Non-U.S. Investors and Companies in U.S. Crowdfunding

Non-US Investors and Companies in US Crowdfunding

When I was a kid, back in the 1840s, we referred to people who live outside the United States as “foreigners.” Using the more globalist and clinical term “non-U.S. persons,” I’m going to summarize how people and companies outside the U.S. fit into the U.S. Crowdfunding and Fintech picture.

Can Non-U.S. Investors Participate in U.S. Crowdfunding Offerings?

Yes. No matter where he or she lives, anyone can invest in a U.S. Crowdfunding offering, whether under Title II, Title III, or Title IV.

The Crowdfunding laws don’t distinguish U.S. investors from non-U.S. investors. Thus:

  • To invest in an offering under Title II (SEC Rule 506(c)), a non-U.S. investor must be “accredited.”
  • If a non-U.S. investor invests in an offering under Title III (aka “Regulation CF”), he or she is subject to the same investment limitations as U.S. investors.
  • If a non-U.S. investor who is also non-accredited invests in an offering under Tier 2 of Title IV (aka “Regulation A”), he or she is subject to the same limitations as non-accredited U.S. investors, e., 10% of the greater of income or net worth.

What About Regulation S?

SEC Regulation S provides that an offering limited to non-U.S. investors is exempt from U.S. securities laws. Mysterious on its face, the law makes perfect sense from a national, jurisdictional point of view. The idea is that the U.S. government cares about protecting U.S. citizens, but nobody else.

EXAMPLE:  If a U.S. citizen is abducted in France, the U.S. military sends Delta Force. If a German citizen is abducted in France, Delta Force gets the day off to play volleyball.

Regulation S is relevant to U.S. Crowdfunding because a company raising money using Title II, Title III, or Title may simultaneously raise money from non-U.S. investors using Regulation S. Why would a company do that, given that non-U.S. investors may participate in Title II, Title III, or Title IV? To avoid the limits of U.S. law. Thus:

  • A company raising money using Title II can raise money from non-accredited investors outside the United States using Regulation S.
  • A company raising money using Title III can raise money from investors outside the United States without regard to income levels.
  • A company raising money using Tier 2 of Title IV can raise money from non-accredited investors outside the United States without regard to income or net worth.

Thus, a company raising money in the U.S. using the U.S. Crowdfunding laws can either (1) raise money from non-U.S. investors applying the same rules to everybody, or (2) place non-U.S. investors in a simultaneous offering under Regulation S.

What’s the Catch?

The catch is that the U.S. is not the only country with securities laws. If a company in the U.S. is soliciting investors from Canada, it can satisfy U.S. law by either (1) treating the Canadian investors the same way it treats U.S. investors (for example, accepting investments only from accredited Canadian investors in a Rule 506(c) offering), or (2) bringing in the Canadian investors under Regulation S. But to solicit Canadian investors, the company must comply with Canadian securities laws, too.

Raising Money for Non-U.S. Companies

Whether a non-U.S. company is allowed to raise money using U.S. Crowdfunding laws depends on the kind of Crowdfunding.

Title II Crowdfunding

A non-U.S. company is allowed to raise money using Title II (Rule 506(c)).

Title III Crowdfunding

Only a U.S. entity is allowed to raise money using Title III (aka “Regulation CF”). An entity organized under the laws of Germany may not use Title III.

But that’s not necessarily the end of the story. If a German company wants to raise money in the U.S. using Title III, it has a couple choices:

  • It can create a U.S. subsidiary to raise money using Title III. The key is that the U.S. subsidiary can’t be a shell, raising the money and then passing it up to the parent, because nobody wants to invest in a company with no assets. The U.S. subsidiary should be operating a real business. For example, a German automobile manufacturer might conduct its U.S. operations through a U.S. subsidiary.
  • The stockholders of the German company could transfer their stock to a U.S. entity, making the German company a wholly-owned subsidiary of the U.S. entity. The U.S. entity could then use Title III.

Title IV Crowdfunding

Title IV (aka “Regulation A”) may be used only by U.S. or Canadian entities with a “principal place of business” in the U.S. or Canada.

(I have never understood why Canada is included, but whatever.)

