Tag Archives: crowdfunding

Non-U.S. Investors and Companies in U.S. Crowdfunding

Non-US Investors and Companies in US Crowdfunding

When I was a kid, back in the 1840s, we referred to people who live outside the United States as “foreigners.” Using the more globalist and clinical term “non-U.S. persons,” I’m going to summarize how people and companies outside the U.S. fit into the U.S. Crowdfunding and Fintech picture.

Can Non-U.S. Investors Participate in U.S. Crowdfunding Offerings?

Yes. No matter where he or she lives, anyone can invest in a U.S. Crowdfunding offering, whether under Title II, Title III, or Title IV.

The Crowdfunding laws don’t distinguish U.S. investors from non-U.S. investors. Thus:

  • To invest in an offering under Title II (SEC Rule 506(c)), a non-U.S. investor must be “accredited.”
  • If a non-U.S. investor invests in an offering under Title III (aka “Regulation CF”), he or she is subject to the same investment limitations as U.S. investors.
  • If a non-U.S. investor who is also non-accredited invests in an offering under Tier 2 of Title IV (aka “Regulation A”), he or she is subject to the same limitations as non-accredited U.S. investors, e., 10% of the greater of income or net worth.

What About Regulation S?

SEC Regulation S provides that an offering limited to non-U.S. investors is exempt from U.S. securities laws. Mysterious on its face, the law makes perfect sense from a national, jurisdictional point of view. The idea is that the U.S. government cares about protecting U.S. citizens, but nobody else.

EXAMPLE:  If a U.S. citizen is abducted in France, the U.S. military sends Delta Force. If a German citizen is abducted in France, Delta Force gets the day off to play volleyball.

Regulation S is relevant to U.S. Crowdfunding because a company raising money using Title II, Title III, or Title may simultaneously raise money from non-U.S. investors using Regulation S. Why would a company do that, given that non-U.S. investors may participate in Title II, Title III, or Title IV? To avoid the limits of U.S. law. Thus:

  • A company raising money using Title II can raise money from non-accredited investors outside the United States using Regulation S.
  • A company raising money using Title III can raise money from investors outside the United States without regard to income levels.
  • A company raising money using Tier 2 of Title IV can raise money from non-accredited investors outside the United States without regard to income or net worth.

Thus, a company raising money in the U.S. using the U.S. Crowdfunding laws can either (1) raise money from non-U.S. investors applying the same rules to everybody, or (2) place non-U.S. investors in a simultaneous offering under Regulation S.

What’s the Catch?

The catch is that the U.S. is not the only country with securities laws. If a company in the U.S. is soliciting investors from Canada, it can satisfy U.S. law by either (1) treating the Canadian investors the same way it treats U.S. investors (for example, accepting investments only from accredited Canadian investors in a Rule 506(c) offering), or (2) bringing in the Canadian investors under Regulation S. But to solicit Canadian investors, the company must comply with Canadian securities laws, too.

Raising Money for Non-U.S. Companies

Whether a non-U.S. company is allowed to raise money using U.S. Crowdfunding laws depends on the kind of Crowdfunding.

Title II Crowdfunding

A non-U.S. company is allowed to raise money using Title II (Rule 506(c)).

Title III Crowdfunding

Only a U.S. entity is allowed to raise money using Title III (aka “Regulation CF”). An entity organized under the laws of Germany may not use Title III.

But that’s not necessarily the end of the story. If a German company wants to raise money in the U.S. using Title III, it has a couple choices:

  • It can create a U.S. subsidiary to raise money using Title III. The key is that the U.S. subsidiary can’t be a shell, raising the money and then passing it up to the parent, because nobody wants to invest in a company with no assets. The U.S. subsidiary should be operating a real business. For example, a German automobile manufacturer might conduct its U.S. operations through a U.S. subsidiary.
  • The stockholders of the German company could transfer their stock to a U.S. entity, making the German company a wholly-owned subsidiary of the U.S. entity. The U.S. entity could then use Title III.

Title IV Crowdfunding

Title IV (aka “Regulation A”) may be used only by U.S. or Canadian entities with a “principal place of business” in the U.S. or Canada.

(I have never understood why Canada is included, but whatever.)

If we cut through the legalese, whether a company has its “principal place of business” in the U.S. depends on what the people who run the company see when they wake up in the morning and look out the window. If see the U.S., then the company has it’s “principal place of business” in the U.S. If they see a different country, it doesn’t. (Which country they see when they turn on Skype doesn’t matter.)

Offshore Offerings

Regulation S allows U.S. companies to raise money from non-U.S. investors without worrying about U.S. securities laws. But once those non-U.S. investors own the securities of the U.S. company, they have to think about U.S. tax laws. Often non-U.S. investors, especially wealthy non-U.S. investors, are unenthusiastic about registering with the Internal Revenue Service.

