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.
Many Title III issuers are setting “target amounts” as low as $10,000. I understand the motivation, but I’d urge issuers and the platforms to think twice.
In Title III Crowdfunding (also known as “Regulation Crowdfunding” or “Regulation CF” or “Reg CF”), the issuer establishes a “target amount” for the offering. Once the offering achieves the target amount, the issuer can start spending the money raised from investors, even while continuing to raise more money. That gives issuers a strong incentive to set a low target amount.
EXAMPLE: A brewery needs to raise $400,000 for equipment, fit-out, marketing, and salaries. If the brewery establishes $400,000 as the target amount, it can’t start spending the money from investors until it raises the entire $400,000. If it establishes $10,000 as the target amount, on the other hand, it can start spending investor money as soon as it raises the first $10,000 — even if the business will fail without the full $400,000.
The platform benefits, also, in two ways:
If the brewery establishes a target amount of $10,000 and raises at least that much, the platform can include the brewery in its “Reached Target Amount” list, even if overall the brewery raised only $12,000 and failed.
The platform receives a commission only on funds released to the issuer. The sooner money is released to the issuer, the sooner the platform earns a commission.
Minimum Offering Amounts
Target amounts were around long before Title III Crowdfunding, in the form of “minimum offering amounts.” A company raising capital would establish a “minimum offering” equal to the lowest amount of money that would make the business viable. If a brewery absolutely needs $400,000 to be viable, then the minimum offering would be $400,000. If it could plausibly scrape by with $315,000 — maybe by deferring the purchase of an $85,000 piece of equipment — then the minimum offering would be $315,000.
Issuers don’t establish minimum offerings because they want to, but because experienced investors won’t invest otherwise. If $315,000 is the minimum that will make the brewery successful, an experienced investor writing the first check will demand that her money be held in escrow until the offering raises $315,000. If the offering doesn’t raise $315,000, she gets her money back. Investing is hard enough: why invest in a company that’s guaranteed to fail?
That’s also why we have traditionally seen “minimum/maximum” offerings. The brewery that needs at least $315,000 to be viable might be able to make great use of up to $475,000, with both numbers anchored to a believable business plan.
The Decision in Title III
Cash is king for most entrepreneurs, the sooner the better, so a Title III issuer will be tempted to establish a low target amount. And to the extent an issuer can rely on inexperienced investors, it might be successful, at least in the short term.
But the issuer should also be aware of the downside: by establishing a low target amount, the issuer is driving away experienced investors. How many experienced investors are driven away, and the amount they might have invested, can’t be captured.
On the positive side, an issuer that establishes a realistic target amount can and should advertise that fact in its Form C, perhaps drawing a favorable contrast vis-à-vis other Title III issuers, whose target amounts were picked from the air. That’s the kind of information an experienced investor will like to see.
An issuer that weighs the pros and cons and nevertheless decides on an artificially low target amount should include a prominent risk factor in its Form C:
“The ‘target amount’ we established for this offering is substantially lower than the amount of money we really need to execute our business plan. If we raise only the target amount and are unable to raise other funds, our business will probably fail and you will lose your entire investment.”
Artificially low target amounts carry a long-term downside for the platform, too. I would argue that as long as issuers are establishing $10,000 minimums, Title III won’t be taken seriously as an asset class, and the industry won’t grow.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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
Section 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” is, 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?
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
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.
A 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.
With 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
In Scott Fitzgerald’s TheGreat 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.
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.
The JOBS Act was signed into law by President Obama on April 5, 2012. The SEC was supposed to issue regulations under Title III 270 days later, by December 31, 2012. Instead, the SEC issued final Title III regulations last Friday, which will become effective around May 1, 2016, or about 1,466 days after enactment.
But better late than never! In its final regulations the SEC has again bent over backward to make Crowdfunding easier, for example:
Liberalizing the financial disclosures required of issuers
Clarifying that a Title III offering will not interfere with other exempt offerings
Allowing Title III portals to pick and choose among issuers
Allowing Title III portals to take financial interests in issuers
Hat’s off the to the SEC staff for doing excellent work with a flawed statute!
Texas is the latest of a half dozen states to propose an intra-state Crowdfunding law. Typically, these laws allow issuers to raise money from non-accredited investors, even before Title III of the JOBS Act comes into effect, as long as all the investors are residents of the state in question and the offering satisfies requirements that vary from state to state.
