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.

Ever since the Federal securities laws were enacted in 1933, all offers and sales of securities in the United States had to either be registered with the SEC or satisfy an exemption from registration. The commonly used private offering exemption, however, prohibited any act of general solicitation. The JOBS Act of 2012 JOBS Act signingcreated a new variation to the private offering exemption under Rule 506 of Regulation D that permits online offers and other acts of general solicitation, but issuers selling under this new Rule 506(c) may sell only to accredited investors and must use reasonable methods to verify investor status.

Starting today, companies will be permitted to offer and sell securities online to anyone, not just accredited investors, without SEC registration. This is pursuant to Title III of the JOBS Act and the final crowdfunding rules promulgated by the SEC called Regulation Crowdfunding.  The potential for Title III Crowdfundingequity crowdfunding is enormous and potentially disruptive.  It is believed that approximately 93% of the U.S. population consists of non-accredited investors who have an estimated $30 trillion stashed away in investment accounts.  If only one percent of that amount got redirected to equity crowdfunding, the resulting $300 billion dollars invested would be ten times larger than the VC industry.  Hence the potential.

The reality, however, is not as encouraging. In the interest of investor protection, Congress in JOBS Act Title III and the SEC in Regulation Crowdfunding created a heavily regulated and expensive regime that many fear will severely limit the prospects of equity crowdfunding.  The rules include a $1 million issuer cap, strict dollar limits on investors, disclosure requirements and funding portal liability, registration and gatekeeper obligations.

wefunderSEC registration for funding portals began on January 29. But as of last week, only five portals had completed the registration process: Wefunder Portal LLC, SI Portal LLC dba Seedinvest.com, CFS LLC dba seedinvestCrowdFundingSTAR.com, NextSeed US LLC and StartEngine Capital LLC.  Over 30 others are apparently awaiting approval.  Of the two best known and most successful non-equity crowdfunding portals, only Indiegogo has declared an intention to get in the Title III funding portal business; Kickstarter has so far declined.

The likely reason for the apparent lackluster funding portal activity so far is the restrictive regulatory regime referred to above, the burden of which falls disproportionately on funding portals. None of this should be a surprise.  Several key aspects of the crowdfunding rules were contentiously debated at the Congressional level and later during SEC rulemaking.  Opponents asserted that retail equity crowdfunding is an invitation for massive fraud against those who can least afford it and so believe Title III is a mistake.  Proponents advocated against several of the more restrictive rules but conceded on these points in order to get Title III passed.  And because the legislation itself was so prescriptive and granular, there was only room for marginal improvement in the final SEC rules relative to those proposed in the initial release.

Regrettably, there’s painful precedent for securities exemptions so restrictive that no one used them.  Regulation A allowed for a mini-public offering through a streamlined filing with the SEC.  But issuers were capped at $5 million and were forced to go through merit review in each state where they offered the securities.  The result:  hardly anyone used Reg A.  In recognition of this, Title IV of the JOBS Act reformed Reg A by increasing the cap to $50 million and, more importantly, preempting state blue sky review for so-called Tier II offerings which must satisfy investor protection requirements.

In an effort to prevent Title III from a fate similar to pre-reform Reg A, legislation has been introduced in Congress to increase the issuer cap, allow for special purpose vehicles, remove the $25 million asset cap on the exemption from the 500 shareholder SEC registration trigger and allow issuers to test the waters. See my previous blog post here on the proposed Fix Crowdfunding Act.

It may seem somewhat premature to advocate for reform when the rules have barely gone live. But given the time necessary for the legislative process to run its course, and inasmuch as the indications are already fairly clear that both issuers and funding portals remain skeptical about Title III crowdfunding, it makes sense to begin the process now of introducing necessary common sense reform of Title III.

SEC logoAt an open meeting on October 30, 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission by a three-to-one vote adopted final rules for equity crowdfunding under Section 4(a)(6) of the Securities Act of 1933, as mandated by Title III of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act.   The final rules and forms are effective 180 days after publication in the Federal Register.

