Capital Markets Reform

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.

Beginning on May 16, issuers for the first time will be able to offer and sell securities online to anyone, not just accredited investors, withoutTitle III Crowdfunding registering with the SEC. The potential here is breathtaking.  Some $30 trillion dollars are said to be stashed away in long-term investment accounts of non-accredited investors; if only 1% of that gets allocated to crowdfunding, the resulting $300 billion would be ten times bigger than the VC industry.   But the onerous rules baked into JOBS Act Title III and the SEC’s Regulation Crowdfunding (the statutory and regulatory basis, respectively, for public equity crowdfunding), leave many wondering if Title III crowdfunding will prove to be an unattractive alternative to other existing exemptions and become a largely underutilized capital raising pathway – a giant missed opportunity.

Patrick_McHenry_OfficialBut help may be on the way. Congressman Patrick McHenry recently introduced new legislation to address certain defects in Title III.  The Fix Crowdfunding Act (H.R. 4855)  would seek to improve the utility of Title III crowdfunding by raising the issuer dollar limit, simplifying the Section 12(g)(6) exemption, clarifying portal liability, permitting special purpose entities to engage in Title III offerings and allowing issuers to “test the waters”.  The House Financial Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Capital Markets recently held hearings on the Fix Crowdfunding Act labeled “The JOBS Act at Four: Examining Its Impact and Proposals to Further Enhance Capital Formation”, with witnesses such as Kevin Laws (Chief Operating Officer of AngelList) and The Honorable Paul S. Atkins (Chief Executive Officer of Patomak Global Partners) testifying.  Congress should pass this proposed legislation, and the sooner the better.

Here’s a summary of the proposed legislation, identifying the defect in the original Title III and the proposed fix.

Issuer Cap                                                                                     

Title III limits issuers to raising not more than $1 million in crowdfunding offerings in any rolling 12 month period. By comparison, Regulation A+ allows up to $50 million and Rule 506 of Regulation D has no cap whatsoever.

The new legislation would increase the issuer cap from $1 million to $5 million in any rolling 12 month period.

Portal Liability

Title III imposes liability for misstatements or omissions on an “issuer” (as defined) that is unable to sustain the burden of showing that it could not have known of the untruth or omission even if it had exercised reasonable care. By comparison, a plaintiff in a Rule 506 offering must allege not just a material misstatement or omission but that the issuer either knew or should have known if it made a reasonable inquiry.  Title III defines “issuer” to include “any person who offers or sells the security in such offering.”  In its final rules release, the SEC considered but refused to clarify that intermediaries were not issuers for purposes of the liability provision.  As it currently stands, Title III exposes intermediaries (i.e., funding portals and broker-dealer platforms) to possible liability if issuers commit material inaccuracies or omissions in their disclosures on crowdfunding sites.  It is over this very concern over liability that some of the largest non-equity crowdfunding sites that have otherwise signaled interest in equity crowdfunding, including Indiegogo and EarlyShares, have expressed reluctance to get into the Title III intermediary business.

The Fix Crowdfunding Act would make clear that an intermediary will not be considered an issuer for liability purposes unless it knowingly makes any material misstatements or omissions or knowingly engages in any fraudulent act. Presumably then, as proposed, a plaintiff would have the burden of proving not just the fraud, misstatement or omission but that the intermediary knew at the time.

Section 12(g) Registration Exemption

The JOBS Act raised from 500 shareholders to 2000 (or 500 non-accredited investors) the threshold under Section 12(g) that triggers Exchange Act registration. It also instructed the SEC to exempt, conditionally or unconditionally, shares issued in Title III crowdfunding transactions.  In its final rules, the SEC exempted crowdfunded shares from the shareholder calculation under Section 12(g), but conditioned the exemption on, among other things, the issuer having total assets of no more than $25 million.  The $25 million limit on total assets may have the perverse effect of deterring growth companies from utilizing crowdfunding and/or prompting such companies to issue redeemable shares to avoid the obligation to register with the SEC if they cross the shareholder threshold because of a crowdfunded offering.

The new legislation would remove from the 12(g) exemption the condition that an issuer not have $25 million or more in assets.

Special Purpose Vehicles

Several portals such as AngelList and OurCroud utilize a fund business model (rather than a broker-dealer model) for Rule 506 offerings in SPVwhich investors invest into an SPV which in turn makes the investment into the company as one shareholder. Because of the SPV exclusion, many growth-oriented startups might avoid Title III crowdfunding if they expect to raise venture capital in the future, as VC firms don’t like congested cap tables.

The proposed legislation would make “any issuer that holds, for the purpose of making an offering pursuant to [Title III], the securities of not more than one issuer eligible to offer securities pursuant to [Title III]” eligible for Title III offerings.

