Dual or multi-class capitalization structures generally allow companies to sell large amounts of shares to the public while maintaining control in the hands of the founders and early investors. Popularized by the Google IPO in 2004, weighted voting rights have since been featured in the high profile IPOs of LinkedIn, Groupon, Zynga, Facebook, Fitbit and Blue Apron.  Snap then took them to a new level last year when it acknowledged (or boasted) that it was the first company to launch an IPO with shares having zero voting rights.  I blogged about Snap’s IPO here.

Dropbox, Inc. is now the latest to go public with a multi-class structure. Having submitted its registration statement confidentially in early January, Dropbox finally filed its S-1 publicly on February 23. Dropbox’s S-1 shows that its capital structure consists of three classes of authorized common – Class A, Class B and Class C – with the rights of the holders of all three classes being identical except with respect to voting. Class A shares (offered to the public) are entitled to one vote per share, Class B shares are entitled to ten votes per share and Class C shares have no voting rights, except as otherwise required by law.  Although the general rule in Delaware is that each share receives one vote, a corporation may provide in its certificate of incorporation that a particular class or series has limited or no voting rights.

Because of the ten-to-one vote ratio between Dropbox’s Class B and Class A, the Class B stockholders – basically the co-founders and lead VCs Sequoia, Accel and T. Rowe Price — will continue to control a majority of the combined voting power, and therefore be able to control all matters submitted to stockholders for approval. This concentrated control will limit or preclude the Series A holders from having an influence over corporate matters for the foreseeable future, including the election of directors, amendments of the certificate of incorporation and by-laws and any merger, sale of all or substantially all the assets or other major transaction requiring stockholder approval. The concentration of voting power may also discourage unsolicited acquisition proposals.

The concentration of power in the Dropbox founders will likely only grow over time. Under an automatic conversion feature, future transfers of Class B shares will generally result in conversion into the lower voting Class A shares, subject to limited carve-outs for estate planning transfers and transfers between co-founders. The conversion of Class B shares to Class A will have the effect, over time, of increasing the relative voting power of those Class B holders who retain their shares.  Moreover, any future offerings of Class C shares will increase the concentration of ownership and control by the founders even further than would be the case in an offering of A shares because the C shares carry no voting rights at all (except as otherwise required by law). Consequently, the cumulative effect of the disproportionate voting power of the B shares, the automatic conversion feature upon transfer of B shares and the possibility of issuance of C shares is that the founders may be able to elect all of Dropbox’s directors and to determine the outcome of most matters submitted to a stockholder vote indefinitely.

Dual-class structures have been the subject of a great deal of controversy.  Some stock exchanges had banned them, only to reverse course because of stiff competition for listings. See here for case in point regarding Hong Kong, the NYSE and Ali Baba.  Investors have loudly objected to this structure, both through the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee and the Council of Institutional Investors.  As a result of that opposition, FTSE Russell and Standard & Poor’s announced last year that they would cease to allow most newly public companies utilizing dual or multi-class capital structures to be included in their broad stock indices. Affected indices include the Russell 2000 and the S&P 500, S&P MidCap 400 and S&P SmallCap 600.  Consequently, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds and other investment vehicles that attempt to passively track these indices will not be investing in the stock of any company with dual-class shares. Although it’s too early to tell for sure what impact, if any, these new index policies will have on the valuations of Dropbox and other publicly traded companies excluded from the indices, it’s entirely possible that the exclusions may depress these valuations compared to those of similar companies that are included in the indices.  Interestingly, just two weeks ago, SEC Commissioner Robert J. Jackson Jr. gave his first speech since being appointed, entitled “Perpetual Dual-Class Stock: The Case Against Corporate Royalty“, in which he expressed his opposition to index exclusions despite his serious concerns regarding dual-class stock, calling index exclusion a blunt instrument and worrying that “Main Street investors may lose out on the chance to be a part of the growth of our most innovative companies”.

And how do companies like Dropbox defend dual-class structures? They would assert that weighted voting rights enable management to make long term decisions that are in the best interests of the company and to resist the short-termism that typically results from pressure brought by major stockholders to maximize quarterly results which often means sacrificing long term interests and performance.  They would further argue that efforts to exclude companies with weighted voting rights from stock indices are counter-productive because they serve to discourage those companies from going public in the first place, thus denying public company investors the opportunity to invest in innovative, high growth companies.

