Real estate developers should seriously consider equity crowdfunding to fund development projects for two major reasons, one of which has little or nothing to do with money. The first reason is that new securities offering legislation enacted in 2012 creates new legal capital raising pathways which allow developers for the first time to use the internet to find investors, and also to raise money from non-accredited investors. The second reason is that a crowdfunding campaign can be a potent weapon in overcoming political and neighborhood opposition to a development project.

Pre-2012 Impediments to Capital Formation

Before 2012, real estate developers seeking to finance projects from private investors were faced with three major legal impediments. First, they could only accept investment from accredited investors[1], a legal designation for institutions with assets of at least $5 million or individuals meeting either an income test ($200,000 in each of the last two years, or $300,000 combined with one’s spouse) or a net worth test ($1 million without including one’s primary residence). This meant that real estate entrepreneurs were excluded from roughly 93% of the U.S. population that did not qualify as accredited investors and the $30 trillion that is estimated to be socked away in their savings accounts. Second, as if the first wasn’t limiting enough, the accredited investor had to be someone with whom the developer had a preexisting relationship. And not just any relationship; it had to be of the sort that would enable the developer to assess whether the investment was appropriate for the investor. And third, and perhaps most limiting, the developer was prohibited from engaging in any general solicitation or advertising: no ads, no mass mailings, no e-blasts and, most notably, no internet.

JOBS Act of 2012: Three Crowdfunding Alternatives

In 2012, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the Jumpstart Our Business Startup Act, better known as the JOBS Act, a major piece of rare bipartisan legislation intended to make it easier for entrepreneurs to raise capital. In the U.S., any offering of securities must either be registered with the SEC (enormously expensive and time consuming, and triggers ongoing SEC reporting and other regulatory burdens as an SEC reporting company), or satisfy the requirements of an exemption from registration. Among other capital markets reforms, the JOBS Act created three crowdfunding exemptions from registration, divided into Titles II, III and IV, each with its own dollar limitations and other myriad rules.

Accredited Investor Crowdfunding

Title II of the JOBS Act and the SEC’s related Rule 506(c) provide for what many refer to as “accredited investor crowdfunding”. It allows developers to use the internet and other methods of general solicitation and advertising to raise an unlimited amount of capital, but with two strings attached. One, sales of securities may only be made to accredited investors. And two, the issuer must use reasonable methods to verify accredited investor status. The requirement to reasonably verify status means the old check-the-box on the one-page investor questionnaire doesn’t fly here; one would need to dig deeper and request such evidence as brokerage statements or tax returns (which investors are loathe to produce) or lawyer or accountant certifications (good luck getting those). Despite the advantage of being allowed to use the internet to reach accredited investors, however, only four percent of the capital raised in Regulation D offerings since Rule 506(c) went live in September 2013 was raised in offerings conducted pursuant to Rule 506(c), according to the SEC. It stands to reason that the culprit is the enhanced verification requirement, which is now the target for reform among capital markets reform advocates.

Non-Accredited Investor Crowdfunding

Under Title III of the JOBS Act and the SEC’s Regulation Crowdfunding, an issuer may offer and sell securities over the internet to anyone, not just accredited investors, without registering with the SEC. There are many limitations and restrictions, foremost of which is that an issuer may raise no more than $1,070,000 per year using this method. Investors in Title III deals are also capped based on their income and net worth. Issuers must sell through a third-party funding portal (only one), and there are disclosure and SEC filing requirements. Title III was the section of the JOBS Act that received the most buzz, largely because of the disruptive nature of allowing companies to raise capital from non-accredited investors, using the internet and without registering with the SEC and giving ordinary people the chance to invest in startups and other private investment opportunities they were previously shut out of, but also because of the controversy it created among those who believed that this new opportunity would be a recipe for massive fraud. To date, thankfully, there’s been virtually no fraud reported in Title III deals.