Testing the Waters

testing the watersSecurities offerings are expensive and risky with no guaranty that they will generate enough investor interest. Congress and the SEC chose not to allow Title III issuers to “test-the-waters”, i.e., solicit indications of interest from potential investors prior to filing the mandated disclosure document with the SEC.  The concern is that allowing issuers to do so would enable unscrupulous companies to prime the market before any disclosure became publicly available. Without the protection of public disclosure, issuers may be able to use selective disclosures or overly enthusiastic language to generate investor interest.

The Fix Crowdfunding Act would specifically allow Title III issuers to test the waters by permitting them to solicit non-binding indications of interest from potential investors so long as no investor funds are accepted by the issuer during the initial solicitation period and any material change in the information provided in the actual offering from the information provided in the solicitation of interest are highlighted to potential investors in the information filed with the SEC.

One of the key investor protections of Regulation Crowdfunding under JOBS Act Title III is theyou've got funding requirement that offerings must be conducted exclusively through a single platform operated by a registered broker-dealer or a new type of SEC registrant, a funding portal. Although SEC registration for funding portals began January 29, 2016, intermediaries (funding portals and broker-dealers) may not engage in crowdfunding activities until May 16, 2016, the date that Regulation Crowdfunding goes live. It remains to be seen how popular Title III crowdfunding will prove to be given its burdensome rules relative to other available exemptions, but the potential is enormous both for issuers and for the brand new type of financial intermediary it created, the funding portal.

SEC logoThe SEC spent three years trying to reconcile the enormous capital markets potential of the “crowd” with the investor protection concerns voiced by equity crowdfunding’s critics. The SEC believes that requiring an issuer to use only one intermediary to conduct an offering helps foster the creation of a crowd, by facilitating information sharing and avoiding dilution or dispersement of the crowd, and helps minimize the risk that issuers and intermediaries would circumvent the requirements of Regulation Crowdfunding. For example, allowing an issuer to conduct an offering usingcrowd 2 more than one intermediary would make it more difficult for intermediaries to determine whether an issuer is exceeding the $1 million aggregate offering limit. But to mitigate fraud risk concerns, the SEC has also imposed a heavy gatekeeping burden on intermediaries, particularly funding portals.

This blog post will focus on the rules governing funding portals, and will summarize the permitted “safe harbor” activities and compliance rules unique to funding portals, as well as certain requirements common to both types of Regulation Crowdfunding intermediaries (broker-dealers and funding portals).

Unique Funding Portal Requirements

Registration. Funding portals are required to register with the SEC on Form Funding Portal, a stripped-down version of Form BD, the registration form for broker-dealers.  For example, unlike broker-dealer registration, funding portals will not be required to post a fidelity bond to register as a funding portal.  As required under the JOBS Act, SEC registered funding portals are exempt from broker-dealer registration.  The text of the Form currently appears only in the final rules release on pages 623-664 (inclusive of Schedules A-D and general instructions).[i]

All registered funding portals are also required to become members of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA.  FINRA funding portal registration information can be found here.

A funding portal’s SEC registration becomes effective on the later of: (1) 30 calendar days after the date that the registration is filed with the SEC; or (2) the date the funding portal is approved for FINRA membership.

Form Funding Portal must be filed electronically on EDGAR, although as of this writing the Form has not startenginebeen assigned a submission type or even been listed on the EDGAR forms index. To gain access to EDGAR for the electronic filing of Form Funding Portal, a funding portal will first need to obtain an EDGAR access code and a central index key, or CIK, by submitting a Form ID with the SEC. When a funding portal’s registration becomes effective, the information on Form Funding Portal becomes publicly available except for certain personally identifiable information.  As of this writing, there are no Form Funding Portals shown to have been filed on EDGAR, although at least one portal, StartEngine Capital LLC, put out a press release that it did so on January 29.

Permitted Activities – Safe Harbor. Unlike registered broker-dealers, funding portals are prohibited from giving investment advice, soliciting offers, paying success fees to persons for solicitations or handling investor funds or securities.  To help funding portals navigate these prohibitions while trying to function as effective intermediaries, the rules provide a safe harbor for the following activities:

