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.

The Wall Street Journal ominously reported on February 28 that the Securities and Exchange Commission recently issued dozens of subpoenas to initial coin offering issuers and their advisors demanding information about the structure of their ICOs. Although the Commission has yet to officially acknowledge them, the subpoenas are consistent with a series of SEC enforcement actions alleging fraud or illegal sale of securities (see, e.g., here and here) and public speeches and statements warning ICO participants about regulatory compliance and promising greater scrutiny and enforcement (see, e.g., here, here and here).  Nevertheless, the enforcement actions and speeches don’t appear to have had much success in slowing down the pace of the ICO market.  Coinschedule reports that ICOs have raised over $3.3 billion in 88 deals already in 2018 through March 16, and is on pace to exceed the estimated $5.6 billion raised in 2017. The latest SEC subpoena campaign coupled with the accelerating pace of deals suggests the Commission believes its message is not resonating in the ICO market.

Although I’m grateful I didn’t find one of the subpoenas in my mailbox, I’m definitely curious about their contents.  Coindesk quotes industry sources who have seen several of the ICO subpoenas as saying that the requested information includes investor lists, emails, marketing materials, organizational structures, amounts raised, location of funds and people involved and their locations. It also cites an anonymous industry lawyer saying that the 25-page subpoena received by his client was “hyper-detailed” and that it asked for “every bit of communication around the token launch.”

So what exactly is the Commission focusing on?  Many naturally believe the Commission is primarily targeting fraud.  But the Journal, Coindesk and others suggest a different focus: Simple Agreements for Future Tokens or SAFTs.

The SAFT is modeled after Y Combinator’s Simple Agreement for Future Equity, or SAFE, which has been a popular mechanism for funding startups. With both the SAFE and the SAFT, the investor receives a right to something of value in the future in exchange for the current investment. With a SAFE, the investor gets the right to receive the security issued in the issuer’s next major funding round, typically preferred stock and usually at a discount to the next round’s price.  In a SAFT, the investor is given the right to receive tokens, also at a discount, typically once the network is created and the tokens are fully functional.

My first observation is that there may be some confusion in the media regarding SAFTs and Federal securities law, with some seeming to suggest that there may be a conflict of opinion about whether the SAFT itself is a security or whether the contract itself is illegal or non-compliant.  I’ve seen statements such as “what will happen to those who invested time and money if SAFTs don’t satisfy securities law?” and “what happens if the SEC comes out and says SAFTs are illegal”? Crowdfund Insider ran a piece with this provocative title: “Bad News: SAFTs May Not Be ‘Compliant’ After All”.

There should be no controversy regarding the SAFT itself (as opposed to the tokens that ultimately get issued). Protocol Labs and Cooley’s SAFT White Paper states in no uncertain terms that the SAFT is a security and must satisfy an exemption from registration, and contemplates compliance with Rule 506(c) under Regulation D.  I haven’t seen or heard anyone suggesting otherwise.  In fact, each SAFT investor is required to represent in the SAFT that it “has no intent to use or consume any or all Tokens on the corresponding blockchain network for the Tokens after Network Launch” and “enters into this security instrument purely to realize profits that accrue from purchasing Tokens at the Discount Price”. Accordingly, there should be no Federal securities law issue with the issuance of the SAFT itself, assuming of course that the issuer complies with Rule 506(c)’s requirements, i.e., disclosure obligations, selling only to accredited investors, using reasonable methods to verify accredited investor status and filing Form D.

The real issue is whether the eventual tokens, assuming they are issued to investors only when the network is created and the tokens fully functional, are necessarily not securities because of their full functionality.  SAFT proponents argue that fully functional tokens fail the “expectation of profits” and/or the “through the efforts of others” prongs of the Howey test, and thus should not be deemed to be securities. The SAFT White Paper analyzes these two prongs of the test from the perspective of the two likely categories of purchasers of tokens: actual token users and investors.  In the case of actual users, their bona fide desire to make direct use of the relevant consumptive aspect of a token on a blockchain-based platform predominates their profit-seeking motives, so arguably they fail the “expectation of profit” prong of Howey.  Investors, on the other hand, clearly expect a profit from resale of the tokens on a secondary market; that profit expectation, however, is usually not predominantly “through the efforts of others” (because management has already brought the tokens to full functionality) but rather from the myriad of factors that cause the price of assets to increase or decrease on an open market.

