Buried in new legislation mainly intended to ease Dodd-Frank restrictions on small banks is an expansion of Regulation A eligibility to include SEC reporting companies. Previously, such companies were not eligible. The new access to Regulation A will create a viable mini-public offering pathway for SEC reporting companies, particularly those not eligible for registering securities on the streamlined Form S-3 registration statement.

Regulation A is an exemption from registration requirements for offerings of up to $50 million in any 12-month period, subject to eligibility, disclosure and reporting requirements.  The exemption, often referred to as Regulation A+, provides for two tiers of offerings: Tier 1 for offerings of up to $20 million and Tier 2 for offerings of up to $50 million, in each case during any 12-month period. Tier 2 offerings are subject to additional disclosure and ongoing reporting requirements, but consequently benefit from preemption of state securities law registration and qualification requirements. As originally adopted, SEC reporting companies were not eligible to use Regulation A+.

On May 24, 2018, President Trump signed into law the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act, which primarily is intended to ease the burdens on smaller banks under Dodd-Frank. Buried in the Act is Section 508, entitled “Improving Access to Capital”, which expands the availability of Regulation A+ by requiring the SEC to remove the requirement that the issuer not be an SEC reporting company. Section 508 also requires the SEC to amend Regulation A+ so that any company subject to Section 13 or 15(d) of the Exchange Act will be deemed to have met the periodic and current reporting requirements of Regulation A+ if it satisfies the Section 13 reporting requirements.

Currently, public companies seeking to conduct small public offerings in the range of up to $50 million would likely register such offering with the SEC through a streamlined registration statement on Form S-3, which has certain significant benefits. Form S-3 is a short-form registration statement which allows the issuer to update the registration statement’s disclosure prospectively through incorporation by reference of the issuer’s subsequently filed current reports on Form 8-K and periodic reports on Form 10-Q and Form 10-K. This “evergreen” feature means that a company generally will not need to file any post-effective amendments to the registration statement, a time and cost saving advantage.

The process of completing a registered offering on Form S-3 is generally quicker and cheaper than even a Reg A+ offering. So as a practical matter, it’s unlikely that S-3 eligible issuers will opt to do a Reg A+ offering over S-3.

But use of Form S-3 is subject to several stringent issuer and transaction eligibility requirements, including that the issuer be organized and have its principal business operations in the United States and that it have a public float, i.e., aggregate market value of common equity held by non-affiliates, of at least $75 million (unless it’s a listed company, limits the offering amount to not more than one-third of the company’s public float during any 12-month period and is not a shell company).

So issuers that are not S-3 eligible may decide that a Reg A+ offering is an attractive alternative for raising up to $50 million. The benefits of Reg A+, even to an SEC reporting company, could be significant: freedom to “test the waters” with investors prior to launch, faster SEC review relative to registered offerings and preemption of state blue sky registration in Tier 2 offerings.

A recent report on the state of Regulation Crowdfunding published by a major crowdfunding advisory firm is cause for both celebration and renewed reform efforts. The $100 million aggregate funding milestone and the prorated year over year growth data indicate that the market, while still in its infancy, is growing at a nice pace. Nevertheless, a closer look at the data suggests that Regulation Crowdfunding in its current framework is not reaching its potential and remains in serious need of reform.

The Report

The 2017 State of Regulation Crowdfunding, published by crowdfunding advisory firm Crowdfund Capital Advisors, contains several helpful points of data and analysis. The data in the report were retrieved from the various forms that are required to be filed by issuers in Regulation CF equity crowdfunding transactions under Title III of the JOBS Act, which are publicly available on the SEC’s EDGAR website. These include offering statements on Form C, amendments to those statements on Form C/A, offering progress updates on Form C-U and annual reports on Form C-AR.