  • Curating Offerings. A funding portal may use broad discretion to determine whether and under what circumstances to allow an issuer to offer and sell securities through its platform, subject to the prohibition on providing investment advice or recommendations and provided it complies with all other provisions of Regulation Crowdfunding. The SEC believes this kind of discretion is important for the protection of investors, as well as to the viability of the funding portal industry and the crowdfunding market.
  • Highlighting Issuers and Offerings. A funding portal is permitted to highlight particular issuers or offerings on its platform based on objective criteria where the criteria are reasonably designed to highlight a broad selection of issuers offering securities through the platform, are applied consistently to all issuers and offerings and are clearly displayed on the platform. The permissible criteria include type of securities offered (e.g., common stock, preferred stock or debt securities), geographic location of the issuer, industry or business segment of the issuer, number or amount of investment commitments made, progress in meeting the target offering amount and minimum or maximum investment amount.
  • Providing Search Functions. A funding portal may provide search functions on its platform that investors could use to search, sort or categorize available offerings according to objective criteria, and that would allow investors to sort through offerings based on a combination of different criteria, such as by the percentage of the target offering amount that has been met, geographic proximity to the investor and number of days remaining before the closing date of an offering. However, search criteria may not include the advisability of investing in the issuer or its offering, or an assessment of any characteristic of the issuer, its business plan, its management or risks associated with an investment.
  • Providing Communication Channels. A funding portal may provide communication channels by which investors can communicate with one another and with representatives of the issuer through the funding portal’s platform about offerings conducted through the platform, but neither the funding portal nor its associated persons or employees may participate in these communications, other than to establish guidelines about communications and to remove abusive or potentially fraudulent communications. The communication channels must be made available to the general public and must restrict the posting of comments to those who have accounts on the funding portal’s platform. The funding portal must require each person posting comments to disclose clearly with each posting whether he is a founder or an employee of an issuer engaging in promotional activities on behalf of the issuer, or will receive any compensation for promoting an issuer.
  • Advising Issuers. A funding portal may advise an issuer about the structure or content of the issuer’s offering, including preparing offering documentation. For example, a funding portal may provide pre-drafted templates or forms for an issuer to use in its offering, and advice about the types of securities the issuer can offer, the terms of those securities and the procedures and regulations associated with crowdfunding.  Without these services, the SEC believes that crowdfunding as a method to raise capital might not be viable.
  • Paying for Referrals. A funding portal may compensate a third party for referring a person to the funding portal if the third party does not provide the funding portal with personally identifiable information about any investor, and the compensation, other than that paid to a registered broker-dealer, is not a transaction based success fee. The SEC believes the prohibition on success fees will help to minimize the incentive for high-pressure sales tactics and other abusive practices in this area.
  • Compensation Arrangements with Registered Broker-Dealers. A funding portal may pay compensation to a registered broker-dealer for services, including for referring a person to the funding portal, in connection with the offer or sale of securities, provided that the services are provided pursuant to a written agreement between the funding portal and the registered broker-dealer, the compensation is permitted under Regulation Crowdfunding and the compensation complies with FINRA rules.
  • Advertising. A funding portal may advertise its existence and identify one or more issuers or offerings available on its portal on the basis of objective criteria, so long as the criteria are reasonably designed to identify a broad selection of issuers offering securities through the platform and are applied consistently to all potential issuers and offerings, and the funding portal does not receive special or additional compensation for identifying the issuer or offering in this manner. However, a funding portal may not base its decision as to which issuers to include in its advertisements on whether it has a financial interest in the issuer, and any advertising may not directly or indirectly favor issuers in which the funding portal has invested or will invest.
  • Denying Access to Platform. A funding portal may deny access to its platform to an issuer if the funding portal has a reasonable basis for believing that the issuer or the offering presents the potential for fraud or otherwise raises concerns about investor protection.
  • Accepting Investor Commitments.  A funding portal may, on behalf of an issuer, accept investment commitments from investors but may not actually handle the funds.
  • Directing Transmission of Funds. A funding portal may direct investors where to transmit funds and may direct a qualified third party to release proceeds of an offering to the issuer upon completion of the offering or to return investor proceeds when an investment commitment or offering is cancelled. Interestingly, the SEC chose not to impose requirements that would prohibit variations of a contingency offering, such as minimum-maximum offerings, that would establish a fixed deadline for transmission of funds as compared to the proposed requirement to transmit funds “promptly” or that would require funding portals to maintain a certain amount of net capital.

            Compliance.  A funding portal must have written policies and procedures reasonably designed to achieve compliance with the federal securities laws and regulations relating to its business as a funding portal.  In addition, funding portals must follow the same privacy rules as those applicable to brokers.  Finally, funding portals are required to preserve certain records for five years, with the records retained in a readily accessible place for at least the first two years.

