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.

It’s not often that the House of Representatives votes nearly unanimously on anything noteworthy these days, but that’s exactly what the House did on July 17 in voting 406-4 for the “JOBS and Investor Confidence Act of 2018”, also known on the street as “JOBS Act 3.0”, which is the latest iteration of the effort to improve on the capital markets reform initiative started in the original JOBS Act of 2012. JOBS Act 3.0 consists of 32 individual pieces of legislation that have passed the Financial Services Committee or the House, the substance of several of which I have blogged about previously. If passed by the Senate in some form or another and signed by the President, the reforms included in JOBS Act 3.0 will continue the process of removing unreasonable impediments to capital formation by early stage companies and address perceived problems with the original JOBS Act.

The highlights of JOBS Act 3.0 passed by the House are as follows:

Demo Days: Helping Angels Lead Our Startups Act” or the “HALOS Act”

The bill would direct the SEC to amend Regulation D to make clear that activities associated with demo day or pitch night events satisfying certain criteria would not constitute prohibited “general solicitation” under Regulation D. Specifically, the new exemption would cover events with specified types of sponsors, such as “angel investor groups”, venture forums and venture capital associations, so long as the event advertising doesn’t refer to any specific offering of securities by the issuer, the sponsor doesn’t provide investment advice to attendees or engage in investment negotiations with attendees, charge certain fees, or receive certain compensation, and no specific information regarding a securities offering is communicated at the event beyond the type and amount of securities being offered, the amount of securities already subscribed for and the intended use of proceeds from the offering.

I previously blogged about the issue of demo days and the ban on general solicitation here.

Private Company M&A Brokers: Small Business Mergers, Acquisitions, Sales, and Brokerage Simplification Act of 2017

The bill would exempt from SEC broker-dealer registration mergers-and-acquisitions brokers that facilitate transfers of ownership in privately held companies with earnings or revenues under a specified threshold. The exemption would not apply to any broker who takes custody of funds or securities, participates in a public offering of registered securities, engages in a transaction involving certain shell companies, provides or facilitates financing related to the transfer of ownership, represents both buyer and seller without disclosure and consent, assists in the formation of a group of buyers, engages in transferring ownership to a passive buyer, binds a party to a transfer of ownership or is a “bad actor”.

Since 2014, private company M&A brokers could at best be guided by an SEC no-action letter, although there had been previous Congressional efforts to codify the protection, which I had blogged about here.

Accredited Investor Definition: Fair Investment Opportunities for Professional Experts Act

The bill would direct the SEC to expand the definition of “accredited investor” under Regulation D beyond the net worth and income test to include individuals licensed as a broker or investment advisor and individuals determined by the SEC to have demonstrable education or job experience to qualify as having professional knowledge of a subject related to a particular investment.

Venture Exchanges: Main Street Growth Act

Although the JOBS Act created an IPO on-ramp for emerging growth companies, it did comparatively little to address secondary market trading in these companies. This portion of the bill seeks to remedy that shortcoming by providing a tailored trading platform for EGCs and stocks with distressed liquidity. Companies that choose to list on a venture exchange would have their shares traded on a single venue, thereby concentrating liquidity and exempting their shares from rules that are more appropriate for deeply liquid and highly valued stocks. Venture exchanges would also be afforded the flexibility to develop appropriate “tick sizes” that could help incentivize market makers to trade in the shares of companies listed on the exchange.

VC Fund Exemption – Investment Advisor Registration: Developing and Empowering our Aspiring Leaders Act

Dodd-Frank requires private equity and hedge fund managers to register with the SEC under the Investment Advisors Act but allows venture capital fund managers to become “exempt reporting advisors” and be relieved from the regulatory requirements encountered by registered investment advisors. Currently, to qualify under the venture capital fund definition and register with the SEC as an exempt reporting advisor, VCs must ensure that more than 80% of their activities are in qualifying investments, which are defined only as direct investments in private companies.

The bill would require the SEC to revise the definitions of a qualifying portfolio company and a qualifying investment to include an emerging growth company and the equity securities of an emerging growth company, “whether acquired directly from the company or in a secondary acquisition”, for purposes of the exemption from registration for venture capital fund advisers under the Investment Advisers Act.  A company qualifies as an emerging growth company if it has total annual gross revenues of less than $1.07 billion during its most recently completed fiscal year and continues to be an emerging growth company for the first five fiscal years after it completes an IPO unless its total annual gross revenues are $1.07 billion or more, it has issued more than $1 billion in non-convertible debt in the past three years or it becomes a “large accelerated filer”.