Crowdfunding is an evolving method of raising funds online from a large number of people without regard to investor qualification and with each contributing relatively small amounts.[i]   Until now, public crowdfunding has not involved the offer of a share in any Crowdfunding1financial returns or profits that the fundraiser may expect to generate from business activities financed through crowdfunding. Such a profit or revenue-sharing model – sometimes referred to as the “equity model” of crowdfunding – could trigger the application of the federal securities laws because it likely would involve the offer and sale of a security to the public.  Equity crowdfunding has the potential to dramatically alter the landscape of capital markets for startup companies. It has also been the subject of a contentious debate ever since it was included in the JOBS Act, pitting those who want to allow startups to leverage the internet to reach investors and to permit ordinary people to invest small amounts in them against those that view crowdfunding as a recipe for a fraud disaster.

The SEC had issued proposed rules in October 2013 (see my blog post here), and received hundreds of comment letters in response. When the final rules become effective (early May 2016), issuers for the first time will be able to use the internet to offer and sell securities to the public without registration.  Here’s a brief summary of the new crowdfunding exemption rules and where they deviate from the original proposal.

Issuer and Investor Caps

  • Issuers may raise a maximum aggregate amount of $1 million through crowdfunding offerings in any 12-month period.
  • Individual investors, in any 12-month period, may invest in the aggregate across all crowdfunding offerings up to:
    • The greater of $2,000 or 5% of the lesser of annual income or net worth, if either annual income or net worth is less than $100,000, or
    • 10% of the lesser of their annual income or net worth if both their annual income and net worth are equal to or more than $100,000.
  • Aggregate amount an investor may invest in all crowdfunding offerings may not exceed $100,000 in any 12-month period.

Many commenters believed that the proposed $1 million offering limit was too low, but the SEC in the end believed the $1 million cap is consistent with the JOBS Act. The SEC did state in the final rules release, however, that Regulation Crowdfunding is a novel method of raising capital and that it’s concerned about raising the offering limit of the exemption at the outset of the adoption of final rules, suggesting that it would be open to doing so down the road.

As for the individual investment limit, the final rules deviate from the original proposal by clarifying that the limit reflects the aggregate amount an investor may invest in all crowdfunded offerings in a 12-month period across all issuers, and also specifies a “lesser of” approach to the income test.

Financial Disclosure

Financial disclosure requirements are based on the amount offered and sold in reliance on Section 4(a)(6) within the preceding 12-month period, as follows:

  • For issuers offering $100,000 or less: disclosure of total income, taxable income and total tax as reflected in the federal income tax returns certified by the principal executive officer, and financial statements certified by the principal executive officer; but if independently reviewed or audited financial statements are available, must provide those financials instead.
  • Issuers offering more than $100,000 but not more than $500,000: financial statements reviewed by independent public accountant, unless otherwise available.
  • Issuers offering more than $500,000:
    • For issuers offering more than $500,000 but not more than $1 million of securities in reliance on Regulation Crowdfunding for the first time: financial statements reviewed by independent public accountant, unless otherwise available.
    • For issuers that have previously sold securities in reliance on Regulation Crowdfunding: financial statements audited by independent public accountant.

The financial disclosure requirements contain a number of changes from the proposal that hopefully will help reduce the costs and risks associated with preparing the required financials. Instead of mandating that issuers offering $100,000 or less provide copies of their federal income tax returns as proposed, the final rules require an issuer only to disclose total income, taxable income and total tax, or the equivalent line items, from filed federal income tax returns, and to have the principal executive officer certify that those amounts reflect accurately the information in the returns.  This minimizes the risk of disclosure of private information which would exist if tax returns had to be provided.  In addition, reducing the requirement for first time issuers of between $500,000 and $1 million from audited financials (as had been proposed) to reviewed financials is a sensible accommodation inasmuch as the concern about the cost and burden of the audit relative to the size of the offering is even greater for first timers who would need to incur the audit expense before having proceeds from the offering.

Intermediaries

  • Offerings must be conducted exclusively through one platform operated by a registered broker or funding portal.
  • Intermediaries required to provide investors with educational materials, take measures to reduce the risk of fraud, make available information about the issuer and the offering and provide communication channels to permit discussions about offerings on the platform.
  • Funding portals prohibited from offering investment advice, soliciting sales or offers to buy, paying success fees and handling investor funds or securities.
  • Funding portals must register with the SEC by filing new Form Funding Portal, which will be effective January 29, 2016.

The rationale behind the requirement to use only one intermediary is that it helps foster the creation of a “crowd”. Having one meeting place enables a crowd to share information effectively, and minimizes the chances of dilution or dispersement of the crowd. This in turn supports one of the main justifications for equity crowdfunding, which is that having hundreds or thousands of investors sharing information increases the chances that any fraud will be exposed, thus the “wisdom of the crowd”. The one platform requirement also helps to minimize the risk that issuers and intermediaries would circumvent the requirements of Regulation Crowdfunding. For example, allowing an issuer to conduct an offering using more than one platform would make it more difficult for intermediaries to determine whether an issuer is exceeding the $1 million aggregate offering limit.

