Tag Archives: Title III 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.

Yes, A Parent Company Can Use Title III Crowdfunding

Title III Crowdfunding

We know an “investment company,” as defined in the Investment Company Act of 1940, can’t use Title III Crowdfunding. For that matter, an issuer can’t use Title III even if it’s not an investment company, if the reason it’s not an investment company is one of the exemptions under section 3(b) or section 3(c) of the 1940 Act. By way of example, suppose a a company is engaged in the business of making commercial mortgage loans. Even if the company qualifies for the exemption under section 3(c)(5)(C) of the 1940 Act, it still can’t use Title III.

We also know that, silly as it seems, a company whose only asset is the securities of one company is generally treated as an investment company under the 1940 Act. That’s why we can’t use so-called “special purpose vehicles,” or SPVs, in Title III Crowdfunding, to round up all the investors in one entity and thereby simplify the cap table.

Put those two things together and you might conclude that only an operating company, and not a company that owns stock in the operating company, can use Title III Crowdfunding. But that wouldn’t be quite right.

A company that owns the securities of an operating company – I’ll call that a “parent company” — can’t use Title III if it’s an “investment company” under the 1940 Act. However, while every investment company is a parent company, not every parent company is an investment company. Here’s what I mean.

Section 3(a)(1) of the 1940 Act defines “investment company” as:

  • A company engaged primarily in the business of investing, reinvesting, or trading in securities; or
  • A company engaged in the business of investing, reinvesting, owning, holding, or trading in securities, which owns or proposes to acquire investment securities having a value exceeding 40% of the value of its assets.

Suppose Parent, Inc. owns 100% of Operating Company, LLC, and nothing else. If Parent’s interest in Operating Company is treated as a “security,” then Parent will be an investment company under either definition above and can’t use Title III. However, it should be possible to structure the relationship between Parent and Operating Company so that Parent’s interest is not treated as a security, relying on a long line of cases involving general partnership interests.

These cases arise under the Howey test, made famous by the ICO world. Under Howey, an instrument is a security if and only if:

  • It involves an investment of money or other property in a common enterprise;
  • There is an expectation of profits; and
  • The expectation of profits is based on the efforts of someone else.

Focusing on the third element of the Howey test, courts have held that a general partner’s interest in a limited partnership generally is not a security because (1) by law, the general partner controls the partnership, and (2) the general partner is therefore relying on its own efforts to realize a profit, not the efforts of someone else.

If Operating Company were a partnership and Parent were its general partner, then the arrangement would fall squarely within this line of cases and Parent wouldn’t be treated as an investment company. As a general partner, however, Parent would be fully liable for the liabilities of Operating Company, defeating the main purpose of the parent/subsidiary relationship, i.e., letting the tail wag the dog.

Fortunately, Parent should be able to achieve the same result even though Operating Company is a limited liability company. The key is that Operating Company should be managed by its members, not by a manager. That should place Parent in exactly the same position as the typical general partner:  relying on its own efforts, rather than the efforts of someone else, to realize a profit from the enterprise.

If Parent’s interest in Operating Company isn’t a “security,” then Parent isn’t an “investment company,” and can raise money using Title III.

Questions? Let me know.

The Per-Investor Limits of Title III Require Concurrent Offerings

Since the JOBS Act was signed by President Obama in 2012, advocates have been urging Congress to increase the overall limit of $1 million (now $1.07 million, after adjustment for inflation) to $5 million. But for many issuers, the overall limit is less important than the per-investor limits.

The maximum an investor can invest in all Title III offerings during any period of 12 months is:

  • If the investor’s annual income or net worth is less than $107,000, she may invest the greater of:
    • $2,200; or
    • 5% of the lesser of her annual income or net worth.
  • If the investor’s annual income and net worth are both at least $107,000, she can invest the lesser of:
    • $107,000; or
    • 10% of the lesser of her annual income or net worth.

These limits apply to everyone, including “accredited investors.” They’re adjusted periodically by the SEC based on inflation.

These limits make Title III much less attractive than it should be relative to Title II. Consider the typical small issuer, NewCo, LLC, deciding whether to use Title II or Title III to raise $1 million or less. On one hand, the CEO of NewCo might like the idea of raising money from non-accredited investors, whether because investors might also become customers (e.g., a restaurant or brewery), because the CEO is ideologically committed to making a good investment available to ordinary people, or otherwise. Yet by using Title III, NewCo is hurting its chances of raising capital.

Suppose a typical accredited investor has income of $300,000 and a net worth of $750,000. During any 12-month period she can invest only $30,000 in all Title III offerings. How much of that will she invest in NewCo? Half? A third? A quarter? In a Title II offering she could invest any amount.

