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.

SEC PROPOSES MAJOR UPGRADES TO CROWDFUNDING RULES

The SEC just proposed major changes to every kind of online offering:  Rule 504, Rule 506(b), Rule 506(c), Regulation A, and Regulation CF.

The proposals and the reasoning behind them take up 351 pages. An SEC summary is here, while the full text is here. The proposals are likely to become effective in more or less their existing form after a 60-day comment period.

I’ll touch on only a few highlights:

  • No Limits in Title III for Accredited Investors:  In what I believe is the most significant change, there will no longer be any limits on how much an accredited investor can invest in a Regulation CF offering. This change eliminates the need for side-by-side offerings and allows the funding portal to earn commissions on the accredited investor piece. The proposals also change the investment limits for non-accredited investor from a “lesser of net worth or income” standard to a “greater of net worth or income” standard, but that’s much less significant, in my opinion.
  • Title III Limit Raised to $5M:  Today the limit is $1.07M per year; it will soon be $5M per year, opening the door to larger small companies.

NOTE:  Those two changes, taken together, mean that funding portals can make more money. The impact on the Crowdfunding industry could be profound, leading to greater compliance, sounder business practices, and fewer gimmicks (e.g., $10,000 minimums).

  • No Verification for Subsequent Rule 506(c) Offerings:  In what could have been a very important change but apparently isn’t, if an issuer has verified that Investor Smith is accredited in a Rule 506(c) offering and conducts a second (and third, and so on) Rule 506(c) offering, the issuer does not have to re-verify that Investor Smith is accredited, as long as Investor Smith self-certifies. But apparently the proposal applies only to the same issuer, not to an affiliate of the issuer. Thus, if Investor Smith invested in real estate offering #1, she must still be verified for real estate offering #2, even if the two offerings are by the same sponsor.
  • Regulation A Limit Raised to $75M:  Today the limit is $50M per year; it will soon be $75M per year. The effect of this change will be to make Regulation A more useful for smaller large companies.
  • Allow Testing the Waters for Regulation CF:  Today, a company thinking about Title III can’t advertise the offering until it’s live on a funding portal. Under the new rules, the company will be able to “test the waters” like a Regulation A issuer.

NOTE:  Taken as a whole, the proposals narrow the gap between Rule 506(c) and Title III. Look for (i) Title III funding portals to broaden their marketing efforts to include issuers who were otherwise considering only Rule 506(c), and (ii) websites that were previously focused only on Rule 506(c) to consider becoming funding portals, allowing them to legally receive commissions on transactions up to $5M.

  • Allow SPVs for Regulation CF:  Today, you can’t form a special-purpose-vehicle to invest using Title III. Under the SEC proposals, you can.

NOTE:  Oddly, this means you can use SPVs in a Title III offering, but not in a Title II offering (Rule 506(c)) or Title IV offering (Regulation A) where there are more than 100 investors.

  • Financial Information in Rule 506(b):  The proposal relaxes the information that must be provided to non-accredited investors in a Rule 506(b) offering. Thus, if the offering is for no more than $20M one set of information will be required, while if it is for more than $20 another (more extensive) set of information will be required.
  • No More SAFEs in Regulation CF:  Nope.

NOTE:  The rules says the securities must be “. . . . equity securities, debt securities, or securities convertible or exchangeable to equity interests. . . .” A perceptive readers asks “What about revenue-sharing notes?” Right now I don’t know, but I’m sure this will be asked and addressed during the comment period.

  • Demo Days:  Provided they are conducted by certain groups and in certain ways, so-called “demo days” would not be considered “general solicitation.”
  • Integration Rules:  Securities lawyers worry whether two offerings will be “integrated” and treated as one, thereby spoiling both. The SEC’s proposals relax those rules.

These proposals are great for the Crowdfunding industry and for American capitalism. They’re not about Wall Street. They’re about small companies and ordinary American investors, where jobs and ideas come from.

No, the proposals don’t fix every problem. Compliance for Title III issuers is still way too hard, for example. But the SEC deserves (another) round of applause.

Please reach out if you’d like to discuss.

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.

Why Title II Portals Will Also Become Title III Portals, And Vice-Versa

CF Portal Mall

Why has Home Depot made local hardware stores a thing of the past? Partly price, but mainly selection. And I think the same forces will require most Crowdfunding portals to offer investments under Title II, Title III, and Title IV, all at the same time.

Crowdfunding portals are like retail stores that sell securities. They have suppliers, which we call “sponsors” or “portfolio companies,” and they have customers, which we call “investors.” They pick the market they want to serve – hard money loans, for example – then try to stock their shelves with products from the best suppliers to attract the largest number of customers. Think of DSW, but selling securities rather than shoes.

