Marc R. Garber: 9/23/55 – 8/21/2018

marc garberMarc R. Garber, an employee benefits lawyer, was a partner with my firm for almost 20 years. He died last week of cancer at age 62.

Marc loved practicing law. He loved the very arcane qualities of employee benefits law that make most of us shy away. He knew the 1953 case and the 1972 IRS ruling and the 2017 statute and everything in between. He reveled in the intellectual detail, and he was always right. I wish more lawyers shared Marc’s attention to detail. If he had chosen Crowdfunding rather than employee benefits, you wouldn’t know me.

Life dealt Marc some harsh blows, including a traffic accident that shattered his health. He was, in spite of everything, one of the most positive, optimistic human beings I’ve ever met. When I saw Marc’s unrelenting optimism in the face of adversity, and compared that to my own circumstances, I could feel almost ashamed. Marc’s joy for life was both a lesson and an inspiration.

Everyone who knew Marc will miss him dearly.

Yes, A Parent Company Can Use Title III Crowdfunding

Title III Crowdfunding

We know an “investment company,” as defined in the Investment Company Act of 1940, can’t use Title III Crowdfunding. For that matter, an issuer can’t use Title III even if it’s not an investment company, if the reason it’s not an investment company is one of the exemptions under section 3(b) or section 3(c) of the 1940 Act. By way of example, suppose a a company is engaged in the business of making commercial mortgage loans. Even if the company qualifies for the exemption under section 3(c)(5)(C) of the 1940 Act, it still can’t use Title III.

We also know that, silly as it seems, a company whose only asset is the securities of one company is generally treated as an investment company under the 1940 Act. That’s why we can’t use so-called “special purpose vehicles,” or SPVs, in Title III Crowdfunding, to round up all the investors in one entity and thereby simplify the cap table.

Put those two things together and you might conclude that only an operating company, and not a company that owns stock in the operating company, can use Title III Crowdfunding. But that wouldn’t be quite right.

A company that owns the securities of an operating company – I’ll call that a “parent company” — can’t use Title III if it’s an “investment company” under the 1940 Act. However, while every investment company is a parent company, not every parent company is an investment company. Here’s what I mean.

Section 3(a)(1) of the 1940 Act defines “investment company” as:

  • A company engaged primarily in the business of investing, reinvesting, or trading in securities; or
  • A company engaged in the business of investing, reinvesting, owning, holding, or trading in securities, which owns or proposes to acquire investment securities having a value exceeding 40% of the value of its assets.

Suppose Parent, Inc. owns 100% of Operating Company, LLC, and nothing else. If Parent’s interest in Operating Company is treated as a “security,” then Parent will be an investment company under either definition above and can’t use Title III. However, it should be possible to structure the relationship between Parent and Operating Company so that Parent’s interest is not treated as a security, relying on a long line of cases involving general partnership interests.

These cases arise under the Howey test, made famous by the ICO world. Under Howey, an instrument is a security if and only if:

  • It involves an investment of money or other property in a common enterprise;
  • There is an expectation of profits; and
  • The expectation of profits is based on the efforts of someone else.

Focusing on the third element of the Howey test, courts have held that a general partner’s interest in a limited partnership generally is not a security because (1) by law, the general partner controls the partnership, and (2) the general partner is therefore relying on its own efforts to realize a profit, not the efforts of someone else.

If Operating Company were a partnership and Parent were its general partner, then the arrangement would fall squarely within this line of cases and Parent wouldn’t be treated as an investment company. As a general partner, however, Parent would be fully liable for the liabilities of Operating Company, defeating the main purpose of the parent/subsidiary relationship, i.e., letting the tail wag the dog.

Fortunately, Parent should be able to achieve the same result even though Operating Company is a limited liability company. The key is that Operating Company should be managed by its members, not by a manager. That should place Parent in exactly the same position as the typical general partner:  relying on its own efforts, rather than the efforts of someone else, to realize a profit from the enterprise.