Opponents of the SAFT approach (see, e.g., Cardozo Blockchain Project’s Not So Fast—Risks Related to the Use of a “SAFT” for Token Sales) reject the concept of a bright-line test, i.e., they reject the notion that the question of whether a utility token will be deemed a security solely turns on whether the token is “fully functional”.  They maintain that courts and the SEC have repeatedly, and unambiguously, stated that the question of whether or not an instrument is a security is not subject to a bright-line test but rather an examination of the facts, circumstances and economic realities of the transaction.  Opponents also assert that the SAFT approach actually runs the risk of increasing regulatory scrutiny of utility token issuers because of the emphasis on the speculative, profit-generating aspects of the utility tokens (e.g., the investor reps referred to above), which could ironically transform an inherently consumptive digital good (the token itself) into an investment contract subject to federal securities laws.  Others have suggested that reliance on the efforts of management doesn’t end with full functionality of the tokens, and that ultimately the success of the network and hence the investment will turn on whether management is successful in overcoming competition.

If anything, the Commission’s subpoena campaign suggests that the SAFT opponents correctly predicted the increased regulatory scrutiny.  And the increased regulatory scrutiny through the subpoena campaign is a stark warning to ICO issuers and counsel that SAFTs may not be completely safe after all.

Bloomberg reported on October 16 that over $3 billion dollars have been raised in over 200 initial coin offerings so far this year. It remains to be seen whether the pace of ICOs will slow down in the face of regulatory headwinds such as the outright ICO bans in China and South Korea. Here in the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission has been sounding alarm bells. On July 25, the SEC’s Division of Enforcement issued a Report of Investigation finding that tokens offered and sold by a virtual organization known as “The DAO” were securities and therefore subject to the federal securities laws. I blogged about it here. On the same day the SEC issued the report, its Office of Investor Education and Advocacy issued an investor bulletin to make investors aware of potential risks of participating in ICOs.  Then on September 29, it charged a businessman and two companies with defrauding investors in a pair of ICOs purportedly backed by investments in real estate and diamonds. And on November 1, it issued a “Statement on Potentially Unlawful Promotion of Initial Coin Offerings and Other Investments by Celebrities and Others”, warning that any celebrity or other individual who promotes a virtual token or coin that is a security must disclose the nature, scope, and amount of compensation received in exchange for the promotion.

Needless to say, the days of ICOs flying below the SEC’s radar are over, and developers conducting token sales to fund the development of a network need to be aware of the securities law implications of the sale.  In its Report of Investigation, the SEC made clear (what most of us suspected all along) that the traditional Howey test for determining whether a funding mechanism is an ”investment contract” and thus a “security” applies to blockchain based tokens. I won’t go into a deep dive here. For those wanting to jump into the weeds, Debevoise has done a pretty good job on this. But the basic test under Howey is that an agreement constitutes an investment contract that meets the definition of a “security” if there is (i) an investment of money, (ii) in a common enterprise, (iii) with an expectation of profits, (iv) solely from the efforts of others.

It’s useful to consider that blockchain tokens fall generally into two broad categories. “Securities tokens” are basically like shares in a corporation or membership interests in a limited liability company where the purchaser receives an economic right to a proportional share of distributions from profits or a sale of the company. On the other hand, “utility tokens” don’t purport to offer purchasers an interest or share in the seller entity itself but rather access to the product or service the seller is developing or has developed. Unfortunately, there exists virtually no SEC or case law guidance on securities law aspects of utility tokens. The token at issue in the SEC’s investigative report on The DAO was a securities token. The DAO was a smart contract on the Ethereum blockchain that operated like a virtual venture fund. Purchasers would share in profits from the DAO’s investments and so the tokens were like limited partnership interests.

The question of whether utility tokens are securities may turn on whether the blockchain network for which the tokens will function is fully functional or still in development, and an interesting debate has emerged as to whether there should be a bright line test on that basis.

One side of the debate, advanced by Cooley (Marco Santori) and Protocol Labs (Juan Batiz-Benet and Jesse Clayburgh), is that purchasers of utility tokens prior to network launch and before genuine utility necessarily rely on the managerial and technical efforts of the developers to realize value from their tokens. Accordingly, agreements for the sale of pre-functional tokens meet the “expectation of profit” and “through the efforts of others” prongs of Howey and should be characterized as securities. On the other hand, fully functional utility tokens should not be considered securities because they fail the “through the efforts of others” prong of Howey and maybe even the “expectation of profit” prong.  Purchasers of fully functional tokens are likely to be people seeking access to the seller’s network as consumers or app developers with any expectation of profit from appreciation of the tokens being a secondary motivation, so the expectation of profit prong of Howey fails as to those purchasers. The same conclusion should apply even as to the other type of purchaser who is motivated primarily by the prospect of a token resale for profit because the profit that is hoped for is not expected to come through the managerial or entrepreneurial efforts of the developers, but rather through the many different independent forces that drive supply and demand for the tokens. There is a line of cases involving contracts for the purchase of commodities holding that they are not securities because the expectation of profit was solely from fluctuations in the secondary market, and not from any efforts on the part of the producer. Fully functional tokens are analogous to commodities in that the token developers have completed development of the network, and so there should not be any expectation that profit will result from any further efforts by the seller.