Founders often leave startups, voluntarily or involuntarily, and it may be in everyone’s interest to have their shares purchased by other existing shareholders rather than sold to an outsider or held by a disgruntled founder.  VC funds should have the flexibility to be able to buy those shares.  Similarly, the inclusion of emerging growth companies in the category of qualifying portfolio company will benefit the innovation ecosystem by encouraging VC funds to invest further in their portfolio companies post-IPO.

Special Purpose Crowdfunding Vehicles: Crowdfunding Amendments Act

One of the perceived defects of the rules governing equity crowdfunding under Regulation CF is the ineligibility of investment vehicles. Many accredited investor crowdfunding platforms like AngeList and OurCrowd operate on an investment fund model, whereby they recruit investors under Regulation D to invest in a special purpose vehicle whose only purpose is to invest in an 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.  Due to the fear of having to collect thousands of signatures every time shareholder consent is required for a transaction, higher-quality issuers with other financing options are less likely to crowdfund without a single-purpose-vehicle. I suspect that many companies are shying away from Reg CF or not reaching potential raise targets because of this reason alone.

The bill would allow equity crowdfunding offerings under Reg CF through special purpose vehicles that issue only one class of securities, receive no compensation in connection with the offering and are advised by a registered investment adviser.  Special-purpose-vehicles allow small investors to invest alongside a sophisticated lead investor with a fiduciary duty to advocate for their interests. The lead investor may negotiate better terms and represent small investors on the board.  Retail investors don’t enjoy these benefits under Reg CF.

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

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

The Registrant

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

What’s Wrong with this S-1?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

On 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.

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

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

Special Purpose Vehicles

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

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

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

Section 12(g) Registration Exclusion

The JOBS Act raised from 500 shareholders to 2000 (or 500 non-accredited investors) the threshold under Section 12(g) of the Securities Exchange Act that triggers registration with the SEC, which subjects the company to periodic reporting obligations (e.g., 10-Ks, 10-Qs, etc.). It also instructed the SEC to exempt, conditionally or unconditionally, shares issued in Title III crowdfunding transactions.  In its final rules, the SEC provided that shareholders that purchased crowdfunded shares would be excluded from the shareholder calculation under Section 12(g), but conditioned the exclusion on, among other things, the issuer having total assets of no more than $25 million.

The $25 million limit on total assets may have the perverse effect of deterring growth companies from utilizing crowdfunding and/or prompting such companies to issue redeemable shares to avoid the obligation to register with the SEC if they cross the shareholder threshold because of a crowdfunded offering.

The original version of the FCA would have removed from the 12(g) exclusion the condition that an issuer not have $25 million or more in assets.

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

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

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

Issuer Cap                                                                                    

Title III limits issuers to raising not more than $1 million in crowdfunding offerings in any rolling 12 month period. By comparison, Regulation A+ allows up to $50 million and Rule 506 of Regulation D has no cap whatsoever.

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

Portal Liability

Title III imposes liability for misstatements or omissions on an “issuer” (as defined) that is unable to sustain the burden of showing that it could not have known of the untruth or omission even if it had exercised reasonable care. Title III also exposes an intermediary (i.e., funding portal or broker-dealer) to possible liability if an issuer made material inaccuracies or omissions in its disclosures on the crowdfunding site. It is over this very concern over liability that some of the largest non-equity crowdfunding sites that have otherwise signaled interest in equity crowdfunding, including Indiegogo and EarlyShares, have expressed reluctance to get into the Title III intermediary business.

The original version of the FCA would have clarified that an intermediary will not be considered an issuer for liability purposes unless it knowingly made a material misstatement or omission or knowingly engaged in any fraudulent act. Presumably then, as proposed, a plaintiff would have had the burden of proving not just the fraud, misstatement or omission but that the intermediary knew at the time. The House version dropped this relief for intermediaries.

Testing the Waters

Securities offerings are expensive and risky with no guaranty that they will generate enough investor interest. Congress and the SEC chose not to allow Title III issuers to “test-the-waters”, i.e., solicit indications of interest from potential investors prior to filing the mandated disclosure document with the SEC, out of concern that unscrupulous companies could prime the market before any disclosure became publicly available.

The original version of the FCA would have allowed Title III issuers to test the waters by permitting them to solicit non-binding indications of interest from potential investors so long as no investor funds are accepted by the issuer during the initial solicitation period and any material change in the information provided in the actual offering from the information provided in the solicitation of interest is highlighted to potential investors in the information filed with the SEC. This too was left out of the version approved by the House.