If Parent’s interest in Operating Company isn’t a “security,” then Parent isn’t an “investment company,” and can raise money using Title III.

Questions? Let me know.

Opportunity Zone Funds in Crowdfunding

businessman stack of coins.jpg

Everywhere you look, there’s another opportunity zone fund. What are these things and why are they suddenly so popular?

The Tax Savings

It’s all about taxes, specifically capital gain taxes. Added to the Internal Revenue Code by the 2017 tax act, new section 1400Z-2 allows investors to reduce their capital gain taxes in four increasingly-generous levels:

  • Level One Savings: If you sell property (including property sold through a partnership or limited liability company) and recognize a capital gain, then you don’t have to pay tax right away on the gain to the extent you invest in a “qualified opportunity zone fund,” or QOZF, within 180 days. Instead, the gain is deferred until the earlier of (i) the date you sell your interest in the QOZF, or (ii) December 31, 2026.

EXAMPLE:  You bought stock two years ago for $1,000, and sell it during 2018 for $1,100, recognizing a $100 capital gain. If you invest $75 in a QOZF within 180 days, you pay tax in 2018 only on $25 of the gain. You pay tax on the $75 on the earlier of the date you sell your interest in the QOZF or 12/31/2026.

It gets better.

  • Level Two Savings: If you hold your investment in the QOZF for at least five years, you get to increase your tax basis in the QOZF by 10% of the gain you deferred, further reducing your tax bill.

EXAMPLE:  In the example above, if you hold your investment in the QOZF for at least five years, you get to increase your tax basis by 10% of $75, or $7.50.

And better.

  • Level Three Savings: If you hold your investment in the QOZF for at least seven years, you get to increase your tax basis in the QOZF by another 5% of the gain you deferred.

And better.

  • Level Four Savings: If you hold your investment in the QOZF for 10 years, you pay no capital gain tax on the appreciation in the QOZF.

EXAMPLE:  If, in the original example, you invested $75 in the QOZF and sold it after 10 years for $195 (10% appreciation per year, compounded), you would pay no tax on the $120 of appreciation. 

What if the Value of the QOZF Goes Down?

If you lose money on the QOZF, then your tax on the original capital gain also goes down. 

EXAMPLE:  You sell appreciated stock for a $100 profit, and invest $75 in a QOZF. Three years later, you sell your interest in the QOZF for $50 (I’m assuming your tax basis in the QOZF hasn’t changed). You pay tax on only $50 of capital gain, not the whole $75.

Thus, it’s heads-you-win, tails-the-government-loses. 

What’s A Qualified Opportunity Zone Fund?

A qualified opportunity zone fund means a corporation or partnership that holds 90% of its assets in any mix of the following assets:

  • Stock of a corporation that is a “qualified opportunity zone business.”
  • An interest in a partnership that is a “qualified opportunity zone business.”
  • “Qualified opportunity zone property.”

A “qualified opportunity zone business” is a business substantially all of the assets of which are qualified opportunity zone property.”

”Qualified opportunity zone property” means property that is:

  • Located in a “qualified opportunity zone”;
  • Used by the QOZF in a trade or business; and
  •  Either:
    • The property is brand new (g., ground-up construction); or
    • Within 30 months, the QOZF or the qualified opportunity zone business spends at least as much to renovated the property as it paid to buy it.

Boiled down version:  A qualified opportunity zone fund means a fund that, directly or indirectly, owns new or substantially renovated business assets in a qualified opportunity zone.

Only New Businesses or Assets Count

In figuring out whether a fund is a qualified opportunity zone fund, you take into account only property acquired after 12/31/2017.

Does it Matter Where the Capital Gain Came From?

No. The capital gain you’re deferring could come from the sale of appreciated stock, the sale of real estate, the sale of artwork, or anywhere else.

An Alternative to A Like-Kind Exchange

Under section 1031 of the Internal Revenue Code, the owner of appreciated real estate (only real estate) can defer paying tax on sale by exchanging the real estate for different real estate. In fact, a whole industry has grown up around these so-called “like-kind exchanges.”