On the other side of the debate is Debevoise, which advocates for a facts and circumstances approach, rejects the bright line test of whether or not a utility token is fully functional and offers several arguments. The determination of whether an agreement is an investment contract and thus a security has long been based upon a facts and circumstances analysis. A blockchain token is not a homogenous asset class; a token could be a digital representation of an equity or debt security but it could also represent things like hospital records or a person’s identity, and that particular character of the token is unaffected by whether the network is or is not fully functional. Also, there is an implicit recognition in the JOBS Act that pre-order sales on non-equity crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are not sales of securities, and that pre-functional utility token sales should be analyzed the same way.  It also questions whether agreements by a mature company to presell a new product in development would automatically be deemed an investment contract. Finally, there’s the difficulty of determining when exactly a token is fully-functional given the complexity of software and network development.

Seems to me that the arguments on both sides of the utility token debate have merit.  I do think there’s a distinction, though, between pre-order sales of product by a mature company and a sale of pre-functional tokens, in that the tokens most likely can be sold on a secondary market, with any profit likely resulting from the entrepreneurial efforts of the developer.  I also think that until we have guidance from the SEC and/or judicial opinions on the issue, the better approach is to treat clearly pre-functional tokens as investment contracts and conduct their sale under an exemption from registration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Purpose Vehicles

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

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

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

Section 12(g) Registration Exclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Issuer Cap                                                                                    

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

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

Portal Liability

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

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

Testing the Waters

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

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

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

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.

One of the key investor protections of Regulation Crowdfunding under JOBS Act Title III is theyou've got funding requirement that offerings must be conducted exclusively through a single platform operated by a registered broker-dealer or a new type of SEC registrant, a funding portal. Although SEC registration for funding portals began January 29, 2016, intermediaries (funding portals and broker-dealers) may not engage in crowdfunding activities until May 16, 2016, the date that Regulation Crowdfunding goes live. It remains to be seen how popular Title III crowdfunding will prove to be given its burdensome rules relative to other available exemptions, but the potential is enormous both for issuers and for the brand new type of financial intermediary it created, the funding portal.

SEC logoThe SEC spent three years trying to reconcile the enormous capital markets potential of the “crowd” with the investor protection concerns voiced by equity crowdfunding’s critics. The SEC believes that requiring an issuer to use only one intermediary to conduct an offering helps foster the creation of a crowd, by facilitating information sharing and avoiding dilution or dispersement of the crowd, and helps minimize the risk that issuers and intermediaries would circumvent the requirements of Regulation Crowdfunding. For example, allowing an issuer to conduct an offering usingcrowd 2 more than one intermediary would make it more difficult for intermediaries to determine whether an issuer is exceeding the $1 million aggregate offering limit. But to mitigate fraud risk concerns, the SEC has also imposed a heavy gatekeeping burden on intermediaries, particularly funding portals.

This blog post will focus on the rules governing funding portals, and will summarize the permitted “safe harbor” activities and compliance rules unique to funding portals, as well as certain requirements common to both types of Regulation Crowdfunding intermediaries (broker-dealers and funding portals).

Unique Funding Portal Requirements

Registration. Funding portals are required to register with the SEC on Form Funding Portal, a stripped-down version of Form BD, the registration form for broker-dealers.  For example, unlike broker-dealer registration, funding portals will not be required to post a fidelity bond to register as a funding portal.  As required under the JOBS Act, SEC registered funding portals are exempt from broker-dealer registration.  The text of the Form currently appears only in the final rules release on pages 623-664 (inclusive of Schedules A-D and general instructions).[i]

All registered funding portals are also required to become members of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA.  FINRA funding portal registration information can be found here.

A funding portal’s SEC registration becomes effective on the later of: (1) 30 calendar days after the date that the registration is filed with the SEC; or (2) the date the funding portal is approved for FINRA membership.