Mini-Public Offering

The third crowdfunding exemption allows companies to raise up to $50 million from the general public in a mini-public offering over the internet under Title IV of the JOBS Act and Regulation A+ promulgated by the SEC thereunder.  A Regulation A+ offering is similar to a traditional registered public offering except that the disclosure statement is scaled down and the whole process far less expensive and time consuming. Regulation A+ has several distinct advantages: It generally preempts the states, meaning that issuers need only go through a review process at the Federal level with the SEC (the predecessor rule required issuers to get clearance from each state in which investors were solicited). Shares sold in a Regulation A+ offering are freely tradable and may be resold right away. And issuers may “test the waters” and gauge investor interest before committing to launch an offering. For these and other reasons, real estate developers and funds have been the most active users of Regulation A+.

Real Estate Crowdfunding

Real estate crowdfunding has rapidly grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry since the passage of the JOBS Act in 2012. It is leveling the real estate investment playing field, providing access both for ordinary individuals to an asset class they were previously shut out of, and for real estate entrepreneurs to a universe of previously forbidden but low hanging investor fruit, particularly in the form of people living in the communities where projects are being proposed for development. Through equity crowdfunding, high quality real estate investment opportunities are no longer offered strictly on a “who-you-know” basis. It replaces the hand-to-hand combat of raising capital in the old school, country club network way. What used to be multiple phone calls one investor at a time, is now a tweet that potentially reaches millions of people. With equity crowdfunding, a real estate entrepreneur can post a deal on a single portal and reach thousands of potential investors at once with the portal handling the subscription process and fund transfers electronically. Another positive aspect of real estate crowdfunding is that it has the potential to attract funding to emerging neighborhoods where traditional funding sources rarely go. Furthermore, most crowdfunding portals pool investors into a single purpose entity that acts as the investor of record, so that the pooled investors are only treated as one owner on the issuer’s cap table for accounting and corporate governance purposes.

Real estate funding portals come in two general varieties: those that act as matchmaking sites between real estate entrepreneurs seeking funding and investors seeking real estate investment opportunities, and others operated by real estate firms offering investment opportunities in their proprietary deals.

Regulation A+ has proven to be an enormously popular capital raising pathway for diversified REIT-like real property investment vehicles because of the ability to raise up to $50 million from the general public (not just accredit investors) in a streamlined mini-public offering process and then invest those proceeds in several projects. Like conventional real estate funds, these investment vehicles generally conduct their capital raises prior to identifying specific projects. Other real estate professionals using crowdfunding are using the Rule 506(c) model, allowing them to raise an unlimited amount over the internet albeit only from accredited investors. Under this model, the real estate entrepreneur typically first identifies a project and then offers the investment to prospective investors under offering materials that describe the particular project.

Some real estate institutions have taken the crowdfunding plunge and launched crowdfunding platforms of their own, with Arbor Realty Trust/AMAC claiming to be the first institution to do so with its ArborCrowd platform. ArborCrowd markets one deal at a time and writes a check upfront, which allows a property’s sponsor to close quickly on its acquisition. ArborCrowd then offers interests in the investment vehicle through its platform to accredited investors under Rule 506(c), with minimum individual investments of $25,000. I checked on SEC’s EDGAR site and saw that ArborCrowd has done seven deals thus far, aptly named ArborCrowd Investment I-VII, respectively, which average approximately $3 million each.

Real estate funding portals come in two general varieties: those that act as matchmaking sites between real estate entrepreneurs seeking funding and investors seeking real estate investment opportunities, and others operated by real estate firms offering investment opportunities in their own proprietary deals.  There are currently over 100 real estate crowdfunding platforms; some of the more established include Fundrise, RealtyMogul, CrowdStreet, Patch of Land and RealCrowd.

In My Backyard

And now we get to the more intriguing use of equity crowdfunding by real estate entrepreneurs: giving community residents skin in the game and incentivizing them to support a local development project.  Most major development projects are likely to be challenged by the not-in-my-backyard phenomenon, and such opposition can derail, delay or increase project costs dramatically. Whether the project is affordable housing, a power plant or a sewage treatment facility, the developer can expect opposition from a vocal NIMBY minority, irrespective of how much the proposed project is needed by the community at large.  An equity crowdfunding campaign could be a powerful tool to convert opponents and mobilize pro-project allies. One approach could be for sponsors to allocate some percentage, e.g., 10%, of a crowdfunding offering for investors residing within some given mile radius of the project. Another approach might be to conduct simultaneous offerings, one under Title III within the $1,070,000 cap with the hope of attracting local residents to invest, and a larger parallel offering to accredited investors under Rule 506(c).

