If you were looking for a safe blockchain investment and had the chance to invest in the “first licensed and regulated tokenized cryptocurrency exchange and index fund based in the U.S.” and audited by a Big 4 accounting firm, you might do it, right? One problem: turns out it’s not licensed, regulated or audited.

On October 11, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced it had obtained an emergency court order halting Blockvest, LLC’s initial coin offering, whose sponsors falsely claimed that it was “registered” and “approved” by the SEC and other regulators, that its chief marketing officer was licensed by FINRA and that it was audited by Deloitte. None of that was true. The sponsors claimed they had already raised more than $2.5 million in pre-ICO sales of its digital token, BLV, and that it sought to raise an aggregate of $100 million in the ICO. The order also halts ongoing pre-ICO sales by Blockvest and its founder, Reginald Buddy Ringgold, III, a/k/a Rasool Abdul Rahim El.

The most brazen aspect of the alleged fraudulent scheme was the sponsors’ apparent creation of a fictitious blockchain regulatory agency which they call the “Blockchain Exchange Commission” or “BEC”, which they claim “regulates the blockchain digital asset space to protect digital asset investors”.  In May 2018, roughly one month after filing a Form D for the BLV offering (see below), Ringgold created the BEC, renaming a company that had been previously incorporated under various names including “Fartlife.” The BEC seems to plagiarize the SEC’s logo and mission statement, and gives itself the same address as SEC headquarters (100 F Street, NE, Washington, DC).  The BEC’s LinkedIn page includes a logo nearly identical to the SEC’s logo (see left), as well as the following mission statement, also uncannily similar to the SEC’s:

“The mission of the BEC is to protect investors; and assist in maintaining fair, orderly, and efficient markets within the Blockchain Digital Asset Space…The Blockchain Exchange Commission, or BEC, is dedicated to investor protection and market integrity.”

Blockvest also appears to be confused about securities offering rules. It filed a Form D with the SEC on April 16, 2018, claiming an exemption under Rule 506(c), which requires that all purchasers be accredited investors and that the issuer use reasonable methods to verify status. The SEC’s complaint states that, on information and belief, Blockvest has not taken reasonable steps to ensure that BLV investors are accredited. Also, despite their Form D, Blockvest’s website invokes Regulation A. Never mind that Regulation A has an offering limit of $50 million (Blockvest is seeking $100 million in its ICO), and prohibits any sales until the issuer has filed an offering statement on Form 1-A and the SEC has issued a notice of qualification. The SEC’s complaint further states that Blockvest’s website stated falsely that its ICO was “Reg A+ compliant” and can offer its securities to unaccredited investors all over the globe. Blockvest’s website now states that the “Pre-IPO testing the waters phase has been halted.” Testing the waters is a Regulation A concept.  Blockvest hasn’t filed a Form 1-A offering statement, nor has any offering been qualified by the SEC under Regulation A.

The SEC complaint should serve as a warning to issuers conducting unregistered ICOs to exercise caution and avoid language implying that that their tokens have been registered with the SEC, or that the SEC has passed on the merits of the offered tokens. This is why exempt offerings include the following legend in their disclosure documents:

THE SECURITIES OFFERED HEREBY HAVE NOT BEEN APPROVED BY THE UNITED STATES SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION, OR ANY STATE SECURITY AUTHORITY. ANY REPRESENTATION TO THE CONTRARY IS UNLAWFUL.

THE UNITED STATES SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION DOES NOT PASS UPON THE MERITS OF OR GIVE ITS APPROVAL TO ANY SECURITIES OFFERED OR THE TERMS OF THE OFFERING, NOR DOES IT PASS UPON THE ACCURACY OR COMPLETENESS OF ANY OFFERING CIRCULAR OR OTHER SOLICITATION MATERIALS. THESE SECURITIES ARE OFFERED PURSUANT TO AN EXEMPTION FROM REGISTRATION WITH THE COMMISSION; HOWEVER, THE COMMISSION HAS NOT MADE AN INDEPENDENT DETERMINATION THAT THE SECURITIES OFFERED HEREUNDER ARE EXEMPT FROM REGISTRATION.

 

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

Background: Rule 701

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

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

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

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

Concept Release on Compensatory Securities Offerings and Sale

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

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

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

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

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

The Airbnb Comment Letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Background

Smaller Reporting Company

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

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

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

Accelerated Filer

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

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

Amendments to Smaller Reporting Company and Accelerated Filer Definitions

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

The final rules will become effective September 10, 2018.

The amended SRC thresholds are summarized in the following chart:

Criterion

Current Definition

Revised Definition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Annex

Smaller Reporting Company Scaled Disclosure

 

Regulation S-K

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

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

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

Tabular disclosure of contractual obligations not required.

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

Three named executive officers rather than five.

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

·      Compensation discussion and analysis.

·      Grants of plan-based awards table.

·      Option exercises and stock vested table.

·      Pension benefits table.

·      Nonqualified deferred compensation table.

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

·      Pay ratio disclosure.

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

Audit committee financial expert disclosure not required in first annual report

Compensation committee interlocks and insider participation disclosure not required.