For as long as it lasts, the QOZF provides a simpler and possibly better alternative.

What is a Qualified Opportunity Zone?

A “qualified opportunity zone” means a low-income area that has been nominated as such by the Governor of a state and approved by the U.S. Treasury. A list is of current qualified opportunity zones is available here.

No Massage Parlors

In a crippling blow to my own business plans, a “qualified opportunity zone business” does not include massage parlors or hot tub facilities. Nor does it include golf courses, country clubs, suntan facilities, racetracks or other facilities used for gambling, or liquor stores.

Can I Use an LLC?

Section 1400Z-2 itself defines “qualified opportunity zone fund” as a “corporation or partnership.” However, section 7701(a)(2) of the Internal Revenue Code defines “partnership” follows:

The term “partnership” includes a syndicate, group, pool, joint venture, or other unincorporated organization, through or by means of which any business, financial operation, or venture is carried on, and which is not, within the meaning of this title, a trust or estate or a corporation; and the term “partner” includes a member in such a syndicate, group, pool, joint venture, or organization.

Based on that definition, a limited liability company should work.

What if I Invest More in a QOZF?

Suppose you sell appreciated stock for a $100 capital gain, and within six months invested $150 in a QOZF. The favorable tax rules apply only to two-thirds of your investment. The other one-third is just a regular investment.

Who Can Form a Qualified Opportunity Zone Fund?

Anyone, literally. If you sell appreciated stock and want to defer or avoid tax on all or part of the gain, you can form your own QOZF.

Conversely, large companies, including large investment managers and large real estate developers, have already formed QOZFs, taking advantage of the tax benefits and the media buzz to raise capital.

Investment Company Act Limits

When Congress enacted the tax benefits for qualified opportunity zone funds, it could have created an exception to the investment company rules at the same time, making the funds even more appealing and effective. But it didn’t.

Consequently, and perhaps paradoxically, larger QOZFs — those with more than 100 investors — will have to own property directly, or take controlling interests in other businesses, to avoid being treated as investment companies. They will not be allowed to hold minority, non-controlling interests in businesses owned by others, such as, say, the residents of the qualified opportunity zone. 

How Can I Raise Capital for My QOZF?

You can raise capital using any method you like, including Title II Crowdfunding (Rule 506(c)), Title III Crowdfunding (Regulation CF), Title IV Crowdfunding (Regulation A), or Rule 506(b).

Qualified opportunity zone funds are about saving taxes, specifically capital gain taxes. They make less sense for non-accredited investors who, by definition, earn less money and pay tax at lower rates. Consequently, we will probably see fewer QOZFs using Title III or Regulation A to raise capital, and many using Rule 506(b).

More Rules to Come

The Internal Revenue Service hasn’t yet issued guidance on the details of this complicated legislation. Expect complicated regulations and at least a few surprises.

Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

How long will it take before a QOZF is sold using tokens?

Questions? Let me know.

 

What A Tokenized Security Could Do

What A Tokenized Security Could Do

Here are some things a tokenized security could do:

  • Keep track of the owner (and by extension, the whole cap table)
  • Eliminate paper certificates
  • Facilitate transfers
  • Provide a history of transfers
  • Drastically reduce cost of transfer agent services
  • Provide for distributions with the click of a button
  • Make capital calls with the click of a button
  • Allow conversions (e.g., Convertible Note to equity) with the click of a button
  • Provide reinvestment options
  • Provide the K-1 or 1099
  • Allow digital voting
  • Carry up-to-date and historical information about the company, including financial statements and SEC filings
  • Track the tax basis of the security
  • Carry relevant documents, like an up-to-date Operating Agreement
  • Provide an automatic listing on an exchange
  • Integrate with all of the owner’s other securities, private and public, to provide a personal portfolio
  • Provide a communication channel, including video conference calls and chat rooms, with management and other investors
  • Provide information about the market and/or industry generally
  • Provide instant analytics on standard metrics like ROI, IRR, and P/E ratio, and allow exports to Excel and other tools
  • Compare returns to existing or new indices
  • Provide links to other issuers with similar characteristics, with the opportunity to trade, buy, or sell
  • Provide information about trading in the security by other owners, with alerts about trading by insiders

The way capitalism works, I suspect the first tokenized securities will include just a few features – those with the most sizzle and/or the easiest to implement – with more to come later.

