Category Archives: SEC

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.

SEC Provides Guidance On Advertising By Title III Issuers

sec guidance

The SEC just provided guidance for Title III issuers in the form of Compliance and Disclosure Interpretations. You can read the CD&I’s themselves here.

Before Filing

Before filing Form C (the disclosure document used in Title III) and being listed on a Funding Portal, a Title III issuer may not take any action that would “condition the public mind or arouse public interest in the issuer or in its securities.” That means:

  • No Demo Days
  • No email blasts or social media posts about the offering
  • No meetings with possible investors

After Filing

Once a Title III issuer has filed Form C and been listed on a Funding Portal, any advertising that includes the “terms of the offering” is subject to the “tombstone” limits of Rule 204. The “terms of the offering” include the amount of securities offered, the nature of the securities, the price of the securities, and the closing date of the offering period.

Advertising that does not include the “terms of the offering” is not subject to Rule 204. Theoretically, for example, an issuer could attend a Demo Day after filing its Form C, as long as it didn’t mention (1) how much money it’s trying to raise, (2) what kind of securities it’s offering, (3) the price of the securities, or (4) the closing date of its offering.

Three caveats:

  • Have you ever been to a Demo Day? It’s hard to imagine someone wouldn’t ask “How much money are you trying to raise?” or that the company representative wouldn’t answer. Theoretically possible, yes, but in practice highly unlikely.
  • Even the statements “We’re selling stock” or “We’re issuing debt” are “terms of the offering” and therefore cross the line.
  • There’s an interesting difference between the regulations themselves and the CD&Is. The regulations say “terms of the offering” means the items mentioned. The CD&Is, on the other hand, say “terms of the offering” include the items mentioned. Thus, if you take the CD&Is literally, maybe “terms of the offering” also include other things, like the start date of the offering.

Video

After filing, a Title III issuer can use video to advertise the “terms of the offering,” as long as the video otherwise complies with Rule 204.

Media Advertisements

After filing, if a Title III issuer is “directly or indirectly involved in the preparation” of a media article that mentions the “terms of the offering,” then the issuer is responsible if the article violates Rule 204.

EXAMPLE:  You attend a Demo Day, and the organizer announces how much money you’re trying to raise. You violated Rule 204.

EXAMPLE:  A reporter from your local paper calls. Eager for the free press, you tell her you’re raising $200,000 for a new microbrewery in town, which she repeats in her article. You violated Rule 204.

EXAMPLE:  A reporter from your local paper calls. Eager for the free press, but very savvy legally, you tell her about your plans for the microbrewery but carefully avoid telling her how much money you’re raising or any other “terms of the offering.” She goes to the Funding Portal and finds out herself, and reports that you’re raising $200,000. You violated Rule 204.

To be safe, you just can’t be involved, directly or indirectly, with anyone from the press who doesn’t understand Title III and promise, cross her heart and hope to die, not to disclose any “terms of the offering.”

Advertisements on the Funding Portal

Advertising a Title III offering outside the Funding Portal is a minefield. But inside the Funding Portal is a completely different story. Inside the Funding Portal is where everything is supposed to happen in Title III. Focus your attention there, where the minefields are few and far between.

Questions? Let me know.

 

 

 

 

 

A Regulation A+ Primer

Regulation A Plus Women GossipingNo disrespect to Kim Kardashian, but I think the SEC’s proposals for Regulation A+ have come closer to breaking the Internet than the photos I heard about last year – although that could be a function of the circles I travel in.

My contribution started as a blog post but got too long for a blog post. Hence, I’m providing this Regulation A+ Primer as a separate link. Within the Primer are links to:

I am trying to provide not just technical details in the Primer – which are important – but also practical advice about the cost of Regulation A+ offerings, the advantages and disadvantages, and examples.

If you have thoughts, as many of you will, I am eager to hear them and plan to supplement the Primer.

Questions? Let me know.

How to Present Investor Disclosures in Crowdfunding Offerings (And How Not To)

Title II Crowdfunding is often referred to, more or less accurately, as “online private placements.” It’s time the industry turned the online, digital, aspect of the offerings more to its advantage.

Remember when newspapers first came online? Remember how interesting they were visually? I’m being sarcastic. They were nothing more than photographs of the paper version, failing to take advantage of the digital platform and its unique capabilities.

Too many (not all) Crowdfunding portals take the same approach to providing investor disclosures. You click through the process and suddenly see an enormous PDF document that is nothing more or less than a paper private placement memorandum, complete with Schedules and Exhibits. You’reOnline document supposed to scroll down and “sign” at the bottom. On some platforms the investor actually has to click I’m Ready to Invest before he sees the disclosures!

There are at least three things wrong with this approach:

• Investors can’t be happy with it.

• It doesn’t convey information effectively.

• The disclosure might be legally ineffective. I think about a plaintiff’s lawyer cross-examining the portal operator, pointing to a disclosure on page 67 and asking “Did you really expect my client to read all that at the end of the click-through process?”

It doesn’t have to be that way! There are much better ways to provide information online. Take a look at today’s online version of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal to see how far we’ve come.

Crowdfunding portals can do the same thing. The first step is to move the mental image of that paper PPM into Trash or the Recycle Bin (depending on whether you’re Mac or PC) and start from scratch. What are we trying to accomplish here? What are the tools at our disposal? Pose that question to some creative people and you’ll get a whole range of possibilities, all of them better for investor, sponsor, and portal.