One important deviation from the proposed rules is that funding portals will be permitted to curate offerings based on subjective criteria, not just based on perceptions of fraud risk.  A second important deviation is that all intermediaries will be allowed to receive as compensation a financial interest in the issuers conducting offerings on their platforms, which will expand the options available to cash-starved startups.

Preliminary Thoughts

The ink is still wet on the SEC’s 686 page release, but here are some preliminary thoughts. Equity crowdfunding has the potential to create new capital raising opportunities for many startups and early stage companies by removing antiquated regulatory barriers and allowing companies to leverage the internet and social media to reach and sell to prospective investors without regard to accredited investor status. The federal securities laws were written over 80 years ago when investors had no access to information about issuers.  In the internet age, prospective investors have many sources of information at their fingertips and the “wisdom of the crowd” can both steer dollars to the most promising companies and ensure that ample information is spread to interested parties.

As I’ve stated before, however, the SEC’s preoccupation with investor crowdprotection has created a disconnect between the potential of equity crowdfunding and its reality, now expressed in the final rules. To be fair, the framework for most of the rules was predetermined by what Congress enacted in Title III of the JOBS Act and the final rules do contain some welcome relief from the original proposal. Nevertheless, I fear that the burden and expense associated with some of the rules will make Regulation Crowdfunding far less attractive to most companies than traditional offerings under Rule 506 notwithstanding the latter’s pro-accredited investor bias. For example, the requirement to produce audited financial statements for offerings above $500,000 (except for first time Regulation Crowdfunding issuers) will seem prohibitively expensive when compared with accredited investor-only Rule 506 offerings where no financials are mandated at all. It’s also unclear how the burdensome rules governing intermediaries will attract established investment banks, or even boutiques, and will likely leave the field open primarily to persons with scant resources and experience. Lastly, even in the context of a successful crowdfunded offering, companies will also need to consider carefully the negative consequences associated with a shareholder base consisting of potentially thousands of individual investors. Those consequences include the expense associated with keeping them informed, the difficulties of securing quorums and votes and the inevitable misgivings VCs will have of investing in a crowdfunded startup.

In the final analysis, though, Title III equity crowdfunding will finally become law, meaning that issuers will for the first time be allowed to leverage the internet to sell securities to an unlimited number of investors without registration and without regard to accredited investor status, and that is decidedly a treat.

[1] The term “crowdfunding” has also been used more broadly as a somewhat generic term for any campaign to raise funds through an online platform.  These include non-equity crowdfunding (i.e., rewards or pre-order based), “accredited” crowdfunding (in reliance on Rule 506(b) or 506(c)) and registered crowdfunding (in reliance on Regulation A+).  This post will use the term only as it applies to small equity offerings to many investors, each contributing relatively small amounts, and soon to be available under Regulation Crowdfunding.

The Regulation A amendments adopted by the Securities Exchange Commission on March 25 are Federal Registerbeing published tomorrow, April 20, in the Federal Register.  That means the final rules and form amendments will officially become effective on June 19, 2015 (by rule, 60 days after such publication).

The new Regulation A, referred to widely as Regulation A+, increases the offering cap from $5 million to $50 million with reasonable investor protection safeguards.  I previously summarized the regulation here.  The main reform features of the new regs are blue sky preemption for Tier II offerings, broader “testing the waters”, scaled disclosure and modified reporting.

Reg A+In theory, Reg A+ has the potential to provide growth companies with a viable alternative to a traditional S-1 IPO, albeit with a more cost effective runway and scaled disclosure than even the streamlined emerging growth company pathway under JOBS Act Title I.  It remains to be seen whether a sufficiently robust small public company ecosystem will develop to support companies that go public through Reg A+.

Importantly, new Reg A+ also reforms the resale rules in a significant respect by eliminating the requirement under old Reg A that issuers must have had net income from continuing operations in at least one of its last two fiscal years for affiliate resales to be permitted.  This is a sensible reform inasmuch as many emerging companies experience net losses for several years due to high research and development costs.  Absence of net income, by itself, is not a sufficient indicator of enhanced risk, and increasing selling stockholder access to avenues for liquidity will encourage investment in emerging companies.