The alternative, especially for larger deals, is for the U.S. entity to form a “feeder” vehicle offshore, typically in the Cayman Islands because of its favorable business and tax climate. Non-U.S. investors invest in the Cayman entity, and the Cayman entity in turn invests in the U.S. entity.

These days, it has become a little fashionable for U.S. token issuers to incorporate in the Cayman Islands and raise money only from non-U.S. investors, to avoid U.S. securities laws. Because the U.S. capital markets are so deep and the cost of complying with U.S. securities laws is so low, this strikes me as foolish. Or viewed from a different angle, if a company turns its back on trillions of dollars of capital to avoid U.S. law, I’d wonder what they’re hiding.

What About the Caravan from Honduras?

Yes, all those people can invest.

Questions? Let me know.

The IRS Regulations on Qualified Opportunity Zone Funds

Qualified Opportunity Zone Funds

The Internal Revenue Service just issued regulations about qualified opportunity zone funds, answering many of the questions raised by the legislation itself. And for the most part, the answers are positive for investors and developers.

Can I Use An LLC?

Yes. Although the legislation provides that a QOZF must be a “corporation or a partnership,” the regulations confirm that a limited liability company treated as a partnership for tax purposes (or any other entity treated as a partnership for tax purposes) qualifies.

How Do I Calculate Rehabilitation Costs?

To qualify as “qualified opportunity zone business property,” either the original use of the property must begin with the QOZF or the QOZF must “substantially improve” the property. The statute says that to “substantially improve” the property, the QOZF must invest as much in improving the property as it paid for the property in the first place.

The regulations carve out an important exception: in calculating how much the QOZF paid for the property, the QOZF may exclude the cost of the land. Thus, a QOZF that buys an apartment building for $2,000,000, of which $1,500,000 was attributable to the cost of the land, is required to spend only $500,000 on renovations, not $2,000,000.

What Kind of Interest Must an Investor Own?

To obtain the tax deferral, an investor must own an equity interest in the QOZF, not a debt instrument. Preferred stock is usually treated as an equity interest.

Are Short-Term Capital Gains Covered?

Yes, all capital gains are covered. Ordinary income — for example, from depreciation recapture — is not.

Do All The Assets of the Business Have to be in the Qualified Opportunity Zone?

A business can qualify as a “qualified opportunity zone business” only if “substantially all” of its tangible assets are located in the qualified opportunity zone. The regulations provide that “substantially all” means at least 70%. That means that 30% of the assets of the qualified opportunity zone business can be outside the qualified opportunity zone.

NOTE:  Don’t get confused. To qualify as a QOZF, the fund itself must have invested 90% of its assets in “qualified opportunity zone property.” One kind of of “qualified opportunity zone property” is a “qualified opportunity zone business.” The 70/30 test applies in determining whether a business is a “qualified opportunity fund business.” So if a QOZF owns assets directly, 90% of those assets must be in the qualified opportunity zone. But if the QOZF invests in a business, then only 70% of the assets of the business must be in the qualified opportunity zone.

NOTE:  Many QOZFs will own property through single-member limited liability companies. When applying the 70% test and the 90% test, bear in mind that a single-member limited liability company is generally not treated as a “partnership” for tax purposes, but rather as a “disregarded entity.” For tax purposes, assets owned by the single-member limited liability company will be treated as owned directly by the QOZF.

What Happens in 2028, When the Program Ends?

The qualified opportunity zone program ends in 2028. Nevertheless, the regulations allow investors to continue to claim tax benefits from the program until 2048.

How Long can the QOZF Wait to Invest?

Suppose a QOZF raises $5M today. When does the money have to be invested?

The regulations provide that under some circumstances, you can wait up to 31 months to invest. But this is one area where more guidance is needed.

Questions? Let me know.

Help Wanted

help wantedMy work in the Crowdfunding space has been the most interesting and challenging of my career. Now I’m looking to add to our Crowdfunding team here at Flaster/Greenberg, and I hope you can help find the right person.

The right person would have these qualifications:

  • An attorney with 2-4 years of experience in corporate and securities offerings
  • Crowdfunding-specific experience appreciated but not required
  • A good, fast learner, unafraid to ask questions
  • Someone who pays attention to detail, and takes pride in great legal work
  • A good writer and communicator
  • Good technology skills
  • Lives in the Philadelphia area or is able to work effectively remotely

If you or someone you know has these qualifications, please forward a resume to our Human Resources Director, Karen Roberts, at Karen.Roberts@flastergreenberg.com.

Thank you!

MARK

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.

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.

“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.

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.

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