If we cut through the legalese, whether a company has its “principal place of business” in the U.S. depends on what the people who run the company see when they wake up in the morning and look out the window. If see the U.S., then the company has it’s “principal place of business” in the U.S. If they see a different country, it doesn’t. (Which country they see when they turn on Skype doesn’t matter.)

Offshore Offerings

Regulation S allows U.S. companies to raise money from non-U.S. investors without worrying about U.S. securities laws. But once those non-U.S. investors own the securities of the U.S. company, they have to think about U.S. tax laws. Often non-U.S. investors, especially wealthy non-U.S. investors, are unenthusiastic about registering with the Internal Revenue Service.

The alternative, especially for larger deals, is for the U.S. entity to form a “feeder” vehicle offshore, typically in the Cayman Islands because of its favorable business and tax climate. Non-U.S. investors invest in the Cayman entity, and the Cayman entity in turn invests in the U.S. entity.

These days, it has become a little fashionable for U.S. token issuers to incorporate in the Cayman Islands and raise money only from non-U.S. investors, to avoid U.S. securities laws. Because the U.S. capital markets are so deep and the cost of complying with U.S. securities laws is so low, this strikes me as foolish. Or viewed from a different angle, if a company turns its back on trillions of dollars of capital to avoid U.S. law, I’d wonder what they’re hiding.

What About the Caravan from Honduras?

Yes, all those people can invest.

Questions? Let me know.

Opportunity Zone Funds in Crowdfunding

businessman stack of coins.jpg

Everywhere you look, there’s another opportunity zone fund. What are these things and why are they suddenly so popular?

The Tax Savings

It’s all about taxes, specifically capital gain taxes. Added to the Internal Revenue Code by the 2017 tax act, new section 1400Z-2 allows investors to reduce their capital gain taxes in four increasingly-generous levels:

  • Level One Savings: If you sell property (including property sold through a partnership or limited liability company) and recognize a capital gain, then you don’t have to pay tax right away on the gain to the extent you invest in a “qualified opportunity zone fund,” or QOZF, within 180 days. Instead, the gain is deferred until the earlier of (i) the date you sell your interest in the QOZF, or (ii) December 31, 2026.

EXAMPLE:  You bought stock two years ago for $1,000, and sell it during 2018 for $1,100, recognizing a $100 capital gain. If you invest $75 in a QOZF within 180 days, you pay tax in 2018 only on $25 of the gain. You pay tax on the $75 on the earlier of the date you sell your interest in the QOZF or 12/31/2026.

It gets better.

  • Level Two Savings: If you hold your investment in the QOZF for at least five years, you get to increase your tax basis in the QOZF by 10% of the gain you deferred, further reducing your tax bill.

EXAMPLE:  In the example above, if you hold your investment in the QOZF for at least five years, you get to increase your tax basis by 10% of $75, or $7.50.

And better.

  • Level Three Savings: If you hold your investment in the QOZF for at least seven years, you get to increase your tax basis in the QOZF by another 5% of the gain you deferred.

And better.

  • Level Four Savings: If you hold your investment in the QOZF for 10 years, you pay no capital gain tax on the appreciation in the QOZF.

EXAMPLE:  If, in the original example, you invested $75 in the QOZF and sold it after 10 years for $195 (10% appreciation per year, compounded), you would pay no tax on the $120 of appreciation. 

What if the Value of the QOZF Goes Down?

If you lose money on the QOZF, then your tax on the original capital gain also goes down. 

EXAMPLE:  You sell appreciated stock for a $100 profit, and invest $75 in a QOZF. Three years later, you sell your interest in the QOZF for $50 (I’m assuming your tax basis in the QOZF hasn’t changed). You pay tax on only $50 of capital gain, not the whole $75.

Thus, it’s heads-you-win, tails-the-government-loses. 

What’s A Qualified Opportunity Zone Fund?

A qualified opportunity zone fund means a corporation or partnership that holds 90% of its assets in any mix of the following assets:

  • Stock of a corporation that is a “qualified opportunity zone business.”
  • An interest in a partnership that is a “qualified opportunity zone business.”
  • “Qualified opportunity zone property.”

A “qualified opportunity zone business” is a business substantially all of the assets of which are qualified opportunity zone property.”