Conclusion

Real estate crowdfunding is still in its nascent stages. But as awareness grows, smart reforms are implemented to improve the rules and the market matures, I believe real estate developers will embrace equity crowdfunding as both a way to fund projects that are neglected by traditional funding sources and as a strategic tool to enlist community support and overcome opposition.

 

[1] Technically, the most popular private offering method (Rule 506(b) of Regulation D) actually allows investment from up to 35 non-accredited investors (and an unlimited number of accredited investors). But nearly all such offerings have historically been made only to accredited investors because doing so makes the specific disclosure requirements in the Rule inapplicable.

Private companies in the gig economy like Uber and Airbnb would love to issue compensatory equity to their platform participants, just like they’re able to do with their employees. The problem is that the exemption from registration for compensatory issuances only covers issuances to employees and consultants of the issuer.  Last July, however, the Securities and Exchange Commission published a concept release seeking comment on whether the exemption should be extended to equity issued to participants in the gig economy.  This past Friday, Airbnb delivered a comment letter to the Commission advocating for an expansion of the exemption to cover sharing economy participants. This blog post will seek to explain some of the key issues involved here.

Background: Rule 701

Rule 701 of the Securities Act of 1933 provides a safe harbor exemption from registration for equity securities issued as compensation by non-reporting companies to employees, consultants, advisors or de facto employees providing services to the issuer. The purpose of the exemption is to facilitate securities-based compensation; it’s not available for capital-raising issuances or any other issuances for any purpose other than equity compensation.

The aggregate sales price or amount of securities that may be sold during any rolling 12-month period must not exceed the greatest of (i) 15% of the issuer’s total assets, (ii) 15% of the outstanding amount of the class of securities being offered and sold under Rule 701, or (iii) $1 million.

The issuer must give all participants a copy of the benefit plan or contract setting forth the incentive equity.  Beyond that, if the aggregate sales price or amount of securities sold under Rule 701 during any rolling 12-month period exceeds $10 million, the issuer must also provide additional mandated disclosure, including risk factors and specified financial statements.

Finally, under the amendments to Section 12(g) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 introduced by the JOBS Act (which increased the shareholder thresholds at which issuers must register a class of securities under the Exchange Act to 2,000 or 500 non-accredited investors), persons holding only securities received under an employee compensation plan in a transaction exempt from registration (including under Rule 701) are not considered to be holders of record for calculating record holders under Section 12(g).

Concept Release on Compensatory Securities Offerings and Sale

The Securities and Exchange Commission published its Concept Release on Compensatory Securities Offerings and Sales on July 18, 2018. In the introductory sections of the concept release, the Commission described the characteristics of the gig economy where service providers use a company’s Internet platform for a fee to provide peer-to-peer services such as ride-sharing, food delivery, household repairs, dog-sitting, tech support and lodging. These are not traditional employment relationships, and so the participants aren’t deemed to be “employees” — or consultants, advisors or de facto employees – and thus are ineligible to receive securities in compensatory arrangements under Rule 701. But the same compensatory and incentive motivations to include equity in employee compensation may exist with respect to gig economy participants, i.e., alignment of interests, recruitment, retention and enhanced compensation relative to what a company may be able to pay in cash or other benefits.

Accordingly, in light of the significant evolution in the composition of the workforce since Rule 701’s last meaningful amendment 20 years ago, the concept release sought comment on possible ways to modernize the exemption and expand it to cover securities issued to participants in the gig economy.  In seeking comment from the public to determine what attributes of gig economy relationships potentially may provide a basis for extending eligibility for the Rule 701 exemption, the Commission posed several specific questions, including the following:

  • What activities should an individual need to engage in to be eligible?
  • Should the test identify Rule 701 eligible participants as individuals who use the issuer’s platform to secure work providing lawful services to end users?
  • Should there be a sufficient nexus between the individual and the issuer to justify application of the exemption for compensatory transactions?
  • Should it matter whether individuals provide services to the issuer, or instead to the issuer’s customers or end users?
  • Does it matter whether that business activity provides a service typically provided by an employee or is more of an entrepreneurial nature?
  • Whether a potential eligibility test should consider the individual’s level of dependence on the issuer, or, conversely, the issuer’s degree of dependence on the individuals?
  • Should it matter what percentage of the individual’s earned income is derived from using the issuer’s platform?