Rules Governing Crowdfunding Intermediaries Generally

The following rules apply to all Regulation Crowdfunding intermediaries, i.e., funding portals and broker-dealers:

  • Receiving Financial Interests in Issuers. The intermediary entity (but not its directors, officers or partners) is permitted to receive a financial interest in an issuer using its services, provided that the financial interest is compensation for the services provided to the issuer in connection with the offering and the financial interest consists of the same security as being offered to investors in the offering. This was as an accommodation in the final rules that will better enable issuers to pay intermediary upfront fees (through stock) and also have the added benefit of aligning the interests of issuer, intermediary and investors.
  • Measures to Reduce Risk of Fraud. There are several measures that intermediaries are required to take that are designed to reduce the risk of fraud in crowdfunding transactions. An intermediary is required to have a reasonable basis for believing that the issuers on its platform comply with Regulation Crowdfunding and have established means to keep accurate records of the holders of the securities, and may reasonably rely on representations of the issuer unless the intermediary has reason to question the reliability of those representations.   An intermediary must deny access if it has a reasonable basis for believing that an issuer, or any of its officers, directors or any 20% owner is subject to a disqualification under Regulation Crowdfunding.
  • Accounts and Electronic Delivery. Intermediaries may not accept an investment commitment unless the investor has opened an account with the intermediary and the intermediary has obtained from the investor consent to electronic delivery of materials.
  • Educational Materials. Intermediaries must deliver certain educational materials to investors, including information on process for purchase of securities, types of securities that may be offered on the intermediary’s platform, risks associated with each type of security, restrictions on resale, types of information that an issuer is required to provide in annual reports, frequency of the delivery of that information, limits on amounts investors may invest and limitations on an investor’s right to cancel an investment commitment.
  • Promoters. Intermediaries must inform investors, at the time of account opening, that promoters must clearly disclose in all communications on the platform the receipt of promotion compensation and the fact that he is engaging in promotional activities on behalf of the issuer.
  • Compensation Disclosure. At the time of opening an account, intermediaries must clearly disclose the manner in which they will be compensated in connection with Regulation Crowdfunding offerings.
  • Issuer Information. Intermediaries must make available to the SEC and investors, not later than 21 days prior to the first day on which securities are sold to any investor, any information provided by the issuer pursuant to Regulation Crowdfunding, and that such information be publicly available on the platform for a minimum of 21 days before any securities are sold in the offering, during which time the intermediary may accept investment commitments, and remain publicly available on the platform until the offering is completed or cancelled.
  • Investor Qualification. Before accepting an investment commitment, an intermediary must have a reasonable basis for believing that the investor satisfies the investment limits under Regulation Crowdfunding. An intermediary may rely on an investor’s representations concerning annual income, net worth and the amount of the investor’s other investments in Regulation Crowdfunding offerings through other intermediaries unless the intermediary has a reasonable basis to question the reliability of the representation. Intermediaries must also confirm that an investor has reviewed the intermediary’s educational materials, understands that the entire amount of his investment may be lost and is in a financial condition to bear the loss of the investment and has completed a questionnaire demonstrating an understanding of the risks of any potential investment.
  • Communication Channels. Intermediaries must provide on their platforms channels through which investors can communicate with one another and with representatives of the issuer about offerings, to make the channels publicly available, permit only those persons who have opened accounts to post comments and require any person posting a comment in the channels to disclose whether he is a founder or employee of an issuer engaging in promotional activities on behalf of the issuer or otherwise compensated to promote the issuer’s offering. Funding portals are prohibited from participating in communications in these channels.
  • Transaction Confirmations. At or before the completion of a transaction, an intermediary must send to each investor a notification disclosing date of transaction, type of security, identity, price and number of securities purchased by the investor, certain specified terms of the security and source, form and amount of any remuneration to be received by the intermediary in connection with the transaction.
  • Completion of Offerings, Cancellations and Reconfirmations. Intermediaries must give investors the right to cancel an investment commitment for any reason until 48 hours prior to the deadline identified in the issuer’s offering materials. If an issuer reaches the target prior to deadline, it could close the offering provided the offering has been open for a minimum of 21 days, the intermediary provided notice about the new offering deadline at least five business days prior to the new offering deadline and investors are given the opportunity to reconsider and cancel their investment commitment until 48 hours prior to the new offering deadline. Finally, if there was a material change to the offering terms or to the information provided by the issuer, the intermediary would be required to give or send to any investors who have made investment commitments notice of the material change, stating that the investor’s investment commitment will be cancelled unless the investor reconfirms his or her commitment within five business days of receipt of the notice.

[i] Although funding portal registration went live on January 29, 2016, Form Funding Portal does not yet appear on the SEC’s website and a Google search came up empty.

Buried in the recently enacted Highway Bill, officially the Fixing America’s Fast ActSurface Transportation Act or FAST Act, is a new exemption for the resale of securities.  The new resale exemption appears in the form of a new Section 4(a)(7) of the Securities Act of 1933 and essentially codifies the so-exit strategy 2called 4(a)(1-1/2) exemption.  New Section 4(a)(7) will provide securityholders seeking to resell their securities without registration greater certainty and another viable alternative exit pathway, particularly from privately held companies.   Inasmuch as no Securities and Exchange Commission rulemaking is required, the new exemption is effective right now.