Form Funding Portal must be filed electronically on EDGAR, although as of this writing the Form has not startenginebeen assigned a submission type or even been listed on the EDGAR forms index. To gain access to EDGAR for the electronic filing of Form Funding Portal, a funding portal will first need to obtain an EDGAR access code and a central index key, or CIK, by submitting a Form ID with the SEC. When a funding portal’s registration becomes effective, the information on Form Funding Portal becomes publicly available except for certain personally identifiable information.  As of this writing, there are no Form Funding Portals shown to have been filed on EDGAR, although at least one portal, StartEngine Capital LLC, put out a press release that it did so on January 29.

Permitted Activities – Safe Harbor. Unlike registered broker-dealers, funding portals are prohibited from giving investment advice, soliciting offers, paying success fees to persons for solicitations or handling investor funds or securities.  To help funding portals navigate these prohibitions while trying to function as effective intermediaries, the rules provide a safe harbor for the following activities:

  • Curating Offerings. A funding portal may use broad discretion to determine whether and under what circumstances to allow an issuer to offer and sell securities through its platform, subject to the prohibition on providing investment advice or recommendations and provided it complies with all other provisions of Regulation Crowdfunding. The SEC believes this kind of discretion is important for the protection of investors, as well as to the viability of the funding portal industry and the crowdfunding market.
  • Highlighting Issuers and Offerings. A funding portal is permitted to highlight particular issuers or offerings on its platform based on objective criteria where the criteria are reasonably designed to highlight a broad selection of issuers offering securities through the platform, are applied consistently to all issuers and offerings and are clearly displayed on the platform. The permissible criteria include type of securities offered (e.g., common stock, preferred stock or debt securities), geographic location of the issuer, industry or business segment of the issuer, number or amount of investment commitments made, progress in meeting the target offering amount and minimum or maximum investment amount.
  • Providing Search Functions. A funding portal may provide search functions on its platform that investors could use to search, sort or categorize available offerings according to objective criteria, and that would allow investors to sort through offerings based on a combination of different criteria, such as by the percentage of the target offering amount that has been met, geographic proximity to the investor and number of days remaining before the closing date of an offering. However, search criteria may not include the advisability of investing in the issuer or its offering, or an assessment of any characteristic of the issuer, its business plan, its management or risks associated with an investment.
  • Providing Communication Channels. A funding portal may provide communication channels by which investors can communicate with one another and with representatives of the issuer through the funding portal’s platform about offerings conducted through the platform, but neither the funding portal nor its associated persons or employees may participate in these communications, other than to establish guidelines about communications and to remove abusive or potentially fraudulent communications. The communication channels must be made available to the general public and must restrict the posting of comments to those who have accounts on the funding portal’s platform. The funding portal must require each person posting comments to disclose clearly with each posting whether he is a founder or an employee of an issuer engaging in promotional activities on behalf of the issuer, or will receive any compensation for promoting an issuer.
  • Advising Issuers. A funding portal may advise an issuer about the structure or content of the issuer’s offering, including preparing offering documentation. For example, a funding portal may provide pre-drafted templates or forms for an issuer to use in its offering, and advice about the types of securities the issuer can offer, the terms of those securities and the procedures and regulations associated with crowdfunding.  Without these services, the SEC believes that crowdfunding as a method to raise capital might not be viable.
  • Paying for Referrals. A funding portal may compensate a third party for referring a person to the funding portal if the third party does not provide the funding portal with personally identifiable information about any investor, and the compensation, other than that paid to a registered broker-dealer, is not a transaction based success fee. The SEC believes the prohibition on success fees will help to minimize the incentive for high-pressure sales tactics and other abusive practices in this area.
  • Compensation Arrangements with Registered Broker-Dealers. A funding portal may pay compensation to a registered broker-dealer for services, including for referring a person to the funding portal, in connection with the offer or sale of securities, provided that the services are provided pursuant to a written agreement between the funding portal and the registered broker-dealer, the compensation is permitted under Regulation Crowdfunding and the compensation complies with FINRA rules.
  • Advertising. A funding portal may advertise its existence and identify one or more issuers or offerings available on its portal on the basis of objective criteria, so long as the criteria are reasonably designed to identify a broad selection of issuers offering securities through the platform and are applied consistently to all potential issuers and offerings, and the funding portal does not receive special or additional compensation for identifying the issuer or offering in this manner. However, a funding portal may not base its decision as to which issuers to include in its advertisements on whether it has a financial interest in the issuer, and any advertising may not directly or indirectly favor issuers in which the funding portal has invested or will invest.
  • Denying Access to Platform. A funding portal may deny access to its platform to an issuer if the funding portal has a reasonable basis for believing that the issuer or the offering presents the potential for fraud or otherwise raises concerns about investor protection.
  • Accepting Investor Commitments.  A funding portal may, on behalf of an issuer, accept investment commitments from investors but may not actually handle the funds.
  • Directing Transmission of Funds. A funding portal may direct investors where to transmit funds and may direct a qualified third party to release proceeds of an offering to the issuer upon completion of the offering or to return investor proceeds when an investment commitment or offering is cancelled. Interestingly, the SEC chose not to impose requirements that would prohibit variations of a contingency offering, such as minimum-maximum offerings, that would establish a fixed deadline for transmission of funds as compared to the proposed requirement to transmit funds “promptly” or that would require funding portals to maintain a certain amount of net capital.