Recognizing that extending eligibility to individuals participating in the gig economy could significantly increase the volume of Rule 701 issuances, the Commission posed these additional questions:

  • Would revising the rule have an effect on a company’s decision to become a reporting company?
  • Would such revisions encourage companies to stay private longer?
  • To what extent do companies utilizing “gig economy” workers issue securities as compensation to those individuals?
  • What effect would the use of Rule 701 for “gig economy” companies have on competition among those companies and newer companies and more established companies vying for the same talent?
  • Should a gig economy participant receive the same disclosure as an employee?

The Airbnb Comment Letter

In a letter dated September 21, 2018, Airbnb responded to the concept release and offered a convincing rationale for reforming Rule 701 as well as several interesting specific proposals.

As to rationale, Arbnb’s comment letter argues that expanding the category of persons eligible to receive securities under the Rule is consistent with the goals of the JOBS Act to facilitate entrepreneurship and growth startups. Doing so would further democratize share ownership and enable many ordinary individuals who have been effectively excluded from early stage investing to benefit from the potential growth of startups. It would align the interests of sharing economy companies with the service providers who use their platforms to the benefit of both. (Note that Airbnb is careful to use the term “sharing economy” rather than “gig economy”; for a good, concise explanation of the distinction, see here.) Extending the exemption to issuances to sharing economy participants would also incentivize individuals to leverage their assets to participate in the sharing economy and supplement their income. Finally, it would help younger and smaller companies compete with older and larger competitors yielding better outcomes for end users.

Because of the magnitude of Airbnb’s and other sharing economy companies’ participants, Airbnb asserts that the extension of Rule 701 to sharing economy participants would only be useful to those companies if they were allowed to exclude the recipients from the number of record holders under Section 12(g), as is the case with recipients under the current Rule; otherwise, such issuers would easily exceed either or both the 2,000 holder or 500 non-accredited investor holder threshold forcing those companies to register with the Commission and be saddled prematurely with its regulatory and reporting regime.

But shouldn’t sharing economy participants receive adequate disclosure when receiving securities? Airbnb asserts that most Rule 701 recipients are not making an investment decision when they receive their shares (which is why there’s no mandated disclosure obligation under the current Rule unless a dollar threshold is exceeded). Moreover, sharing economy participants would be expected to know much more about the issuer than typical investors, thus minimizing the need for disclosure. Finally, the primary motivation for issuing equity to participants would not be to raise capital but rather to align interests.

Airbnb advocates for the creation of a new subcategory of eligible recipients under Rule 701, which would be more restrictive than for recipients under the current Rule. The focus of any amendment to Rule 701 to create what Airbnb calls the Sharing Economy Award Exemption should be on the nature of eligible companies, nature of securities awarded to participants and transferability of the securities.

Eligible companies would need to satisfy the following criteria to ensure they are bona fide sharing economy companies and not just seeking to sell securities:

  • Provide a platform to allow third parties to provide goods and/or services to end users;
  • Derive a significant portion of its revenue from fees paid by platform participants;
  • Control the platform by either having the right to exclude a listing or participant for violating terms, or by determining amount of user fees and terms and conditions for receiving payment for goods and services sold on the platform.

Airbnb believes the securities permissible under the Sharing Economy Award Exemption should be more limited than currently allowed. Recipients should not be permitted to choose between securities or cash, so that they aren’t making an investment decision. Not more than 50% of the value received by the recipient from the issuer for goods and services sold on the platform over a 24 month period should be in the form of equity. And any equity award should not be made contingent on making a capital contribution, to ensure the absence of a capital raising motive.

Finally, Airbnb believes the restrictions on transferability of securities issued in the Sharing Economy Award Exemption should be more restrictive than under current Rule 701, even suggesting that it would be appropriate to provide that such securities be non-transferable prior to an IPO or a change in control. If such serious transfer restrictions are imposed and no cash is contributed in connection with the issuance, Airbnb believes any disclosure obligation should be minimal.