The report could be downloaded for free here. Some of the key findings are as follows:

  • The number of unique offerings increased 267% from 178 in 2016 to 481 in 2017.
  • Proceeds increased 178% from $27.6 million in 2016 to $49.2 million in 2017.
  • As of today, there are $100,072,759 in aggregate capital commitments.
  • The number of successful offerings increased 202% from 99 in 2016 to 200 in 2017
  • The total number of investors in Reg CF investments increased 158% from 28,180 in 2016 to 44,433 in 2017.

The foregoing data need to be put into some context. First, Reg CF only went live on May 16, 2016, and so the year against which 2017 is compared is only slightly over one-half of a calendar year; data from that year should be annualized to reflect the fact that deals were only happening for approximately 65% of the year. Also, on the advice of funding portals, issuers are setting extremely low target offering amounts, in some cases as low as $10,700 (1% of the maximum allowed in any rolling 12-month period). Accordingly, the above data on successful offerings may need to be viewed somewhat skeptically to the extent “successful offering” is determined based on whether or not an issuer exceeded its own stated targeted offering amount.

The report also offers the following points of analysis:

  • The market is growing at a rapid pace.
  • The pace of capital into funded offerings appears to be steady without showing signs of abnormal activity or irrational investor behavior.
  • The rapid increase in the number of offerings and investors proves that there is appetite for Reg CF from both issuers and investors.
  • Given the lack of irregularities or fraud, Reg CF (and the structure under which it provides for transparency) should be advocated by policy makers and government organizations.

The report does not offer data to support the premise of that last point, i.e., that there exists a lack of irregularities or fraud.

But We Still Need Further Reform

While the $100 million milestone should be cheered, there are objective reasons to believe that Reg CF is grossly underperforming as a capital raising pathway and failing to meet its potential. It was intended to democratize startup investment, to enable hundreds of millions of people who were effectively shut out of private offerings because of their lack of accredited investor status to invest in these deals for the first time. It’s believed that over 90% of the U.S. population would fall into that category and that there’s an estimated $30 trillion socked away in their savings accounts. If only 1% of that were to be reallocated to Reg CF deals, we’d be seeing a market of $300 billion dollars, which would dwarf the $72 billion in U.S. VC investment in 2017.

Which leads me to the need for further reform. Much has already been said about the low $1.07 million cap on issuers. Although the cap should certainly be raised to balance out the amount raised with the disclosure, filing and other burdensome requirements as well as to make Reg CF more competitive with other available pathways, the reality is that most Reg CF offerings are not even reaching the existing cap. That suggests that there must be other impediments in the rules that should be addressed to help companies raise permissible amounts.

Chief among these impediments in my view is the exclusion of investment vehicles from Reg CF. 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. The additional benefit to the portfolio company from this model is that the company ends up with only one additional investor on its cap table, instead of the hundreds that can result under current rules. I suspect that many companies are shying away from Reg CF or not reaching potential raise targets because of this reason alone.

Reg CF should also be reformed to raise the investment caps for investors. Currently, investors are capped based on their income or net worth, with a separate hard cap irrespective of net worth or income. At a minimum, there should be no hard cap for accredited investors. Makes no sense that Mark Zuckerberg be capped at $107,000.

Finally, under current rules, any Reg CF funded company that crosses a $25 million asset threshold would be required to register with the SEC under the Securities Exchange Act and become an SEC reporting company. This would have the potential to create a perverse incentive for a company not to grow, and seems inconsistent with the spirit of Reg CF, which for the first time allows companies to fund their growth by offering securities to the public without registering with the SEC. The asset threshold triggering Exchange Act registration should either be raised or eliminated.

Although Reg CF is still in its infancy and the data in the report could be read to indicate steady growth in a seemingly healthy emerging market, there is also reason to believe that the market has not even begun to tap its potential, a potential that may never be realized if perceived impediments are not mitigated or removed.

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.

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.

2016 turned out to be a terrible year for IPOs, both in terms of number of deals and aggregate proceeds.