            Compliance.  A funding portal must have written policies and procedures reasonably designed to achieve compliance with the federal securities laws and regulations relating to its business as a funding portal.  In addition, funding portals must follow the same privacy rules as those applicable to brokers.  Finally, funding portals are required to preserve certain records for five years, with the records retained in a readily accessible place for at least the first two years.

Rules Governing Crowdfunding Intermediaries Generally

The following rules apply to all Regulation Crowdfunding intermediaries, i.e., funding portals and broker-dealers:

  • Receiving Financial Interests in Issuers. The intermediary entity (but not its directors, officers or partners) is permitted to receive a financial interest in an issuer using its services, provided that the financial interest is compensation for the services provided to the issuer in connection with the offering and the financial interest consists of the same security as being offered to investors in the offering. This was as an accommodation in the final rules that will better enable issuers to pay intermediary upfront fees (through stock) and also have the added benefit of aligning the interests of issuer, intermediary and investors.
  • Measures to Reduce Risk of Fraud. There are several measures that intermediaries are required to take that are designed to reduce the risk of fraud in crowdfunding transactions. An intermediary is required to have a reasonable basis for believing that the issuers on its platform comply with Regulation Crowdfunding and have established means to keep accurate records of the holders of the securities, and may reasonably rely on representations of the issuer unless the intermediary has reason to question the reliability of those representations.   An intermediary must deny access if it has a reasonable basis for believing that an issuer, or any of its officers, directors or any 20% owner is subject to a disqualification under Regulation Crowdfunding.
  • Accounts and Electronic Delivery. Intermediaries may not accept an investment commitment unless the investor has opened an account with the intermediary and the intermediary has obtained from the investor consent to electronic delivery of materials.
  • Educational Materials. Intermediaries must deliver certain educational materials to investors, including information on process for purchase of securities, types of securities that may be offered on the intermediary’s platform, risks associated with each type of security, restrictions on resale, types of information that an issuer is required to provide in annual reports, frequency of the delivery of that information, limits on amounts investors may invest and limitations on an investor’s right to cancel an investment commitment.
  • Promoters. Intermediaries must inform investors, at the time of account opening, that promoters must clearly disclose in all communications on the platform the receipt of promotion compensation and the fact that he is engaging in promotional activities on behalf of the issuer.
  • Compensation Disclosure. At the time of opening an account, intermediaries must clearly disclose the manner in which they will be compensated in connection with Regulation Crowdfunding offerings.
  • Issuer Information. Intermediaries must make available to the SEC and investors, not later than 21 days prior to the first day on which securities are sold to any investor, any information provided by the issuer pursuant to Regulation Crowdfunding, and that such information be publicly available on the platform for a minimum of 21 days before any securities are sold in the offering, during which time the intermediary may accept investment commitments, and remain publicly available on the platform until the offering is completed or cancelled.
  • Investor Qualification. Before accepting an investment commitment, an intermediary must have a reasonable basis for believing that the investor satisfies the investment limits under Regulation Crowdfunding. An intermediary may rely on an investor’s representations concerning annual income, net worth and the amount of the investor’s other investments in Regulation Crowdfunding offerings through other intermediaries unless the intermediary has a reasonable basis to question the reliability of the representation. Intermediaries must also confirm that an investor has reviewed the intermediary’s educational materials, understands that the entire amount of his investment may be lost and is in a financial condition to bear the loss of the investment and has completed a questionnaire demonstrating an understanding of the risks of any potential investment.
  • Communication Channels. Intermediaries must provide on their platforms channels through which investors can communicate with one another and with representatives of the issuer about offerings, to make the channels publicly available, permit only those persons who have opened accounts to post comments and require any person posting a comment in the channels to disclose whether he is a founder or employee of an issuer engaging in promotional activities on behalf of the issuer or otherwise compensated to promote the issuer’s offering. Funding portals are prohibited from participating in communications in these channels.
  • Transaction Confirmations. At or before the completion of a transaction, an intermediary must send to each investor a notification disclosing date of transaction, type of security, identity, price and number of securities purchased by the investor, certain specified terms of the security and source, form and amount of any remuneration to be received by the intermediary in connection with the transaction.
  • Completion of Offerings, Cancellations and Reconfirmations. Intermediaries must give investors the right to cancel an investment commitment for any reason until 48 hours prior to the deadline identified in the issuer’s offering materials. If an issuer reaches the target prior to deadline, it could close the offering provided the offering has been open for a minimum of 21 days, the intermediary provided notice about the new offering deadline at least five business days prior to the new offering deadline and investors are given the opportunity to reconsider and cancel their investment commitment until 48 hours prior to the new offering deadline. Finally, if there was a material change to the offering terms or to the information provided by the issuer, the intermediary would be required to give or send to any investors who have made investment commitments notice of the material change, stating that the investor’s investment commitment will be cancelled unless the investor reconfirms his or her commitment within five business days of receipt of the notice.

