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.

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

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

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

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

On July 5, the House of Representatives passed a watered down version of the Fix Crowdfunding Act (the “FCA”) that was initially introduced in March.  The bill seeks to amend Title III of the JOBS Act by expressly permitting “crowdfunding vehicles” and broadening the SEC registration exclusion, but leaves out three important reforms that were part of the original version of the FCA introduced in March and about which I blogged about here. The House bill is part of the innovation initiativeInnovation Initiative which was jointly launched by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry.  The bill was passed by the House with overwhelming bipartisan support, so it’s likely to be passed quickly by the Senate.  This post summarizes what was left in the bill from the original and what was dropped from it.

What’s In: Special Purpose Vehicles and the Section 12(g) Registration Exclusion

Special Purpose Vehicles

Title III of the JOBS Act excludes from crowdfunding eligibility any issuer that is an “investment company”, as defined in the Investment Company Act, or is exempt from investment company regulation by virtue of being owned by not more than 100 persons. Several accredited investor-only matchmaking portals such as AngelList and OurCroud utilize a fund business model (rather than a broker-dealer model) for Rule 506 offerings in which investors invest into a special purpose vehicle (“SPV”), which in turn makes the investment into the issuer as one shareholder. Because Title III did not permit issuers to sell shares through SPVs, many growth-oriented startups may be dissuaded from engaging in Title III crowdfunding offerings if they expect to raise venture capital in the future, as VC funds don’t like congested cap tables.

The FCA would create a new class of permitted crowdfunding issuer called a “crowdfunding vehicle”, which is an entity that satisfies all of the following requirements:

  • purpose (as set forth in its organizational documents) limited to acquiring, holding and disposing crowdfunded securities;
  • issues only one class of securities;
  • no transaction-based compensation received by the entity or any associated person;
  • it and company whose securities it holds are co-issuers;
  • both it and company whose securities it holds are current in ongoing Regulation Crowdfunding disclosure obligations; and
  • advised by investment adviser registered under Investment Advisers Act of 1940

Section 12(g) Registration Exclusion

The JOBS Act raised from 500 shareholders to 2000 (or 500 non-accredited investors) the threshold under Section 12(g) of the Securities Exchange Act that triggers registration with the SEC, which subjects the company to periodic reporting obligations (e.g., 10-Ks, 10-Qs, etc.). It also instructed the SEC to exempt, conditionally or unconditionally, shares issued in Title III crowdfunding transactions.  In its final rules, the SEC provided that shareholders that purchased crowdfunded shares would be excluded from the shareholder calculation under Section 12(g), but conditioned the exclusion 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 original version of the FCA would have removed from the 12(g) exclusion the condition that an issuer not have $25 million or more in assets.

The version of the FCA passed by the House removes the $25 million asset condition but replaces it with two other conditions: that the issuer have a public float of less than $75 million and annual revenues of less than $50 million as of the most recently completed fiscal year.

What’s Out: Issuer Cap, Intermediary Liability and Testing the Waters

The House version of the FCA unfortunately dropped a few of the reforms that were contained in the original version introduced in March, apparently the price paid for securing votes of opponents of the FCA.

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 original version of the FCA would have increased the issuer cap from $1 million to $5 million in any rolling 12 month period. This was scrapped from the House version.

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. Title III also exposes an intermediary (i.e., funding portal or broker-dealer) to possible liability if an issuer made material inaccuracies or omissions in its disclosures on the crowdfunding site. 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 original version of the FCA would have clarified that an intermediary will not be considered an issuer for liability purposes unless it knowingly made a material misstatement or omission or knowingly engaged in any fraudulent act. Presumably then, as proposed, a plaintiff would have had the burden of proving not just the fraud, misstatement or omission but that the intermediary knew at the time. The House version dropped this relief for intermediaries.

Testing the Waters

Securities 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, out of concern that unscrupulous companies could prime the market before any disclosure became publicly available.

The original version of the FCA would have allowed 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 is highlighted to potential investors in the information filed with the SEC. This too was left out of the version approved by the House.

Although it was disappointing to see the foregoing three reforms dropped from the eventual House bill, half a loaf is better than no loaf. Perhaps the dollar cap, intermediary liability and testing the waters could be revisited at some point down the road.

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.

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 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.

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.

Lately I’ve been approached by current and prospective clients about ourcrowdonline funding platforms, either by folks interested in forming and operating them or those interested in raising capital through them. There seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding how they work and what the legal issues are, so here’s my attempt to bring some clarity to this topic.

