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 Pre-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 created 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.

Using “Finders” To Sell Securities, Including Tokens

Selling securities is hard, and it makes perfect sense that an issuer or a portal would hire someone to help. And once you’ve hired someone, it also makes perfect sense business-wise to pay her a percentage of what she raises, aligning her interests with yours.

It’s perfect, but it might be illegal.

The Legal Issue

The Securities Exchange Act of 1934 generally makes it illegal for any “broker” to sell securities unless she’s registered with the SEC. The Exchange Act defines the term “broker” to mean “any person engaged in the business of effecting transactions in securities for the account of others.” That’s not a very helpful definition, but if you earn a commission from selling securities, like the helper above, you might be a broker.

So what? Well, if someone who’s a “broker” sells securities without registering with the SEC, lots of bad things can happen:

  • All the investors in the offering could have a right of to get their money back, and that right could be enforceable against the principals of the issuer.
  • The issuer could lose its exemption, g., its exemption under Regulation D.
  • By violating the securities laws, the issuer and its principals could become “bad actors,” ineligible to sell securities in the future.
  • The issuer could be liable for “aiding and abetting” a violation of the securities laws.
  • The issuer could be liable under state blue sky laws.
  • The person acting as the unregistered broker could also face serious consequences, including sanctions from the SEC and lawsuits from its customers.

What is a Broker?

Because the Exchange Act does not define what it means to be “engaged in the business of effecting transactions in securities,” the SEC and the courts have typically relied on a variety of factors, including whether the person:

  • Is employed by the issuer
  • Receives a commission rather than a salary
  • Sells securities for others
  • Participates in negotiations between the issuer and an investor, g., helps with sales presentations
  • Provides advice on the merits of the investment
  • Actively (rather than passively) finds investors

More recently, in court cases and in responses to requests for no-action letters, the SEC seems to be moving toward a more aggressive position:  that if a person receives a commission she’s a broker and must be registered as such, end of story.

So far, courts are rejecting the SEC’s hard-line approach. In a 2011 case called SEC v. Kramer, the court stated:

[T]he Commission’s proposed single-factor “transaction-based compensation” test for broker activity (i.e., a person ‘engaged in the business of effecting transactions in securities for the accounts of others’) is an inaccurate statement of the law. . . . . an array of factors determine the presence of broker activity. In the absence of a statutory definition enunciating otherwise, the test for broker activity must remain cogent, multi-faceted, and controlled by the Exchange Act.

As reassuring as that statement sounds, it was made by a District Court, not a Court of Appeals and certainly not the Supreme Court. A District Court in a different part of the country might take the SEC’s side instead.

But I Know Someone Who. . . .

Yes, I know. There are lots of people out there selling securities, including tokens that are securities, and receiving commissions, and nothing bad happens to them.

There are so many of these people we have a name for them:  Finders. The securities industry, at least at the level of private placements, is permeated by Finders. I had a conversation with a guy who offered to raise money for my issuer client in exchange for a commission, and when I mentioned the Exchange Act he said “What are you talking about? I’ve been doing this for 25 years!”

I’m sure he has. The SEC would never say so publicly, but the reality is that where broker-dealer laws are concerned there are two worlds:  one, the world of large or public deals, where the SEC demands strict compliance; and the world of small, private deals, where the SEC looks the other way.

In my opinion, Crowdfunding offerings and ICOs fall in the “large or public deals” category, even though it’s hard to tell a Crowdfunding client they can’t do something the guy down the street is doing.

So What Can I Do?

If you’re selling securities in a Crowdfunding offering or an ICO, don’t hire that person who promises to go out and find investors in exchange for a commission, unless she’s a registered broker.

On the other hand, in an isolated case, if you know someone with five wealthy friends, who promises to introduce you to those friends, without participating in any sales presentations, you might be willing to offer a commission, relying on current law, as long as (1) you understand that a court might hold against you, adopting the SEC’s hard-line approach; and (2) you hire a securities lawyer to draft the contract.

The Future

Several years ago the SEC created an exemption for Finders in the mergers & acquisitions area. I am far from alone in suggesting that we need a similar exemption for Finders in non-public offerings. The current situation, where a substantial part of the securities industry operates in a legal Twilight Zone, is not tenable as online capital raising becomes the norm rather than the exception.

Questions? Let me know.