Perhaps the sensible compromise here would be sunset provisions, under which dual-class structures would sunset after a fixed period of time, such as five, ten or fifteen years, unless their extension is approved by stockholders unaffiliated with the controlling group.  Snap’s muti-class structure has no sunset provision; the only way the two founders could ever effectively lose control of Snap is if both died.  By contrast, Google has a sunset provision on its dual-class shares. The Council of Institutional Investors sent a noisy letter to Blue Apron just before its IPO last year urging the company to adopt a five-year sunset.  And Harvard Professor Lucien Bebchuck published a paper last year called “The Untenable Case for Perpetual Dual-Class Stock”, arguing that the potential advantages of dual-class structures tend to recede, and the potential costs tend to rise, as time passes from the IPO, and advocating for finite-term dual-class structures.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Regulation A amendments adopted by the Securities Exchange Commission on March 25 are Federal Registerbeing published tomorrow, April 20, in the Federal Register.  That means the final rules and form amendments will officially become effective on June 19, 2015 (by rule, 60 days after such publication).

The new Regulation A, referred to widely as Regulation A+, increases the offering cap from $5 million to $50 million with reasonable investor protection safeguards.  I previously summarized the regulation here.  The main reform features of the new regs are blue sky preemption for Tier II offerings, broader “testing the waters”, scaled disclosure and modified reporting.

Reg A+In theory, Reg A+ has the potential to provide growth companies with a viable alternative to a traditional S-1 IPO, albeit with a more cost effective runway and scaled disclosure than even the streamlined emerging growth company pathway under JOBS Act Title I.  It remains to be seen whether a sufficiently robust small public company ecosystem will develop to support companies that go public through Reg A+.

Importantly, new Reg A+ also reforms the resale rules in a significant respect by eliminating the requirement under old Reg A that issuers must have had net income from continuing operations in at least one of its last two fiscal years for affiliate resales to be permitted.  This is a sensible reform inasmuch as many emerging companies experience net losses for several years due to high research and development costs.  Absence of net income, by itself, is not a sufficient indicator of enhanced risk, and increasing selling stockholder access to avenues for liquidity will encourage investment in emerging companies.

The SEC yesterday issued its highly anticipated final rules amending Regulation A to allow issuers u-s-secto raise up to $50 million in any 12 month period through public offering techniques but without registration with the SEC or state blue sky authorities.  The 453 page rules release features a scaled disclosure regime to provide issuers with increased flexibility with regard to offering size and should lower the burden of fixed costs associated with conducting Reg A offerings as a percentage of proceeds. The new rules go into effect 60 days after they are published in the Federal Register.

Reg A has been one of the most rarely used exemptions for securities offerings because it’s been perceived as cost ineffective: the $5 million maximum is just not worth the burdens associated with blue sky registration and qualification requirements in each state where the securities are offered.  JOBS act 2Fixed costs such as legal and accounting fees have served as a disincentive to use the exemption for lower offering amounts. Congress addressed the problem in 2012 through Title IV of the JOBS Act, which required the SEC to amend Reg A by exempting from Securities Act registration certain securities offerings of up to $50 million in any 12 month period. The anticipated amendment to Reg A has been referred to affectionately by securities lawyers as Reg A+, since it’s intended to be a more useful version of the old Reg A.

Old Reg A

Old Reg A provides an exemption from Securities Act registration for offerings of up to $5 million in any 12-month period, including no more than $1.5 million in resales by selling stockholders.  Reg A transactions have been referred to as mini public offerings because they permit general solicitation and advertising (prohibited in private offerings other than accredited investor-only offerings under Rule 506(c) passed in September 2013) and require a mini-registration statement to be filed and reviewed by the SEC containing the offering statement to be delivered to offerees.  Most importantly, shares sold in old Reg A offerings are not “covered securities” under the National Securities Markets Improvement Act, meaning that issuers  must comply with the registration and qualification requirements of the blue sky laws of each state where the offering is made.  A Reg A issuer was allowed to “test the waters,” or communicate with potential investors to see if they might be interested in the offering, before it made the filing with the SEC (Form 1-A).  Finally, securities sold in Reg A offerings are not restricted securities, meaning they can be freely resold by non-affiliates of the issuer.

New Reg A

The final rules expand Reg A into two tiers: Tier 1 for securities offerings of up to $20 million; and Tier 2 for offerings of up to $50 million.  The new rules preserve, with some modifications, existing provisions regarding issuer eligibility, offering circular content, testing the waters and “bad actor” disqualification.  Tier 2 issuers are required to include audited financial statements in their offering documents and to file annual, semiannual, and current reports with the SEC.  Except when buying securities listed on a national securities exchange, purchasers in Tier 2 offerings must either be accredited investors or be subject to certain limitations on their investment.