Background

The requirement that each sale of securities be either registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission or satisfy an exemption from registration applies as well to any resale of securities by security holders. Rule 144 is a common exemption for the resale of restricted securities (and of any securities by holders who are affiliates of the issuer, i.e., control securities).  Another exemption used by reselling shareholders is the so-called 4(a)(1-1/2) exemption, an unofficial, unwritten exemption conceived by securities lawyers which over time has become accepted practice.  It’s called the 4(a)(1-1/2) exemption because it contains elements of both Section 4(a)(1) of the Securities Act, which exempts from registration transactions by any person other than an issuer, underwriter or dealer, and Section 4(a)(2) of the Securities Act, which exempts transactions by an issuer not involving any public offering.

The New Section 4(a)(7) Resale Exemption

New Section 4(a)(7) essentially codifies “Section 4(a)(1-1/2)” by exempting from the registration requirements of Section 5 of the Securities Act resales of restricted securities that satisfy the following requirements:

  • securities sold only to accredited investors
  • no general solicitation
  • if the issuer is not a reporting company, the seller and prospective buyer are able to obtain from the issuer certain reasonably current information about the issuer, including the number of shares outstanding, information about the officers and directors, any persons registered as a broker, dealer or agent that will receive any commission for the transaction; recent balance sheet and profit and loss statements; and if the seller is a control person of the issuer, a statement regarding the nature of the affiliation and a certification by the seller that it has no reasonable grounds to believe that the issuer is in violation of the securities laws
  • seller is not a direct or indirect subsidiary of the issuer
  • neither the seller nor any person being paid in connection with the sale is a bad actor, as described in Regulation D
  • the issuer is not a blank check, blind pool or shell company; and
  • the class of securities has been outstanding for at least 90 days prior to the transaction.

New Section 4(a)(7) will provide greater legal certainty to shareholders seeking to resell shares than currently provided in the so-called Section 4(a)(1-1/2) exemption, which was never formally legislated or codified through SEC rulemaking.

New Section 4(a)(7) will also present a viable alternative to Rule 144, the traditional safe harbor for the resale of restricted and control securities, in relation to which Section 4(a)(7) has both advantages and disadvantages.

As to the advantages, sellers under Section 4(a)(7) may sell an unlimited number of shares, unlike affiliates in Rule 144 transactions who are capped in any rolling three month period to the greater of one percent of the outstanding shares or the average weekly trading volume over the preceding four week period. Section 4(a)(7) sellers need not satisfy any holding period, unlike Rule 144 sellers who must hold the shares for either six months in the case of reporting issuers or one year in the case of non-reporting issuers.  A Section 4(a)(7) exemption need not be reported in an SEC filing, unlike Rule 144 sales by affiliates.  Finally, the FAST Act made explicitly clear that shares sold in a Section 4(a)(7) transaction are deemed “covered securities” for purposes of the National Securities Markets Improvement Act of 1996, meaning that state regulation is preempted and these transactions are not subject to state review.

On the other hand, there are certain disadvantages relative to Rule 144. Shares sold in a Section 4(a)(7) transaction are deemed to be restricted securities in the hands of the purchaser, who would then need to find his own exemption on a subsequent resale, as opposed to shares sold under Rule 144 which become unrestricted.  Furthermore, Section 4(a)(7) shares may only be sold to accredited investors, whereas shares sold under Rule 144 may be sold to anyone.

Finally, it will be interesting to see what practices emerge with respect to the information that must be obtained from a non-reporting issuer, including whether issuers will insist on signed confidentiality agreements as a condition to disclosing the required information.

It’s official: the new Regulation Crowdfunding rules will become effective on May 16, 2016.  The SEC’s crowdfunding-keyboardfinal rules release of October 31, 2015 provided that, with certain exceptions, the new rules will go into effect 180 days after they are published in the Federal Register.  We just learned that the rules were published in the Federal Register on November 16, and that, accordingly, they will become effective on May 16, 2016.

So mark your calendars.  May 16, 2016 will be the first day that companies will be able to file Form C, the offering statement mandated by the SEC for Regulation Crowdfunding offerings.  But because of the requirement that disclosure be made publicly available on the intermediary’s platform for a minimum of 21 days before any securities are sold in an offering, however, the first Regulation Crowdfunding closings will not take place until at least June 6, 2016.

An important exception to the May 16, 2016 effective date relates to registration of funding portals, the relevant effective date for which remains January 29, 2016.  That means that funding portals, one of the two types of intermediaries (the other being registered broker-dealers) that will be permitted to operate funding portalsonline platforms for securities transactions under Regulation Crowdfunding, could begin filing their registration form, called Form Funding Portal, on January 29, 2016.  The reason for the staggered effective dates is to provide a level playing field between broker-dealers, who would already be registered and possess built-in infrastructure, and “funding portals”, the newly designated category of intermediary that will need to register with the SEC as funding portals and develop infrastructure.  I’ll be blogging about what the new Regulation Crowdfunding means for funding portals in my next post.