The New 20% Deduction in Crowdfunding Transactions

Taxes and Income - iStock-172441475 - small.jpg

Co-Authored By: Steve Poulathas & Mark Roderick

The new tax law added section 199A to the Internal Revenue Code, providing for a 20% deduction against some kinds of business income. Section 199A immediately assumes a place among the most complicated provisions in the Code, which is saying something.

I’m going to summarize just one piece of section 199A: how the deduction works for income recognized through a limited liability company or other pass-through entity. That means I’m not going to talk about lots of important things, including:

  • Dividends from REITS
  • Income from service businesses
  • Dividends from certain publicly-traded partnerships
  • Dividends from certain cooperatives
  • Non-U.S. income
  • Short taxable years
  • Limitations based on net capital gains

Where the Deduction Does and Doesn’t Help

Section 199A allows a deduction against an individual investor’s share of the taxable income generated by the entity. The calculation is done on an entity-by-entity basis.

That means you can’t use a deduction from one entity against income from a different entity. It also means that the deduction is valuable only if the entity itself is generating taxable income.

That’s important because most Crowdfunding investments and ICOs, whether for real estate projects or startups, don’t generate taxable income. Most real estate projects produce losses in the early years because of depreciation deductions, while most startups generate losses in the early years because, well, because they’re startups.

The section 199A deduction also doesn’t apply to income from capital gains, interest income, or dividends income. It applies only to ordinary business income, including rental income*. Thus, when the real estate project is sold or the startup achieves its exit, section 199A doesn’t provide any relief.

Finally, the deduction is available only to individuals and other pass-through entities, not to C corporations.

*Earlier drafts of section 199A didn’t include rental income. At the last minute rental income was included and Senator Bob Corker, who happens to own a lot of rental property, switched his vote from No to Yes. Go figure.

The Calculation

General Rule

The general rule is that the investor is entitled to deduct 20% of his income from the pass-through entity. Simple.

Deduction Limits

Alas, the 20% deduction is subject to limitations, which I refer to as the Deduction Limits. Specifically, the investor’s nominal 20% deduction cannot exceed the greater of:

  • The investor’s share of 50% of the wages paid by the entity; or
  • The sum of:
    • The investor’s share of 25% of the wages paid by the entity; plus
    • The investor’s share of 2.5% of the cost of the entity’s depreciable property.

Each of those clauses is subject to special rules and defined terms. For purposes of this summary, I’ll point out three things:

  • The term “wages” means W-2 wages, to employees. It doesn’t include amounts paid to independent contractors and reported on a Form 1099.
  • The cost of the entity’s depreciable property means just that: the cost of the property, not its tax basis, which is reduced by depreciation deductions.
  • Land is not depreciable property.
  • Once an asset reaches the end of its depreciable useful life or 10 years, whichever is later, you stop counting it. That means the “regular” useful life, not the accelerated life used to actually depreciate it.

Exception Based on Income

The nominal deduction and the Deduction Limits are not the end of the story.

If the investor’s personal taxable income is less than $157,500 ($315,000 for a married couple filing a joint return), then the Deduction Limits don’t apply and he can just deduct the flat 20%. And if his personal taxable income is less than $207,500 ($415,000 on a joint return) then the Deduction Limits are, in effect, phased out, depending on where in the spectrum his taxable income falls.

Those dollar limits are indexed for inflation.

ABC, LLC and XYZ, LLC

Bill Smith owns equity interests in two limited liability companies: a 3% interest in ABC, LLC; and a 2% interest in XYZ, LLC. Both generate taxable income. Bill’s share of the taxable income of ABC is $100 and his share of the taxable income of XYZ is $150.

ABC owns an older apartment building, while XYZ owns a string of restaurants.

Like most real estate companies, ABC doesn’t pay any wages as such. Instead, it pays a related management company, Manager, LLC, $500 per year as an independent contractor. All of its personal property has been fully depreciated. Its depreciable real estate, including all the additions and renovations over the years, cost $20,000.

Restaurants pay lots of wages but don’t have much in the way of depreciable assets (I’m assuming XYZ leases its premises). XYZ paid $3,000 of wages and has $1,000 of depreciable assets, but half those assets are older than 10 years and beyond their depreciable useful life, leaving only $500.

Bill and his wife file a joint return and have taxable income of $365,000.