On June 28, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued a release amending the definition of “smaller reporting company” (“SRC”) to expand the number of reporting companies eligible for relaxed or scaled disclosure. The change is estimated to benefit nearly 1,000 additional small public companies currently outside the SRC definition. But equally noteworthy in the SRC release is that the Commission staff has been directed, and has begun, to formulate recommendations to the Commission for possible changes to another definition, that of “accelerated filer”, to reduce the number of companies that qualify as accelerated filers in order to further reduce compliance costs. That change would likely be more significant than expanding the SRC definition because “accelerated filer” status triggers the expensive requirement to obtain auditor attestation for management’s assessment of internal control over financial reporting.

Background

Smaller Reporting Company

The Commission established the SRC category in 2008 in an effort to provide general regulatory relief for smaller companies. SRCs are allowed to provide scaled disclosures under Regulation S-K and Regulation S-X. Under the previous SRC definition, SRCs generally were companies with less than $75 million in public float (i.e., aggregate market capitalization of a company’s shares held by non-affiliates). Companies with no public float − because they have no public equity outstanding or no market price for their public equity − were considered SRCs if they had less than $50 million in annual revenues.

Examples of scaled disclosure available to SRCs are two year management discussion and analysis comparisons rather than three years, no compensation discussion and analysis and no risk factor disclosure in Exchange Act filings. A table summarizing the scaled disclosure accommodations for SRCs can be found in the Annex at the bottom of this post.

Under previous rules, SRCs were also automatically excluded from being categorized as “accelerated filers” or “large accelerated filers”, the requirements of which are discussed below. As a result, existing public float thresholds in the accelerated filer definition aligned with the public float threshold in the SRC definition.

Accelerated Filer

In December 2005, the SEC voted to adopt amendments that redefined “accelerated filers” as companies that have at least $75 million, but less than $700 million, in public float, and created a new category of “large accelerated filers” that includes companies with a public float of $700 million or more. In addition to the requirement to file periodic reports on an accelerated basis, accelerated filers must also have their auditor provide an attestation report on management’s assessment of internal control over financial reporting under Section 404(b) of Sarbanes-Oxley.

The determinations of public float thresholds for SRC and accelerated filer status are both made as of the last business day of a registrant’s most recently completed second fiscal quarter for purposes of the following fiscal year.

Amendments to Smaller Reporting Company and Accelerated Filer Definitions

The new rules define SRCs as companies with less than $250 million of public float, as compared with the $75 million threshold under the previous definition. The final rules also expand the definition to include companies with less than $100 million in annual revenues if they have either no public float or a public float of less than $700 million. This reflects a change from the revenue test in the prior definition, under which a company would be categorized as an SRC only if it had no public float and less than $50 million in annual revenues.

The final rules will become effective September 10, 2018.

The amended SRC thresholds are summarized in the following chart:

Criterion

Current Definition

Revised Definition

Public Float Public float of less than $75 million Public float of less than $250 million
Revenue Less than $50 million of annual revenue and no public float Less than $100 million of annual revenues and:

  • no public float, or
  • public float of less than $700 million

The increase in SRC public float thresholds will lead to a dramatic expansion in companies eligible for scaled disclosure. The Commission estimates that 966 additional registrants will be eligible for SRC status in the first year under the new definition. These registrants estimated to be eligible in the first year comprise 779 registrants with a public float of $75 million or more and less than $250 million, 26 registrants with no public float and revenues of $50 million or more and less than $100 million, and 161 registrants with revenues below $100 million and a public float of $250 million or more and less than $700 million.

The SRC amendments also eliminate the automatic exclusion of SRCs from accelerated filer status. The definitions of accelerated filer and large accelerated filer are based on public float, but previously contained a provision excluding SRCs from accelerated filer status. As a result, raising the SRC public float threshold without eliminating that provision effectively would raise the accelerated filer public float threshold as well.

