Initial coin offerings so far have gone through two major phases in their brief lifespan. The initial phase flew under the regulatory radar in an explosion of deals that raised billions of dollars seemingly overnight and without either registering the offerings with the SEC or complying with an exemption from registration. The ICO atmosphere changed drastically when the SEC issued its now famous DAO report in July 2017, which together with subsequent speecheswritten statements and enforcement actions took the position that tokens will generally be considered securities whose offering would need either to be registered with the SEC or qualify for a registration exemption such as Regulation D. That led to a second phase of issuers launching bifurcated ICOs consisting first of a sale of SAFTs to accredited investors under Regulation D, followed by the public sale of fully function tokens that sponsors would argue are not securities.

During the Senate’s February 6, 2018 committee hearing on cryptocurrencies, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton stressed the importance of disclosure for making informed decisions, but warned investors that no ICO had been registered with the SEC yet. That all seemed to change a month later when a group calling itself The Praetorian Group filed with the SEC a registration statement on Form S-1 to publicly offer and sell its cryptocurrency called PAX. With that S-1 filing, might we be entering a third phase of SEC-registered ICOs? For the reasons covered in this post, probably not.

The Registrant

The S-1 registration statement was filed by a company calling itself The Praetorian Group, and describes a dual business plan to be carried out in two phases. In the first phase, Praetorian will operate as a self-styled cryptocurrency real estate investment vehicle, or CREIV, through which it will purchase and upgrade residential and commercial real estate properties in lower income areas in New York, and then fund “outreach programs” to enrich the quality of life for the residents living in those properties. The second phase is projected to begin 12 months after the commencement of the first, and would involve the creation of a digital wallet that will convert cryptocurrencies (e.g., BTC, ETH, LTC, NEO, XLM) into local fiat currency and enable users to earn a reward in the form of PAX tokens for every purchase they make, which they can then spend, hold or sell.

What’s Wrong with this S-1?

The Praetorian S-1 is so deficient from a disclosure standpoint and so sloppy in its drafting that if the SEC bothered to review it, it may set some sort of record for number of comments in a comment letter.

Not to get overly picky, but the sloppiness starts right on the facing page. For starters, the registrant designates “The Praetorian Group” as its “exact name … as specified in its charter”, leaving out the “Inc.” It provides that the approximate date of commencement of the proposed sale to the public is “upon SEC registration as a ‘security’”. Technically, issuers may only proceed with a public offering after their registration statement is declared effective by the SEC. Also, it appears Praetorian may have marked up the facing page from an old S-1 filing, as Praetorian’s facing page form is missing a reference to emerging growth companies (EGCs).

The EGC facing page omission leads me to a more substantive observation, which is that a registrant more serious about its offering would arguably have availed itself of a JOBS Act feature that allows EGCs to submit an S-1 confidentially and undergo an initial review off the EDGAR radar screen. Why not file confidentially and clear up any disclosure and accounting issues before having to file publicly? On that score, it’s entirely possible that Praetorian isn’t even the first ICO to file an S-1, and may have been beaten in a race to the SEC by a confidential EGC filer we don’t even know about yet.

One of the sections in the S-1 that really jumped out at me is a rather bizarre liability disclaimer, which reads as follows:

To the maximum extent permitted by the applicable laws, regulations and rules the Company and/or the Distributor shall not be liable for any indirect, special, incidental, consequential, or other losses of any kind, in tort, contract, tax or otherwise (including but not limited to loss of revenue, income or profits, and loss of use or data), arising out of or in connection with any acceptance of or reliance on this Prospectus or any part thereof by you.”

Talk about an exercise in wishful thinking. Suffice it to say that I have never seen an issuer in a Securities Act registration statement attempt to disclaim liability for losses of any kind resulting from reliance on a prospectus. Federal securities law clearly allows a private plaintiff to recover damages for economic loss sustained as a result of an issuer’s material misstatements, omissions or fraud.

Pretty interesting given that Praetorian actually states that it’s “mindful of the uncertainties associated with the [SEC]’s view as to whether or not an [ICO] would constitute a ‘security’ under applicable federal securities laws” and consequently that they “believe it is more prudent to register the offering with the SEC to avoid any unanticipated regulatory issues”. It’s as if Praetorian is under the view that a registration statement is a notice filing, rather than a disclosure document to be vetted in great detail in a review process involving typically multiple rounds of comments followed by responses and registration statement amendments, and where issuers may not proceed with selling until the SEC is satisfied that all mandated disclosures have been made and accounting and other issues resolved and the SEC has declared the registration statement effective.