Bill’s Deductions

Calculation With Deduction Limits

Bill’s income from ABC was $100, so his maximum possible deduction is $20. The Deduction Limit is the greater of:

  • 3% of 50% of $0 = $0

OR

  • The sum of:
    • 3% of 25% of $0 = 0; plus
    • 3% of 2.5% of $20,000 = $15 = $15

Thus, ignoring his personal taxable income for the moment, Bill may deduct $15, not $20, against his $100 of income from ABC.

NOTE: If ABC ditches the management agreement and pays its own employees directly, it increases Bill’s deduction by 3% of 25% of $500, or $3.75.

Bill’s income from XYZ was $150, so his maximum possible deduction is $30. The Deduction Limit is the greater of:

  • 2% of 50% of $3,000 = $30

OR

  • The sum of:
    • 2% of 25% of $3,000 = 15; plus
    • 2% of 2.5% of $500 = $0.25 = $15.25

Thus, even ignoring his personal taxable income, Bill may deduct the whole $30 against his $150 of income from XYZ.

Calculation Based on Personal Taxable Income

Bill’s personal taxable income doesn’t affect the calculation for XYZ, because he was allowed the full 20% deduction even taking the Deduction Limits into account.

For ABC, Bill’s nominal 20% deduction was $20, but under the Deduction Limits it was reduced by $5, to $15.

If Bill and his wife had taxable income of $315,000 or less, they could ignore the Deduction Limits entirely and deduct the full $20. If they had taxable income of $415,000 or more, they would be limited to the $15. Because their taxable income is $365,000, halfway between $315,000 and $415,000, they are subject, in effect, to half the Deduction Limits, and can deduct $17.50 (and if their income were a quarter of the way they would be subject to a quarter of the Deduction Limits, etc.).

***

Because most real estate projects and startups generate losses in the early years, the effect of section 199A on the Crowdfunding and ICO markets might be muted. Nevertheless, I expect some changes:

  • Many real estate sponsors will at least explore doing away with management agreements in favor of employing staff on a project-by-project basis.
  • Every company anticipating taxable income should analyze whether investors will be entitled to a deduction.
  • Because lower-income investors aren’t subject to the Deduction Limits, maybe Title III offerings and Regulation A offerings to non-accredited investors become more attractive, relatively speaking.
  • I expect platforms and issuers to advertise “Eligible for 20% Deduction!” Maybe even with numbers.
  • The allocation of total cost between building and land, already important for depreciation, is now even more important, increasing employment for appraisers.
  • Now every business needs to keep track of wages and the cost of property, and report each investor’s share on Form K-1. So the cost of accounting will go up.

As for filing your tax return on a postcard? It better be a really big postcard.

New Tax Law Should Boost Crowdfunding

Whatever you think of the new tax law as public policy, adding to the country’s fiscal deficit and favoring the wealthy over the poor and the middle class, it includes several provisions that should make Crowdfunding investments more attractive, especially for real estate:

  • Income from “pass-thru” entities like limited liability companies and limited partnerships is eligible for a 20% deduction, off the top. This immediately makes investing in a pass-thru interest more attractive than investing in a publicly-traded stock, despite the one-time increase in value for publicly-traded corporations (all of them “C” corporations for tax purposes) due to the decrease in corporate tax rates.
  • Real property may now be depreciated faster, resulting in higher depreciation deductions – and thus lower taxable income – in the early years.
  • Depreciation of personal property (equipment, etc.) is also accelerated.

Lucky for me, the new law also presents many opportunities to change the structure of your business to save taxes, penalizing some activities, rewarding others. If you’d like to talk about maximizing the benefits for your business, let me know.

Happy Thanksgiving

My 10th-great grandfather was William Bradford, the leader of the Pilgrims. I’m thankful that he and his band of religious refugees made the trip and were saved from starvation by the native population.

I’m thankful that five years ago, a group of lawyers and business people got together and pushed the JOBS Act through Congress, and that President Obama signed it into law. I’m thankful there was at least one moment – please may it repeat itself – when politicians were able to act together for the good of our country.

I’m thankful for all the entrepreneurs working to make this Crowdfunding gig a success. I’m thankful I get to work with them.

I’m thankful for the dynamism of the American capitalist system, always giving birth to new opportunities, and for the careful, practical oversight of the SEC, making the space safer for investors and therefore more likely to grow.

I’m thankful for all the terrific people in the Crowdfunding space and for all the new friends I’ve found across the country.