Accordingly, the Commission had also considered increasing the public float thresholds in the accelerated filer definition, consistent with the changes to the SRC definition, to reduce compliance costs and maintain uniformity across relevant rules. Opponents viewed a parallel increase in the accelerated filer thresholds as a weakening of investor protections. Some cited a 2011 Staff Section 404(b) Study finding that accelerated filers subject to Section 404(b)’s attestation requirement had a lower restatement rate compared to non-accelerated filers not subject to Section 404(b). But supporters argued that the attestation requirement is particularly costly for SRCs and that audit costs associated with Section 404(b) divert capital from core business needs. One maintained that a Section 404(b) audit represents over $1 million of capital diversion. Another cited the same 2011 Staff Section 404(b) Study which estimated that companies with a public float between $75 million and $250 million spend, on average, $840,276 to comply with Section 404(b). Interestingly, one commenter that stated that its public float was more than $75 million but less than $250 million estimated that relief from Section 404(b) would result in a 35% reduction in compliance costs whereas there would be no material change in such costs from the SRC amendments qualifying him for scaled disclosure as an SRC.

In the final rules release, the Commission determined to eliminate the exclusion of SRCs from accelerated filer status, effectively deciding not to increase the accelerated filer thresholds.

As indicated in the chart below, the increase in the SRC thresholds coupled with the elimination of the automatic exclusion of SRCs from accelerated filer status (i.e., no increase in the accelerated filer threshold) means good news/bad news for companies with a public float between $75 million and $250 million: they benefit from scaled disclosure (unlike under previous rules), but must continue to provide auditor attestations to management’s assessment of the effectiveness of internal control over financial reporting, an enormously expensive proposition.

 

But as I mentioned at the top of this post, auditor attestation relief may be on the way.  SEC Chairman Clayton has directed the Commission staff to formulate recommendations for possible changes to the accelerated filer definition to reduce the number of companies that fall under its requirements, including the auditor attestation requirement. Perhaps, the staff will recommend to increase the accelerated filer public float threshold to $250 million from its current $75 million. That would appear to bring far more practical regulatory relief than the expansion of the SRC definition.

 

Annex

Smaller Reporting Company Scaled Disclosure

 

Regulation S-K

Item Scaled Disclosure Accommodation
101 − Description of Business May satisfy disclosure obligations by describing the development of the registrant’s business during the last three years rather than five years. Business development description requirements are less detailed than disclosure requirements for non-SRCs.
201 − Market Price of and Dividends on the Registrant’s Common Equity and Related Stock performance graph not required.
301 – Selected Financial Data Not required.
302 – Supplementary Financial Information Not required.
303 – Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations (“MD&A”)

Two-year MD&A comparison rather than three-year comparison.

Two year discussion of impact of inflation and changes in prices rather than three years.

Tabular disclosure of contractual obligations not required.

305 – Quantitative and Qualitative Disclosures About Market Risk Not required.
402 – Executive Compensation

Three named executive officers rather than five.

Two years of summary compensation table information rather than three. Not required:

·      Compensation discussion and analysis.

·      Grants of plan-based awards table.

·      Option exercises and stock vested table.

·      Pension benefits table.

·      Nonqualified deferred compensation table.

·      Disclosure of compensation policies and practices related to risk management.

·      Pay ratio disclosure.

404 – Transactions With Related Persons, Promoters and Certain Control Persons Description of policies/procedures for the review, approval or ratification of related party transactions not required.
407 – Corporate Governance

Audit committee financial expert disclosure not required in first annual report

Compensation committee interlocks and insider participation disclosure not required.

Compensation committee report not required.

503 – Prospectus Summary, Risk Factors and Ratio of Earnings to Fixed Charges No ratio of earnings to fixed charges disclosure required. No risk factors required in Exchange Act filings.
601 – Exhibits Statements regarding computation of ratios not required.

Regulation S-X

Rule Scaled Disclosure
8-02 – Annual Financial Statements

Two years of income statements rather than three years. Two years of cash flow statements rather than three years.

Two years of changes in stockholders’ equity statements rather than three years.

8-03 – Interim Financial Statements Permits certain historical financial data in lieu of separate historical financial statements of equity investees.
8-04 – Financial Statements of Businesses Acquired or to Be Acquired Maximum of two years of acquiree financial statements rather than three years.
8-05 – Pro forma Financial Information Fewer circumstances under which pro forma financial statements are required.
8-06 – Real Estate Operations Acquired or to Be Acquired Maximum of two years of financial statements for acquisition of properties from related parties rather than three years.
8-08 – Age of Financial Statements Less stringent age of financial statements requirements.