The key provisions of the final rules are as follows:

Offering Limitations and Secondary Sales

The final rules establish two tiers of offerings:

  • Tier 1: annual offering limit of $20 million, including no more than $6 million on behalf of selling stockholders that are affiliates of the issuer.
  • Tier 2: annual offering limit of $50 million, including no more than $15 million on behalf of selling stockholders that are affiliates of the issuer.

Investment Limitation

The SEC’s objective with the tiered approach is to scale regulatory requirements based on offering size, to give issuers more flexibility in raising capital under Reg A and to provide appropriately tailored protections for investors in each tier. The rules impose additional disclosure requirements and investor protection provisions in Tier 2 offerings. Issuers seeking a smaller amount of capital (i.e., no more than $20 million) benefit from scaled disclosure. Although Tier 2 offerings will require enhanced disclosure, it’s possible that the reduction in information assymetry will lead to higher valuations. Thankfully, the final rules raised the Tier 1 offering cap to $20 million from the proposed $5 million. The increase in maximum offering size could also contribute to the development of intermediation services, such as market making, as well as analyst coverage, which could have a positive impact on investor participation and aftermarket liquidity of Reg A shares.

In addition, selling stockholders are limited to no more than 30% of the aggregate offering price in an issuer’s initial Reg A offering and any subsequently qualified Reg A offering within the first 12-month period following the date of qualification of the initial Reg A offering.

As mentioned above, the new rules contain certain investor protections in Tier 2 offerings. The proposed rules included a 10% investment limit for all investors in Tier 2 offerings.  The final rules limit non-accredited investors in Tier 2 offerings to purchases of no more than 10% of the greater of annual income or net worth (for natural persons) or the greater of annual revenue or net assets (for non-natural persons), as proposed.  In response to commentator concerns, the Tier 2 investment limit does not apply to accredited investors or to securities that will be listed on a national securities exchange.  This is a sensible approach, inasmuch as accredited investors, due to their level of income or net worth, are more likely to be able to withstand losses from undiversified exposure to an individual offering, and there’s a higher level of investor protection with issuers required to meet the listing standards of a national securities exchange and become subject to ongoing Exchange Act reporting.

Treatment under Section 12(g)

Section 12(g) of the Exchange Act requires that an issuer with total assets exceeding $10 million and a class of equity securities held of record by either 2,000 persons, or 500 persons who are not accredited investors, register such class of securities with the SEC. In its proposal release, the SEC did not propose to exempt Reg A securities from mandatory registration under Section 12(g), but solicited comment on the issue.  Some commentators questioned the extent to which Reg A securities would be held in street name through brokers, which the proposal mentioned as a factor that could potentially limit the impact of not proposing an exemption from Section 12(g).

The final rules conditionally exempt Tier 2 securities from the provisions of Section 12(g) provided the issuer (i) remains subject to, and is current in (as of fiscal year end), its Reg A periodic reporting obligations, (ii) engages the services of a transfer agent registered with the SEC under the Exchange Act, and (iii) meets requirements similar to those for “smaller reporting companies” (public float of less than $75 million or, in the absence of a public float, annual revenues of less than $50 million).  The transfer agent condition will provide added comfort that stockholder records and secondary trades will be handled accurately.

Offering Statement

The final rules require issuers to file offering statements with the SEC electronically on EDGAR, but permit non-public submission of offering statements and amendments for review by SEC staff before filing so long as all such documents are publicly filed not later than 21 days before qualification.  The new rules eliminate the Model A (Question-and-Answer) disclosure format under Part II of Form 1-A.

Testing the Waters

The new rules permit issuers to “test the waters” with, or solicit interest in a potential offering testing the watersfrom, the general public either before or after the filing of the offering statement, so long as any solicitation materials used after publicly filing the offering statement are preceded or accompanied by a preliminary offering circular or contain a notice informing potential investors where and how the most current preliminary offering circular can be obtained. Solicitation materials remain subject to the antifraud and other civil liability provisions of the federal securities laws.

Continuing Disclosure Obligations

Reg A currently requires issuers to file a Form 2-A with the SEC to report sales and the termination of sales made under Reg A every six months after qualification and within 30 calendar days after the termination, completion or final sale of securities in the offering. The final rules eliminate Form 2-A.  In its place, the rules require Tier 1 issuers to provide information about sales in such offerings and to update certain issuer information by electronically filing a Form 1-Z exit report with the SEC not later than 30 calendar days after termination or completion of an offering.  The rules require Tier 2 issuers to file electronically with the SEC on EDGAR annual and semiannual reports, as well as current event reports.