”Qualified opportunity zone property” means property that is:

  • Located in a “qualified opportunity zone”;
  • Used by the QOZF in a trade or business; and
  •  Either:
    • The property is brand new (g., ground-up construction); or
    • Within 30 months, the QOZF or the qualified opportunity zone business spends at least as much to renovated the property as it paid to buy it.

Boiled down version:  A qualified opportunity zone fund means a fund that, directly or indirectly, owns new or substantially renovated business assets in a qualified opportunity zone.

Only New Businesses or Assets Count

In figuring out whether a fund is a qualified opportunity zone fund, you take into account only property acquired after 12/31/2017.

Does it Matter Where the Capital Gain Came From?

No. The capital gain you’re deferring could come from the sale of appreciated stock, the sale of real estate, the sale of artwork, or anywhere else.

An Alternative to A Like-Kind Exchange

Under section 1031 of the Internal Revenue Code, the owner of appreciated real estate (only real estate) can defer paying tax on sale by exchanging the real estate for different real estate. In fact, a whole industry has grown up around these so-called “like-kind exchanges.”

For as long as it lasts, the QOZF provides a simpler and possibly better alternative.

What is a Qualified Opportunity Zone?

A “qualified opportunity zone” means a low-income area that has been nominated as such by the Governor of a state and approved by the U.S. Treasury. A list is of current qualified opportunity zones is available here.

No Massage Parlors

In a crippling blow to my own business plans, a “qualified opportunity zone business” does not include massage parlors or hot tub facilities. Nor does it include golf courses, country clubs, suntan facilities, racetracks or other facilities used for gambling, or liquor stores.

Can I Use an LLC?

Section 1400Z-2 itself defines “qualified opportunity zone fund” as a “corporation or partnership.” However, section 7701(a)(2) of the Internal Revenue Code defines “partnership” follows:

The term “partnership” includes a syndicate, group, pool, joint venture, or other unincorporated organization, through or by means of which any business, financial operation, or venture is carried on, and which is not, within the meaning of this title, a trust or estate or a corporation; and the term “partner” includes a member in such a syndicate, group, pool, joint venture, or organization.

Based on that definition, a limited liability company should work.

What if I Invest More in a QOZF?

Suppose you sell appreciated stock for a $100 capital gain, and within six months invested $150 in a QOZF. The favorable tax rules apply only to two-thirds of your investment. The other one-third is just a regular investment.

Who Can Form a Qualified Opportunity Zone Fund?

Anyone, literally. If you sell appreciated stock and want to defer or avoid tax on all or part of the gain, you can form your own QOZF.

Conversely, large companies, including large investment managers and large real estate developers, have already formed QOZFs, taking advantage of the tax benefits and the media buzz to raise capital.

Investment Company Act Limits

When Congress enacted the tax benefits for qualified opportunity zone funds, it could have created an exception to the investment company rules at the same time, making the funds even more appealing and effective. But it didn’t.

Consequently, and perhaps paradoxically, larger QOZFs — those with more than 100 investors — will have to own property directly, or take controlling interests in other businesses, to avoid being treated as investment companies. They will not be allowed to hold minority, non-controlling interests in businesses owned by others, such as, say, the residents of the qualified opportunity zone. 

How Can I Raise Capital for My QOZF?

You can raise capital using any method you like, including Title II Crowdfunding (Rule 506(c)), Title III Crowdfunding (Regulation CF), Title IV Crowdfunding (Regulation A), or Rule 506(b).

Qualified opportunity zone funds are about saving taxes, specifically capital gain taxes. They make less sense for non-accredited investors who, by definition, earn less money and pay tax at lower rates. Consequently, we will probably see fewer QOZFs using Title III or Regulation A to raise capital, and many using Rule 506(b).

More Rules to Come

The Internal Revenue Service hasn’t yet issued guidance on the details of this complicated legislation. Expect complicated regulations and at least a few surprises.

Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

How long will it take before a QOZF is sold using tokens?

Questions? Let me know.

 

The Per-Investor Limits of Title III Require Concurrent Offerings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions? Let me know.

Simultaneous Offerings Under Rule 506(c) And Regulation S

Co-Authored By: Bernard Devieux & Mark Roderick

If you ask one of my partners whether he wants beer or hard liquor, he says “Yes.” That’s the same answer most entrepreneurs give when asked whether they want to raise money from U.S. investors or investors who live somewhere else. Fortunately, if you’re reasonably careful, you can raise money from U.S. investors under Rule 506(c) – otherwise known as Title II Crowdfunding – while simultaneously raising money from non-U.S. investors under Regulation S.