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

On July 3, 2012, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings kicked off the holiday weekend with some fireworks of his own by posting on his personal Facebook page that Netflix had streamed a billion hours of content in the month of June.  Hastings designated the post as “public,” making it available to anyone on the Internet, including Facebook’s billion users and Hastings’ own 200,000 Facebook “friends”.  What followed were thousands of “likes”, comments and “shares”, extensive media coverage and a spike in Netflix’s stock price.  And oh yes, an SEC investigation.  Both Netflix and Hastings received a “Wells Notice” from the SEC’s Enforcement Staff indicating its intent to recommend that the SEC bring enforcement proceedings for violations of Regulation FD.

On April 2, 2013, the SEC issued its Report on the investigation, stating that it would indeed not seek enforcement proceedings in this case, and declaring more broadly that companies may use social media such as Facebook and Twitter to disseminate material, non-public information under Reg FD provided that investors are properly alerted in advance that the company intends to use those particular channels of distribution to disseminate material information.

Reg FD requires that when an issuer, or a person acting on its behalf, discloses material, non-public information to securities market professionals or shareholders where it is reasonably foreseeable that they will trade on the basis of the information, it must distribute that information in a manner reasonably designed to achieve broad and non-exclusionary distribution to the public.  Reg FD was intended to level the playing field, and was adopted out of concern that issuers were selectively disclosing important non-public information, such as advance warning of earnings results, to securities analysts or selected institutional investors before making full disclosure of the information to the general public.

The SEC had previously provided guidance in 2008 on the disclosure of material non-public information on company websites and other “push” technology forms of communication such as email alerts and RSS feeds, along with “interactive” communication tools such as blogs.  In the 2008 guidance, the SEC stated that a company makes Reg FD-compliant public disclosure when it distributes information “through a recognized channel of distribution.”  It spoke of the vital role of the Internet and electronic communications in modernizing the disclosure system and promoting transparency, liquidity and efficiency in trading markets.  The guidance offered a non-exhaustive list of factors to be considered in evaluating whether a corporate web site constitutes a recognized channel of distribution.  The central focus of the inquiry is whether the company has made investors, the market and the media aware of the channels of distribution it expects to use, so that these parties know where to look for disclosures of material information about the company.

The SEC’s April 2 Report extends the 2008 guidance on corporate website disclosure to social media.  Specifically, the Report states that (i) issuer communications made through social media channels require careful Reg FD analysis comparable to communications made through more traditional channels; and (ii) the principles outlined in the 2008 guidance, particularly that markets should be alerted to the channels of distribution a company will use to disseminate material information, apply to disclosures made through social media channels as well.  The rationale is that identifying the specific social media channels a company intends to use for material non-public information disclosure will give investors the opportunity to take the steps necessary to be in a position to receive important disclosures, such as subscribing, joining, registering, and reviewing the designated channels.

Under these standards, it would seem that Hastings and Netflix were grossly non-compliant.  Hastings’ personal Facebook page had not been previously used to announce company metrics, and Netflix had not previously informed shareholders that Hastings’ Facebook page would be used to disclose information about Netflix.  The post was not accompanied by a press release, a post on the corporate web site or Facebook page or a Form 8-K.  Nevertheless, the SEC chose not to bring enforcement proceedings, apparently because the proliferation of the use of social media to communicate with shareholders had created uncertainty over how Reg FD and the 2008 guidance would apply to social media disclosures, and the SEC felt obligated to provide some guidance.

For its part, Netflix isn’t taking any chances.  Within a few days after the SEC’s Report, Netflix filed an 8-K designating the social media channels where investors, the media and others should review information about Netflix, including two Netflix blogs, Netflix’s Facebook page and Twitter Feed and Reed Hastings’ public Facebook page.

Interestingly, Hastings’ post should not have even been a Reg FD issue because the streaming metric arguably should not even be relevant to Netflix’s revenues, much less material to Netflix, inasmuch as its revenues are derived through fixed subscriber fees that are not based on the number of hours of programming viewed.  Ironically, Hastings himself may have helped decide the issue of materiality to Netflix’s detriment while on an earnings call in January 2012 when, in answer to a question on relevance, he stated that the metric was a measure of engagement and scale in terms of use of service and that Netflix would update that metric on a milestone basis.