Questions? Let me know.

Trusts as Accredited Investors in Crowdfunding and Token Sales

Trusts as Accredited Investors in Crowdfunding and Token Sales Example NewCo, LLC is conducting an offering under Rule 506(c) and receives a subscription from the Smith Family Trust. The Trust could be an accredited investor under any of four rules.

Rules for All Trusts

Rule #1: The Trust is an accredited investor if the trustee or co-trustee is a bank, insurance company, registered investment company, business development company, or small business investment company.

Rule #2: Alternatively, the Trust is an accredited investor if:

  • It has more than $5,000,000 in assets;
  • It was not formed for the purpose of investing in NewCo; and
  • Its trustee has such knowledge and experience in financial and business matters that he or she is capable of evaluating the merits and risks of a prospective investment.

Rule for Revocable Trusts

Rule #3: If the Trust is a revocable trust, it is an accredited investor if:

  • Mary Smith, the grantor, is herself an accredited investor;
  • The Trust may be amended or revoked at any time by Ms. Smith; and
  • The tax benefits of investments made by the trust pass through to Ms. Smith.

Rule for Irrevocable Trusts

Rule #4: If the Trust is an irrevocable trust, it is an accredited investor if:

  • Mary Smith, the grantor, is herself an accredited investor;
  • The trust is a grantor trust for Federal income tax purposes and Ms. Smith is the sole funding source;
  • Ms. Smith would be taxed on all income of the trust and would be taxed on the sale of trust assets;
  • Ms. Smith is the trustee with sole investment discretion;
  • The entire amount of Ms. Smith’s contribution plus a rate of return would be paid to the grantor prior to any other payments;
  • The Trust was established by Ms. Smith for estate planning purposes; and
  • Creditors of Ms. Smith would be able to reach her interest in the Trust.

Simple, right?

Questions? Let me know.

 

Section 17(b) of the Securities Act in Crowdfunding and Token Sales

Among the tricks of Wall Street bad guys is the fake financial analysis, prepared (and paid for) to promote a particular stock but presented as an objective review. Section 17(b) of the Securities Act of 1933 was written to stop that:

It shall be unlawful for any person. . . . to publish, give publicity to, or circulate any notice, circular, advertisement, newspaper, article, letter, investment service, or communication which, though not purporting to offer a security for sale, describes such security for a consideration received or to be received, directly or indirectly, from an issuer, underwriter, or dealer, without fully disclosing the receipt, whether past or prospective, of such consideration and the amount thereof [italics added].

It’s no joke. For example, in April 2017 the SEC brought an enforcement action charging 28 businesses and individuals for participating in a scheme to generate bullish articles on investment websites like SeekingAlpha.com, Benzinga.com, and SmallCapNetwork.com while concealing the compensation.  See Press Release, SEC: Payments for Bullish Articles on Stocks Must Be Disclosed to Investors, Rel. No. 2017-79 (Apr. 10, 2017).

Hypothetical examples in the Crowdfunding and token world:

  • NewCo pays an industry periodical to publish an article written by NewCo that purports to objectively rate the “Top 10 ICOs of 2018” and happens to list NewCo’s ICO as #1. Section 17(b) doesn’t make the article illegal, it just says the periodical has to disclose both the fact that it’s being paid and the amount of the payment.
  • If NewCo paid me to highlight its ICO on this blog, I’d have to report the compensation.
  • A real estate Crowdfunding platform sends an email promoting an offering, or a group of offerings, on its platform. That email is not covered by section 17(b) because of the italicized language above, i.e., it’s clear that the email is an offer of securities (which raises its own issues, separate from section 17(b)).
  • An investor relations firm places favorable articles about NewCo in trade publications while NewCo’s ICO is live. Those articles are covered by section 17(b).
  • A live event called “ICO Summit World” purports to highlight “The Most Promising ICOs of 2018,” but presents only companies that pay to play. Definitely covered by section 17(b).