At the Austin event, an audience member asked a very good question: If I comply with the Texas law, do I also have to comply with a Federal law? The answer is a qualified Yes.
Federal law begins with the proposition that securities may not be issued unless registered under the Securities Act of 1933. However, section 3(a)(11) of the Act provides an exemption for:
Any security which is a part of an issue offered and sold only to persons resident within a single State or Territory, where the issuer of such security is a person resident and doing business within or, if a corporation, incorporated by and doing business within, such State or Territory.
Thus, Federal law includes an exemption for some purely intrastate offerings.
SEC Rule 147 (17 CFR 230.147) provides a “safe harbor” under section 3(a)(11). Where all the conditions of Rule 147 are satisfied, the SEC will assume that the offering is exempt from Federal registration:
The issuer may neither offer nor issue any securities within the six month period before the first offer or sale of the intrastate offering nor within six months after the last offer or sale of the intrastate offering.
The issuer must be incorporated in the state where the offering is made. (Caution: Many lawyers use Delaware entities as a matter of course. Unless you’re in Delaware, don’t.)
At least 80% of the issuer’s revenues must come from business within the state.
At least 80% of the issuer’s assets must be located in the state.
At least 80% of the money raised in the offering must be used in the state.
All of the investors in the offering must be residents of the state.
While the offering is being conducted and for nine months thereafter, all resales must be to state residents.
The issuer must place a legend on stock certificates referencing these restrictions, and take other steps to ensure that the offering remains intrastate only.
Rule 147 is just a “safe harbor.” An intrastate offering that does not satisfy all of these conditions might still qualify for the statutory exemption under section 3(a)(11), depending on all the facts.
Some State Crowdfunding exemptions, Texas included, require that that the issuer satisfies Rule 147. In those States, by definition, an issuer that satisfies the requirements of the State exemption satisfies the Federal requirements as well. In other States, an issuer that dots all the I’s and crosses all the T’s of an intrastate Crowdfunding offering has a very good chance of qualifying under the Federal statutory exemption as well, even if the State exemption does not refer to Rule 147 explicitly.
That’s why the answer is a qualified Yes. An issuer that complies with the Crowdfunding rules of a State still has to qualify for the Federal exemption, but that shouldn’t be hard.
Lots of smart people attended the CFGE Crowdfund Real Estate Summit in Austin last week. On Thursday, there was a wonderful and heated discussion about Title III of the JOBS Act.
Some thought that regular, non-accredited investors should be allowed to invest in whatever they want, whenever they want, without the protection of the government. Some of the more opinionated think that the word “protection” in the preceding sentence should be in quotation marks, or even preceded by the phrase “so-called.”
Title III tries to balance two competing interests: on one hand, giving ordinary people the chance to invest in private deals; and on the other hand trying to protect ordinary people from the risks inherent in private deals.
It does so using the tools of traditional securities laws – namely, disclosure, transparency, reporting, and regulation. These were the tools introduced back in the 1930s at the height of the Great Depression. The Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 cleaned up the cesspool that Wall Street and become, and that approach has served the country extremely well over the last 80 years.
But we’re finding that it doesn’t quite work in Title III. Those traditional tools, which have worked so well for so long, are too expensive, so expensive that they defeat the purpose of the JOBS Act. Specifically, the traditional tools make capital so expensive that entrepreneurs can’t afford it.
Over lunch I thought of a different approach, one that is more attuned to the times.
Suppose a deal sponsor is raising capital for Project X. I propose that regular, non-accredited investors should be allowed to invest under the following conditions:
Accredited investors unrelated to the sponsor invest at least 25% of the capital for the project.
Each non-accredited investor is limited to 10% of income or net worth.
That’s it. No cumbersome reporting or regulation.
Why does this work? The whole point of Title II is that accredited investors are smart and sophisticated enough to protect themselves. If accredited investors are taking 25% of the deal, it means that smart, sophisticated investors have decided that it’s an investable deal. Or to put it in modern terms, the Crowd, through accredited investors, have validated the deal. And by limiting the amount of the investment to 10% – borrowing a rule from proposed Regulation A+ – we ensure that regular investors don’t over-invest.
This is a modern solution to a modern problem. It balances investor participation with investor protection through a mechanism that relies on the Crowd, not the government.