Tag Archives: broker-dealer

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.

Why the Jobs Act Broker-Dealer Exception Doesn’t Matter (Much)

US CApitol Building Illuminated at Night

Under section 201(c) of the JOBS Act, an electronic platform is not required to register as a broker-dealer solely because the platform offers securities under Title II, co-invests in the securities, or provides due diligence services or standardized documents. That’s good.

What Congress giveth, however, Congress can taketh away. The exemption from broker-dealer registration is not available if:

  • The platform or anyone associated with the platform receives compensation in connection with the purchase or sale of securities; OR
  • The platform helps to negotiate deals; OR
  • The platform requires issuers to use its standardized documents; OR
  • The platform is separately compensated for giving investment advice; OR
  • The platform or anyone associated with the platform takes possession of investor funds or securities; OR
  • The platform or anyone associated with the platform is disqualified under the “bad actor” rules.

Theoretically, the JOBS Act broker-dealer exemption paved the way for Crowdfunding platforms to sell securities free from the constraints of Depression-era securities laws. In practice, however, platforms have found it very difficult, almost impossible, to build a profitable business around the exemption because of all the gaps in the exemption and the list of things you can’t do.

For example:

  • To claim the exemption, a platform may not receive any compensation in connection with the purchase or sale of securities. That doesn’t just mean “transaction-based compensation” like commissions, it means any compensation. If the platform receives a carried interest or promote, for example, the exemption disappears.
  • From a business perspective it makes sense for the platform to employ an investor-relations specialist, someone to reach out to prospective investors. But if that person receives any compensation, even a salary, the exemption disappears.
  • Suppose the platform organizes a special-purpose entity for its investors and negotiates the terms of the deal with the issuer. Buzz! The exemption disappears.
  • The exemption doesn’t even apply to employees of the platform. If they engage in activities that are not protected by SEC Rule 3a4-1, they themselves could be required to register as broker-dealers.
  • Even if you qualify for the Federal exemption, it doesn’t mean you’re exempt from state broker-dealer registration.

Here’s how the SEC answered a question about the scope of the exemption:

QUESTION

May an entity, such as a venture capital fund or its adviser, operate an Internet website where it lists offerings of securities by potential portfolio companies (in compliance with Rule 506), co-invest in those securities with other investors, and provide standardized documents for use by issuers and investors, rely on Securities Act Section 4(b) to not register as a broker-dealer?

ANSWER

Yes. These activities are permitted under Section 4(b), subject to the conditions set forth in Section 4(b)(2), including the prohibition on receiving compensation in connection with the purchase or sale of securities. As a practical matter, we believe that the prohibition on compensation makes it unlikely that a person outside the venture capital area would be able to rely on the exemption from broker-dealer registration.

That’s pretty clear.

Now, the fact that a platform doesn’t qualify for the JOBS Act exemption doesn’t automatically mean the platform has to register as a broker-dealer. Whether the platform has to register as a broker-dealer would be tested under the body of laws stretching back 80 years. My point is that the JOBS Act exemption itself will be irrelevant for most platforms.

As someone once said, Crowdfunding is nothing more or less than the Internet come to the capital formation industry. Crowdfunding platforms sit astride the Internet pipeline directly connecting entrepreneurs with investors. Matching buyer to seller, they function as “brokers” in the most fundamental sense of the word.

In this sense, changing the business practices of a Crowdfunding platform to comply with the JOBS Act broker-dealer exemption is like pounding a round peg into a square hole. Pound long and hard enough and it’s possible. But it’s far better to run the platform business the way you want to run it, i.e., to make the most money. If you have to register as or affiliate with a broker-dealer, just do it.

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick.

Can A Crowdfunding Portal Avoid Broker-Dealer Registration by Registering as an Investment Adviser?

No.

In early 2013 the SEC issued no-action letters concluding that FundersClub and AngelList were not required to register as broker-dealers. Both companies were “venture capital fund advisers,” a special flavor of investment adviser, and some people read into the no-action letters a cause-and-effect, concluding that if a Crowdfunding portal registers as an investment adviser, which is relatively easy, then it doesn’t have to register as a broker-dealer, which is very hard.

When the SEC issues no-action letters, it doesn’t explain its reasoning. It provides the facts and the legal conclusion and leaves it to readers to figure out what was important and wapples and orangeshat wasn’t.

It’s possible that as the SEC weighed the requests by FundersClub and AngelList, a regulator thought “This is a close call, and because they’re already regulated as investment advisers we’ll give them a pass on broker-dealer registration.” But that’s just speculation, not a legal argument. A portal operating exactly in the manner described in the no-action letters might take comfort. Others, including any real estate portal, should not.

Under the securities laws, investment advisers are one thing and broker-dealers are something complete different – different functions, different rules, different risks. If you want to give investment advice, register as an investment adviser. If you’re in the portal business and think you need a broker-dealer, then either register yourself or use a provider like WealthForge or FundAmerica.

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick.

Do the Officers of a Crowdfunding Issuer Have to Register as Broker-Dealers?

thinking woman in jarToday, the most challenging legal question in Title II Crowdfunding is who is required to be a broker-dealer and under what circumstances. The question is most acute for the officers of an issuer, those who direct the issuer’s activities and put the offerings together.

