COVID-19 DISCLOSURES IN CROWDFUNDING OFFERINGS

The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates why we include a list of “risk factors” when we sell securities. Suppose a company issued stock on January 1, 2020 without disclosing that its major supplier was located in Wuhan, China and that Wuhan was experiencing an outbreak of a new virus. Investors who bought the stock likely would be entitled to their money back and have personal claims against the founders, officers, and directors.

If the company issued stock on October 1, 2019, before the pandemic began, its duty to tell investors about the pandemic would depend on which version of Crowdfunding it used:

  • If it used Title II Crowdfunding (Rule 506(c)) the company would have no duty to tell investors about the pandemic.
  • If it used Title III Crowdfunding (Regulation CF) the company would be required to tell investors about the pandemic in its next annual report.
  • If it used Title IV Crowdfunding (Regulation A) the company would be required to tell investors about the pandemic in its next semiannual or annual report, whichever comes first.

CAUTION:  That assumes the Company was finished selling stock on October 1, 2019. If it was continuing to sell stock when it learned of the pandemic, then the Company would be required to tell new investors. And if a Title III offering hadn’t yet closed, all existing investors would have the right to change their minds.

CAUTION:  A company – even a publicly-reporting company – generally is not required to tell investors about COVID-19 if it is not selling securities currently, because pandemics are not on the list of disclosure items found in Form 1-U (for Regulation A issuers) or Form 8-K (for publicly-reporting companies). But be careful. For example, if a Regulation A issuer redeems stock without disclosing the effect of COVID-19, it could be liable under Rule 10b-5 and otherwise.

Assume that we’re required to tell investors about COVID-19 today, whether because we’re selling stock or are filing an annual or semiannual report. What do we say?

If this were January, we might say something simple:  “Wuhan, China is experiencing an outbreak of a highly-contagious virus, which is disrupting economic activity. If this virus should spread to the United States, as epidemiologists predict, it could have an adverse effect on our business.”

But this isn’t January. We have much more information today and are therefore required to say more. Exactly how much information we share is as much an art as a science. Our goal is always to give investors enough information to make an informed decision without making the disclosure so dense as to be useless.

Here are two examples, one for multi-family housing projects and the other for a technology company.

Multi-Family Housing

With unemployment reaching levels not seen since the Great Depression, by some estimates already 20% and rising, we are already experiencing a number of negative effects from the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • We are experiencing a decrease in the number of phone calls and visits from potential new tenants. Year-to-year compared to 2019, we experienced a decrease in traffic of approximately ____% in March and ____% in April.
  • We are experiencing an increase in rent delinquency. Year-to-year compared to 2019, the rate of delinquencies greater than 30 days rose from ____% to ____% during March and ____% to ____% during April.
  • We are spending more time and resources on collections and marketing.

Although we are working from incomplete information, we expect these trends to continue and perhaps accelerate, depending on the trajectory of the virus and the ability to re-open the economy. Among possible outcomes:

  • Occupancy levels might decrease, although they have not decreased yet as compared to the same periods in 2019.
  • We do not intend to raise rents until the pandemic eases. Depending on circumstances we could be forced to decrease rents.
  • We expect some tenants to re-locate for economic reasons, from Class A projects to Class B projects and from Class B projects to Class C projects. In some cases tenants might leave the market altogether, by moving in with relatives, for example. Because we operate primarily Class B properties, we are uncertain whether the net effect for our properties will be positive or negative.
  • Conversely, we expect that economic uncertainty will cause some families to postpone buying a house and rent instead, increasing the pool of potential tenants.
  • The pandemic has caused significant uncertainly in the value of many assets, including real estate. Until the uncertainty is resolved it might be difficult for us to borrow money or raise capital by selling equity.
  • If occupancy rates and rents decrease while delinquencies increase, we could be unable to meet our obligations as they become due. A reduction in cash flows and/or asset values could also cause us to be in default under the loan covenants under our senior debt. Either scenario could lead to foreclosure and the loss of one or more properties.

At least in the short run we expect the pandemic to cause our revenue to decrease, perhaps significantly. As a result, we are taking steps to conserve cash. Among other things we have decided not to make any cash distributions until the economic outlook stabilizes and have reduced our staff. We have also begun to contact lenders to request a deferral of our mortgage loan obligations.

We do not know how long the pandemic will last or how its effects will ripple through the American economy. In a best-case scenario we would experience a short-term drop in cash flow and a dip in asset values as the economy adjusts to a new reality. In a worst-case scenario, where occupancy and rent levels drop significantly over an extended period of time, we would be unable to make mortgage payments and possibly lose assets, risking or even forfeiting investor equity if asset values drop far enough. Based on the information currently available to us we expect an outcome closer to the former scenario than to the latter and are marshalling all our experience and assets toward that end.

Technology

Our software provides a virtual connection between internet-based office telephone systems and cellular phones, allowing incoming calls to the office number to be re-directed to the cellular phone and outgoing calls made from the cellular phone to appear to the recipient as if they were made from the office number. Will tens of millions of people working remotely due the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for our software has grown substantially. On January 1, 2020 our software had been installed on ________ cellular devices worldwide. On May 1, 2020 it was installed on ________ devices.

As a result, we expect both our revenue and our net income for 2020 to increase substantially. However, with many workers now returning to their offices on a full-time or part-time basis it is unclear whether the high demand for our software will continue. Consequently, we are unable to provide a reliable forecast for revenue or net income at this time.

With more than ________ new users, even if temporary, we are accelerating developing of our new consumer-based communications tools. We expected to launch these tools in Q1 2021 but are now aiming for Q3 2020.

Even before the pandemic many of our employees worked remotely at least part of the time. Therefore, our operations have not been affected significantly by the pandemic. Tragically, however, David Newsome, the leader of our marketing team, contracted COVID-19 and died on March 27th in Brooklyn, NY. We have not yet found a replacement for David, who was with the company from its founding in 2013.

We were considering purchasing a commercial building in Palo Alto as the headquarters for our engineering team. Given our successful experience working remotely we have decided to put those plans on hold at least for the time being.

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.