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.
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.
Before the JOBS Act came along, listing a security on a public website would itself have been treated as an act of “solicitation.” That’s the odd thing: Title III portals aren’t allowed to “solicit,” yet in the traditional sense of the term that’s the most important thing Congress created them to do.
The fact is that Congress was ambivalent when it created Title III portals. They are allowed to list offerings of securities, but are not allowed to do other things often associated with the sale of securities, including holding investor funds or offering investment advice. They are regulated by the SEC and FINRA, but with a light touch compared with other regulated entities. They are privately-owned, but are required to provide educational materials to investors, police issuers, provide an online communication platform, and ensure that investors don’t exceed their investment limits – in short, they are required to assume a quasi-governmental role.
Title III portals are a new animal, part fish, part bird. Which makes it that much more difficult to decide what “solicit” means when they do it.
Based on the statute, the SEC regulations, the legislative background of the JOBS Act, and the history and overall context of the U.S. securities laws, I think a Title III portal engages in prohibited “solicitation” anytime it tries to steer an investor to a particular security. If it’s not trying to steer an investor to a particular security, then it’s probably okay.
I’ve included some practical guidelines in the chart below. Although there are plenty of gaps, I hope this helps.
Everyone knows the “100 investor rule” is a thorn in the side of Crowdfunding portals. The good news is you can still use subsidiaries to protect yourself from liability.
The basics of the 100 investor rule:
A company engaged in the business of investing in securities is an “investment company” and subject to burdensome regulation under the Investment Act of 1940.
A “special purpose vehicle” formed by a portal to invest in a portfolio company is engaged in the business of investing in securities.
There’s an exception: if the SPV has no more than 100 investors, it’s not an investment company.
Today, most deals on Crowdfunding portals are funded with fewer than 100 investors and qualify for the exception. But that’s because most Crowdfunding deals are still small, i.e., less than $2 million. As the deals get bigger and, most important, as we start to see pools of assets rather than individual assets, SPVs will no longer be available. Already, they’re not available for Regulation A+ deals.
In the absence of an SPV, investors will be admitted directly to the issuer’s cap table. But what if the issuer owns one or more subsidiaries? Will the issuer itself be disqualified as an investment company?
Here’s an example. Suppose NewCo is raising $25 million to acquire 10 properties, and we expect 1,000 investors. We’d like to put each property in a separate subsidiary because (1) we might want to finance them separately, and (2) we don’t want the liabilities arising from one property to leak into another property. But would that make NewCo an investment company, holding the stock (securities) of 10 subsidiaries?
Fortunately, the answer is No.
For purposes of deciding whether NewCo is an investment company, the rule is that you ignore securities issued by any company that NewCo controls, as long as the company itself is not an investment company.
That means NewCo can put Business #1 in Subsidiary #1, Business #2 in Subsidiary #2, and so on and so forth, without becoming an investment company. Most likely, NewCo will hold each property in a separate limited liability company, serving as the manager of each.
Don’t fool around with investment company issues. A company that becomes an investment company without knowing it can face a world of trouble, including having all its contracts invalidated.
It’s been a mere 457 days since the SEC proposed regulations under Title IV of the JOBS Act, aka Regulation A+, and a mere 1,070 days since the JOBS Act was signed into law. Yet the SEC approved final regulations today, with just a few tweaks from the proposed rules. Regulation A+ will go into effect in roughly 60 days.
The most important provisions of the proposed regulations survived intact: companies will be allowed to raise up to $50 million – from anyone, not just accredited investors – without approval from state regulators. You will still have to file a thick offering statement with the SEC, and investors – both accredited and non-accredited – will still be limited to investing 10% of the greater of income or net worth. Nevertheless, I expect Regulation A+ to be used very widely, indeed to transform the Crowdfunding landscape.
I’ll be providing a link to the final regulations shortly (as well as a bunch of other useful links), as well as some thoughts about where Regulation A+ will be most useful.
Today, the most challenging legal question in Title II Crowdfunding is who is required to be a broker-dealer and under what circumstances. The question is most acute for the officers of an issuer, those who direct the issuer’s activities and put the offerings together.