Because of the per-investor limits, a Title III issuer has to attract a lot more investors than a Title II issuer. That drives up investor-acquisition costs and makes Title III more expensive than Title II, even before you get to the disclosures.

The solution, of course, is that Congress should make the Title III rule the same as the Tier 2 rule in Regulation A:  namely, that non-accredited investors are limited, but accredited investors are not. I can’t see any policy argument against that rule.

In the meantime, almost every Title III issuer should conduct a concurrent Title II offering, and every Title III funding portal should build concurrent offerings into its functionality.

Questions? Let me know.

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.

Raising Capital Online: An Introduction For Real Estate Developers

If you’re a real estate developer accustomed to raising capital through traditional channels, you’re probably wondering about Crowdfunding. In this post, I’m going to provide some basic information, then try to answer the questions I hear most.

Basics of Crowdfunding

  • It’s Not Kickstarter. On Kickstarter, people make gifts, often to strangers. You’re not going to ask for gifts. Instead, you’re looking for investors, and in exchange for their money you’re going to give them the same kinds of legal instruments you’d give an investor in the offline world: an interest in an LLC, a convertible note, or something else.
  • It’s Just the Internet. For better or worse, a certain mystique has developed around Crowdfunding, if only because it’s so new. But Crowdfunding is just the Internet, finally come to the capital formation industry. We buy airline tickets online, we call a cab online, we search for significant others online, now we can search for capital online. If you’re comfortable buying socks on Amazon, you’ll be comfortable raising money using Crowdfunding.
  • Why Crowdfunding? How many investors do you know? Twelve? Seventy-two? With Crowdfunding, you can put your project in front of every investor in the world. And you’ll probably get better terms.
  • The Market Is Small But Growing Quickly. Title II Crowdfunding became legal in September 2013, Title IV in June 2015, and Title III in May 2016. The amounts being raised are in the billions of dollars per year, small in terms of the overall U.S. capital markets but growing quickly.
  • There Are Three Flavors of Crowdfunding. Crowdfunding was created by the JOBS Act of 2012. The three flavors of Crowdfunding are named for three of the sections, or “Titles,” of the JOBS Act:
    • Title II, which allows only accredited investors (in general, those with $200,000 of income or $1 million of net worth, not counting a principal residence) but is otherwise largely unregulated.
    • Title III, which allows issuers to raise up to $1 million per year, through a highly-regulated online process.
    • Title IV, which allows issuers to raise up to $50 million per year in what amounts to a mini-public offering.

For more information, take a look at this chart. But first, read the next bullet point.

  • You Don’t Have to Learn the Legal Rules. You’re a real estate developer, not a lawyer. You don’t have to become a lawyer to raise money using Crowdfunding, and in terms of lifestyle I wouldn’t recommend it.
  • You Don’t Have to Write Computer Code. You’re a real estate developer, not an IT professional. You don’t have to know or learn anything about technology to raise money through Crowdfunding.
  • Crowdfunding is About Marketing. It’s not a technology business, it’s not even a real estate business. Crowdfunding is all about marketing. You create a product that investors will want, and you market both the product and your track record. Just as you rely on your lawyer for legal advice and your IT folks for technology, you rely on marketing professionals to sell yourself and the product.