My sense is that in the Crowdfunding world, and especially in the token world, there’s a lot of paid promotional activity going on without the disclosure required by section 17(b). The securities laws don’t apply to tokens, right?

Questions? Let me know.

The Per-Investor Limits of Title III Require Concurrent Offerings

Since the JOBS Act was signed by President Obama in 2012, advocates have been urging Congress to increase the overall limit of $1 million (now $1.07 million, after adjustment for inflation) to $5 million. But for many issuers, the overall limit is less important than the per-investor limits.

The maximum an investor can invest in all Title III offerings during any period of 12 months is:

  • If the investor’s annual income or net worth is less than $107,000, she may invest the greater of:
    • $2,200; or
    • 5% of the lesser of her annual income or net worth.
  • If the investor’s annual income and net worth are both at least $107,000, she can invest the lesser of:
    • $107,000; or
    • 10% of the lesser of her annual income or net worth.

These limits apply to everyone, including “accredited investors.” They’re adjusted periodically by the SEC based on inflation.

These limits make Title III much less attractive than it should be relative to Title II. Consider the typical small issuer, NewCo, LLC, deciding whether to use Title II or Title III to raise $1 million or less. On one hand, the CEO of NewCo might like the idea of raising money from non-accredited investors, whether because investors might also become customers (e.g., a restaurant or brewery), because the CEO is ideologically committed to making a good investment available to ordinary people, or otherwise. Yet by using Title III, NewCo is hurting its chances of raising capital.

Suppose a typical accredited investor has income of $300,000 and a net worth of $750,000. During any 12-month period she can invest only $30,000 in all Title III offerings. How much of that will she invest in NewCo? Half? A third? A quarter? In a Title II offering she could invest any amount.

Because of the per-investor limits, a Title III issuer has to attract a lot more investors than a Title II issuer. That drives up investor-acquisition costs and makes Title III more expensive than Title II, even before you get to the disclosures.

The solution, of course, is that Congress should make the Title III rule the same as the Tier 2 rule in Regulation A:  namely, that non-accredited investors are limited, but accredited investors are not. I can’t see any policy argument against that rule.

In the meantime, almost every Title III issuer should conduct a concurrent Title II offering, and every Title III funding portal should build concurrent offerings into its functionality.

Questions? Let me know.

The Bad News About ICOs Is Good News

Every day brings more bad news about ICOs: another class action lawsuit, another subpoena by the SEC, another “request for information” by a state Attorney General, another country that outlawed ICOs altogether.

The bad news is probably hurting the industry’s reputation and driving away investors in the short term. But from my perspective the bad news is, on balance, actually good.

The ICO market was crazy in 2017. Lawyers were giving questionable advice, investors were buying anything called a token, and the billions of dollars sloshing around attracted bad actors and instant-millionaires. People convinced themselves this was normal and justified, as they did with tulip bulbs in 1636.

From my perspective, the bad news in today’s headlines shows that the fog is clearing. Among the lessons learned:

  • ICOs were not, after all, a law unto themselves.
  • It’s easier to describe a network than to build one.
  • Some smart contracts are dumb.
  • Honesty is still the best policy with investors.
  • An honest cop is good for the neighborhood.
  • The laws of economics have not been repealed.

Most important, it turns out that there really is value in blockchain, even without the hype, and that real entrepreneurs are building serious value and finding it easier to connect with investors as the fog clears. Your Uber driver is no longer offering tips on Bitcoin, but you can do a legal ICO, there really is such thing as a utility token, and there are a lot of really smart folks building real companies that are going to disrupt and transform a lot of industries.