Section 3(a)(4)(A) of the Securities and Exchange Act 1934 generally defines “broker” to mean “any person engaged in the business of effecting transactions in securities for others.” Section 15(a)(1) of the Exchange Act makes it illegal for any “broker. . . .to effect any transactions in, or to induce or attempt to induce the purchase or sale of, any security” unless registered with the SEC.
Simply put, anybody in the business of effecting securities transactions for others must be registered. There is a lot of law around what it means to be “engaged in the business of effecting securities transactions for others.” Based on decided cases and SEC announcements, important factors include:
The frequency of the transactions.
Whether the individual‘s responsibilities include structuring the transaction, identifying and soliciting potential investors, advising investors on the merits of the investment, participating in the order-taking process, and other services critical to the offering.
Whether the individual receives commissions or other transaction-based compensation for her efforts.
Perhaps the most important rule is that the issuer itself – the entity that actually issues the stock – does not have to register as a broker-dealer. The logic is that the issuer is effecting the transaction for itself, not for others.
But what about the President of the issuer, and the Vice President, and all the other employees who send the mailings and put the deal on the website and answer questions from prospective investors? Are they required to register as – or, more accurately, become affiliated with – broker-dealers?
The answer is complicated.
SEC Rule 3a4-1, issued under the Exchange Act, provides a “safe harbor” from registration. Under Rule 3a4-1, an employee of an issuer will not have to register if she is not compensated by commissions, and EITHER:
Her duties are limited to:
Preparing any written communication or delivering such communication through the mails or other means that does not involve oral solicitation of a potential purchaser, as long as the content of all such communications are approved by a partner, officer or director of the issuer; or
Responding to inquiries of a potential purchaser in a communication initiated by the potential purchaser, as long as her response is limited to providing information contained in an offering statement; or
Performing ministerial and clerical work.
She performs substantial services other than in connection with offerings; and
She has not been a broker-dealer within the preceding 12 months; and
She does not participate in more than one offering per year, except for offerings where her duties are limited as described above.
Consider the President of the typical Title II portal offering borrower-dependent notes to accredited investors. Her duties are certainly not limited as described above, and she might participate in – actually direct – dozens of offerings per year. Does that mean she has to register as a broker-dealer?
Not necessarily. Rule 3a4-1 is only a safe harbor. If you satisfy the requirements of Rule 3a4-1 then you are automatically okay, i.e., you don’t have to register. But if you don’t satisfy the requirements of Rule 3a4-1, it doesn’t automatically mean you are required to register. Instead, it means your obligation to register will be determined under the large body of law developed by the SEC and courts over the last 80 years.
Courts and the SEC have identified these primary factors among others:
The duties of the employee before she became affiliated with the issuer. Was she a broker-dealer?
Whether she was hired for the specific purpose of participating in the offerings.
Whether she has substantial duties other than participating in the offerings.
How she is paid, and in particular whether she receives commission for raising capital.
Whether she intends to remain employed by the portal when the offering is finished.
Within the last couple years, a high-ranking lawyer in the SEC spoke publicly but informally about broker-dealer registration in the context of private funds, an area similar to Crowdfunding in some respects. He expressed concern at the way that some funds market interests to investors and suggested that some in-house marketing personnel might be required to register. At the same time, he suggested that an “investor relations” group within a private fund – individuals who spend some of their time soliciting investors – wouldn’t necessarily be required to register if the individuals spend the majority of their time on activities that do not involve solicitation. On one point he was quite clear: the SEC believes that if an individual receives commissions for capital raised, he or she should probably be registered.
Whether an officer or other employee of a Crowdfunding issuer must register as a broker-dealer will be highly sensitive to the facts; change the facts a little and you might get a different answer. With that caveat, I offer these general guidelines:
If an employee receives commissions, he has to register no matter what.
If an employee performs solely clerical functions, he does not have to register.
If an employee participates in only a handful of offerings, he does not have to register.
If an employee spends only a small portion of his time soliciting investors, he does not have to register.
If an employee advises investors on the merits of an investment, he’s walking close to the line. Describing facts, especially facts that are already available in an offering document or online, in response to an investor inquiry, doesn’t count as advising investors on the merits of an investment.