Common Questions

  • Will I Have More Liability? Here’s a long and technical blog post, listing all the ways that an issuer of securities in Crowdfunding can be liable. By all means share this with your regular lawyer and ask for his or her opinion. But the bottom line is that if you do it right, raising money through Crowdfunding creates no more liability than raising money through traditional channels. It’s just the Internet.
  • Will Banks Lend Money for Crowdfunded Deals? In the earliest stages of Crowdfunding, some lenders balked at deals that involved a bunch of passive investors. But we crossed that bridge long ago. Today, banks and other institutional lenders routinely finance Crowdfunding deals.
  • Isn’t It a Hassle Dealing with All Those Investors? It can be, but doesn’t have to be. For one thing, investors in the Crowdfunding world get no voting or management rights. If you’re used to the private equity guys looking over your shoulder, you’ll be thrilled with Crowdfunding. For another thing, if you use one of the existing Crowdfunding portals (see below), you can outsource a large part of the initial investor relations.
  • I’ve Heard That Investors Must Be Verified – How Does That Work? In Title II Crowdfunding, the issuer – you – must verify that every investor is accredited. In theoretical terms that could mean asking for tax returns, brokerage statements, and other confidential information. But in practical terms it just means engaging a third party like VerifyInvestor. Most verification is done with a simple letter from the investor’s lawyer or accountant.
  • How Much Money Can I Raise? In a typical Title II offering, developers typically raise $1M to $3M of equity.
  • If Crowdfunding is Still Small, Why Start Now? One, you can raise capital for smaller deals. Two, it’s about building a brand in the online market. In a few years, when developers are raising $30M rather than $3M, the developer who built his brand early is more likely to be funded.
  • Is Crowdfunding All or Nothing? No, not at all. You can raise part of the capital stack through Crowdfunding and the balance through traditional channels.
  • Will I Need a PPM? You’ll generally provide the same information to prospective investors in the online world as you’re accustomed to providing in the offline world.
  • Why Am I Seeing All These REITs in Crowdfunding? Three reasons:
    • Most retail investors have neither the skill nor the desire to select individual real estate projects. Just as retail investors prefer mutual funds to picking individual stocks, retail investors will prefer to invest in pools of assets that have been chosen by a professional.
    • Theoretically, thousands of retail investors could invest in a traditional limited liability company. But when you own equity in an LLC you receive a K-1 each year. For someone who’s invested $1,000, the cost of adding a K-1 to her tax return at H&R Block could be prohibitive. In a REIT you receive a 1099, not a K-1.
    • Privately-traded REITs have a very bad reputation, plagued by high fees and sales commissions. But if light is the best disinfectant, the Internet is like a spotlight, relentlessly driving down costs and providing investors with instantly-accessible information.
  • What Kind of Yields Do Investors Expect? That’s a tough question, obviously. But here are two data points. For an equity investment in a high-quality, cash-flowing garden apartment complex, investors might expect a 7% preferred return and 70% on the back end (e., a 30% promote for you). For a debt investment in a single-family fix-and-flip, with a 65% LTV, they might expect a 9% interest rate on a one-year investment.
  • Should I Use Rule 506(b) or Rule 506(c)? If you’re asking that question, you probably shouldn’t be reading this blog post. Try this one.
  • Do I Need a Broker-Dealer? Two answers:
    • As a general rule, you are not legally required to be registered as a broker-dealer, or to be affiliated with a broker-dealer, if you’re offering your own deals. For a more technical legal answer, you can read this blog post.
    • To sell your deal, you might want to use a broker-dealer, or a broker-dealer network.
  • How Can I Get Started? You have two choices:
    • You can establish your own website and list your own deals. But there are millions of websites in the world, many featuring photographs of naked people. Against that competition you might find it difficult to attract eyeballs.
    • You can get your feet wet by listing projects on an existing real estate Crowdfunding portal, one with a good reputation and a large pool of registered investors. If that goes well, you can think about establishing your own website later. The portal will take the mystery out of the online process, making it look and feel like any other offering from your perspective.

Questions? Let me know.

Improving Legal Documents in Crowdfunding: Get Rid of the State Legends!

I see lots of offering documents like this, with pages of state “legends.” The good news is that in Crowdfunding offerings – Title II (Rule 506(c)), Title III (Regulation Crowdfunding), and Title IV (Regulation A) – you can and should get rid of them.

The legal case is pretty simple:

  • Before 1996, states were allowed to regulate private offerings. Every state allowed exemptions, but these exemptions often required legends, differing from state to state.
  • The National Securities Market Improvement Act of 1996 added section 18 to the Securities Act of 1933. Section 18 provides that no state shall “impose any conditions upon the use of. . . .any offering document that is prepared by or on behalf of the issuer. . . .” in connection with the sale of “covered securities.”
  • The securities sold under Title II, Title III, and Title IV are all “covered securities.”
  • Hence, section 18 prohibits states from imposing any conditions regarding the issuer’s offering documents, including a condition that requires the use of a state legend.

If the capitalized legends just take up space, why not include them anyway just to be safe? Take Pennsylvania’s legend as an example:

These securities have not been registered under the Pennsylvania Securities Act of 1972 in reliance upon an exemption therefrom. any sale made pursuant to such exemption is voidable by a Pennsylvania purchaser within two business days from the date of receipt by the issuer of his or her written binding contract of purchase or, in the case of a transaction in which there is not a written binding contract of purchase, within two business days after he or she makes the initial payment for the shares being offered.

If you include the Pennsylvania legend “just to be safe,” you’ve given Pennsylvania investors a right of rescission they wouldn’t have had otherwise!

Two qualifications.