Quite simply, an online funding platform is any website that seeks to fundableconnect issuers seeking capital with investors willing to invest. Historically, the prohibition on general solicitation in private offerings meant as a practical matter that an issuer was limited to raising capital only from those with whom it had a preexisting relationship. In fact, the prohibition on general solicitation was considered by many to be the most significant obstacle to private capital formation. It’s for this reason that many private issuers seek the services of a placement agent, on whose preexisting relationships an issuer could piggyback. But securing the services of a decent placement agent by a startup looking to make a small offering (e.g., less than $1 million) could be daunting. Commonly referred to as crowdfunding, the phenomenon of online funding platforms is essentially the internet coming to the capital raising industry, which has the potential to transform it the same way the internet disrupted the publishing, retail and transportation industries.

pitchbookOnline funding platforms also have the potential to address another related problem. If you’re a startup located outside of the three major venture hubs – Bay Area, New York Metro and Boston – your chances of raising capital are even slimmer. According to PitchBook’s analysis of second quarter 2015 venture capital activity by region, those three regions accounted for nearly half of total global venture capital invested. Funding platforms have the potential to reach neglected regions of the world.

So, if you’re looking to create and operate an online funding platform, there are two legal issues to be concerned about: the prohibition on general solicitation, and broker dealer regulation.

General Solicitation

The earliest online funding platforms were launched in the ‘90s long before the JOBS Act created an exemption for private offerings using general solicitation. So from their inception, funding platforms sought to avoid engaging in any act that could be construed to fall within the prohibition. And even to this day, nearly two years after the accredited investor only exemption under Rule 506(c) which allows general solicitation, most funding platforms still rely on the old exemption under Rule 506(b) which prohibits it.

So how does one use the internet to conduct an offering without engaging in a general solicitation? The answer lies in the concept of the preexisting relationship, which a platform may establish under the right circumstances through a process of pre-screening, password protection and cooling off. The practice was blessed by the SEC in its 1998 Lamp Technologies no-action letter, in which the SEC staff found that the pre-qualification of accredited investors and posting of a notice concerning a private fund on a website administered by Lamp Technologies, Inc. (“LTI”) that is password-protected and accessible only to pre-screened accredited investor subscribers would not involve general solicitation. Subscribers who pre-qualified as accredited investors and paid a subscription fee would receive a password granting them access to the site, and subscribers were then subject to a 30-day cooling off period during which they could not invest. The SEC staff noted that (i) both the invitation to complete the questionnaire and the questionnaire itself would be generic in nature and would not reference any of the investment opportunities on the site, (ii) the password-protected site would be accessible to an investor only after LTI confirmed accredited investor status, and (iii) a potential investor could purchase securities only after the 30-day cooling-off period.

Broker-Dealer Regulation

Funding portals must choose between two alternative but mutually exclusive business models: broker-dealer and venture fund. In the former, investors purchase the securities of, and invest directly in, the operating company; in the latter, the platform organizers form a special purpose vehicle (“SPV”), investors buy shares in the SPV and the operating company closes the round with only one investor (the SPV). Among other things, the choice of business model has enormous consequences for the operating company’s cap table.

Many sponsors of funding platforms structure themselves so as to not be deemed to be a “broker-dealer”, which would mean having to register with the SEC as a broker-dealer and be subject to reporting, disclosure and other burdensome regulations.

Under Section 3(a)(4) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, a “broker” is defined as any person that is “engaged in the business of effecting transactions in securities for the account of others.” According to the SEC, a person “effects transactions in securities” if he participates in such transactions “at key points in the chain of distribution”, and that a person is “engaged in the business” if he receives transaction-related compensation and holds himself out as a broker. The determination as to whether an entity is acting as a “broker” requires a facts and circumstances analysis, but the SEC attributes great weight to whether transaction-based compensation is paid.

Some funding platforms are operated by registered broker-dealers, or are owned, operated by or partnered with registered broker-dealers. These platforms facilitate sales of the operating company’s securities directly to accredited investors. The broker-dealer model platforms receive transaction-based compensation, typically consisting of a percentage of the funds raised, generally ranging from one to ten percent, depending on the offering amount and type of deal.

Other funding platform operators avoid broker-dealer regulation like the plague. Before the JOBS Act, the SEC provided some guidance in the form of no-action letters that conditioned relief from broker-dealer regulation on the platform not providing investment advice, receiving transaction-based compensation, participating in negotiations or holding investor funds. Section 201 of the JOBS Act provides an explicit broker-dealer exemption for online platforms to broker capital raising transactions under Rule 506 (even with general solicitation), provide ancillary services other than investment advice and provide standardized deal documents so long as the platform does not receive transaction-based compensation or handle customer funds or securities and is not a “bad actor.”

In 2013, the SEC gave further guidance to investment fund model platforms in the form of two no-action letters, FundersClub and AngelsList.

