporate investors that have driven the growth in corporate VC, in sectors ranging from transportation (e.g., GM’s $500 million investment in Lyft) to financial services to convenience stores.

Corporate VC programs have dramatically different overall objectives than institutional VC funds. Primary among these objectives is bolstering internal research and development activities and gaining access to new technologies that complement the corporation’s product development efforts. Venture investments are also a way for corporations to gain intelligence on disruptive products and salesforce vtechnologies that could pose a competitive threat.  A minority investment could also be the first step toward an eventual acquisition of the portfolio company.  More limited objectives might include establishing an OEM partner, a channel for additional company product sales or even a product integration that might drive sales for the investing company.  And yes, there’s also the objective of financial returns.

If a company is considering launching a venture capital program, it’s important to choose a structure that will align with its investment objectives. Corporate VC programs can either be structured internally, where a company invests from its own balance sheet, or externally.  Generally speaking, internal divisions are more comcast venturesappropriate for strategic investments intended to support a corporate sponsor’s core business.  One downside of internal structures is that they tend to be more bureaucratic and slower in decision making. Another is that the financial capacity to invest is basically a function of the corporate sponsor’s financial health, which could fluctuate over time.

External structures are more nimble in making decisions and generally have greater flexibility to make investments that may be disruptive to the investing company’s core business. Since investments are made microsoft venturesoff the corporate sponsor’s balance sheet, external structures allow companies to pursue riskier and more disruptive R&D. They also tend to attract more experienced investment managers and so are often better able to achieve both strategic as well as financial objectives.

In terms of exit strategy, corporate VCs seek a wider range of possible outcomes from an investment. Maximizing proceeds is typically not the exit strategy.  A corporate VC may just as likely view as a successful outcome the portfolio company becoming an acquisition target, an OEM partner, a channel for GE Venturesadditional company product sales or even a product integration that would drive sales for the investing company.  VC funds, on the other hand, seek one type of exit: a multiple return on their investment dollars from either an acquisition or a sale of shares following an IPO.

Advantages

As I mentioned above, investments by a corporate VC are funded by the corporation’s own balance sheet, and are thus not subject to the ongoing pressure from limited partners and the ten year time restrictions of a typical VC fund’s limited partnership agreement. The result is that corporate VCs are generally more patient and have longer time horizons than VC funds.

Corporate VCs generally negotiate for less control over their portfolio companies than do VC funds. This is largely because when the investor company is deemed to have the power to influence the operating or financial decisions of the company its investing in, the investor company is required to account for its investment under the equity method of accounting, under which the investor recognizes its share of the profits and losses of the investee. If the investor has 20% or more of the voting stock of the investee, the investor is presumed to have control.  Consequently, corporate VCs generally avoid taking 20% or more of a portfolio company’s voting shares.  The need to avoid indicia of control is also why corporate VCs often decline board representation.

Another advantage is that, as I mentioned above, an investment from a corporate VC may be the first step toward being acquired by that corporation, thus giving the portfolio company and its founders a clear exit pathway without having to go through a prolonged investment banking process. It can also create instant credibility in the industry, which can then be leveraged to attract talent and customers.  Finally, it can provide channel access, product integration and other benefits to help accelerate market penetration.

Disadvantages

Investment from a corporate VC may have certain disadvantages, however. First, a corporate VC’s strategic objectives may conflict with a portfolio company’s financial goals, which for example may motivate the corporate VC to block a proposed acquisition or subsequent investment if the transaction does not align with the strategic goals of the corporate VC’s parent. Second, corporate VCs often negotiate for a right of first refusal or option to acquire the company which would limit the company’s options going forward and have a chilling effect on other potential acquirers.  Third, it could antagonize potential customers or business partners who view themselves as competitors of the corporate VC. Fourth, corporate VC divisions often receive an annual allocation of dollars to invest, as opposed to an aggregate commitment of dollars that a fund receives to invest during the fund’s investment period, which means that the availability of follow-on funding may be tied to the financial capacity and whims of the parent company. And finally, a strategic may set the valuation higher than what the market will bear, which could make it difficult for the company to secure co-investors, which in turn could leave the company under-funded and, as mentioned just above, could leave the company vulnerable if the corporate VC parent isn’t able or interested in making follow-on investments.

Final Thought

So back to Fred Wilson’s choice words for corporate VCs.  Perhaps the root of the antagonism is the tendency for corporate VCs to drive up valuations, which makes deals more expensive for institutional funds and may crowd them out of certain deals entirely.  Wilson sort of implied as much when he stated in the same interview that a startup would only do a deal with a corporate VC if it couldn’t secure funding elsewhere or if the corporate VC was paying a higher price than he would pay.