Section 3(a)(4)(A) of the Securities and Exchange Act 1934 generally defines “broker” to mean “any person engaged in the business of effecting transactions in securities for others.” Section 15(a)(1) of the Exchange Act makes it illegal for any “broker. . . .to effect any transactions in, or to induce or attempt to induce the purchase or sale of, any security” unless registered with the SEC.

Simply put, anybody in the business of effecting securities transactions for others must be registered. There is a lot of law around what it means to be “engaged in the business of effecting securities transactions for others.” Based on decided cases and SEC announcements, important factors include:

  • The frequency of the transactions.
  • Whether the individual‘s responsibilities include structuring the transaction, identifying and soliciting potential investors, advising investors on the merits of the investment, participating in the order-taking process, and other services critical to the offering.
  • Whether the individual receives commissions or other transaction-based compensation for her efforts.

Perhaps the most important rule is that the issuer itself – the entity that actually issues the stock – does not have to register as a broker-dealer. The logic is that the issuer is effecting the transaction for itself, not for others.

But what about the President of the issuer, and the Vice President, and all the other employees who send the mailings and put the deal on the website and answer questions from prospective investors? Are they required to register as – or, more accurately, become affiliated with – broker-dealers?

The answer is complicated.

SEC Rule 3a4-1, issued under the Exchange Act, provides a “safe harbor” from registration. Under Rule 3a4-1, an employee of an issuer will not have to register if she is not compensated by commissions, and EITHER:

Her duties are limited to:

  • Preparing any written communication or delivering such communication through the mails or other means that does not involve oral solicitation of a potential purchaser, as long as the content of all such communications are approved by a partner, officer or director of the issuer; or
  • Responding to inquiries of a potential purchaser in a communication initiated by the potential purchaser, as long as her response is limited to providing information contained in an offering statement; or
  • Performing ministerial and clerical work.

OR

  • She performs substantial services other than in connection with offerings; and
  • She has not been a broker-dealer within the preceding 12 months; and
  • She does not participate in more than one offering per year, except for offerings where her duties are limited as described above.

Consider the President of the typical Title II portal offering borrower-dependent notes to accredited investors. Her duties are certainly not limited as described above, and she might participate in – actually direct – dozens of offerings per year. Does that mean she has to register as a broker-dealer?

Not necessarily. Rule 3a4-1 is only a safe harbor. If you satisfy the requirements of Rule 3a4-1 then you are automatically okay, i.e., you don’t have to register. But if you don’t satisfy the requirements of Rule 3a4-1, it doesn’t automatically mean you are required to register. Instead, it means your obligation to register will be determined under the large body of law developed by the SEC and courts over the last 80 years.

Courts and the SEC have identified these primary factors among others:

  • The duties of the employee before she became affiliated with the issuer. Was she a broker-dealer?
  • Whether she was hired for the specific purpose of participating in the offerings.
  • Whether she has substantial duties other than participating in the offerings.
  • How she is paid, and in particular whether she receives commission for raising capital.
  • Whether she intends to remain employed by the portal when the offering is finished.

Within the last couple years, a high-ranking lawyer in the SEC spoke publicly but informally about broker-dealer registration in the context of private funds, an area similar to Crowdfunding in some respects. He expressed concern at the way that some funds market interests to investors and suggested that some in-house marketing personnel might be required to register. At the same time, he suggested that an “investor relations” group within a private fund – individuals who spend some of their time soliciting investors – wouldn’t necessarily be required to register if the individuals spend the majority of their time on activities that do not involve solicitation. On one point he was quite clear: the SEC believes that if an individual receives commissions for capital raised, he or she should probably be registered.

Whether an officer or other employee of a Crowdfunding issuer must register as a broker-dealer will be highly sensitive to the facts; change the facts a little and you might get a different answer. With that caveat, I offer these general guidelines:

  • If an employee receives commissions, he has to register no matter what.
  • If an employee performs solely clerical functions, he does not have to register.
  • If an employee participates in only a handful of offerings, he does not have to register.
  • If an employee spends only a small portion of his time soliciting investors, he does not have to register.
  • If an employee advises investors on the merits of an investment, he’s walking close to the line. Describing facts, especially facts that are already available in an offering document or online, in response to an investor inquiry, doesn’t count as advising investors on the merits of an investment.

Here are two corollaries to those guidelines.

  • As long as he’s not paying himself commissions, the Founder and CEO of an issuer that is a bona fide operating company (not merely a shell to raise money) doesn’t have to register.
  • If the CEO hires Janet to solicit investors, and that’s all Janet does, and she speaks regularly with investors over the phone and helps them decide between Project A and Project B, the SEC is probably going to want Janet to be registered.

Of course, the most conservative approach for Crowdfunding issuers to run every transaction through a licensed broker-dealer. However, that adds cost and most issuers are trying to keep costs down.

This area is ripe for guidance from the SEC, and maybe even a new exemption for bona fide employees of small issuers. Stay tuned.

NOTE: I want to give a shout-out to Rich Weintraub, Esq. of Weintraub Law Group in San Diego. He and I had several very stimulating and thought-provoking conversations on this topic. If there are mistakes in the post, they’re all mine.

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick.

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