You don’t have to use Regulation S to raise money from non-U.S. investors. You can use Rule 506(c) instead, as long as you take reasonable steps to verify that they’re accredited, just as with U.S. investors. But verification can be difficult with non-U.S. investors. You use Regulation S either because you want to include non-U.S. investors who are non-accredited or because you just don’t want the hassle of verification.

The concept behind Regulation S is simple:  the U.S. government doesn’t care about protecting non-U.S. people. That sounds harsh but think about it this way. If an American citizen is taken hostage in Albania, boom, the U.S. military comes to the rescue. But if a Russian citizen is taken hostage in Albania. . . .well, maybe that’s a bad example these days, but you get the picture.

To implement this concept, Regulation S provides that:

For purposes of section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933 [the law that usually requires the registration of securities offerings], the terms offer, offer to sell, sell, sale, and offer to buy shall be deemed . . . not to include offers and sales that occur outside the United States.

An offer or sale by an issuer of securities will be treated as occurring “outside the United States” only if all of the following requirements are satisfied:

  • The buyer is a non-U.S. person.
  • The issuer follows designated guidelines with legends on the securities, restrictions on resales, etc.
  • The offer is not made to a person in the United States.
  • No “directed selling efforts” are made in the United States.

The first two are relatively easy:  you make sure the investor isn’t a U.S. resident and you put the right words on stock certificates, promissory notes, and other legal documents.

The second two become tricky in Crowdfunding, where everything is done on the Internet.

For example, suppose an issuer maintains a single website advertising its offering of common stock, equally accessible to prospective investors in Iowa and in Spain. The website undoubtedly constitutes an “offer” to investors in Iowa, and is undoubtedly part of a “directed selling effort” in Iowa, no less than if the offering had been advertised in the Des Moines Gazette. Does this ruin the Regulation S offering?

The SEC’s definition of “directed selling efforts,” written in the early 1990s, doesn’t address this situation. And other than confirming that issuers are legally permitted to conduct simultaneous offerings under Rule 506(c) (to U.S. investors) and Regulation S (to non-U.S. persons) so long as each offering complies with its applicable rules, the SEC has not provided specific guidance on how to avoid the “cross-contamination” issue involving websites.

Fortunately, the SEC addressed a very similar issue with intrastate Crowdfunding just last year. Technically, an intrastate offering is allowed only if “offers” are limited to the citizens of one state. Does posting an offering on a website violate that rule, given that the website is visible to everyone? The SEC chose the position more favorable to Crowdfunding (as it almost always does), announcing that an intrastate offering could be advertised on a website as long as the issuer accepts investments only from residents of the state in question.

The SEC’s position on intrastate offerings suggests that it would take a similar position on Regulation S, finding that the use of a single website would not violate either (1) the requirement that no “offers” be made in the U.S., and (2) the requirement that “no directed selling efforts” be made in the U.S. But we don’t know for sure.

To be on the safe(er) side, an issuer would create separate websites, one for the Rule 506(c) offering and the other for the Regulation S offering, and use IP addresses to ensure that the Regulation S website is not visible within the United States. On the Regulation S website, you would also:

  • Have each visitor (and potential investor) verify his, her, or its legal residence before being permitted to see the details of the offering; and
  • Feature prominent disclaimers that U.S. persons are not welcome.

Finally, bear in mind that Regulation S is an exemption from U.S. securities laws. If you’re offering and selling securities to the citizens of another country, you should think about the laws of that country, too.

Raising Capital Online: An Introduction For Real Estate Developers

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

Basics of Crowdfunding

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

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

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

Common Questions

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

Questions? Let me know.

What’s the Difference Between Rule 506(c) and Rule 506(b) in Crowdfunding?

Three and a half years into Title II Crowdfunding, I am asked this question a lot, sometimes by portals, sometimes by issuers.

A Chart, of Course

Three Important Differences

Verification

In a Rule 506(b) offering, the issuer may take the investor’s word that he, she, or it is accredited, unless the issuer has reason to believe the investor is lying.