The SEC yesterday issued its highly anticipated final rules amending Regulation A to allow issuers u-s-secto raise up to $50 million in any 12 month period through public offering techniques but without registration with the SEC or state blue sky authorities.  The 453 page rules release features a scaled disclosure regime to provide issuers with increased flexibility with regard to offering size and should lower the burden of fixed costs associated with conducting Reg A offerings as a percentage of proceeds. The new rules go into effect 60 days after they are published in the Federal Register.

Reg A has been one of the most rarely used exemptions for securities offerings because it’s been perceived as cost ineffective: the $5 million maximum is just not worth the burdens associated with blue sky registration and qualification requirements in each state where the securities are offered.  JOBS act 2Fixed costs such as legal and accounting fees have served as a disincentive to use the exemption for lower offering amounts. Congress addressed the problem in 2012 through Title IV of the JOBS Act, which required the SEC to amend Reg A by exempting from Securities Act registration certain securities offerings of up to $50 million in any 12 month period. The anticipated amendment to Reg A has been referred to affectionately by securities lawyers as Reg A+, since it’s intended to be a more useful version of the old Reg A.

Old Reg A

Old Reg A provides an exemption from Securities Act registration for offerings of up to $5 million in any 12-month period, including no more than $1.5 million in resales by selling stockholders.  Reg A transactions have been referred to as mini public offerings because they permit general solicitation and advertising (prohibited in private offerings other than accredited investor-only offerings under Rule 506(c) passed in September 2013) and require a mini-registration statement to be filed and reviewed by the SEC containing the offering statement to be delivered to offerees.  Most importantly, shares sold in old Reg A offerings are not “covered securities” under the National Securities Markets Improvement Act, meaning that issuers  must comply with the registration and qualification requirements of the blue sky laws of each state where the offering is made.  A Reg A issuer was allowed to “test the waters,” or communicate with potential investors to see if they might be interested in the offering, before it made the filing with the SEC (Form 1-A).  Finally, securities sold in Reg A offerings are not restricted securities, meaning they can be freely resold by non-affiliates of the issuer.

New Reg A

The final rules expand Reg A into two tiers: Tier 1 for securities offerings of up to $20 million; and Tier 2 for offerings of up to $50 million.  The new rules preserve, with some modifications, existing provisions regarding issuer eligibility, offering circular content, testing the waters and “bad actor” disqualification.  Tier 2 issuers are required to include audited financial statements in their offering documents and to file annual, semiannual, and current reports with the SEC.  Except when buying securities listed on a national securities exchange, purchasers in Tier 2 offerings must either be accredited investors or be subject to certain limitations on their investment.

The key provisions of the final rules are as follows:

Offering Limitations and Secondary Sales

The final rules establish two tiers of offerings:

  • Tier 1: annual offering limit of $20 million, including no more than $6 million on behalf of selling stockholders that are affiliates of the issuer.
  • Tier 2: annual offering limit of $50 million, including no more than $15 million on behalf of selling stockholders that are affiliates of the issuer.

Investment Limitation

The SEC’s objective with the tiered approach is to scale regulatory requirements based on offering size, to give issuers more flexibility in raising capital under Reg A and to provide appropriately tailored protections for investors in each tier. The rules impose additional disclosure requirements and investor protection provisions in Tier 2 offerings. Issuers seeking a smaller amount of capital (i.e., no more than $20 million) benefit from scaled disclosure. Although Tier 2 offerings will require enhanced disclosure, it’s possible that the reduction in information assymetry will lead to higher valuations. Thankfully, the final rules raised the Tier 1 offering cap to $20 million from the proposed $5 million. The increase in maximum offering size could also contribute to the development of intermediation services, such as market making, as well as analyst coverage, which could have a positive impact on investor participation and aftermarket liquidity of Reg A shares.

In addition, selling stockholders are limited to no more than 30% of the aggregate offering price in an issuer’s initial Reg A offering and any subsequently qualified Reg A offering within the first 12-month period following the date of qualification of the initial Reg A offering.