We’re going through a much-needed adjustment right now. It’s all good, as we young people say.

Questions? Let me know.

“Secondary Sales” of Private Securities (And Tokens) in Crowdfunding

We use the term “secondary sales” to refer to sales of securities by anyone other than the issuer, and the term “secondary market” to refer to a marketplace where those sales take place.

Suppose NewCo, LLC, a private (non-public) company, raises money by issuing limited liability company interests under Rule 506(c). One investor, Amanda Sakaguri, later sells her limited liability company interest to a third party. The sale by Ms. Sakaguri is what we refer to as “secondary sale.” If Ms. Sakaguri sold her limited liability company interest on a marketplace – as opposed to a private sale – we call that a “secondary market.”

The Basic Legal Rules for Secondary Sales

All offers of securities must be fully registered with the SEC, under section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933. If there were no exceptions to section 5, Ms. Sakaguri would have to register with the the SEC before selling her limited liability company interest. But of course, this being the securities laws, there are lots of exceptions. For example:

  • If Ms. Sakaguri bought her limited liability company interest in a Regulation A offering, she could sell it to anyone right away.
  • If Ms. Sakaguri bought her limited liability company interest in a Regulation CF offering, she could sell it to some buyers right away, and to anyone after one year.

Ms. Sakaguri bought her limited liability company interest under Rule 506(c), so she isn’t eligible for either of those exceptions. For Ms. Sakaguri and other owners of private securities, the most likely potential exception is in section 4(a)(1) of the Securities Act, which exempts “[Sales] by any person other than an issuer, underwriter, or dealer.”

We know Ms. Sakaguri isn’t the issuer. How about a dealer or an underwriter?

A dealer is “[A]ny person engaged in the business of buying and selling securities . . . .for such person’s own account. . . .” but does not include “. . . .a person that buys or sells securities. . . . but not as a part of a regular business.” Provided she isn’t buying and selling securities as a business, Ms. Sakaguri isn’t a dealer.

Whether she’s an underwriter is a harder question, believe it or not. We think of underwriters as big Wall Street firms in gleaming towers, but the definition is much broader than that:  “[A]ny person who has purchased from an issuer with a view to. . . .the distribution of any security. . . .” If Ms. Sakaguri expected to sell her limited liability company interest from NewCo when she bought it, she might be an underwriter, ineligible for the exception.

Whether the seller of a security is an underwriter once caused so much confusion that the SEC adopted a long rule on that topic. 

Rule 144

Rule 144 provides a “safe harbor” for sellers. If a seller satisfies all the conditions of Rule 144, the seller will definitely not be treated as an underwriter for purposes of section 4(a)(1). If a seller doesn’t satisfy all the conditions, it doesn’t mean she will be treated as an underwriter. It just means she’s taking her chances.

Rule 144 imposes different requirements on sellers depending on whether:

  • The issuer is a private or a publicly-reporting company;
  • The seller is an “affiliate” of the issuer (generally meaning under common control); and
  • How the seller acquired the securities in the first place.

We’re going to focus only on private companies, like NewCo, and situations where the seller acquired her interest directly from the issuer.

If Ms. Sakaguri were an affiliate of NewCo, she would be subject to four requirements:

  • She would have to provide current information about the issuer, including its name, its business, its CEO and Directors, and two years’ of financial statements.
  • She would have to hold the securities for at least one year.
  • She would be limited in the volume of securities she could sell.
  • She would be limited in the manner in which she sells the securities.

On the other hand, because Ms. Sakaguri isn’t an affiliate of NewCo, but just an ordinary investor, she’s subject to only one requirement:  she has must hold her limited liability company in NewCo for at least one year. That means:

  • She’s not required to provide any information about NewCo to the buyer.
  • She can sell as much of her limited liability company interest as she wants.
  • She can sell it to anyone, accredited or non-accredited.
  • She can sell it in any manner she want, including on a website.