In a Rule 506(c) offering, on the other hand, the issuer must take reasonable steps to verify that every investor is accredited. The SEC regulations allow an issuer to rely on primary documents from an investor like tax returns, brokerage statements, or W-2s, but they also allow the issuer to rely on a letter from the investor’s lawyer or accountant. In practice, that’s how verification is typically handled.

I strongly recommend that issuers do not verify investors themselves. Instead, they should use a third party like VerifyInvestor. If an issuer handles verification itself and makes a mistake, it’s possible that the entire offering could be disqualified. Conversely, once an issuer hands the task to VerifyInvestor, the issuer has, by definition, taken the “reasonable step” required by the SEC, and can sleep well at night.

Information

If all the investors are accredited, there is no difference between Rule 506(b) and Rule 506(c).

If there is even one non-accredited investor in a Rule 506(b) offering, on the other hand, the issuer must provide a lot more information, specifically most of the information that would be included in a Regulation A offering.

The technicalities are important to the lawyer, but to the issuer or the portal, the bottom line is that if non-accredited investors are included the offering will cost $5,000 – $7,500 more, and take a little longer to prepare.

Advertising

In a Rule 506(b) offering you can advertise only the brand. In a Rule 506(c) offering you can advertise the deal.

Ever watch the commercials for brokers and investment banks during a golf tournament? They feature an older guy and his very attractive wife, planning for a carefree and meaningful retirement. They message is:  we can help you achieve your dreams. But they don’t show any of the actual investments they recommend! They’re only advertising the brand.

That’s the model for a website offering investments under Rule 506(b). We can advertise the website – the brand – but we cannot show actual investments. The website attracts investors who sign up and go through a KYC (know your customer) process following SEC guidelines. We have the investor complete questionnaires, we speak with the investor on the phone a couple times, we learn about his or her experience and knowledge investing – we develop a relationship. Then, and only then, can we show the investor actual investments.

In contrast, a website offering investments under Rule 506(c) can show actual investments to everyone right away.

Which is Better?

If I own a jewelry store, I have two choices:

  • I can display jewelry in the front window where passersby can see it.
  • I can display a sign in the front window saying “Great jewelry inside. Must register to enter.”

That’s why I prefer Rule 506(c).

But I also acknowledge three benefits of Rule 506(b):

  • To include non-accredited investors, you must use Rule 506(b), or another kind of offering altogether.
  • If you use Rule 506(c), you might lose bona fide accredited investors who are unwilling to provide verification.
  • If you use Rule 506(b), which doesn’t require verification, you might get money from non-accredited investors who are willing to lie.

Switching Midstream

You can start an offering using Rule 506(b), then switch to Rule 506(c), as long as you haven’t accepted any non-accredited investors.

Conversely, once you’ve advertised a Rule 506(c) offering, you cannot go back and accept non-accredited investors, claiming you’re relying on Rule 506(b).

Questions? Let me know.

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

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

The legal case is pretty simple:

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

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

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

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

Two qualifications.

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

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

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

Questions? Let me know.

Using Title III Disclosures In Title II Crowdfunding

Title III requires all these disclosures, reported on the new Form C:

  • The name, legal status, physical address, and website of the issuer
  • The names of the directors and officers of the issuer and their employment history over the last three years
  • The name of each person owning 20% or more of the issuer’s stock
  • The issuer’s business and business plans
  • The number of employees of the issuer
  • A statement of risks
  • How much money the issuer is trying to raise
  • How the money will be used
  • The price of the shares or the method for determining the price
  • The capital structure of the issuer, including the rights of all security-holders, restrictions on transfer, and how the securities are being valued
  • A description of the portal’s financial interests
  • A description of the issuer’s liabilities
  • A description of other offerings conducted within the past three years
  • A description of “insider” transactions
  • A discussion of the issuer’s financial conditionimpossible possible
  • Financial statements or their equivalent
  • Any other information necessary in order to make the statements made not misleading

As I write this, a lot of very smart entrepreneurs and software engineers are working to automate these disclosures. They have to:  to make money running a Title III portals, you’re going to have to automate everything that can be automated.