Here are two corollaries to those guidelines.
As long as he’s not paying himself commissions, the Founder and CEO of an issuer that is a bona fide operating company (not merely a shell to raise money) doesn’t have to register.
If the CEO hires Janet to solicit investors, and that’s all Janet does, and she speaks regularly with investors over the phone and helps them decide between Project A and Project B, the SEC is probably going to want Janet to be registered.
Of course, the most conservative approach for Crowdfunding issuers to run every transaction through a licensed broker-dealer. However, that adds cost and most issuers are trying to keep costs down.
This area is ripe for guidance from the SEC, and maybe even a new exemption for bona fide employees of small issuers. Stay tuned.
NOTE: I want to give a shout-out to Rich Weintraub, Esq. of Weintraub Law Group in San Diego. He and I had several very stimulating and thought-provoking conversations on this topic. If there are mistakes in the post, they’re all mine.
The term “fiduciary obligations” sends a chill down the spine of corporate lawyers – although some may object to using the word “spine” and “corporate lawyer” in the same sentence.
A person with a fiduciary obligation has a special legal duty. A trustee has a fiduciary obligation to the beneficiaries of the trust. The executor of an estate has a fiduciary obligation to the beneficiaries of the estate. The fiduciary obligation is not an obligation to always be successful, or always be right, but rather an obligation to try your best, or something close to that. A trustee who fails to anticipate the stock market crash of 2008 has not breached her fiduciary obligation. A trustee who fails to read published reports of a company’s impending bankruptcy before buying its stock probably has.
A person with a fiduciary obligation is required to be loyal, to look out for the interests of those under her care, to put their interests before her own.
By law and longstanding principle, the directors of a corporation have a fiduciary obligation to the corporation and its shareholders. In the classic case, a director of a corporation in the energy business took for his own benefit the opportunity to develop certain oil wells. Foul! cried the court. He has breached his fiduciary obligation by failing to pass the opportunity along to the corporation, to which he is a fiduciary.
Modern corporate statutes allow the fiduciary obligations of directors to be modified, but not eliminated, even if all the shareholders would sign off. If the corporation is publicly-traded, the exchange likely imposes obligations on the director (and the President, and the CEO, etc.) in addition to the fiduciary obligations imposed by state corporate law.
Which takes us to Crowdfunding.
Most deals in the Crowdfunding space are done in a Delaware limited liability company. The Delaware Limited Liability Company Act allows a manager – the equivalent of a director in a corporation – to eliminate his fiduciary obligation altogether. If I’m representing the sponsor of the deal then of course I want to protect my client as fully as possible. And yet, I’m not sure that’s the best answer for the industry overall.
The U.S. public capital markets thrive mainly because investors trust them, just as the U.S. consumer products industry thrives because people feel safe shopping (that’s why securities laws and consumer-protection laws, as aggravating as they can be, actually help business). My client’s investors may or may not pay attention to the fiduciary duty sections of his LLC Agreement, but I wonder whether the Crowdfunding market as a whole can scale if those running the show regularly operate at a lower level of legal responsibility than the managers of public companies. Will it drive investors away?
Part of my brain says that it will, and yet, over the last 25 years or so, as corporate laws have become more indulgent toward management and executive pay has skyrocketed, lots of people have wondered when investors will say “Enough!” It hasn’t happened so far.
The Securities Act of 1933. The Exchange Act of 1934. The Investment Company Act of 1940. Those are the pillars of the U.S. securities laws, as relevant today as they were 80 years ago. And here’s one more old law relevant to Crowdfunding: the Trust Indenture Act of 1939.
Here’s the idea. A company issues its promissory notes (obligations) to a large group of investors. If the company defaults on one or two notes, it might not be financially feasible for those particular investors to take legal action. Even if the company defaults on all the notes it will be a mess sorting out the competing claims. Which investor goes first? If there is collateral, which investor has priority? At best it’s highly inefficient, economically.
The Trust Indenture Act of 1939 imposes order and economic efficiency. It provides that where a company issues debt securities, like promissory notes, it must do so pursuant to a legal document called an “indenture” and, most important, with a trustee, normally a bank, to represent the interests of all the investors together. The TIA goes farther:
It provides that the indenture document must be reviewed and approved by the SEC in advance.