[i] Although funding portal registration went live on January 29, 2016, Form Funding Portal does not yet appear on the SEC’s website and a Google search came up empty.

It’s official: the new Regulation Crowdfunding rules will become effective on May 16, 2016.  The SEC’s crowdfunding-keyboardfinal rules release of October 31, 2015 provided that, with certain exceptions, the new rules will go into effect 180 days after they are published in the Federal Register.  We just learned that the rules were published in the Federal Register on November 16, and that, accordingly, they will become effective on May 16, 2016.

So mark your calendars.  May 16, 2016 will be the first day that companies will be able to file Form C, the offering statement mandated by the SEC for Regulation Crowdfunding offerings.  But because of the requirement that disclosure be made publicly available on the intermediary’s platform for a minimum of 21 days before any securities are sold in an offering, however, the first Regulation Crowdfunding closings will not take place until at least June 6, 2016.

An important exception to the May 16, 2016 effective date relates to registration of funding portals, the relevant effective date for which remains January 29, 2016.  That means that funding portals, one of the two types of intermediaries (the other being registered broker-dealers) that will be permitted to operate funding portalsonline platforms for securities transactions under Regulation Crowdfunding, could begin filing their registration form, called Form Funding Portal, on January 29, 2016.  The reason for the staggered effective dates is to provide a level playing field between broker-dealers, who would already be registered and possess built-in infrastructure, and “funding portals”, the newly designated category of intermediary that will need to register with the SEC as funding portals and develop infrastructure.  I’ll be blogging about what the new Regulation Crowdfunding means for funding portals in my next post.

You can find my initial reaction to the new Regulation Crowdfunding rules here.

SEC logoAt an open meeting on October 30, 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission by a three-to-one vote adopted final rules for equity crowdfunding under Section 4(a)(6) of the Securities Act of 1933, as mandated by Title III of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act.   The final rules and forms are effective 180 days after publication in the Federal Register.

Crowdfunding is an evolving method of raising funds online from a large number of people without regard to investor qualification and with each contributing relatively small amounts.[i]   Until now, public crowdfunding has not involved the offer of a share in any Crowdfunding1financial returns or profits that the fundraiser may expect to generate from business activities financed through crowdfunding. Such a profit or revenue-sharing model – sometimes referred to as the “equity model” of crowdfunding – could trigger the application of the federal securities laws because it likely would involve the offer and sale of a security to the public.  Equity crowdfunding has the potential to dramatically alter the landscape of capital markets for startup companies. It has also been the subject of a contentious debate ever since it was included in the JOBS Act, pitting those who want to allow startups to leverage the internet to reach investors and to permit ordinary people to invest small amounts in them against those that view crowdfunding as a recipe for a fraud disaster.

The SEC had issued proposed rules in October 2013 (see my blog post here), and received hundreds of comment letters in response. When the final rules become effective (early May 2016), issuers for the first time will be able to use the internet to offer and sell securities to the public without registration.  Here’s a brief summary of the new crowdfunding exemption rules and where they deviate from the original proposal.

Issuer and Investor Caps

  • Issuers may raise a maximum aggregate amount of $1 million through crowdfunding offerings in any 12-month period.
  • Individual investors, in any 12-month period, may invest in the aggregate across all crowdfunding offerings up to:
    • The greater of $2,000 or 5% of the lesser of annual income or net worth, if either annual income or net worth is less than $100,000, or
    • 10% of the lesser of their annual income or net worth if both their annual income and net worth are equal to or more than $100,000.
  • Aggregate amount an investor may invest in all crowdfunding offerings may not exceed $100,000 in any 12-month period.