(Remember, Rule 144 is a safe harbor, not a legal rule. If Ms. Sakaguri is a minority investor in a private company and sells her limited liability company interest after four months because she lost her job and needs the cash, nobody thinks she’s an underwriter. At worst, she’d be sentenced to a week of Fox News.)

Where are the Secondary Markets?

There are lots of investors in the same shoes as Ms. Sakaguri:  everyone who owns an interest in a real estate limited partnership, or a tech startup, or even a family business. If it’s so easy legally for them to sell their interests, why aren’t there lots of places where they can sell them?

A place – a website, for example – where investors could sell their privately-owned securities would probably be treated as an “exchange” under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“[A]ny organization. . . .which. . . .provides a market place. . . .for bringing together purchasers and sellers of securities. . . .”). Section 5 of the Exchange Act makes it illegal for any exchange to operate unless it is either a registered “national securities exchange” under section 6 of the Exchange Act (like NASDAQ or the NYSE) or exempt from registration under SEC rules. The typical private security couldn’t qualify for listing on a national exchange, so Ms. Sakaguri and others in her shoes would be looking for something else.

Fortunately, that something else exists in the form of an “alternative trading system,” or ATS, authorized by the SEC in 17 CFR 240.3a1-1(a)(2) and defined in 17 CFR 242.300 – 303. Today there are dozens of alternative trading systems operating in the United States for many different purposes, including several operated by OTC Markets, Inc. Any broker-dealer can create an ATS without much difficulty, and for that matter anyone can create a broker-dealer.

All the legal pieces of the puzzle are in place:  Ms. Sakaguri is allowed to sell her limited liability company interest under Rule 144; and it’s not hard to create an ATS where she can sell it. So why does everyone complain about the lack of liquidity in private securities?

The answer is that the legal pieces of the puzzle turn out not to be the most important. Ms. Sakaguri is allowed to sell her limited liability company interest, but finding someone who wants to buy it is another story. We can create all the legal mechanisms we want, but a secondary market needs lots of buyers and sellers, especially buyers.

Remember, Ms. Sakaguri is allowed to sell her limited liability company interest under Rule 144 without providing any information about NewCo. That’s great, except there aren’t a lot of people willing to buy that limited liability company interest without information about NewCo. Other characteristics of NewCo, if it’s a typical privately-owned company, also make it unattractive:

  • It probably has a very limited business, possibly only one product or even one asset.
  • It probably has limited access to capital.
  • It probably lacks professional management.
  • Sakaguri probably has limited or no voting rights.
  • There are probably no independent directors.
  • The insiders of NewCo are probably allowed to pay compensation to themselves more or less free of limits, and have probably protected themselves from just about every kind of legal claim that investors could bring.

When Franklin Roosevelt and Sam Rayburn created the American securities laws in the 1930s, what emerged from all the new regulation was the most efficient, most transparent, most vibrant public capital market in the world. Eighty-five years later, you might say Americans have become spoiled by the safety of buying publicly-traded companies on national exchanges. When Ms. Sakaguri asks them to buy her limited liability company interest in NewCo on an alternative trading system, she’s asking for a lot.

To create a more vibrant secondary market for private securities we need greater standardization, greater protections for investors, and greater transparency. Some of these things the industry can do by itself – for example, by using blockchain technology. Other things will probably require regulation.

To create a vibrant market in automobiles we didn’t adopt laws protecting auto manufacturers. We adopted laws protecting consumers, e.g., lemon laws. My guess is that to create a vibrant secondary market for private securities the law should focus on buyers, not sellers.

What About Tokens?

More companies than I can remember have said they want to convert their limited liability company interests or preferred stock to token form because “There’s a secondary market for tokens.”

From a legal point of view that’s not true. The laws governing secondary sales of securities apply equally to the most boring share of common stock, represented by a paper certificate stored in a battered aluminum filing cabinet, and the most interesting token treated as a security under the Howey test, residing only in the cloud on a public blockchain.