First, the North American Securities Administrators Association –the trade group of state securities regulators – suggests including uniform legend on offering documents. I include this or something similar as a matter of course:

IN MAKING AN INVESTMENT DECISION INVESTORS MUST RELY ON THEIR OWN EXAMINATION OF THE COMPANY AND THE TERMS OF THE OFFERING, INCLUDING THE MERITS AND RISKS INVOLVED. THESE SECURITIES HAVE NOT BEEN RECOMMENDED BY ANY FEDERAL OR STATE SECURITIES COMMISSION OR REGULATORY AUTHORITY. FURTHERMORE, THE FOREGOING AUTHORITIES HAVE NOT CONFIRMED THE ACCURACY OR DETERMINED THE ADEQUACY OF THIS DOCUMENT. ANY REPRESENTATION TO THE CONTRARY IS A CRIMINAL OFFENSE. THESE SECURITIES ARE SUBJECT TO RESTRICTIONS ON TRANSFERABILITY AND RESALE AND MAY NOT BE TRANSFERRED OR RESOLD EXCEPT AS PERMITTED UNDER THE ACT, AND THE APPLICABLE STATE SECURITIES LAWS, PURSUANT TO REGISTRATION OR EXEMPTION THEREFROM. INVESTORS SHOULD BE AWARE THAT THEY WILL BE REQUIRED TO BEAR THE FINANCIAL RISKS OF THIS INVESTMENT FOR AN INDEFINITE PERIOD OF TIME.

Second, some states, including Florida, require a legend to appear on the face of the offering document to avoid broker-dealer registration. Because Section 18 of the Securities Act doesn’t prohibit states from regulating broker-dealers, some lawyers recommend including those legends, while others believe those requirements are an improper “back door” way for states to avoid the Federal rule. I come out in the latter camp, but opinions differ.

Questions? Let me know.

Two Related Party Rules In Title III Crowdfunding

Title III includes two definitions about related parties, similar but not identical.

The first definition dictates who is subject to the $1 million-per-year limit on raising money. There, the regulations provide that the limit applies not only to the issuer itself (the company raising money), but also to “all entities controlled by or under common control with the issuer and any predecessors of the issuer.” To determine who controls whom, the regulations borrow the definition from SEC Rule 405:

The term ‘control’ means the possession, direct or indirect, of the power to direct or cause the direction of the management and policies of the entity, whether through the ownership of voting securities, by contract or otherwise.

This means, for example, that if Company X is raising money using Title III, then Company X and all members of the same corporate family are subject to the same $1 million cap, even if other members of the corporate family are engaged in very different businesses.

(Don’t even think about having your husband or girlfriend or best friend from college own the other businesses get around the rule. It doesn’t work.)

This is a very broad rule and, like so much of Title III, very different than anything we’ve seen before in the U.S. securities laws. For example, while Issuer X may include only 35 investors in an offering under Rule 506(b), Issuer X is allowed to have multiple offerings – an apartment building in this offering, an oil and gas development in this offering, a social media app in a third offering – and include 35 non-accredited investors in each.

Similarly, in Title IV an issuer can raise up to $50 million for a mortgage REIT. Nothing stops a company under common control with the issuer from raising another $50 million for a REIT that buys office buildings.

Why the stricter rule for Title III? I would say that, consistent with the whole Title III paradigm, the goal was to reserve Title III for little guys, the neighborhood businesses, while keeping the professional financiers from Wall Street and Silicon Valley out. It’s part of the big compromise that allowed enactment of Title III in the first place.

The second definition around related parties in Title III dictates who on the portal side may own securities of the issuer. The rule is that:

  • The portal itself may own a financial interest in the issuer only if (1) the portal received the financial interest as compensation for the services provided to or for the benefit of the issuer, and (2) the financial interest consists of the same securities that are being offered to investors on the portal’s platform.
  • No director, officer, or partner of the portal, or any person occupying a similar status or performing a similar function, may own a financial interest in an issuer.

The term “financial interest in an issuer” means a direct or indirect ownership of, or economic interest in, any class of the issuer’s securities.

This rule means, for example, that:

  • A portal may not raise money for itself on its own platform.
  • Neither the portal nor any of its directors, officers, or partners may invest in an issuer before it raises money on the portal (they could invest afterward).
  • Purely contractual arrangements, not relating to the securities of the issuer, are okay.

The rule about financial interests doesn’t use the words “common control” but, because a portal is controlled by its directors, officers, and partners, the result is nearly the same. But not identical. In a typical Crowdfunding structure, for example, the Title III portal is owned in a separate company. Key contributors to other parts of the corporate family who are not directors, officers, or partners of the portal itself should be allowed to invest without violating the rule, even where all the companies are under common control.

Questions? Let me know.

Can A Crowdfunding Issuer Sell Its Own Securities?

Securities Cash  Register

Some states, including Texas, require all securities to be sold through licensed brokers. Do these state laws mean that Crowdfunding issuers can’t sell their own securities? Do they have to use a “clearing broker” instead?

For Title III the answer is easy. Securities under Title III may be offered and sold only through a licensed broker or a licensed funding portal. If you’re selling through a licensed broker then you’re complying with the state law, and section 15(i)(2)(A) of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 prohibits states from regulating funding portals in their businesses as such.