According to Renaissance Capital’s U.S. IPO Market 2016 Annual Review, only 105 companies went public on U.S. exchanges in 2016, raising only $19 billion in aggregate proceeds. The deal count of 105 IPOs was downrenaissance 38% from 2015 and the lowest level since 2009.  The $19 billion in aggregate proceeds was down 37% from 2015 and the lowest level since 2003.  In fact, if you remove the financial recession years of 2008 and 2009, the 105 IPOs in 2016 were also the lowest since 2003.  And the drop in deal activity was indiscriminate; both VC- and PE-backed IPOs were at their lowest levels by deal count and proceeds raised since 2009.

The temptation would be to blame the weak IPO market on political election 2016uncertainty, with Brexit and the U.S. election being the biggest culprits. But then how to explain the broader U.S. capital markets, which were hot in 2016. The Dow Jones Industrial Average hovered around 20,000 at year end, and the S&P 500 Index was up 9.5% for the year.  One would expect that the market for IPOs would be pretty strong, as bullish markets normally encourage companies to go public.  To be fair, much of the market gains took place in the latter half of the fourth quarter.  But market weakness doesn’t explain the two-year drought in IPOs for technology companies, considered the mainstay of the IPO market.

Another common theory is that over-regulation, particularly Sarbanes Oxley, has made it much more expensive to go and remain public, thus discouraging many growth companies from doing so. The 2012 JOBS Act tried to remedy this by creating an IPO on-ramp for emerging growth companies, allowing for confidential registration statement filings with the SEC, “testing-the-waters” and scaled disclosure.  The immediate results were encouraging: a dramatic increase in IPO deals and aggregate proceeds in 2014.  Yet IPOs plummeted in 2015 and even further in 2016.

Renaissance Capital’s report points the finger squarely at the public-private valuation disconnect. The tech startup space in 2015 was a mystifying series of mega rounds, sky-high valuations, unicorns and unicornbubble fears. But another trend has been IPOs being priced below the company’s most recent private funding round.  In its pre-IPO round, Square Inc. was valued at approximately $6 billion, but IPO’d at just over half that valuation and then plunged further post-IPO.  Etsy Inc. and Box Inc. both reported $5 billion plus private valuations, only to plunge in the days leading up to their IPOs.  Many, including Benchmark Capital’s Bill Gurley, have blamed the late-stage bidding frenzy on institutional public investors such as mutual funds rushing into late-stage private investing.  Another major contributing factor in the escalation of late stage valuations is the trend toward generous downside protections being given to investors in exchange for lofty valuations, such as IPO ratchets and M&A senior participating liquidation preferences.  The former is simply antidilution protection that entitles the investor to receive extra shares on conversion in the IPO if the IPO price is below either the price paid by the late-stage investor or some premium above that price.  The latter means that, in an acquisition, the investor gets first dollars out ahead of earlier series of preferred and then participates with the common pro rata on an as converted basis.

Renaissance maintains that VC-backed tech companies with lofty late round private valuations chose in 2016 to avoid inevitably lower public-market valuations and had the luxury of remaining private due to ample available cash in the private markets. Mergers and acquisitions offered alternate pathways for other tech companies, such as TransFirst, BlueCoat and Optiv, all of which had previously filed S-1s for IPOs.

Although the private-public valuation disconnect was a major impediment to IPOs in 2015 and 2016, Renaissance believes this phenomenon is close to correcting itself and is optimistic about 2017. Many growth companies have seen their valuations flat or down in new funding rounds to levels that will be more palatable to public investors.  Also, the election results will likely bring a dramatic change in fiscal, regulatory, energy and healthcare policies, all of which should be stimulative to equity markets, new company formation and, ultimately, IPOs.

Another reason for tech IPO optimism for 2017 is Snap, Inc.’s highly anticipated IPO in the first half of 2017. It filed confidentially under the snapJOBS Act, and has begun testing the waters with investors.  The Snap IPO is rumored to raise $4 billion at a valuation of over $25 billion. Another one is Spotify, which raised $1 billion in convertible debt in March 2016 which signals a likely imminent IPO. These two IPOs might raise more capital than all VC-backed tech IPOs in the last two years combined.