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

Ever since the Federal securities laws were enacted in 1933, all offers and sales of securities in the United States had to either be registered with the SEC or satisfy an exemption from registration. The commonly used private offering exemption, however, prohibited any act of general solicitation. The JOBS Act of 2012 JOBS Act signingcreated a new variation to the private offering exemption under Rule 506 of Regulation D that permits online offers and other acts of general solicitation, but issuers selling under this new Rule 506(c) may sell only to accredited investors and must use reasonable methods to verify investor status.

Starting today, companies will be permitted to offer and sell securities online to anyone, not just accredited investors, without SEC registration. This is pursuant to Title III of the JOBS Act and the final crowdfunding rules promulgated by the SEC called Regulation Crowdfunding.  The potential for Title III Crowdfundingequity crowdfunding is enormous and potentially disruptive.  It is believed that approximately 93% of the U.S. population consists of non-accredited investors who have an estimated $30 trillion stashed away in investment accounts.  If only one percent of that amount got redirected to equity crowdfunding, the resulting $300 billion dollars invested would be ten times larger than the VC industry.  Hence the potential.

The reality, however, is not as encouraging. In the interest of investor protection, Congress in JOBS Act Title III and the SEC in Regulation Crowdfunding created a heavily regulated and expensive regime that many fear will severely limit the prospects of equity crowdfunding.  The rules include a $1 million issuer cap, strict dollar limits on investors, disclosure requirements and funding portal liability, registration and gatekeeper obligations.

wefunderSEC registration for funding portals began on January 29. But as of last week, only five portals had completed the registration process: Wefunder Portal LLC, SI Portal LLC dba Seedinvest.com, CFS LLC dba seedinvestCrowdFundingSTAR.com, NextSeed US LLC and StartEngine Capital LLC.  Over 30 others are apparently awaiting approval.  Of the two best known and most successful non-equity crowdfunding portals, only Indiegogo has declared an intention to get in the Title III funding portal business; Kickstarter has so far declined.

The likely reason for the apparent lackluster funding portal activity so far is the restrictive regulatory regime referred to above, the burden of which falls disproportionately on funding portals. None of this should be a surprise.  Several key aspects of the crowdfunding rules were contentiously debated at the Congressional level and later during SEC rulemaking.  Opponents asserted that retail equity crowdfunding is an invitation for massive fraud against those who can least afford it and so believe Title III is a mistake.  Proponents advocated against several of the more restrictive rules but conceded on these points in order to get Title III passed.  And because the legislation itself was so prescriptive and granular, there was only room for marginal improvement in the final SEC rules relative to those proposed in the initial release.

Regrettably, there’s painful precedent for securities exemptions so restrictive that no one used them.  Regulation A allowed for a mini-public offering through a streamlined filing with the SEC.  But issuers were capped at $5 million and were forced to go through merit review in each state where they offered the securities.  The result:  hardly anyone used Reg A.  In recognition of this, Title IV of the JOBS Act reformed Reg A by increasing the cap to $50 million and, more importantly, preempting state blue sky review for so-called Tier II offerings which must satisfy investor protection requirements.

In an effort to prevent Title III from a fate similar to pre-reform Reg A, legislation has been introduced in Congress to increase the issuer cap, allow for special purpose vehicles, remove the $25 million asset cap on the exemption from the 500 shareholder SEC registration trigger and allow issuers to test the waters. See my previous blog post here on the proposed Fix Crowdfunding Act.

It may seem somewhat premature to advocate for reform when the rules have barely gone live. But given the time necessary for the legislative process to run its course, and inasmuch as the indications are already fairly clear that both issuers and funding portals remain skeptical about Title III crowdfunding, it makes sense to begin the process now of introducing necessary common sense reform of Title III.

Beginning on May 16, issuers for the first time will be able to offer and sell securities online to anyone, not just accredited investors, withoutTitle III Crowdfunding registering with the SEC. The potential here is breathtaking.  Some $30 trillion dollars are said to be stashed away in long-term investment accounts of non-accredited investors; if only 1% of that gets allocated to crowdfunding, the resulting $300 billion would be ten times bigger than the VC industry.   But the onerous rules baked into JOBS Act Title III and the SEC’s Regulation Crowdfunding (the statutory and regulatory basis, respectively, for public equity crowdfunding), leave many wondering if Title III crowdfunding will prove to be an unattractive alternative to other existing exemptions and become a largely underutilized capital raising pathway – a giant missed opportunity.