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick.

HOW TO DO IT WRONG IN CROWDFUNDING

Missed chancesAn SEC enforcement order came across my desk that illustrates how to operate a Crowdfunding portal if you want to meet people who work for the government. The order, with names removed, is available here.

As a preface, everything I know about this portal comes from the SEC’s enforcement order. It is possible that the SEC’s allegations are false – even though the portal agreed to a settlement, without admitting wrongdoing – and that the portal actually was in full compliance with all applicable laws.

With that said, here’s what the portal did, or is alleged to have done:

  • In May 2013, before “general solicitation” was legal, it established a website that listed investments for anyone to see, i.e., not behind a firewall.
  • Although the site included a disclaimer that investments were not available to U.S. persons, the portal did not take steps – for example, using IP addresses – to enforce this rule. In fact, more than 50 individuals who listed the U.S. as their place of residence were allowed to register, and several actually invested.
  • The portal allowed at least some of the U.S. investors to self-certify that they were “accredited investors,” without even explaining what that meant.
  • The portal charged a commission for raising capital without being registered as a broker-dealer.

The violations alleged by the SEC do not fall within an ambiguous gray area. They are just flat-out over the line. And note the timing: May 2013, after the no-action letters to FundersClub and AngelList, in which the SEC gave the world a road map for legal Crowdfunding.

I can only guess this portal was represented by one of my competitors. 🙂

That’s a joke, of course. Much more likely, the company wasn’t represented by anybody and just did what seemed to make sense, without knowing they were violating anything.

The portal was incorporated and operated offshore. Nevertheless, it was subject to U.S. securities laws because it solicited U.S. investors.

Fortunately, everything this company wanted to do can be done legally and at a very low cost. If you want to raise money exclusively offshore, then exclude U.S. investors. If you want to raise money from the U.S. and offshore, use Regulation S. If you’re raising money from U.S. investors use VerifyInvestor.com or Crowdentials to verify they’re accredited. If you’re going to charge a commission use an online broker-dealer. If you want to allow investors to self-certify, then use Rule 506(b) and hide your deals behind a firewall. Spend just a little money on a lawyer and stay off the SEC’s Christmas card list.

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick at Flaster/Greenberg PC.

NEW DOMAIN EXTENSIONS BECOME AVAILABLE

Crowdfunding Image - XXXL - iStock_000037694192XXXLargeWe started with .COM. Then .NET, .EDU, .INFO, .ORG, and a handful of others. But we’re about to be flooded with new domain extensions, more than a thousand of them.

In the world of finance, we’re going to have .BANK, .BROKER, .CAPITAL, .FUND, .INVESTMENTS, and .FINANCE. In the world of food we’re about to have .FOOD, .EAT, .GROCERY and .KITCHEN. You get the idea.

The flood of new extensions offers opportunity and challenge. Maybe the .FUND extension would work great for your new Crowdfunding portal. On the other hand, maybe you’re already using portal.com and now you have to worry about a competitor using portal.fund (Hint: a different domain extension doesn’t give a competitor the right to violate your trademark).

Some of the new extensions are already available, while the rest are coming soon. For a complete list and to register, go to a registrar website such as www.Godaddy.com.

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick at Flaster/Greenberg PC.

THE NEXT BIG THING IN CROWDFUNDING: POOLED ASSETS

September 23rd marks the first anniversary of Title II Crowdfunding. The number of portals has grown exponentially but most or all portals continue to offer investments in single deals, e.g., an apartment building in Austin. Before long, I believe the market will shift to investments in pools of assets. Rather than the single apartment building in Austin, a portal will list a pool of 20 apartment buildings in the Southwest.

Accredited or not, very few individual investors have the knowledge or experience to invest in individual deals. And based on the stock market, most individual investors don’t want to. Individuals have historically preferred mutual funds over individual stocks; a mutual fund is just a form of pooled assets.

An investor can create his own pool, investing $5,000 in each of 20 apartment buildings rather than $100,000 in a single property. On Prosper or Lending Club, I bet most investors participate in multiple loans.

But that doesn’t give consumers quite what they want. What they want is a fund manager, someone who will choose the 20 apartment buildings and also decide when to sell them. A stock market investor who wanted to creat her own pool could buy 20 individual stocks, but instead she buys a mutual fund.

Do Crowdfunding investors view the portals themselves as mutual funds? Maybe investors expect Fundrise, Patch of Land, Wealth Migrate, or iFunding to play the role of the mutual fund manager, selecting only deals worthy of investment. On the advice of counsel, every portal tries hard to disclaim that legal responsibility, but maybe investors ignore the disclaimers, looking for a “brand” for investing.

I certainly expect portals to start offering asset pools. I’ll go out on a limb and say the first portal offering curated pools will have a great competitive advantage, and I’ll go further and say that Crowdfunding won’t reach its potential until pooled asset investments are widely available.

Pooling assets makes things a bit more complicated and a bit more expensive: more legal rules come into play; you have to think harder about giving investors liquidity; and, most important, you have to pay someone to make investment decisions and take the legal risk. But that’s where the market is headed.

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick at Flaster/Greenberg PC.

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