Compensation committee report not required.

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

Regulation S-X

Rule Scaled Disclosure
8-02 – Annual Financial Statements

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

“Can a digital asset that was originally offered in a securities offering ever be later sold in a manner that does not constitute an offering of a security?”

Such was the question posed by William Hinman, Director of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Corporation Finance, in his speech at the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit: Crypto event in San Francisco on June 14. Hinman’s answer: a qualified “yes” where there is no longer any central enterprise being invested in or where the digital asset is sold only to be used to purchase a good or service available through the network on which it was created. This may be the most positive guidance yet from the SEC on when a digital asset might be deemed not to be a security under the Howey test. It may help create a pathway for blockchain startups to sell without registration or exemption digital tokens that had previously been sold in securities offerings, and should provide a measure of comfort to past and future issuers of SAFT-based ICOs.

After making his overarching point that a digital asset originally offered in a securities offering could be later sold in a manner that does not constitute an offering of a security when there is no longer any central enterprise being invested in or where the digital asset is sold only to be used to purchase a good or service available through the network on which it was created, Hinman went on to describe the circumstances under which he believes that could occur. In doing so, Hinman concentrated primarily on the last prong of the Howey test, namely whether an expectation of profit derived through the efforts of others, and suggested that the inquiry should focus on two areas: (i) who are the participants, and (ii) how is the digital asset structured?

Who are the Participants?

When determining whether a digital asset should be deemed to be an investment contract, Hinman stated that one should “consider whether a third party – be it a person, entity or coordinated group of actors – drives the expectation of a return.”

He suggested that this question will always depend on the particular facts and circumstances of a transaction, and offered the following non-exhaustive list of factors:

  • Promoter’s efforts play a significant role in the development and maintenance of the digital asset and its potential increase in value.
  • Promoter retains a stake or other interest in the digital asset such that he would be motivated to expend efforts to cause an increase in its value, particularly where purchasers are made to reasonably believe such efforts will be undertaken.
  • Amount raised in the ICO exceeds amount needed to establish a functional network and use of proceeds includes supporting the token’s value or increasing enterprise’s value
  • Promoter continues to expend funds from proceeds or operations to enhance functionality and/or value of system within which the tokens operate.
  • No persons or entities other than the promoter exercise governance rights or meaningful influence.

How is the digital asset structured?

Hinman then pointed to the existence of contractual or technical methods to structure digital assets so they function more like consumer items and less like a security, including the following:

  • Is token creation commensurate with meeting the needs of users or, rather, with feeding speculation?
  • Are independent actors setting the price or is the promoter supporting the secondary market for the asset or otherwise influencing trading?
  • Is it clear that the primary motivation for purchasing the digital asset is for personal use or consumption, as compared to investment? Have purchasers made representations as to their consumptive, as opposed to their investment, intent? Are the tokens available in increments that correlate with a consumptive versus investment intent?
  • Are the tokens distributed in ways to meet users’ needs? For example, can the tokens be held or transferred only in amounts that correspond to a purchaser’s expected use? Are there built-in incentives that compel using the tokens promptly on the network, such as having the tokens degrade in value over time, or can the tokens be held for extended periods for investment?
  • Is the asset marketed and distributed to potential users or the general public?
  • Are the assets dispersed across a diverse user base or concentrated in the hands of a few that can exert influence over the application?
  • Is the application fully functioning or in early stages of development?

Information Asymmetry

Director Hinman also pointed out that one of the rationales for the securities laws is to remove the information asymmetry between promoters and investors by mandating adequate disclosure to address that asymmetry. That disclosure regime is needed when a token purchaser relies on a token seller’s efforts to develop a network and generate a potential return on investment for the token purchaser.

Conversely, when the promoter’s efforts are no longer an important factor in determining the enterprise’s success, “material information asymmetries recede” and the protections of the securities laws may no longer be necessary. Moreover, as a practical matter, when a network becomes decentralized, the ability to identify a promoter to make the mandated disclosures “becomes difficult, and less meaningful.”

Implication for SAFTs

The Simple Agreement for Future Tokens or 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.

In a SAFT-based ICO, the SAFT itself is generally acknowledged to be an investment contract and thus a security, and sold to accredited investors under Rule 506(c) of Regulation D. A quick search on EDGAR reveals there have been 37 Form D filings identifying the type of security offered as a SAFT. No court or regulator has interpreted the SAFT framework and whether or not the tokens to be ultimately issued are securities.

Director Hinman’s view that certain tokens initially issued by blockchain startups as securities may have the potential to become part of a decentralized network and no longer bear the attributes of securities may give legitimacy to SAFT-based ICOs. Interestingly, the only place where the word SAFT appears in the speech is in footnote 15 of the written version. In that footnote, Hinman states that although nothing in his remarks should be construed as opining on the legality of a SAFT (because the analysis of a particular SAFT must turn on the economic realities of the particular case), “it is clear from [his speech that he believes] that a token once offered in a security offering can, depending on the circumstances, later be offered in a non-securities transaction.”

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.