Another bizarre aspect of the S-1 is that Praetorian appears to be confused over whom it may sell to, or that it’s forgotten that it has filed a registration statement (which, if declared effective, would allow it to sell to anyone) and is not seeking to sell within the purchaser requirements of a given exemption:

We strongly encourage each “accredited investor” to access the various SEC websites to gain a deeper and more knowledgeable understanding of this new form of digital currency prior to investing in the PAX token.”

Either Praetorian believes it may only sell in the public offering to accredited investors (as is the case in a private offering exemption under Rule 506(c)), or it strangely thinks that only accredited investors (which by definition must have a minimum net worth or annual income) need to be encouraged to inform themselves of the risks associated with ICOs.

Another glaring deficiency is the lack of risk factor disclosure. The only risk included in the section entitled “Risks and Uncertainties” is the risk that it may not be successful in achieving secondary market listings of the PAX token. Otherwise, the section simply consists of a conclusory statement that prospective purchasers of tokens should evaluate all risks and uncertainties associated with the company, the tokens, the token sale and the business plan prior to any purchase of tokens.

Finally, Praetorian’s S-1 omits in totality all of the information required in Part II of S-1. This includes expenses of issuance and distribution, indemnification of directors and officers, recent sales of unregistered securities, exhibits, financial statement schedules and certain required undertakings.

Conclusion

The Praetorian Guard was an elite unit of the Imperial Roman Army whose members served as personal bodyguards to the Roman emperors, sort of like the Roman equivalent of today’s Secret Service that protects the President. Although the ancient Praetorians continued to serve in that capacity for roughly three centuries, they became notable for their intrigue and interference in Roman politics, including overthrowing emperors and proclaiming successors. In the year 312, the Praetorian Guard was disbanded by Constantine the Great. Like its namesake, The Praetorian Group has generated a fair amount of intrigue with its S-1 filing, but I can only imagine that the great examiners of the SEC will take a page out of Constantine’s playbook and disband this Praetorian Group’s S-1 registration statement.

On July 11, 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Securities and tesla logoExchange Commission is investigating whether Tesla Motors Inc. violated the securities laws, apparently by not disclosing timely a fatal crash involving a Tesla Model S. Tesla’s handling of the incident from a disclosure standpoint raises interesting issues involving materiality and risk factors.

It seems the SEC is examining whether Tesla should have disclosed information regarding the fatal crash in offering documents relating to the sale of approximately $2.8 billion of Tesla common stock, nearly $600 million of which were sold by Tesla CEO, Elon Musk.

tesla crashHere are the facts. On May 7, 2016, a Model S Tesla featuring Tesla’s autonomous driving technology “Autopilot” collided with a tractor trailer that had turned in front of it, killing the driver of the Model S.  Ironically, the driver, Joshua Brown, regularly posted videos of his rides in the car, and he was clearly a big fan of Autopilot. On May 10, Tesla filed its first quarter 10-Q without any reference to the crash.  Eight days later, Tesla filed a preliminary prospectus with the SEC to sell up to 10,697,674 shares of common stock without mentioning the crash.  Two days after that, Tesla filed a prospectus supplement disclosing the pricing of the offering (up to $2 billion of stock, approximately $1.4 billion by Tesla and nearly $600 million by Musk), and again with no disclosure regarding the crash.  On June 29, Tesla learned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would conduct a preliminary evaluation of the crash, which Tesla addressed in a blog post after the markets closed the following day.

As to Tesla’s blog post, one thing that caught my attention was the part that states that Tesla informed the NHTSA about the accident “immediately after it occurred”. Yet the accident took place on May 7 and Tesla didn’t notify the NHTSA until May 16, a full nine days later.  In Tesla’s defense, it claimed that the extent of the wreckage made remote data analysis impossible, and it had to dispatch its internal investigators to the scene of the accident which slowed down the process.