Now look at Title II. As a write this, the disclosures for almost all Title II deals are prepared the old-fashioned way, with a lawyer writing an old-fashioned Private Placement Memorandum. The PPM for Deal 1 on Portal X might or might not include the same information as the PPM for Deal 2 on Portal X, and almost certainly doesn’t include the same information or look the same as the PPM for deals on Portal Y. An investor trying to compare apples to apples would go, well, bananas.

That situation is ripe (sorry) for change and I think it will change as Title III comes online, for three reasons:

  1. As someone argued recently, investors couldn’t care less about the distinction between Title II and Title III. They are going to want to see the same information in the same format.
  2. Using the tools developed for Title III, Title II portals will be able to provide more information than they are currently providing, cheaper and more effectively.
  3. There is no law that dictates what information must be provided in a Title II offering. But we still think about 17 CFR §240.10b-5, which makes it unlawful to “. . . .make any untrue statement of a material fact or to omit to state a material fact necessary in order to make the statements made. . . .not misleading. . . .” As the industry develops, it seems at least possible, if not likely, that the disclosures required by Title III could be viewed as the standard for avoiding Rule 10b-5 liability.

Questions? Let me know.

How To Operate A Title II Portal And A Title III Portal On The Same Platform

crainsMost Title II and Title IV portals will also want to operate Title III portals, and vice versa. Can they do it?

The Title III regulations issued by the SEC appear to contemplate that a Title III portal – a “funding portal” – will do more than operate a Title III portal. For example, 17 CFR §227.401 provides that “A funding portal. . . .is exempt from the broker registration requirements of section 15(a)(1) of the Exchange Act in connection with its activities as a funding portal.” If a Title III portal couldn’t do anything else, that extra language at the end wouldn’t be necessary.

The same is true for of the regulations issued by FINRA. FINRA prohibits Funding Portals from making false or exaggerated claims, implying that past performance will recur, claiming that FINRA itself has blessed an offering, or engaging in other misconduct, but a well-behaved Title II or Title IV portal would have no trouble meeting those standards.

What about the platform itself? The Title III regulations (17 CFR §227.300(c)(4)) define “platform” as:

A program or application accessible via the Internet or other similar electronic communication medium through which a registered broker or a registered funding portal acts as an intermediary in a transaction involving the offer or sale of securities in reliance on section 4(a)(6) of the Securities Act.

Nothing there would prohibit Title II, Title III, and title IV securities from appearing on the same website.

The fly in the ointment is 17 CFR §227.300(c)(2)(ii), which provides that a Title III portal may not:

  • Offer investment advice or recommendations; OR
  • Solicit purchases, sales or offers to buy the securities displayed on its platform.

What does that mean, in the context of a portal offering both Title II and Title III securities? What it should mean is that a Title III portal cannot offer investment advice or recommendations concerning Title III securities, and cannot solicit purchases, sales, or offers of Title III securities. The idea of Title III is to protect Title III investors. Why should the SEC care whether the portal is offering investment advice concerning Title II or Title IV securities?

But we can’t be 100% sure that’s what it means. If it means that a Title III portal can’t offer investment advice about any securities and can’t solicit offers to buy any securities, then we need to steer clear.

I’ve spoken informally with the SEC and they’re not sure how to interpret 17 CFR §227.300(c)(2)(ii). They suggested I submit a request for a no-action ruling and I guess I will, unless one of my Crowdfunding colleagues already has.

Pending that guidance, there are several ways to operate a Title II portal, a Title III portal, and a Title IV portal on the same platform:

  • Operate the portals through a single legal entity. Avoid giving investment advice to anybody or soliciting purchases, sales, or offers of any securities.
  • Operate the portals through one legal entity. If you want to offer investment advice and/or actively solicit, do it through or more additional legal entities. For now, limit the investment advice and active solicitation to Title II and Title IV securities.
  • Create a separate legal entity to hold the Title III license. Create an arm’s length license agreement between that entity and the entity that owns the platform (a simple downloadable form is here). List all the deals on the same platform, but make sure that when an investor clicks on a Title III deal the Title III portal handles the investment process.

Finally, FINRA is a wonderful organization, but I’m not necessarily eager to have FINRA looking at everything my clients do. All other things being equal, I might choose option #3 just to keep a degree of separation between the regulated entity and my non-regulated activities. But that’s not necessarily the end of it – FINRA will want to explore the relationship between the funding portal and its affiliates.

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.