For Title II (Rule 506(c)) and Title IV (Regulation A), the answer is less clear. The issue is especially acute under Title IV, just because of the number of investors.

Section 18(a)(1) of Securities Act

Added to the law in 1996, section 18(a)(1) of the Securities Act of 1933 provides that:

Except as otherwise provided in this section, no law, rule, regulation, or order, or other administrative action of any State or any political subdivision thereof requiring, or with respect to, registration or qualification of securities, or registration or qualification of securities transactions, shall directly or indirectly apply to a security that is a covered security.

Because the term “covered security” includes securities offered under Rule 506(c) and Regulation A (also Title III, for that matter), the law clearly prohibits states from requiring the registration of a Crowdfunding offering. But does it also prohibit states from regulating who sells the securities?

Here’s the statute again, with extra words removed:

No law requiring registration or qualification of securities transactions shall apply to a covered security.

A sale of a security is definitely a “securities transaction.” So here’s the question:  does a state law that requires the sale to be effected through a licensed broker amount to requiring “registration or qualification” of the sale? Many smart people conclude that it does, making any such law unenforceable. That’s why you can go online today and find issuers offering securities directly to investors, despite state laws saying otherwise.

But there’s plenty of room for doubt. When a state says that all securities must be sold through licensed brokers, maybe it’s not requiring “registration or qualification” of the transaction; maybe it’s not regulating the sale at all. Maybe, instead, the state is regulating the person making the sale. Because section 18(a)(1) of the Securities Act doesn’t prohibit states from regulating brokers, the way section 15(i)(2)(A) of the Exchange Act prohibits them from regulating funding portals, maybe these laws aren’t affected.

For good measure, I’ve read academic articles arguing that the 1996 law amending section 18(a)(1), and stripping states of their historic regulatory authority over most securities offerings, was an unconstitutional extension of the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

What’s At Stake

If an issuer violates a state law by selling securities directly to investors, the issuer could be subject to state enforcement action, i.e., fines and penalties.

The greater risk, in my opinion, is the risk of claims from investors. If a widow in Texas loses money she might not accept her loss graciously. She (or her heirs, or the trustee in her Chapter 7 bankruptcy case) might look for a way to recoup her loss. And if she can show that the issuer violated Texas law, the court may find a right of rescission, i.e., the right to get her money back. The court might even extend that right against the principals of the issuer personally, especially if they were engaged in selling activities.

I imagine the widow on the stand, asking for recourse against the New York based issuer, backed by an amicus curiae brief filed by the Texas Board of Securities and the National Association of State Securities Administrators. Given the room for ambiguity in the statute, I’m not thrilled with my odds.

And even if you win, there’s the time and cost of defending yourself, and the sleeping-well-at-night factor, also.

What To Do

The simplest solution is to sell through a clearing broker licensed in every state.

Another solution is to sell through a clearing broker only in states that require it (I don’t have a list, but maybe a reader does and can share it).

If an issuer doesn’t want to spend the money on a clearing broker, it might decide not to sell securities in any state that requires use of a broker, although that includes some big states.

Or an issuer, guided by counsel, might reasonably decide to live with the uncertainty in the law and sell securities anyway. Just make sure your insurance would cover the widow’s claims.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

My thanks to Jillian Sidoti, Esq. and Anthony Zeoli, Esq., who provided valuable insight.

Questions? Let me know.

Trouble In Paradise: Lending Club And Prosper

Lending Club and Prosper are going through a rough patch. Renaud Laplanche, the CEO and founder of Lending Club, just resigned amid allegations of financial irregularities, while Prosper recently laid off more than a quarter of its employees.

But those are only the ripples on the pond’s surface. What’s going on underneath is that Wall Street is losing faith in the business model – that is, losing faith in the quality of the loans made on the Lending Club and Prosper platforms.

Not long ago, Wall Street financial institutions couldn’t get enough of Lending Club and Prosper loans. Now the same institutions are cutting back and the effect is severe.

To me, there are two lessons.

This is a Brand New Business Model, and It’s Going to be a Bumpy Ride

Marketplace lending started with the observation that banks pay much less interest to depositors than they charged to borrowers, and that technology should allow someone to decrease that spread, making a profit in the bargain. Lending Club and Prosper grew by substituting proprietary algorithms for traditional bank due diligence. The algorithms seem to work,and institutional investors rushed in.

But marketplace lending has been around for less than 10 years and nobody knows how the algorithms will perform during a down cycle. It’s not a big surprise that Wall Street money managers, aware that the economy might be due for a downturn, are hedging their bets.