As a general rule, SEC reporting companies must disclose categories of information specifically mandated by regulation as well as any information that’s material to investors. But there is no clearly defined standard for whether the May 7 accident was “material” enough to require disclosure. Instead, general standards regarding materiality have been established in SEC rules, judicial decisions and administrative guidance.  As a general proposition, information is deemed material if “there is a substantial likelihood that a reasonable shareholder would consider it important in making an investment decision”.  For a fact to be material, there must be a substantial likelihood that the fact would have been viewed by the reasonable investor as having significantly altered the “total mix” of information made available.

So is the crash material to Tesla investors? If so, the failure to disclose it would be deemed to be a material omission. One place to look for evidence of materiality is the stock market. In this case, the reaction of the stock market tesla stockseems to indicate that the crash is not material.  The day the news broke about the NHTSA investigation (June 29), the stock closed at $210.19, up from 201.79 the day before.  It rose to $212.29 on the first day after Tesla blogged about the crash (July 1), and it closed at $234.79 on July 29, the last trading day before this blog post.  In fact, the only noticeable drop in price after the crash date of May 7 occurred on June 22, when Tesla shares cratered (down $22.95 from the previous close of $219.61) in reaction to Tesla’s bid for Solar City.

The history of auto fatalities may be another reason the crash itself should not be deemed to be material. In 2015, there were an estimated 38,000 auto fatalities in the United States. Nearly 1.3 million people die in road crashes each year worldwide, an average of 3,287 deaths per day.  In its June 30 blog post, Tesla asserted that the May 7 crash was the first fatality in the 130 million miles driven with Autopilot.  By comparison, Tesla asserted that there is a fatality every 94 million miles for all American vehicles and one every 60 million miles worldwide, which Tesla asserts proves it has a “better-than-human” driving capability.  Companies do disclose safety recalls and product liability suits when they trigger significant financial charges, but not fatal crashes.  Perhaps the reason may be that fatal car crashes in and of themselves are not perceived to have a material adverse effect on a company.

But perhaps an argument in favor of materiality here is that Tesla had been aggressively promoting its Autopilot technology, which it bills as the most tesla autopilotadvanced self-driving system on the road. Investors have been drawn to Tesla shares in large part on the conviction that the company is on the cutting edge of technology, particularly with Autopilot, and may be poised to leap ahead of more traditional car manufacturers. A fatal crash, however, could lead to a change in perception of autonomous vehicles in general, and Autopilot in particular, on the part of both the public and the insurance industry. But even assuming as much, it appears that Tesla did not determine that the car was actually on Autopilot at the time of the crash until after it filed its 10-Q and offering prospectus.

One of the stranger aspects of this story is the email and tweet battle that broke fortuneout between Musk and Fortune Magazine. Fortune editor Alan Murray tweeted “[s]eems pretty material to me,” with a link to the magazine’s online article in which Musk is quoted saying in an email that the matter was “not material” to Tesla shareholders. Musk then retorted to Murray on Twitter: “Yes, it was material to you — BS article increased your advertising revenue. Just wasn’t material to [Tesla], as shown by market.”  Murray then predicted that the materiality issue would be resolved in a lawsuit, implicitly inviting shareholders to sue (sort of like Trump inviting the Russians to find Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails).

Another interesting aspect to all this is Tesla’s risk factor disclosure. Tesla’s 10-Q filed on May 10 for the quarter ended March 31 contained a risk factor entitled “We may become subject to product liability claims, which could harm our financial condition and liquidity if we are not able to successfully defend or insure against such claims”, in which it stated that a successful liability claim associated with its technology, including the Autopilot feature, could harm the company’s financial condition, “could generate substantial negative publicity about [its] products and business and would have material adverse effect on [its] brand, business, prospects and operating results” (emphasis added).  Seems like Tesla is careful to draw a distinction between an isolated crash and a products liability claim.  Also, in its June 30 blog post, Tesla referred to the foregoing risk factor as “boilerplate”, something Tesla may regret saying as the SEC has a long history of discouraging intensely boilerplate disclosures.  And finally, the part of that risk factor that really jumped off the page at me was that “We self-insure against the risk of product liability claims, meaning that any product liability claims will have to be paid from company funds, not by insurance.”  My hunch is that self-insurance is not very common in the industry, and it will be interesting to see whether Tesla revisits its insurance approach in the aftermath of all of the post-crash scrutiny.