Application of Blue Sky Laws

The final rules preempt state registration and qualification requirements for Tier 2 offerings but preserve these requirements for Tier 1 offerings, consistent with state registration of Reg A offerings of up to $5 million under existing rules.  The SEC had originally proposed to preempt state regulation with respect to (i) all offerees in Reg A offerings and (ii) all purchasers in Tier 2 offerings.  The proposal to preempt blue sky requirements with respect to all offerees in a Reg A offering was intended to allow issuers relying on Reg A to communicate with potential investors via the internet and social media without concern that these communications might trigger registration requirements under state law.

The issue of state law preemption generated a great deal of public commentary.  To address commenter concerns and avoid potential confusion about the application of the preemption provisions in Tier 1 offerings, the final definition of “qualified purchaser” does not include offerees in Tier 1 offerings.  This is unfortunate.  In order to create an attractive alternative to IPOs, Congress mandated preemption for “qualified purchasers”, which it defined as any purchaser in a (new) Reg A offering. As made clear in the 2012 General Accounting Office Report, a primary reason Reg A has been seldom used is the delay, cost and uncertainty of divergent state review of offerings. Perhaps the SEC should have preempted state regulation of Reg A resales as well. One of the greatest benefits of a Reg A offering versus a Rule 506 offering is that the securities sold in the former will be freely tradeable immediately upon closing of the offering. Without clear federal preemption of blue-sky laws governing the resale of Reg A shares, however, investors may be concerned about their ability to resell their shares which will reduce their willingness to purchase these shares in the first place.

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

IPOs

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

General Solicitation in Private Offerings

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

Crowdfunding Portals

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

Microcap Fraud

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

In perhaps the only successful bipartisan effort in 2012 to remove barriers to economic growth, Congress passed and the President signed on April 5, 2012 the most comprehensive set of laws to facilitate small company capital raising since the Federal securities laws were first enacted in the 1930s. In a nutshell, the JOBS Act (acronym for the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act) creates an on-ramp for small company IPOs, removes the prohibition on general solicitation and advertising from certain private offerings, creates a new equity crowdfunding exemption, sharply raises the cap for the small company offering exemption under Regulation A from $5 million to $50 million in any 12-month period and significantly raises the shareholder number trigger for Exchange Act registration. Some provisions are immediately effective, but others require SEC rulemaking.

 Outgoing SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro has criticized the JOBS Act for allegedly gutting investor protections, which she believes will lead to an increase in securities fraud. The JOBS Act’s impact on capital raising will depend largely on the choices the SEC makes in fashioning new rules. NYVentureHub will keep readers up to date on SEC rulemaking and other JOBS Act developments. For now, here’s a summary of the key JOBS Act reforms, including important practical implications for startups.

Title I: IPO On-Ramp for “Emerging Growth Companies”

  • Background: Small company IPOs have fallen off the cliff over the last ten years.  Main culprits are overregulation (think Sarbanes Oxley and Dodd Frank) and the transition to decimalization in the early 2000s (shares trading in one cent tick-sizes instead of larger tick sizes expressed as a fraction), which in turn reduced profitability of making markets in small-cap securities and lowered demand for smaller company stocks which are less liquid.  Research indicates that 90% of job creation for public companies occurs after they go public.
  • Reform: Relaxation of regulatory burdens associated with going public (e.g., confidential initial registration statement filing, two years of audited financials instead of three, pre-filing offers to investors to “test the waters” without violating “gun-jumping” rules) and phased disclosure and compliance obligations over a period of time following an IPO (e.g., no “say-on-pay votes, no auditor attestation of internal controls, more limited executive compensation disclosure) for companies with less than $1 billion of revenue, newly classified as “Emerging Growth Companies” or EGCs.
  • Effectiveness:  Immediate.
  • Impact on Startups: EGCs will be able to commence the IPO process with a confidential filing with the SEC, allowing them to resolve issues with the SEC privately without exposing their dirty laundry to the media and competitors, and also “test the waters” with potential investors to gauge levels of market interest.  EGCs who choose to avail themselves of the relaxed disclosure obligations will avoid the expense, diversion and liability exposure associated with the full-blown SEC disclosure regime, but will need to weigh this benefit against possible stigma inherent in reduced transparency.