Many commenters believed that the proposed $1 million offering limit was too low, but the SEC in the end believed the $1 million cap is consistent with the JOBS Act. The SEC did state in the final rules release, however, that Regulation Crowdfunding is a novel method of raising capital and that it’s concerned about raising the offering limit of the exemption at the outset of the adoption of final rules, suggesting that it would be open to doing so down the road.

As for the individual investment limit, the final rules deviate from the original proposal by clarifying that the limit reflects the aggregate amount an investor may invest in all crowdfunded offerings in a 12-month period across all issuers, and also specifies a “lesser of” approach to the income test.

Financial Disclosure

Financial disclosure requirements are based on the amount offered and sold in reliance on Section 4(a)(6) within the preceding 12-month period, as follows:

  • For issuers offering $100,000 or less: disclosure of total income, taxable income and total tax as reflected in the federal income tax returns certified by the principal executive officer, and financial statements certified by the principal executive officer; but if independently reviewed or audited financial statements are available, must provide those financials instead.
  • Issuers offering more than $100,000 but not more than $500,000: financial statements reviewed by independent public accountant, unless otherwise available.
  • Issuers offering more than $500,000:
    • For issuers offering more than $500,000 but not more than $1 million of securities in reliance on Regulation Crowdfunding for the first time: financial statements reviewed by independent public accountant, unless otherwise available.
    • For issuers that have previously sold securities in reliance on Regulation Crowdfunding: financial statements audited by independent public accountant.

The financial disclosure requirements contain a number of changes from the proposal that hopefully will help reduce the costs and risks associated with preparing the required financials. Instead of mandating that issuers offering $100,000 or less provide copies of their federal income tax returns as proposed, the final rules require an issuer only to disclose total income, taxable income and total tax, or the equivalent line items, from filed federal income tax returns, and to have the principal executive officer certify that those amounts reflect accurately the information in the returns.  This minimizes the risk of disclosure of private information which would exist if tax returns had to be provided.  In addition, reducing the requirement for first time issuers of between $500,000 and $1 million from audited financials (as had been proposed) to reviewed financials is a sensible accommodation inasmuch as the concern about the cost and burden of the audit relative to the size of the offering is even greater for first timers who would need to incur the audit expense before having proceeds from the offering.

Intermediaries

  • Offerings must be conducted exclusively through one platform operated by a registered broker or funding portal.
  • Intermediaries required to provide investors with educational materials, take measures to reduce the risk of fraud, make available information about the issuer and the offering and provide communication channels to permit discussions about offerings on the platform.
  • Funding portals prohibited from offering investment advice, soliciting sales or offers to buy, paying success fees and handling investor funds or securities.
  • Funding portals must register with the SEC by filing new Form Funding Portal, which will be effective January 29, 2016.

The rationale behind the requirement to use only one intermediary is that it helps foster the creation of a “crowd”. Having one meeting place enables a crowd to share information effectively, and minimizes the chances of dilution or dispersement of the crowd. This in turn supports one of the main justifications for equity crowdfunding, which is that having hundreds or thousands of investors sharing information increases the chances that any fraud will be exposed, thus the “wisdom of the crowd”. The one platform requirement also helps to minimize the risk that issuers and intermediaries would circumvent the requirements of Regulation Crowdfunding. For example, allowing an issuer to conduct an offering using more than one platform would make it more difficult for intermediaries to determine whether an issuer is exceeding the $1 million aggregate offering limit.

One important deviation from the proposed rules is that funding portals will be permitted to curate offerings based on subjective criteria, not just based on perceptions of fraud risk.  A second important deviation is that all intermediaries will be allowed to receive as compensation a financial interest in the issuers conducting offerings on their platforms, which will expand the options available to cash-starved startups.

Preliminary Thoughts

The ink is still wet on the SEC’s 686 page release, but here are some preliminary thoughts. Equity crowdfunding has the potential to create new capital raising opportunities for many startups and early stage companies by removing antiquated regulatory barriers and allowing companies to leverage the internet and social media to reach and sell to prospective investors without regard to accredited investor status. The federal securities laws were written over 80 years ago when investors had no access to information about issuers.  In the internet age, prospective investors have many sources of information at their fingertips and the “wisdom of the crowd” can both steer dollars to the most promising companies and ensure that ample information is spread to interested parties.