It ensures that the trustee is independent of the issuer.
It requires certain information to be provided to investors.
It prohibits the trustee from limiting its own liability.
Why don’t Patch of Land and other Crowdfunding portals that issue debt securities comply with the TIA? Because offerings under Rule 506 are not generally covered by the law. Conversely, because Lending Club and Prosper sell publicly-registered securities (their “platform notes”), they are covered, and have filed lengthy indenture documents with the SEC.
The real surprise is with Regulation A+. If a Regulation A+ issuer uses an indenture instrument to protect the interests of investors then it will be subject to the TIA and its extensive investor-protection requirements. If the issuer does not use an indenture, on the other hand hand, it will not be subject to the TIA as long as it has outstanding less than $50 million of debt. That’s a strange result – giving issuers an incentive not to use an indenture even though indentures protect investors.
That’s what happens sometimes when you apply very old laws to very new forms of economic activity. Welcome to Crowdfunding.
Because I started life as a tax shelter lawyer, I’m especially sensitive to how income and losses are allocated within partnerships and limited liability companies (limited liability companies are taxed as partnerships). Agreements in the Crowdfunding space leave something to be desired.
As we all know, partnerships are not themselves taxable entities. The items of income and loss of the partnership “flow through” and are reported on the personal tax returns of the owners. Allocating income and losses is simple when you have one class of partnership interest and everything is pro rata, e.g., you get 70% of everything and I get 30%. It becomes a lot more complicated in the real world.
Say, for example:
The sponsor of a deal takes a 30% promote in operating cash flow after investors received an 8% annual preferred return.
On a sale or refinancing, the sponsor takes a 40% promote after the investors receive a 10% internal rate of return.
In the early years of the deal the project generates ordinary losses, then generates cash flow sheltered by depreciation deductions, then generates section 1231 gain.
The allocation of income and loss in a partnership is governed by section 704(b) of the Internal Revenue Code. Long ago, the IRS issued regulations under section 704(b) that use the concept of “capital accounts” to determine whether a given allocation has “substantial economic effect.” Rules within rules, exceptions within exceptions, definitions within definitions, the section 704(b) regulations are a delight for the kind of person (I admit it) who wasn’t necessarily the coolest in high school.
For years afterward, tax shelter lawyers vied with one another to include as many of the rules and definitions of the regulations as possible in their partnership agreements, verbatim. That lasted until we recognized that (1) no matter how hard we tried, it was impossible to be 100% sure that the allocations would come out right; and (2) there was a better way.
The better way is to give management the right to allocate income on a year-to-year basis, with the mandate that the allocation of income should follow the distribution of cash. To wit:
Company shall seek to allocate its income, gains, losses, deductions, and expenses (“Tax Items”) in a manner so that (i) such allocations have “substantial economic effect” as defined in Section 704(b) of the Code and the regulations issued thereunder (the “Regulations”) and otherwise comply with applicable tax laws; (ii) each Member is allocated income equal to the sum of (A) the losses he or it is allocated, and (B) the cash profits he or it receives; and (iii) after taking into account the allocations for each year as well as such factors as the value of the Company’s assets, the allocations likely to be made to each Member in the future, and the distributions each Member is likely to receive, the balance of each Member’s capital account at the time of the liquidation of the Company will be equal to the amount such Member is entitled to receive pursuant to this Agreement. That is, the allocation of the Company’s Tax Items, should, to the extent reasonably possible, following the actual and anticipated distributions of cash, in the discretion of the Manager. In making allocations the Manager shall use reasonable efforts to comply with applicable tax laws, including without limitation through incorporation of a “qualified income offset,” a “gross income allocation,” and a “minimum gain chargeback,” as such terms or concepts are specified in the Regulations. The Manager shall be conclusively deemed to have used reasonable effort if it has sought and obtained advice from counsel.
Even today, I see partnership agreements that devote pages to the allocation of tax items. The approach in the paragraph above is much simpler and, even more important, much more likely to achieve the right result.