Tag Archives: Crowdfund Attorney

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.

A Summary of the Investment Company Act for Crowdfunding

Hardly a day goes by without someone asking a question that involves the Investment Company Act of 1940. Although the Act is hugely long and complicated, I’m going to try to summarize in a single blog post the parts that are most important to Crowdfunding.

Why the Fuss?

If you’re in the Crowdfunding space, you don’t want to be an “investment company” within the meaning of the Act:

  • As an investment company, you’re not allowed to raise money using either Title III (Regulation Crowdfunding) or Title IV (Regulation A).
  • Investment companies are subject to huge levels of cost and regulation.

What is an Investment Company?

An investment company is company in the business of holding the securities of other companies. That statement raises many interesting and technical legal issues that have consumed many volumes of legal treatises and conferences at the Waldorf. But almost none of it matters to understand the basics.

All that matters from a practical perspective is that stock in corporations, interests in limited liability companies, and interests in limited partnerships are all generally “securities” within the meaning of the Act.

And that means, in turn, that if you hold stock in corporations, interests in limited liability companies, and/or interests in limited partnerships, then assume you’re an “investment company” within the meaning of the Act, unless you can identify and qualify for an exception.

How Much is Too Much?

Holding some securities doesn’t make you an investment company. Under one of the many technical rules in the Act, a company won’t be considered an investment company if:

  • No more than 45% of its assets are invested in securities, as of the end of the most recent fiscal quarter; and
  • No more than 45% of its income is derived from investment securities, as of the end of the most recent four fiscal quarters.

Does That Mean a Typical SPV is an Investment Company?

Unless the SPV can find an exception, yes.

Many Crowdfunded investments use a “special purpose vehicle,” typically a Delaware limited liability company. Investors acquire interests in the SPV, and the SPV invests – as a single investor – in the actual operating company. Because the only asset of the SPV is the interest in the operating company, which is a “security,” the SPV is indeed an investment company, unless it qualifies for one of the exceptions below.

Simple Exceptions

The definition of “investment company” is so broad, most of the action is in the exceptions. I’m not going to talk about all of them, only those that are most relevant to Crowdfunding.

  • No More Than 100 Investors – A company with no more than 100 investors (who do not have to be accredited) isn’t an investment company. That’s the exception used by SPVs in Crowdfunding. Which means that as the size of deals in Crowdfunding grows, SPVs will no longer be used.
  • All Qualified Investors – A company with only “qualified investors” isn’t an investment company. A “qualified investor” is generally a person with more than $5 million of investable assets. Many hedge funds rely on this exception, but it’s not going to be used widely in Crowdfunding.

NOTE:  A company that would be an investment company but for either of those two exceptions is still not allowed to use Title III or Title IV.

  • Companies That Invest In Mortgages – A company that invests in or originates mortgages is usually not an investment company.
  • Wholly-Owned Subsidiaries – A company that conducts its business through wholly-owned subsidiaries isn’t an investment company, as long as the subsidiaries are not investment companies. For these purposes, “wholly-owned” means the parent owns at least 95% of the voting power.
  • Majority-Owned Subsidiaries – A company that conducts its business through majority-owned subsidiaries usually isn’t an investment company, as long as the subsidiaries are not investment companies. For these purposes, “majority-owned” means the parent owns at least 50% of the voting power.

The 45% Exception

Some companies, including some REITs, own interests in subsidiaries that are not wholly-owned or even majority-owned. To avoid being treated as investment companies, those companies typically rely on an exception that requires more complicated calculations. Under this exception, a company is excluded from the definition of “investment company” if it satisfies both of the followings tests:

  • No more than 45% of the value of its assets (exclusive of government securities and cash items) consist of securities other than what I will refer to as “allowable securities.”
  • No more than 45% of its after-tax income is derived from securities other than those same “allowable securities.”

For these purposes, the securities I am calling “allowable securities” include a number of different kinds of securities, but the two most important to us are:

  • Securities issued by majority-owned subsidiaries of the parent; and
  • Securities issued by companies that are controlled primarily by the parent.

So think of those securities as being in the “good” basket and other kinds of securities as being in the “bad” basket.

In determining whether a security – such as an interest in a limited liability company – is an “allowable security,” and therefore in the “good” basket, the following definitions apply:

  • A subsidiary is a “majority-owned subsidiary” if the parent owns at least 50% of the voting securities of the subsidiary.
  • A parent is deemed to “control” a subsidiary if it has the power to exercise a controlling influence of the management or policies of the subsidiary.
  • A parent is deemed to “control primarily” a subsidiary if (1) it has the power to exercise a controlling influence of the management or policies of the subsidiary, and (2) this power is greater than the power of any other person.

Summary

If your business model involves investing in other companies and you plan to raise money from other people, the Investment Company Act of 1940 should be on your To Do List.

As a rule of thumb, you can feel comfortable investing in wholly-owned subsidiaries, majority-owned subsidiaries, and subsidiaries where you have exclusive or at least primary control. If you find other investments making up, say, more than 25% of your portfolio, measured by asset value or income, look harder.

Questions? Let me know.

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