SEC Chairman Mary Jo White

SEC Chairman Mary Jo White gave her state of the Commission speech on Friday at the “SEC Speaks 2014” conference in Washington, D.C.  But if you were distracted for a moment by the sight of hoodie-clad Mark Cuban live-tweeting at the conference, you may have missed this one paragraph in the speech:

“In 2014, we also will prioritize our review of equity market structure, focusing closely on how it impacts investors and companies of every size.  One near-term project that I will be pushing forward is the development and implementation of a tick-size pilot, along carefully defined parameters, that would widen the quoting and trading increments and test, among other things, whether a change like this improves liquidity and market quality” (emphasis added).

This is actually big news, especially given that the SEC in 2012 recommended against any increase in tick sizes, and the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee as recently as January recommended against a pilot program to do so.  So what’s all the fuss about anyway?  Some background is in order here.

For hundreds of years prior to 2001, U.S. equity markets used fractions as pricing increments.  Out of concern that the fractional interval system was putting U.S. markets at a competitive disadvantage to foreign equity markets that used decimal pricing, the SEC promulgated a series of regulatory changes[1] beginning in 1997 that collectively shifted our markets from a quote-driven to an electronic-order-driven market and from minimum increments of 1/16th and 1/32nd of a dollar to one penny and below. These regulatory changes are often referred to collectively as the process of  “decimalization”.

Although these changes were intended to benefit investors, many prominent market structure experts have asserted that decimalization has dramatically harmed small company capital formation by destroying the economic infrastructure that previously supported those companies.  In 2011, my good friend and former NASDAQ Vice-Chairman David Weild characterized decimalization as a “death star”, contending that the current one penny tick size regimen as applied to less liquid stocks is at the root of the systemic decline in the U.S. small company IPO market.  According to Weild, it nearly eliminated the economic incentive to trade in small cap stocks by taking “96 percent of the economics from the trading spread of most small cap stocks – from $0.25 per share to $0.01 per share”. Weild has convincingly connected the dots (quite literally in a series of dramatic charts) between the decimalization rule changes and the small company IPO market falling off the cliff promptly thereafter. Weild has advocated for an increase in tick size for smaller cap stocks which he believes will encourage financial institutions to spend more resources covering these issuers and their securities.

David Weild IV

Momentum for tick-size reform has been building.  Section 106 of the JOBS Act required the SEC to study the impact that decimalization has had on IPOs, and gave it the power to designate a tick size greater than one cent but less than ten cents for quoting and trading emerging growth company securities if the SEC concluded that was necessary to provide sufficient economic incentive to support trading operations in these companies. In its 2012 report to Congress, however, the SEC determined not to increase tick sizes at that time, and instead elected to solicit the views of investors, companies, market professionals, academics and others on the broad topic of decimalization and the impact on IPOs and the markets.  Last November, the Equity Capital Formation Task Force proposed a mandatory five-cent increment program for companies with a market capitalization below $750 million. Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill requiring the SEC to create an optional five-cent or 10-cent increment for companies whose market cap is under $750 million.  The fate of the proposed legislation is unclear, however, because the Senate hasn’t proposed a companion bill.


[1]  Order Handling Rules (1997) required specialists and market makers to give investors their most competitive quotes, resulting in more competition between dealers, and set the stage for the shrinking of trading spreads and tick sizes from the longstanding levels of one-quarter and one-eighth of a dollar.  Regulation ATS (1998) enabled electronic networks to link orders with registered exchanges, subjecting traditional trading markets to fierce competition and resulting in tick sizes dropping down to as low as 3.125 cents.  Decimalization (2001) required stocks to be quoted in decimals instead of fractions and allowed a minimum tick size of one cent.  Regulation NMS (2005) allowed quoting and trade execution in sub-penny increments for dark pools, algorithmic trading or broker-dealers providing price improvements to a customer order, exceptions that eventually became the rule.