Title II: General Solicitation Permitted in Certain Accredited Investor-Only Private Offerings

  • Background: Every sale of securities in the U.S. must either be registered with the SEC or be exempt from registration.  By far the most popular securities exemption is found in Rule 506 of Regulation D, which exempts certain private offerings that comply with its specific disclosure, qualification and manner of offering requirements, including the prohibition against any general solicitation or advertising.
  • Reform:  The SEC is instructed to amend Rule 506 to lift the general solicitation and advertising prohibition for any Rule 506 offering where the issuer takes reasonable steps to ensure that all purchasers are “accredited investors”.
  • Effectiveness:  Upon promulgation of final SEC rules.  The SEC released proposed rules on August 29, 2012.
  • Impact on Startups: Startups will be permitted to avail themselves of social media, the internet, blogs, email and other communication technologies to disseminate information on their Rule 506 private offerings and reach a potentially wider pool of otherwise qualified investors, provided they meet the accredited investor purchaser requirement.  Startups will need to consider the nature and quality of any such means of solicitation in terms of potential impact on their credibility and image.

Title III: Equity Crowdfunding

  • Background:  Artists, musicians, not-for-profits and even entrepreneurs have raised funds in small amounts from large groups of donors typically through the internet and social media.  Some startups have used this crowdfunding technique without violating the securities laws by offering gifts instead of stock.
  • Reform:  Companies allowed to raise up to $1 million in the form of equity over a 12-month period from an unlimited number of investors, with individual investors limited during any 12 month period to the greater of $2,000 or 5 percent of the investor’s annual income or net worth for investors with net worth below $100,000, and for investors with net worth of at least $100,000, 10 percent of annual income or net worth, not to exceed $100,000 in total.  The crowdfunded offering must be conducted through an intermediary registered with the SEC and FINRA, which must provide disclosures to investors.  Issuers must file financial statements with the SEC and provide them to investors and intermediaries.
  • Effectiveness:  The SEC made clear that until they promulgate final rules, equity crowdfunding would violate the securities laws.  The JOBS Act requires the SEC to issue rules within 270 days after enactment (January 2013), but the SEC has been behind schedule on rulemaking and has given no indication when it will issue crowdfunding rules.
  • Impact on Startups: Crowdfunding creates new alternatives to angel and VC funding transactions and allows startups for the first time to raise small amounts from large groups using the internet and social media.  Antifraud rules still apply and exposure is always greater with large numbers of unsophisticated investors.  A large base of unsophisticated shareholders also may make corporate governance more difficult (e.g., obtaining requisite shareholder approvals) and the company less attractive to VCs.  The limited amounts that may be raised may not justify the expense associated with the financial statement and other disclosure requirements.

Title IV:  Increase of Regulation A Offering Cap to $50 Million

  • Background:  Regulation A under Section 3(b) of the Securities Act allowed small public offerings of less than $5 million if certain conditions were met and filings made. The $5 million offering ceiling, together with the lack of corresponding state “blue sky” exemptions and the offering document requirement, have made the Reg. A exemption an unattractive capital-raising alternative for small companies.
  • Reform:  The JOBS Act directs the SEC to raise the offering cap to $50 million within any 12-month period and exempt these “Regulation A+” offerings from state blue sky laws (but not state antifraud laws), provided that the securities are offered and sold on a national securities exchange or to a “qualified purchaser” as defined by the SEC.  Issuers will need to prepare an offering statement annual audited financial statements and such other periodic disclosures as the SEC may require.
  • Effectiveness:  Not effective until final SEC rulemaking, for which there is no timeline.  A bipartisan bill was introduced in the House in February (H.R. 701) to impose an October 31, 2013 on the SEC deadline to finalize Regulation A rules.
  • Impact on Startups:  May be more attractive to later-stage companies seeking up to $50 million where the added costs of the offering statement and audited financials are not as proportionately significant as they might be for an earlier stage company, and particularly if selling to unaccredited investors is likely.

Title V: Increase in Private Company Shareholder Cap from 500 to 2,000

  • Background:  Before the JOBS Act, companies with total assets of at least $10 million were required to register with the SEC under Section 12(g) of the Exchange Act and be subject to its periodic reporting regime if it had any class of equity securities held of record by 500 or more shareholders.  The concern with avoiding the shareholder threshold was considered an impediment to small company capital raising, particularly for high growth companies that had raised large amounts in multiple rounds and had compensated employees with stock.
  • Reform:  JOBS Act sharply raises the shareholder trigger from 500 to 2,000 excluding shareholders who received their shares in equity-based compensation arrangements or in crowdfunding transactions, but provided that no more than 499 are unaccredited investors.
  • Effectiveness:  Immediate.
  • Impact on Startups:  High growth startups will have greater flexibility to base decisions about capital raising, equity compensation and timing of “going public” on prudent business and market considerations. The ability of startups to remain private longer will likely lead to more robust trading of such companies’ shares in secondary trading markets, which in turn should cause these companies to seek to place more restrictions on resales of their shares.