The fickleness of Wall Street money managers doesn’t mean the business model of Lending Club and Prosper is broken. To me, there is little doubt that algorithms and big data will replace traditional bank due diligence – not only in consumer lending, but in other parts of the Crowdfunding ecosystem as well. But the algorithms and business models might well have to be adjusted, and nobody should expect a straight line from A to Z.

The fickleness of Wall Street money managers leads to the second lesson.

Wall Street is Fickle

Soon after launching a Crowdfunding platform, you realize there’s a choice where you look for investment capital. You might have begun with the idea of raising money from the public – that is, from retail investors – but you realize quickly that you can also raise money from institutions.

Raising money from institutions is often much easier because, well, institutions have more money. But there are a couple downsides:

  • You started off hoping to become a household brand, but if most of your money comes from institutions you risk becoming merely a deal originator for institutions, with far less clout and long-term brand value.
  • You started off idealistically hoping to bring high-quality investments to the public, but if most of your money comes from institutions, you aren’t.

The experience of Lending Club and Prosper reveals another downside: Wall Street is fickle. If you build your Crowdfunding business based on large investments from a handful of institutional investors it’s a lot of fun on the way up, but when the institutions pull the plug it’s a hard fall.

Ideally, a Crowdfunding platform can have it both ways, using institutional money to build the business while building its brand with the retail public, to the point where the business can survive and prosper even if institutional tastes change. I don’t know whether that’s possible, but I hope so.

Questions? Let me know.

No Demo Days For Title III Issuers

Crowdfunding is a marketing business. But when it comes to marketing an offering of securities by a Title III issuer, things get complicated. That’s why this is three times longer than any blog post should be.

Why It Matters

No Demo Days For YouSection 5(c) of the Securities Act provides that an issuer may not make an “offer” of securities unless a full-blown registration statement is in effect, of the kind you would prepare for a public offering.

There are lots of exceptions to the general rule and Title III is one of them: you can make “offers” of securities without having a full-blown registration in effect, if you comply with the requirements of Title III.

On one hand that’s good, because if you market your offering as allowed by Title III, you’re in the clear. On the other hand, if you make “offer” of securities without meaning to, or without complying with the intricacies of Title III, you could be in trouble in two ways:

  • You might have violated section 5(c), putting yourself in jeopardy of enforcement action by the SEC and other liability.
  • By making an illegal offer, you might have jeopardized your ability to use Title III at all.

What is an “Offer” of Securities?

Section 2(a)(3) of the Securities Act defines “offer” very broadly, to include “every attempt or offer to dispose of, or solicitation of an offer to buy, a security or interest in a security, for value.” And the SEC has defined “offer” even more broadly than those words suggest. Going back to 1957, the SEC said that any publicity that could “contribute to conditioning the public mind or arousing public interest” could be treated as an “offer.”

These examples illustrate the spectrum:

  • A company continues to advertise its services as usual, keeping its plans for an offering under wraps, then files an S-1 registration statement.
  • A company steps up its public relations efforts before a new product announcement, which happens to coincide with a new public offering.
  • For six months before it files a registration statement, a company triples its advertising budget, trying to build brand recognition specifically with the investing public.
  • A company puts up a website announcing “Please buy our common stock!”

The SEC has adopted a number of rules describing behavior that will not be treated as an “offer” for purposes of section 5(c). For example, Rule 135 allows so-called “tombstone” advertisements of registered offerings, Rule 135c allows notices of private offerings by publicly-reporting companies, and Rule 169 allows factual business information released by an issuer that has filed or intends to file a registration statement. But all these rules apply only to companies that are or intend to become public or publicly-reporting. There are no equivalent rules dealing with the behavior of small companies.

A Different Definition for Small Companies?

With that background, advice given by the SEC in 2015 catches your attention:

Question: Does a demo day or venture fair necessarily constitute a general solicitation for purposes of Rule 502(c)?

SEC Answer: No. Whether a demo day or venture fair constitutes a general solicitation for purposes of Rule 502(c) is a facts and circumstances determination. Of course, if a presentation by the issuer does not involve an offer of a security, then the requirements of the Securities Act are not implicated.

The italicized statement is true, by definition. If there is no “offer,” the securities laws don’t apply. Even so, it’s hard to reconcile with the SEC guidance for public companies. A “demo day” iDemo Day Presentations, by any definition, an event where companies make presentations to investors. Not to customers, to investors. If merely “conditioning the public mind” can be an offer, it is very hard to understand how presenting to a roomful of investors could not be an offer.

Trying to reconcile the two, you might conclude that the SEC is, in effect, using different definitions of “offer” depending on the circumstances. During the period surrounding a public offering of securities a stringent definition applies (the 1957 ruling involved the period immediately following the filing of a registration statement) while outside that period a more lenient definition applies. If that were true, those of us trying to advise Title III issuers would sleep better.