Now consider these situations:

  • You’re a Title II portal and have established a relationship with Sandra Smith, a real estate developer you’ve learned to trust. She informs you she’d like to raise $30 million to build a shopping center in Chicago and needs to attract investors from the local community. You could tell her you only do Title II and send her across the street, but maybe she’ll find a competitor where she can get Title II and Title IV under one roof. So you’d really like to offering Title IV as well, which means attracting non-accredited investors.
  • You’re a Title II portal raising money for biotech. A company approaches you with a new therapy for cystic fibrosis. They have 117,000 Facebook followers and wide support in the cystic fibrosis community, and have already raised $30,000 in a Kickstarter campaign. They want to raise $800,000 for clinical tests, then come back and raise $5 million if the tests are successful. Sure, you could tell them to go somewhere else for the $800,000 raise and come back for the larger (and more profitable) $5 million round, but once they leave they’re probably not coming back.
  • You’re a Title III portal with lots of investors signed up. Turned away by the portal she’s used to working with, Sandra Smith asks for your help in the $30 million Title IV raise. Any reason to turn her down?

Those of us in the industry see Title II, Title III, and Title IV as separate things, but to the suppliers and customers of the industry they’re all the same thing. The differences between Title II and Title IV are nothing compared to the differences between sneakers and 6-inch heels! Yet DSW sells them both and everything in between because in the eyes of customers, they’re all shoes.

It doesn’t matter to suppliers and customers that Title II and Title III require different technology and business models. It doesn’t matter that one is more profitable than the other. Mercedes might lose money selling its lower-end cars but doesn’t mind doing so because customers who buy the lower-end Mercedes today buy the higher-end Mercedes 10 years from now. The Vanguard Group probably loses money on some of its funds but sells them anyway to keep customers in the fold. As the Crowdfunding market develops, I think the same will be true of the interplay with Title II, Title III, and Title IV.

For portals that have achieved success in Title II, it might be unwelcome news that Title II isn’t enough. But on the positive side, Fundrise has managed to leverage its reputation in Title II into a well-received REIT under Title IV. In any case, I think it’s inevitable.

Questions? Let me know.

How to Present Investor Disclosures in Crowdfunding Offerings (And How Not To)

Title II Crowdfunding is often referred to, more or less accurately, as “online private placements.” It’s time the industry turned the online, digital, aspect of the offerings more to its advantage.

Remember when newspapers first came online? Remember how interesting they were visually? I’m being sarcastic. They were nothing more than photographs of the paper version, failing to take advantage of the digital platform and its unique capabilities.

Too many (not all) Crowdfunding portals take the same approach to providing investor disclosures. You click through the process and suddenly see an enormous PDF document that is nothing more or less than a paper private placement memorandum, complete with Schedules and Exhibits. You’reOnline document supposed to scroll down and “sign” at the bottom. On some platforms the investor actually has to click I’m Ready to Invest before he sees the disclosures!

There are at least three things wrong with this approach:

• Investors can’t be happy with it.

• It doesn’t convey information effectively.

• The disclosure might be legally ineffective. I think about a plaintiff’s lawyer cross-examining the portal operator, pointing to a disclosure on page 67 and asking “Did you really expect my client to read all that at the end of the click-through process?”

It doesn’t have to be that way! There are much better ways to provide information online. Take a look at today’s online version of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal to see how far we’ve come.

Crowdfunding portals can do the same thing. The first step is to move the mental image of that paper PPM into Trash or the Recycle Bin (depending on whether you’re Mac or PC) and start from scratch. What are we trying to accomplish here? What are the tools at our disposal? Pose that question to some creative people and you’ll get a whole range of possibilities, all of them better for investor, sponsor, and portal.

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick.

Title II Needs Company

Statue of Lib CF_Purchased

Title II Crowdfunding is great, and it’s booming. For the first time in history entrepreneurs have access to every accredited investor in the world, and every accredited investor in the world has access to deals once reserved for the very wealthy. New Crowdfunding portals – I call them “stores” – are opening all the time, serving more and wider markets. The stores are growing in sophistication and attracting a growing number of customers, i.e., investors. Register with Fundrise and you can invest in 3 World Trade Center!

But as long as Crowdfunding remains limited to Title II, it’s not going to achieve its potential. And that’s not only, not even primarily, because allowing non-accredited investors to participate would deepen the pool of available capital.

It’s not primarily about capital, but about the Crowdfunding ecosystem. Accredited investors represent a small fraction of Americans. Open the ecosystem to another 100 million potential investors and everything changes. Awareness changes. New ideas are borne and flourish. New businesses are created that wouldn’t have been created otherwise. New experts come into the field, new business models are tested. Behavior and expectations change.

I’m sure there are better and more sophisticated ways to describe what happens when more people join an ecosystem. Maybe things like “network effects” and “information feedback loops.”

Whatever it’s called, we need non-accredited investors in the market for Crowdfunding to achieve its potential. To get non-accredited investors into the market we need the SEC to issue final regulations under Title III and Title IV, and for that to happen it looks as if we’re going to need urging from the Legislative branch.