FundersClub sources start-ups for its affiliated funds or SPVs to invest in and fundersclubthen posts information on its website that is only available to FundersClub members, all of whom are accredited investors. The SPV relies on Rule 506 to conduct an offering in the SPV. FundersClub negotiates the terms of the SPV’s investment in the start-up. FundersClub does not receive any transaction-based compensation other than administrative fees; instead, it receives a carry of 20% or less of the profits of the SPV but never exceeding 30%. In stating that it would not recommend enforcement action under Section 15(a)(1) of the Exchange Act, the Staff noted that FundersClub’s activities appear to comply with Section 201 of the JOBS Act, in part because it receives no compensation in connection with the purchase or sale of securities.

In AngelList, the SEC staff noted AngelList’s platform must be “exclusively available” to accredited investors and that AngelList may not receive any transaction-based compensation or solicit investors outside of the website itself. In AngelList, a “lead angel” would source the start-ups and structure terms in exchange for a back-end carried interest that would be shared between an AngelList-affiliated investment adviser and the lead angel. The significance of this letter appears to be in not treating back-end carried interest as transaction-based compensation.

On January 2, 2014, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) published its annual priorities letter for 2014, chief among which will be IPOs, general solicitation in private offerings, crowdfunding portals and microcap fraud.

IPOs

In the area of IPOs, FINRA intends to focus on “spinning,” a practice in which an underwriter allocates “hot” IPO shares to directors and/or executives of potential investment banking clients in exchange for investment banking business.  An IPO is considered to be a “hot” offering when investor demand significantly exceeds the supply of securities in the offering.  Spinning became the subject of regulatory scrutiny during the dot com driven IPO boom of the late 1990s, and is a prohibited practice under FINRA Rule 5131.  FINRA is also concerned about bad actors being drawn to the IPO market, which often occurs during a robust market.  Finally, FINRA intends to focus on compliance with rules governing the sale and allocation of IPO securities, including whether firms are incenting associated persons to sell cold offerings to obtain client allocations of hot offerings.  Shares in hot offerings often trade at substantial premiums to the offering price.  An IPO is considered to be a “cold” offering when there is weak investor interest in the IPO shares.

General Solicitation in Private Offerings

Private placement abuses by placement agents has long been a primary focus of FINRA. The recent amendments to Rule 506 of Regulation D, which became effective September 23, 2013, remove the prohibition on general solicitation and advertising provided that all purchasers are accredited investors and the issuer takes reasonable steps to ensure they are such. FINRA believes that general solicitation, which before the amendments had been permitted only in connection with public offerings registered with the SEC, provides new challenges for securities firms to ensure that advertisements and other marketing materials are based on principles of fair dealing and good faith, are fair and balanced and provide a sound basis to evaluate the facts about securities acquired in a private placement.

Crowdfunding Portals

Title III of the JOBS Act, enacted in April 2012, fashioned a new exemption in the form of Section 4(a)(6) of the Securities Act for offerings of securities through funding portals with limits on amounts raised ($1 million during any twelve month period) and invested, and instructed the SEC to promulgate rules to implement the new exemption.  On October 23, the SEC issued its proposed rules on equity crowdfunding, and on the same day FINRA issued its proposed rules on crowdfunding portals.  The new equity crowdfunding exemption will not be available until the SEC approves final rules. The objective of FINRA’s proposed rules is to ensure that the capital raising objectives of the JOBS Act are advanced in a manner consistent with investor protection.  Under the proposed rules, a private company raising capital under the crowdfunding exemption will be required to use an intermediary that is either a registered broker-dealer or a newly-created category of intermediary, a funding portal, which must register with the SEC and FINRA. If the intermediary is a funding portal, its activities will be more limited than those permitted for broker-dealers. For example, a funding portal may not solicit purchases, sales or offers to buy the securities offered or displayed on its website or portal; compensate promoters, finders or lead generators for providing information on individual  investors; hold, manage or accept customers’ funds or securities; or offer investment advice or recommendations.  FINRA’s proposed rules attempt to streamline the registration and oversight of funding portals to reflect their limited scope of permitted activity. The proposed rules address a number of topics, including the membership application process, and fraud and manipulation. The proposed rules also contain provisions to ensure that bad actors do not enter the system. In its priorities letter, FINRA indicated that as the rules become effective, and funding portals become FINRA members, it will implement a regulatory program designed to protect investors while recognizing the distinctions between funding portals and broker-dealers.

Microcap Fraud

Offerings of microcap and speculative low-priced over-the-counter securities continue to be an area of significant ongoing concern for FINRA. FINRA is urging securities firms to review their policies and procedures to ensure that activities at the firm related to microcap and low-priced OTC securities are compliant.  FINRA believes that firms should carefully supervise employees who conduct direct or indirect outside business activities associated with microcap and OTC companies, traders involved in trading microcap and low-priced OTC securities and firm activities where an affiliate of the firm is the transfer agent for the microcap or low-priced OTC securities. Finally, FINRA is encouraging firms to monitor customer accounts liquidating microcap and low-priced OTC securities to ensure, among other things, that the firm is not facilitating, enabling or participating in an unregistered distribution.