There are two glitches with the theory, however:

  • Maybe the SEC will view the period surrounding a Title III listing in the same way it views the period surrounding a public registration statement.
  • The preamble to the final Title III regulations actually cites Rule 169 and cautions that “The Commission has interpreted the term ‘offer” broadly. . . .and has explained that ‘the publication of information and publicity efforts, made in advance of a proposed financing which have the effect of conditioning the public mind or arousing public interest in the issuer or in its securities constitutes an offer. . . .’” That sure doesn’t sound like a more lenient rule for Title III.

The Title III Rule for Advertising

Title III is about Crowdfunding, right? Doesn’t that mean Title III issuers are allowed to advertise anywhere and say anything, just like Title II issuers?

Not exactly.

A core principle of Title III is that everything happens on the portal, where everyone can see it, so nobody has better access to information than anyone else. A corollary is that that Title III issuers aren’t allowed to advertise freely. If a Title III issuer put information about its offering in the New York Times, for example, maybe readers of the New York Post (are there any?) wouldn’t see it.

A Title III issuer can advertise any where it wants – Twitter, newspapers, radio, web, etc. – but it can’t say any thing it wants. All it can do is provide a link to the Funding Portal with an ad that’s limited to:

  • A statement that the issuer is conducting an offering tweet
  • The terms of the offering
  • Brief factual information about the issuer, e.g., name, address, and URL

In the public company world, those are referred to as “tombstone” ads and look just about that appealing. In the online world issuers can do much better. A colorful post on the issuer’s Twitter or Facebook pages saying “We’re raising money! Come join us at www.FundingPortal.com!” is just fine. 

Insignificant Deviations From The Rules

Recognizing that Title III is very complicated and new, section 502 of the Title III regulations provides:

A failure to comply with a term, condition, or requirement. . . .will not result in the loss of the exemption. . . .if the issuer shows. . . .the failure to comply was insignificant with respect to the offering as a whole and the issuer made a good faith and reasonable attempt to comply. . . .”

The language is vague, as it has to be, but it certainly suggests that Title III issuers can make mistakes without losing the exemption. And there’s no reason why mistakes in advertising an offering should be treated more harshly than other mistakes.

The purpose of the advertising rule, as we’ve seen, is to ensure that every investor has access to the same information. If a Title III issuer mistakenly provides more information about its offering in a Facebook post than it should have, the infraction could be cured easily – for example, by ensuring that any information in the Facebook post appeared on the Funding Portal for at least 21 days before the offering goes live, or by correcting the Facebook post and directing Facebook friends to the Funding Portal.

Where Does That Leave Us?

Ideally, a company thinking about raising money using Title III would follow these simple rules:

  • Don’t attend demo days.
  • In fact, don’t mention your plan to raise money to any potential investors until you register with a Title III Funding Portal.
  • The minute you want to talk about raising money, register with a Title III Funding Portal.
  • After registering with a Title III Funding Portal, don’t mention your offering except in “tombstone” advertising.
  • After registering with a Title III Funding Portal, don’t meet, speak, or even exchange emails with investors, except through the chat room on the Funding Portal.

ducks in a row 2A company that follows those rules shouldn’t have problems.

That’s ideal, but what about a company that didn’t speak to a lawyer before attending a demo day? What about a company that posted about its offering on Facebook before registering with a Funding Portal, and included too much information? What about a company that’s spoken with some potential investors already? What about a real company?

Nobody knows for sure, but unless the SEC takes a very different position with regard to Title III than it has taken with regard to Regulation D, I think a company that has engaged in any of those activities, or even all of those activities, can still qualify for a successful Title III offering.

Let’s not forget, the SEC has been very accommodating toward Crowdfunding, from the no-action letters in March 2013 to taking on state securities regulators in Regulation A. With section 502 in its toolbox, it’s hard to believe that the SEC is going to smother Title III in its cradle by imposing on startups the same rules it imposes on public companies.

It’s instructive to look at the way the SEC has treated the concept of “general solicitation and advertising” under Regulation D.

By the letter of the law, any contact with potential investors with whom the issuer does not have a “pre-existing, substantive relationship” is treated “general solicitation,” disqualifying the issuer from an offering under Rule 506(b) (and all of Rule 506, before the JOBS Act). But the SEC has taken a much more pragmatic approach based on what it refers to as “long-standing practice” in the startup industry. In fact, in a 1995 no-action letter the SEC concluded that there had been no “general solicitation” for a demo day event even when investors had been invited through newspaper advertisements.

I think the SEC will recognize “long-standing practice” in interpreting Title III also.