Patrick_McHenry_OfficialBut help may be on the way. Congressman Patrick McHenry recently introduced new legislation to address certain defects in Title III.  The Fix Crowdfunding Act (H.R. 4855)  would seek to improve the utility of Title III crowdfunding by raising the issuer dollar limit, simplifying the Section 12(g)(6) exemption, clarifying portal liability, permitting special purpose entities to engage in Title III offerings and allowing issuers to “test the waters”.  The House Financial Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Capital Markets recently held hearings on the Fix Crowdfunding Act labeled “The JOBS Act at Four: Examining Its Impact and Proposals to Further Enhance Capital Formation”, with witnesses such as Kevin Laws (Chief Operating Officer of AngelList) and The Honorable Paul S. Atkins (Chief Executive Officer of Patomak Global Partners) testifying.  Congress should pass this proposed legislation, and the sooner the better.

Here’s a summary of the proposed legislation, identifying the defect in the original Title III and the proposed fix.

Issuer Cap                                                                                     

Title III limits issuers to raising not more than $1 million in crowdfunding offerings in any rolling 12 month period. By comparison, Regulation A+ allows up to $50 million and Rule 506 of Regulation D has no cap whatsoever.

The new legislation would increase the issuer cap from $1 million to $5 million in any rolling 12 month period.

Portal Liability

Title III imposes liability for misstatements or omissions on an “issuer” (as defined) that is unable to sustain the burden of showing that it could not have known of the untruth or omission even if it had exercised reasonable care. By comparison, a plaintiff in a Rule 506 offering must allege not just a material misstatement or omission but that the issuer either knew or should have known if it made a reasonable inquiry.  Title III defines “issuer” to include “any person who offers or sells the security in such offering.”  In its final rules release, the SEC considered but refused to clarify that intermediaries were not issuers for purposes of the liability provision.  As it currently stands, Title III exposes intermediaries (i.e., funding portals and broker-dealer platforms) to possible liability if issuers commit material inaccuracies or omissions in their disclosures on crowdfunding sites.  It is over this very concern over liability that some of the largest non-equity crowdfunding sites that have otherwise signaled interest in equity crowdfunding, including Indiegogo and EarlyShares, have expressed reluctance to get into the Title III intermediary business.

The Fix Crowdfunding Act would make clear that an intermediary will not be considered an issuer for liability purposes unless it knowingly makes any material misstatements or omissions or knowingly engages in any fraudulent act. Presumably then, as proposed, a plaintiff would have the burden of proving not just the fraud, misstatement or omission but that the intermediary knew at the time.

Section 12(g) Registration Exemption

The JOBS Act raised from 500 shareholders to 2000 (or 500 non-accredited investors) the threshold under Section 12(g) that triggers Exchange Act registration. It also instructed the SEC to exempt, conditionally or unconditionally, shares issued in Title III crowdfunding transactions.  In its final rules, the SEC exempted crowdfunded shares from the shareholder calculation under Section 12(g), but conditioned the exemption on, among other things, the issuer having total assets of no more than $25 million.  The $25 million limit on total assets may have the perverse effect of deterring growth companies from utilizing crowdfunding and/or prompting such companies to issue redeemable shares to avoid the obligation to register with the SEC if they cross the shareholder threshold because of a crowdfunded offering.

The new legislation would remove from the 12(g) exemption the condition that an issuer not have $25 million or more in assets.

Special Purpose Vehicles

Several portals such as AngelList and OurCroud utilize a fund business model (rather than a broker-dealer model) for Rule 506 offerings in SPVwhich investors invest into an SPV which in turn makes the investment into the company as one shareholder. Because of the SPV exclusion, many growth-oriented startups might avoid Title III crowdfunding if they expect to raise venture capital in the future, as VC firms don’t like congested cap tables.

The proposed legislation would make “any issuer that holds, for the purpose of making an offering pursuant to [Title III], the securities of not more than one issuer eligible to offer securities pursuant to [Title III]” eligible for Title III offerings.

Testing the Waters

testing the watersSecurities offerings are expensive and risky with no guaranty that they will generate enough investor interest. Congress and the SEC chose not to allow Title III issuers to “test-the-waters”, i.e., solicit indications of interest from potential investors prior to filing the mandated disclosure document with the SEC.  The concern is that allowing issuers to do so would enable unscrupulous companies to prime the market before any disclosure became publicly available. Without the protection of public disclosure, issuers may be able to use selective disclosures or overly enthusiastic language to generate investor interest.

The Fix Crowdfunding Act would specifically allow Title III issuers to test the waters by permitting them to solicit non-binding indications of interest from potential investors so long as no investor funds are accepted by the issuer during the initial solicitation period and any material change in the information provided in the actual offering from the information provided in the solicitation of interest are highlighted to potential investors in the information filed with the SEC.