If you have a moment and the inclination, please click on the link below to find the names and email addresses of your Congressman and Senators, and drop them an email. I’ve included a sample form but of course feel free to create your own.

Title II has been lonely for too long!

Find My Congressman and Senators

Sample Email

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick.

AUSTIN ROUNDUP

Austin cityscapeHats off to the folks at Coastal Shows for making the Austin event – officially the CFGE Crowdfund Real Estate Summit – the best Crowdfunding event ever.

The event featured the leading players in the industry:

Title III of the JOBS Act may be flawed, and the final rules for Regulation A+ may be long overdue, but the speakers and panelists agree that Crowdfunding is here to stay, with Title II leading the way. Two days before the conference began, Fundrise raised $31 million of capital in a Series A round of financing. That served as a very useful background, illuminating the potential of a market that promises to transform the U.S. capital formation industry.

Over coffee during the day and beer in the evening, I spoke with dozens of real estate developers and entrepreneurs. Their message came through loud and clear: We’re tired of dealing exclusively with our traditional sources of capital and are eager to raise money through Crowdfunding channels.

Developers are eager for new sources of capital, and individual investors are eager to participate in a market that, until now, has been reserved for institutions and the very wealthy. That’s Crowdfunding, in a nutshell.

What happens in Vegas might stay in Vegas, but what happened in Austin is going to spread across the country. Thanks for a great event, Coastal Shows.

PPM OR NO PPM: THAT IS THE QUESTION

Crowdfunding Image - XXXL - iStock_000037694192XXXLargeSome Title II Crowdfunding portals use a full-blown Private Placement Memorandum for each offering, while others do not. What’s the deal?

For readers unfamiliar with the term, a Private Placement Memorandum, or PPM, is usually a long document, often half an inch thick or more printed, that is given to prospective investors and used partly to describe the deal but mostly to explain the risks.

The PPM finds its origins in the lengthy prospectus required of companies selling securities to the public in a registered offering. Following suit, Rule 502(b)(2) of Regulation D requires an issuer to provide specified information to prospective investors in some offerings and in some situations – for example, where securities are offered to non-accredited investors in an offering under Rule 506(b).

But where securities are sold only to accredited investors under Rule 506(b) or 506(c), the issuer is not required to provide the information described in Rule 506(b)2) – or any other information, for that matter. The idea is that accredited investors are smart enough to ask for the important information and otherwise watch out for themselves.

Companies like Fundrise that offer securities under Regulation A or Regulation A+ are required to provide specific information to investors. But Crowdfunding under Title II of the JOBS Act involves selling only to accredited investors in transaction described in Rule 506. Therefore, the law leaves to the issuer and the portal what information to provide and in what form.

For them, what are the pros and cons of a full-blown PPM?

The cons are obvious. Nobody but a lawyer could love a PPM. A full-blown PPM is bulky and unattractive, repetitive and filled with legalese. Ostensibly written to provide information to prospective investors, PPMs have, through time and custom, become so daunting that prospective investors rarely even read them. From a business perspective, a PPM creates friction in the transaction.

However, the pros are also obvious. Although Regulation D does not require an issuer or portal to provide any information, an issuer that fails to provide information, or provides incomplete or inaccurate information, may be liable to disgruntled investors under 17 CFR 240.10b-5, the general anti-fraud rule of Federal securities law, or various state statutory and common law rules.

That’s why the PPM exists: to provide so much information to prospective investors (albeit in an unreadable format), and to describe the risks of the investment in such repetitive detail, that no investor can claim after the fact “I didn’t know.”

The question is whether the issuer and the portal can get the same benefit without all the disadvantages. And the answer, in my opinion, is a resounding Yes!

In fact, the trend in private placements over the last two decades has been away from the full-blown PPM and toward a simpler disclosure document. I have been representing issuers in private placements of securities for more than 25 years and never prepare a PPM except where required by law (e.g., with non-accredited investors). None of the issuers I have represented during those 25+ years has been sued for securities law violations – much less successfully – and in my anecdotal experience, claims arising from alleged failures to disclose material information rarely if ever hinge on the presence or absence of a full-blown PPM.

Not only are portals not required to provide a full-blown PPM, in my opinion the question presents portals with a great business opportunity. Given that information must be provided, the manner in which it is provided, in what format, with what visual effects, how clearly and with what explanation, could well distinguish a portal in the minds of prospective investors. With the technology inherent in the platform, not to mention the creative minds in the industry, I expect that the manner of providing information will become one of the key ways that individual Title II portals distinguish themselves from one another and that the Crowdfunding industry in general improves the process of capital formation. Someday we will look back on the thick PPM and ask “Can you believe we once did it that way?”

A portal that gets it right – and there will be more than one way to get it right – will also create some protectable intellectual property interests and the accompanying breathing space vis-à-vis its competitors and additional valuation on exit.

Questions? Contact Mark Roderick.