I’m really thankful for the cryptocurrency bubble, making the Crowdfunding market seem sane in comparison.

I’m thankful for a culture that rewards risk-taking and innovation and is slowly, haltingly, inexorably freeing itself of the prejudices of our collective past.

I’m thankful to my colleagues here at Flaster/Greenberg, especially one Molly O’Leary Grimm, curator of this blog and Queen of Social Media.

And I’m really, really thankful for you, readers. I hope you enjoy your Thanksgiving as much as I intend to enjoy mine.

Cryptocurrencies: There’s Nothing New Under The Sun

Blockchain technology is revolutionary, promising to disrupt many of today’s industries. In contrast, the cryptocurrencies that live on the blockchain – to avoid confusion, I’m going to refer to cryptocurrencies as “tokens” – are really just high-tech manifestations of traditional ideas.

Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of tokens today:

  • Tokens like Bitcoin that are intended to function as currencies
  • Tokens that represent economic interests in businesses, e., securities
  • Tokens that give the holder some kind of contract right in the business conducted by the issuer, g., a distributed storage network

Tokens that are intended to function as currencies are like, well, they’re like currencies. They’re secure, they’re anonymous (maybe), they’re decentralized, but fundamentally they’re like paper money. The idea of paper money was revolutionary, rendering the barter economy obsolete. A digital representation of paper money is incrementally better, but not revolutionary.

Tokens that are securities – digital stock certificates – are helpful and better than paper or Excel spreadsheets but obviously not revolutionary.

The most interesting kind of tokens are the third:  tokens that give the holder the right to participate in a business.

Imagine you’re Henry Ford designing an automobile. You need a lot of capital. Your investment banker suggests you sell stock on Wall Street, but someone else suggests a different approach. You publish design specifications for your new automobile in something you happen to call a “Whitepaper,” and you sell to the public a limited number of licenses giving the holder the right to manufacture tires (or oil filters, or whatever) based on those specifications.

You just sold tokens, even though the blockchain doesn’t exist and you keep track of the sales in a red leather book.

Financially, you’ve pre-sold licensing rights. Some pros and cons versus selling stock:

  • On the plus side, you still own 100% of your company.
  • On the minus side, you have reduced or eliminated a future revenue stream for the company, e., licensing revenue.
  • On the plus side, because the tokens weren’t a security, you didn’t incur all that time and cost.
  • On the minus side, you really, really care about the quality of your cars – the whole future of your business depends on it – but the tokens might not end up in the hands of the highest-quality suppliers. That’s especially true in a market frenzy that reminds you of Tulip Mania in 1637, where many buyers are low-information speculators.
  • On the plus side, if raising money by pre-selling licensing rights happens to be a super-cool thing, the token sale might raise a lot more money than the licensing rights are actually worth.
  • On the minus side, you didn’t get to deal with securities lawyers.

What about the pros and cons to token buyers?

  • On the minus side, you have far less legal protection, as a buyer and owner of the token, than you would as the buyer and owner of securities in a public company.
  • On the plus side, your specialized expertise as a parts designer or manufacturer might give you a unique ability to increase the value of Ford, and therefore the value of your token.
  • On the minus side, while you know a lot about your own abilities, and might know a lot about Henry Ford and his team, you know nothing at all about the other token buyers. If they turn out to be lousy parts designers and manufacturers, you lose.
  • On the plus side, if you think Ford Motor Company is going to be hugely successful and tokens are the only thing they’re selling, you have no choice.
  • On the minus side, the token probably gives you the right to benefit from only one aspect of the company’s business, g., parts for the the Model T. If the company pivots or expands, you might find yourself left behind.
  • On the plus side, if you’re in a Tulip Mania market, maybe you’ll buy the token today and next week you can double your money selling it to someone else.
  • On the minus side, if we look hard at Ford’s Whitepaper we realize it’s very ambiguous. Do I or Ford really know what I’m getting? Or is this going to end up in litigation?

Who knows where the pros and cons come out. Someday economists will explain whether and in what circumstances a token is more economically efficient than a traditional security.

I feel quite sure that tokens that are currencies and tokens that are digital stock certificates are here to stay, because while not revolutionary, each represents an undeniable, if incremental, improvement over today’s technology. I’m not so sure about tokens that represent prepaid products or services. Until we hear from the economists, the jury is still out.

Questions? Let me know.

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