As I’ve stated before, however, the SEC’s preoccupation with investor crowdprotection has created a disconnect between the potential of equity crowdfunding and its reality, now expressed in the final rules. To be fair, the framework for most of the rules was predetermined by what Congress enacted in Title III of the JOBS Act and the final rules do contain some welcome relief from the original proposal. Nevertheless, I fear that the burden and expense associated with some of the rules will make Regulation Crowdfunding far less attractive to most companies than traditional offerings under Rule 506 notwithstanding the latter’s pro-accredited investor bias. For example, the requirement to produce audited financial statements for offerings above $500,000 (except for first time Regulation Crowdfunding issuers) will seem prohibitively expensive when compared with accredited investor-only Rule 506 offerings where no financials are mandated at all. It’s also unclear how the burdensome rules governing intermediaries will attract established investment banks, or even boutiques, and will likely leave the field open primarily to persons with scant resources and experience. Lastly, even in the context of a successful crowdfunded offering, companies will also need to consider carefully the negative consequences associated with a shareholder base consisting of potentially thousands of individual investors. Those consequences include the expense associated with keeping them informed, the difficulties of securing quorums and votes and the inevitable misgivings VCs will have of investing in a crowdfunded startup.

In the final analysis, though, Title III equity crowdfunding will finally become law, meaning that issuers will for the first time be allowed to leverage the internet to sell securities to an unlimited number of investors without registration and without regard to accredited investor status, and that is decidedly a treat.

[1] The term “crowdfunding” has also been used more broadly as a somewhat generic term for any campaign to raise funds through an online platform.  These include non-equity crowdfunding (i.e., rewards or pre-order based), “accredited” crowdfunding (in reliance on Rule 506(b) or 506(c)) and registered crowdfunding (in reliance on Regulation A+).  This post will use the term only as it applies to small equity offerings to many investors, each contributing relatively small amounts, and soon to be available under Regulation Crowdfunding.

SEC logoIn its most recent meeting on September 23, 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Advisory Committee on Small and Emerging Companies recommended specific reforms that would significantly liberalize the rules governing private offering intermediaries and make it easier for companies to use them. If adopted, these reforms could greatly enhance the capacity of startups and early stage companies to reach investors and raise capital.

Background

More than 95% of private offerings in America rely on the exemptions provided by Regulation D, particularly Rule 506. But fewer than 15% of Reg D offerings use a financial intermediary, such as a placement agent, broker-dealer or finder. This is largely due to the general requirement financial intermediariesthat anyone receiving a transaction based success fee in a securities transaction be registered with the SEC as a broker-dealer (and subject to regulatory oversight as such) and be a member of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority or FINRA. This is so even if the intermediary’s participation in an offering is limited to giving the issuer the name of a prospective investor, and refrains from engaging in other services often provided by full service intermediaries, such as holding funds or securities, helping to negotiate the transaction, assisting in the preparation of offering materials or providing investment advice. The risks to both intermediaries and issuers of paying a success fee to a non-registered intermediary is fairly draconian. For intermediaries, the risk is forfeiture of the success fee, as issuers could use non-registration as a defense for non-payment. For issuers, the risk is rescission, i.e., that all investors in a round could have the right to demand their money back.

The Committee’s Recommendations

The Committee prefaced its recommendations by stating that imposing only limited regulatory requirements on private placement intermediaries whose activities are restricted to specified parameters, do not hold customer funds or securities and deal only with accredited investors would enhance capital formation and promote job creation without materially undermining investor protections. Presumably, the Committee is asserting that such unregistered intermediaries should be allowed to receive a success fee.

The Committee then made the following recommendations to the SEC:

  1.  Take steps to clarify the current ambiguity in broker-dealer regulation by determining that persons that receive transaction-based compensation solely for providing names of or introductions to prospective investors are not subject to registration as a broker under the Securities Exchange Act.
  2. Exempt intermediaries that are actively involved in the discussions, negotiations and structuring, as well as the solicitation of prospective investors, for private financings on a regular basis from broker registration at the federal level, conditioned upon registration as a broker under State law.
  3. Spearhead a joint effort with the North American Securities Administrators Association and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority to ensure coordinated State regulation and adoption of measured regulation that is transparent, responsive to the needs of small businesses for capital, proportional to the risks to which investors in such offerings are exposed, and capable of early implementation and ongoing enforcement.
  4. Take immediate intermediary steps to begin to address this set of issues incrementally instead of waiting until development of a comprehensive solution.

A recording of the September 23 Committee meeting could be accessed here.