Bearing in mind the language of section 502, I think the key will be that an issuer tried to comply with the rules once it knew about them, i.e., that a company didn’t violate the rules flagrantly or intentionally. If you’re a small company reading this post and start following the rules carefully today, I think you’ll end up with a viable offering. Yes, there might be some legal doubt, at least until the SEC issues clarifications, but entrepreneurs live with all kinds of doubt, legal and otherwise, all the time.

It’s Not Just the Issuer

The issuer isn’t the only party with a stake in the advertising rules. The Funding Portal might have even more on the line.

Here’s the challenge:

  • Before allowing an issuer on its platform, a Funding Portal is required to have a ”reasonable basis” for believing that the issuer has complied with all the requirements of Title III.
  • We’ve seen that one of the requirements of Title III is that all advertising must point back to the Funding Portal.
  • Before the issuer registered with a Funding Portal, advertising by the issuer couldn’t have pointed back to the Funding Portal.
  • Therefore, if a would-be issuer has engaged in advertising before registering with the Funding Portal, including any activity that could be construed as an “offer” for purposes of section 5(c), the Funding Portal might be required legally to turn the issuer away.

QuestionnaireWith their legal obligations in mind, dozens of Funding Portals are preparing questionnaires for would-be issuers as I write this, asking questions like “Have you made any offers of securities during the last 90 days? Have you participated in demo days?”

If the Funding Portal denies access to any issuer that answers “I don’t know” or “Yes,” it might end up with very few issuers on its platform. On the other hand, if it doesn’t ask the questions, or ignores the answers, it’s probably not satisfying its legal obligation, risking its SEC license as well as lawsuits from investors.

The Funding Portal will have to make some tough calls. But its answer doesn’t have to be limited to “Yes” or “No.” For one thing, using its own judgment, the Funding Portal might suggest ways for the issuer to “fix” any previous indiscretions. For another, rather than make the call itself, the Funding Portal might ask for an opinion from the issuer’s lawyer to the effect that the issuer is eligible to raise money using Title III.

Advertising Products and Services

We’ve seen that product advertisements by a company that has filed, or is about to file, a public registration statement can be viewed as an “offer” of securities for purposes of section 5(c) if the company uses the product advertisement to “arouse interest” in the offering.  However, I don’t believe this will be a concern with Title III:

  • A company that has registered with a Funding Portal should be free to advertise its products and services however it pleases. There’s no “quiet period” or similar concept with Title III the way there is with a public registration.
  • A company that has not yet registered with a Funding Portal and is not otherwise offering its securities should also be free to advertise its products or services. Just not at a demo day!

Many companies in the Title III world will be looking to their customers as potential investors. For those companies it makes perfect sense to advertise an offering of securities in conjunction with an advertisement of products or services. Sign up with a Funding Portal, follow the rules for advertising, and “joint” advertisements of product and offering should be fine.

Will a Legend Do the Trick?

Suppose a company thinking about raising money using Title III Crowdfunding makes a presentation to a roomful of investors at a demo day, but includes on each slide of its deck the disclaimer: “This is Not An Offering Of Securities.”

The disclaimer doesn’t hurt and might tip the balance in a close case, but don’t rely on it.

An Issuer With A Past:  Using Rule 506(c) to Clean Up

Great Gatsby original ad

Photo Credit: Fast Company editor Jason Feifer

In Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the main character reaches for a new future but, in the end, finds himself rowing “against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” In this final section I’ll suggest a way that an issuer might raise money using Title III notwithstanding a troubled past, succeeding where Jay Gatsby could not.

Suppose an issuer registers with a Funding Portal, raises money using Title III, then fails. Looking for a basis to sue, investors learn that the issuer attended a demo day three weeks before registering with the Funding Portal. An illegal offer! Gotcha!

“No,” says the issuer, calmly. “You’re right that we attended a demo day and made an offer of securities, but that’s when we were thinking about a Rule 506(c) offering. As you know, offers made under Rule 506(c) are perfectly legal. It was only afterward that we started to think about Title III.”

As long as the record – emails, promotional materials, investor decks, and so forth – demonstrates that any “offers” were made in contemplation of Regulation D rather than Title III, I think the issuer wins that case. The case would be even stronger if the issuer actually sold securities using Rule 506(c) and filed a Form D to that effect, before registering with the Funding Portal.

An issuer with a troubled past – one that has attended lots of demo days, posted lots of information on Facebook and met with a bunch of different investors – might go so far as to engage in and complete a Rule 506(c) offering before registering on a Funding Portal. With the copy of the Form D in their files, the issuer and the Funding Portal might feel more comfortable that the troubled past is behind.

Questions? Let me know.

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