You can find my initial reaction to the new Regulation Crowdfunding rules here.

SEC logoIn its most recent meeting on September 23, 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Advisory Committee on Small and Emerging Companies recommended specific reforms that would significantly liberalize the rules governing private offering intermediaries and make it easier for companies to use them. If adopted, these reforms could greatly enhance the capacity of startups and early stage companies to reach investors and raise capital.

Background

More than 95% of private offerings in America rely on the exemptions provided by Regulation D, particularly Rule 506. But fewer than 15% of Reg D offerings use a financial intermediary, such as a placement agent, broker-dealer or finder. This is largely due to the general requirement financial intermediariesthat anyone receiving a transaction based success fee in a securities transaction be registered with the SEC as a broker-dealer (and subject to regulatory oversight as such) and be a member of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority or FINRA. This is so even if the intermediary’s participation in an offering is limited to giving the issuer the name of a prospective investor, and refrains from engaging in other services often provided by full service intermediaries, such as holding funds or securities, helping to negotiate the transaction, assisting in the preparation of offering materials or providing investment advice. The risks to both intermediaries and issuers of paying a success fee to a non-registered intermediary is fairly draconian. For intermediaries, the risk is forfeiture of the success fee, as issuers could use non-registration as a defense for non-payment. For issuers, the risk is rescission, i.e., that all investors in a round could have the right to demand their money back.

The Committee’s Recommendations

The Committee prefaced its recommendations by stating that imposing only limited regulatory requirements on private placement intermediaries whose activities are restricted to specified parameters, do not hold customer funds or securities and deal only with accredited investors would enhance capital formation and promote job creation without materially undermining investor protections. Presumably, the Committee is asserting that such unregistered intermediaries should be allowed to receive a success fee.

The Committee then made the following recommendations to the SEC:

  1.  Take steps to clarify the current ambiguity in broker-dealer regulation by determining that persons that receive transaction-based compensation solely for providing names of or introductions to prospective investors are not subject to registration as a broker under the Securities Exchange Act.
  2. Exempt intermediaries that are actively involved in the discussions, negotiations and structuring, as well as the solicitation of prospective investors, for private financings on a regular basis from broker registration at the federal level, conditioned upon registration as a broker under State law.
  3. Spearhead a joint effort with the North American Securities Administrators Association and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority to ensure coordinated State regulation and adoption of measured regulation that is transparent, responsive to the needs of small businesses for capital, proportional to the risks to which investors in such offerings are exposed, and capable of early implementation and ongoing enforcement.
  4. Take immediate intermediary steps to begin to address this set of issues incrementally instead of waiting until development of a comprehensive solution.

A recording of the September 23 Committee meeting could be accessed here.

SEC 2August 6, 2015 was a productive day for the Staff of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Corporation Finance on the issue of the prohibition on general solicitation in the context of online private offerings under Rule 506(b). My last blog post, entitled “It’s Complicated”: Establishing “Preexisting Relationships” with Prospective Investors, analyzed the Citizen VC no-action letter delivered that day dealing with establishing pre-existing relationships with investors online to demonstrate the absence of general solicitation in a Rule 506 offering. On the same day, the Staff provided additional guidance on the issue of general solicitation in the form of new Compliance and Disclosure Interpretations (“CDIs”).

Background

Rule 502(c) promulgated under the Securities Act of 1933, as amended, prohibits an issuer from offering or selling securities by any form of general solicitation or general advertising when conducting certain offerings intended to be exempt from registration under Regulation D. The prohibition on general solicitation has been perceived as perhaps the single biggest obstacle to raising capital in the private general solicitationmarkets. In September 2013, the SEC released final rules for a new offering exemption contained in Rule 506(c) that permits general solicitation efforts, provided securities are sold only to accredited investors and the issuer uses reasonable methods to verify that each purchaser is an accredited investor. What constitutes reasonable verification methods will depend on the facts and circumstances of each case, but generally involves a more intrusive inquiry than an offering under traditional Rule 506(b), which is why most private offerings are still being conducted under Rule 506(b) despite the prohibition on general solicitation.

New Guidance

The new CDIs come in the form of Q&As, some of which provide official confirmation of existing practice while others provide new flexibility in online offering activities. Here’s an outline of the new CDIs:

Factual Business Information

Factual business information that does not condition the public mind or arouse public interest in a securities offering is not deemed an offer and may be disseminated widely. In the new guidance, the Staff stated that factual business information is a facts and circumstances concept, but is typically limited to information about the issuer’s business, financial condition, products or services, and generally does not include predictions, projections, forecasts or opinions with respect to valuation of a security, nor for a continuously offered fund would it include information about past performance of the fund.