As mentioned above, the new rules contain certain investor protections in Tier 2 offerings. The proposed rules included a 10% investment limit for all investors in Tier 2 offerings.  The final rules limit non-accredited investors in Tier 2 offerings to purchases of no more than 10% of the greater of annual income or net worth (for natural persons) or the greater of annual revenue or net assets (for non-natural persons), as proposed.  In response to commentator concerns, the Tier 2 investment limit does not apply to accredited investors or to securities that will be listed on a national securities exchange.  This is a sensible approach, inasmuch as accredited investors, due to their level of income or net worth, are more likely to be able to withstand losses from undiversified exposure to an individual offering, and there’s a higher level of investor protection with issuers required to meet the listing standards of a national securities exchange and become subject to ongoing Exchange Act reporting.

Treatment under Section 12(g)

Section 12(g) of the Exchange Act requires that an issuer with total assets exceeding $10 million and a class of equity securities held of record by either 2,000 persons, or 500 persons who are not accredited investors, register such class of securities with the SEC. In its proposal release, the SEC did not propose to exempt Reg A securities from mandatory registration under Section 12(g), but solicited comment on the issue.  Some commentators questioned the extent to which Reg A securities would be held in street name through brokers, which the proposal mentioned as a factor that could potentially limit the impact of not proposing an exemption from Section 12(g).

The final rules conditionally exempt Tier 2 securities from the provisions of Section 12(g) provided the issuer (i) remains subject to, and is current in (as of fiscal year end), its Reg A periodic reporting obligations, (ii) engages the services of a transfer agent registered with the SEC under the Exchange Act, and (iii) meets requirements similar to those for “smaller reporting companies” (public float of less than $75 million or, in the absence of a public float, annual revenues of less than $50 million).  The transfer agent condition will provide added comfort that stockholder records and secondary trades will be handled accurately.

Offering Statement

The final rules require issuers to file offering statements with the SEC electronically on EDGAR, but permit non-public submission of offering statements and amendments for review by SEC staff before filing so long as all such documents are publicly filed not later than 21 days before qualification.  The new rules eliminate the Model A (Question-and-Answer) disclosure format under Part II of Form 1-A.

Testing the Waters

The new rules permit issuers to “test the waters” with, or solicit interest in a potential offering testing the watersfrom, the general public either before or after the filing of the offering statement, so long as any solicitation materials used after publicly filing the offering statement are preceded or accompanied by a preliminary offering circular or contain a notice informing potential investors where and how the most current preliminary offering circular can be obtained. Solicitation materials remain subject to the antifraud and other civil liability provisions of the federal securities laws.

Continuing Disclosure Obligations

Reg A currently requires issuers to file a Form 2-A with the SEC to report sales and the termination of sales made under Reg A every six months after qualification and within 30 calendar days after the termination, completion or final sale of securities in the offering. The final rules eliminate Form 2-A.  In its place, the rules require Tier 1 issuers to provide information about sales in such offerings and to update certain issuer information by electronically filing a Form 1-Z exit report with the SEC not later than 30 calendar days after termination or completion of an offering.  The rules require Tier 2 issuers to file electronically with the SEC on EDGAR annual and semiannual reports, as well as current event reports.

Application of Blue Sky Laws

The final rules preempt state registration and qualification requirements for Tier 2 offerings but preserve these requirements for Tier 1 offerings, consistent with state registration of Reg A offerings of up to $5 million under existing rules.  The SEC had originally proposed to preempt state regulation with respect to (i) all offerees in Reg A offerings and (ii) all purchasers in Tier 2 offerings.  The proposal to preempt blue sky requirements with respect to all offerees in a Reg A offering was intended to allow issuers relying on Reg A to communicate with potential investors via the internet and social media without concern that these communications might trigger registration requirements under state law.

The issue of state law preemption generated a great deal of public commentary.  To address commenter concerns and avoid potential confusion about the application of the preemption provisions in Tier 1 offerings, the final definition of “qualified purchaser” does not include offerees in Tier 1 offerings.  This is unfortunate.  In order to create an attractive alternative to IPOs, Congress mandated preemption for “qualified purchasers”, which it defined as any purchaser in a (new) Reg A offering. As made clear in the 2012 General Accounting Office Report, a primary reason Reg A has been seldom used is the delay, cost and uncertainty of divergent state review of offerings. Perhaps the SEC should have preempted state regulation of Reg A resales as well. One of the greatest benefits of a Reg A offering versus a Rule 506 offering is that the securities sold in the former will be freely tradeable immediately upon closing of the offering. Without clear federal preemption of blue-sky laws governing the resale of Reg A shares, however, investors may be concerned about their ability to resell their shares which will reduce their willingness to purchase these shares in the first place.