But it is true in two other senses:

  • The rules I’ve talked about above apply only to tokens that are securities under the Howey test. A token that is a currency and not a security is not subject to those rules. I would also say that a true utility token isn’t subject to the rules, either, except a token being traded is probably a security under the Howey test, i.e., it probably isn’t a true utility token.
  • The reason there isn’t a vibrant market in private securities isn’t the legal restrictions, but the risk inherent in private securities. The frenzy over anything called a token in the last 12 months has overridden investor fears of private securities. Whether that frenzy will continue is impossible to predict (it won’t).

The same people ask “What about all those crypto exchanges?” There are two answers to that question as well. One, many or all of them have become alternative trading systems controlled by broker-dealers, or are in the process of doing so. Two, many got in trouble. Some are being sued privately, some are being sanctioned by the SEC, and three of the really bad ones had to watch Fox News for a month.

Questions? Let me know.

Blockchain Is A Technology, Not A Philosophy

John Barlow died last Wednesday. Mr. Barlow wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead, dabbled in Republican politics in Wyoming, and, more famously, had big dreams for the internet. He referred to the internet as “the new home of the mind” and demanded of governments, “I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.”

Good things have come from the internet, no question, but for the most part Mr. Barlow’s dreams have not materialized. Twenty five years later, the internet means mainly Facebook and Google for most people, along with a loss of privacy, e.g., Equifax. The internet has made it easier to work from home and collaborate and start social movements like #MeToo and #TeaParty, but also allows Russia to interfere with our elections. We’re connected all the time, yet somehow feel more lonely. And all the information circling the globe leaves us with a citizenry somehow less informed than when television came in three black and white channels.

Mixed results are not unique to the internet. Pick any technology – electricity, automobiles, television, nuclear power – and you’ll find the same story of idealistic dreams transformed or broken on the shoals of the real world. We imperfect human beings keep asking technology to save us from ourselves, and it never can.

Which brings us to blockchain.

Speaking at a crypto-conference in New York the day Mr. Barlow died, I heard a speaker predict that blockchain would replace the banking system, that cryptocurrency would eliminate national currencies, that we are about to witness a fundamental change (for the good) in the human condition. You can read articles in serious business publications about the “ethos” of blockchain, how the technology will replace our broken trust in private and government institutions.

In my opinion that thinking isn’t just wrong but dangerous. Blockchain is not going to replace the banking system, and shouldn’t. Cryptocurrencies will replace fiat currencies only in countries without a functioning currency of their own. If you see a country where Bitcoin is the currency of choice, it’s like seeing a guy on the subway with an IV in his arm:  you’re not sure what’s wrong, but you know he’s sick.

If you think blockchain has an ethos, you’ll sell tokens without bothering about securities laws. You’ll encourage wage-earners to invest their savings in a cryptocurrency whose price chart makes Pets.com look stable, having decided that it’s not so much a “currency” as a “store of value.” Most dangerous, you’ll convince yourself that technology is a substitute for morality.

Like every technology, starting with fire, blockchain can improve the human condition only if we tether it to our needs.

Fortunately, based on what I saw at the conference on Wednesday, there’s a lot of tethering along with the hype. Among other things, we heard from entrepreneurs using blockchain technology to:

  • Improve healthcare outcomes
  • Give consumers control over their financial records
  • Facilitate business and consumer payments
  • Reduce fraud in the financial markets
  • Make sense of our antiquated system of property ownership

With the grandiose predictions and the mystification and, frankly, some wishful thinking by lawyers, the blockchain industry has earned a black eye in the minds of many, including government regulators. Even so, light shines through. As an industry, let’s dedicate ourselves to using the technology wisely, making it work for ordinary people, being more transparent than the law requires, thinking long-term, and above all, remembering that how blockchain is viewed 25 years from now depends not on technology, but on imperfect human beings like us.

Questions? Let me know.

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