Angel Investors

angelThe Staff confirmed that it is possible for angel investors who have a relationship with an issuer to make introductions to other prospective investors in their personal network and share information about a securities offering without such issuer being deemed to engage in a general solicitation. Whether or not a general solicitation has occurred requires a facts and circumstances analysis, but an issuer could rely on such network to establish a reasonable belief that other offerees in the network have the necessary financial experience and sophistication.

Establishing “Pre-Existing” and “Substantive” Relationships

A relationship with an offeree is “pre-existing” for purposes of demonstrating the absence of general solicitation under Rule 502(c) when the relationship was formed prior to the commencement of the securities offering or, alternatively, when it was established through either a registered broker-dealer or investment adviser prior to the registered broker-dealer or investment adviser participating in the offering. Similarly, a relationship is “substantive” for purposes of demonstrating the absence of general solicitation under Rule 502(c) when the issuer (or a person acting on its behalf) has sufficient information to evaluate, and does in fact evaluate, a prospective offeree’s financial circumstances and sophistication, in determining his status as an accredited or sophisticated investor. Self-certification alone (by checking a box) without any other knowledge of a person’s financial circumstances or sophistication is not sufficient to form a “substantive” relationship.

Demo Days

Whether or not “demo days” or “pitch days” constitute general solicitation is also – you guessed it – a factsimages12NM2J0D and circumstances question. If the presentation does not discuss the securities being offered, the securities laws are not implicated. Where the presentation does discuss the securities being offered, however, attendance at the demo day or pitch day should be limited to persons with whom the issuer or the organizer of the event has a pre-existing, substantive relationship or who have been contacted through an informal, personal network as described above under “Angel Investors”. For more on this issue involving demo days, see my previous blog post “Will Your Demo Day Presentation Violate the Securities Laws?”.

In my last post, I blogged about online funding platforms. In that post, I described the typical model of indirect investing through a special purpose vehicle (“SPV”) with the platform sponsor taking a carried interest in the SPV’s profits from the portfolio company and no ourcrowdtransaction fee, as a means of avoiding broker-dealer regulation. I also discussed the concept of a pre-screened password protected member-only website as a means of establishing a preexisting fundablerelationship with prospective investors and thus avoiding the use of any act of “general solicitation,” which would otherwise violate the rules of the registration exemption under Rule 506(b).

SEC logoIn a no-action letter dated August 6, 2015 entitled Citizen VC, Inc., the SEC has provided important guidance on the procedures needed for an online funding platform to establish the kind of preexisting relationship needed to avoid being deemed to be engaged in general solicitation. As an aside, the concern over general solicitation and preexisting relationships is relevant to offerings under new Rule 506(b), but not under Rule 506(c).   Despite the creation in 2013 of an exemption under new Rule 506(c) pursuant to the JOBS Act for general solicitation offerings in which sales are made only to accredited investors, most online funding platforms continue to prefer to conduct portfolio company offerings indirectly through SPVs under Rule 506(b), despite the prohibition on general solicitation, primarily because of the additional requirement under Rule 506(c) that issuers use reasonable methods to verify accredited investor status.

In its request for a no-action letter, Citizen VC described itself as an citizen vconline venture capital firm that facilitates indirect investment in portfolio companies (through SPVs) by pre-qualified, accredited and sophisticated “members” in its site. It asserted to have qualification procedures intended to establish substantive relationships with, and to confirm the suitability of, prospective investors that visit the website. Anyone wishing to investigate the password protected sections of the site accessible only to members must first register and be accepted for membership. To apply for membership, prospective investors are required to complete an “accredited investor” questionnaire, followed by a relationship building process in which Citizen VC collects information to evaluate the prospective investor’s sophistication, financial circumstances and ability to understand the nature and risks related to an investment. It does so by contacting the prospective investor by phone to discuss the prospective investor’s investing experience and sophistication, investment goals and strategies, financial suitability, risk awareness, and other topics designed to assist Citizen VC in understanding the investor’s sophistication, utilizing third party credit reporting services to gather additional financial information and credit history information and other methods to foster online and offline interactions with the prospective investor. In the request letter, Citizen VC asserted that the relationship establishment period is not limited by a specific time period, but rather is a process based on specific written policies and procedures created to ensure that the offering is suitable for each prospective investor.

Citizen VC stated in its request letter that prospective investors only become “members” and are given access to offering information in the password protected section of the site after Citizen VC is satisfied that the prospective investor has sufficient knowledge and experience and that it has taken reasonable steps necessary to create a substantive relationship with the prospective investor. Once a sufficient number of qualified members have expressed interest in a particular portfolio company, those members are provided subscription materials for investment in the SPV formed by Citizen VC to aggregate such members’ investments, the sale of interests of such SPV is consummated and the SPV then invests the funds, and becomes a shareholder of, the portfolio company.

In its request letter, after providing the foregoing background, Citizen VC asked the SEC staff to opine that the policies and procedures described in the letter are sufficient to create a substantive, pre-existing relationship with prospective investors such that the offering and sale on the site of interests in an SPV that will invest in a particular portfolio company will not constitute general solicitation.

sec no-actionIn its no-action letter, the SEC staff concluded that Citizen VC’s procedures were sufficient to establish a preexisting relationship and do not constitute general solicitation. It stated that the quality of the relationship between an issuer and an investor is the most important factor in determining whether a “substantive” relationship exists and noted Citizen VC’s representation that its policies and procedures are designed to evaluate the prospective investor’s sophistication, financial circumstances and ability to understand the nature and risks of the securities to be offered. The staff went on to say that there is no specific duration of time or particular short form accreditation questionnaire that can be relied upon solely to create such a relationship, and that whether an issuer has sufficient information to evaluate a prospective offeree’s financial circumstances and sophistication will depend on the facts and circumstances of each case. The staff also based its conclusion on Citizen VC’s representation that an investment opportunity is only presented after the prospective investor becomes a “member” in the site.

An argument could be made that SPV-based online funding platforms represent the future of VC investing. The Citizen VC no-action letter provides valuable guidance relating to the establishment of the kind of substantive relationship with prospective investors needed to enable the online funding platform to conduct Rule 506(b) offerings without being deemed to engage in general solicitation.

The market for venture backed IPOs in the U.S. in the first quarter of 2015 was box IPOthe weakest in two years, both in terms of number of deals and aggregate proceeds, according to pre-IPO institutional research firm Renaissance Capital, as well as a separate exit poll report by Thomson Reuters and the National Venture Capital Association. There were only 17 IPOs of venture-backed companies, compared with 30 in Q4 of 2014 and 40 in Q1 2014.  Venture backed IPOs raised only $76 million in average proceeds in Q1 2015, compared with $147 million and $80 million in Q4 and Q1 of 2014, respectively.

So what’s the reason for the overall weakness in venture backed IPOs?  According to Emily Chasan of the Wall Street Journal, venture backed companies are resisting going public because they’re receiving better offers in the form of late-stage private equity funding.  She cites a survey performed by BDO USA in which over half of the investment bankers surveyed attributed the IPO decline to widespread availability of private funding for companies at attractive valuations.  Basically, all the funding but without the hassle of being public.  This would be especially true of venture backed technology companies.  The $1.2 billion that technology companies raised in first quarter IPOs pales in comparison to the estimated $10 billion raised in private equity rounds during the same period of last year.

Another contributing factor may be a section of the JOBS Act that allows companies to stay private longer.  Title V of the JOBS Act passed in 2012 generally increases from 500 to 2,000 the threshold number of shareholders of a class of equity securities that triggers registration and reporting requirements under Section 12(g) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 for companies with more than $10 million in assets.  This generally allows companies with fewer than 2,000 shareholders to choose to stay private longer, enabling them to defer the cost, public scrutiny and increased liability of being publicly-traded and increasing their ability to time their initial public offerings based on market conditions.

Deliberately postponing an IPO until some point down the road could be risky.  IPO markets have short windows which often close quickly and are unpredictable.  A company opting for late-stage private equity funding and deferring an IPO may find the IPO market closed later on when the company is otherwise ready.

Another explanation for the relative weakness in small company IPOs is a series of reforms by the SEC generally referred to as decimalization. The regulatory efforts by the SEC to modernize the securities trading system beginning in 1997 may have had the unintended consequence of removing the financial incentive for underwriters, analysts, market makers and others to transact in and provide support services for issuers of small company stocks.  This is a theory long asserted by leading capital markets reform advocate David Weild.  My previous blog about decimalization and David’s theory could be found here.

It remains to be seen whether the weakness in venture-backed IPOs will have any short or long term impact on VC fund investments in startups and emerging companies.  Investors need to be confident that there’s a strong likelihood they’ll be able to exit their investments successfully.  The traditional VC exit strategy consists of either an IPO or an acquisition.  Making matters worse for VCs is that total exits for venture-backed companies, including mergers and acquisitions, in North America also dropped in the first quarter to 181 deals totaling $4.91 billion from 255 deals totaling $14.07 billion in value in the first quarter of last year, a 65% decline, according to PitchBook Data Inc..

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.