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The Securities Edge

Securities Blog for Middle-Market Companies

Why I hate “best practices”

Posted in Bob's Upticks, Corporate Governance

Governance wonks can rest easy. In fact, we can all go home and think about another career. The reason? CalSTRS – California State Teachers’ Retirement System – has issued a “fact sheet” entitled “Best Practices in Board Composition”.

It’s interesting that CalSTRS calls it a fact sheet, since much if not most (if not all) of what it says is opinion, belief or aspiration rather than fact. However, I suppose calling it an “opinion sheet” or an “aspiration sheet” would have resulted in fewer hits.

The document lists five “best practices” (though the fifth has four sub-items; perhaps that means there are nine best practices?). No indication is given as to whether the practices are listed in order of their best-ness. However, it’s notable that the first practice is “independent leadership” – in other words, having “an independent chair that is separate from the Chief Executive Officer”.   I’ve done lots and lots of research on this point, and the most that can be said is that there is no conclusive evidence of any connection between an independent board chair and performance. Again – that’s the most that can be said. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at this Yale study.)

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 Summer doldrums in DC? Not so much!

Posted in Accounting, Bob's Upticks, Compensation, Disclosure Guidance, PCAOB, SEC

For those who think nothing ever gets done in Washington, last week must have been a challenge. From outward appearances, both the SEC and the PCAOB seem to be working overtime, possibly in order to ruin our holiday weekend or at least lay some guilt on us for not spending the weekend reading what they’ve put out.

First, on July 1 the SEC published rule proposals on the last of the so-called Dodd-Frank “four horsemen” (or, as the SEC Staffers called them, the “Gang of Four”) compensation and governance provisions – specifically, clawbacks. It’s too soon for even nerds like me to have gone over the proposed rules in any detail, but at first blush they disappoint in a few respects. Among other things, they appear to call for mandatory recoupment of performance-based compensation whenever the financials are restated, without regard to fault or misconduct; even a “mere” mistake will trigger the clawback. Moreover, neither the board, nor the audit committee, nor the compensation committee will have any discretion or any ability to consider mitigating circumstances. Last (for now), they do not seem to provide any exemptions or relief for small companies, emerging growth companies or the like. Interestingly, equity awards that are solely time-vested will not be considered performance-based compensation for purposes of the proposed rules. Of course, these are only proposed rules, and they will eventually take the form of exchange listing standards rather than SEC rules, but the basic approach is absolute and draconian, and it’s difficult to envision them changing very much.

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A dispatch from the front lines (with SEC Chair White telling us to wave the white flag)…

Posted in Bob's Upticks, Corporate Governance, No-action letters, SEC, Shareholder proposals

Last week I attended the National Conference of the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals in Chicago. It was a great conference – wonderful, substantive programs and a chance to catch up with many friends and colleagues.

With some exceptions.

One exception was the opening speech by SEC Chair Mary Jo White. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m a fan (particularly when Senator Warren and others go after her – as in my last post). Among other things, I love the fact that she speaks clearly; unlike so many others in Washington, whose statements make me think I know what it must have been like to visit the Delphic Oracle, she’s perfectly straightforward about her views.   It was her views – or at least most of them – that I didn’t like.

Chair White addressed four topics, and on all but one of them she basically told the corporate community to give up. Her topics and views can be summarized as follows:

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SEC charges unlicensed broker/dealers in EB-5 Program

Posted in SEC Enforcement
Courtesy of JasonHerbertEsq

Courtesy of JasonHerbertEsq

The SEC continued its program of enforcement actions in connection with the Federal EB-5 Program by bringing charges against two firms which raised approximately $79 million for EB-5-related situations. This matter is a little different in that it is the first SEC action to be brought in connection with unregistered broker-dealer activities in the EB-5 context. This action is important and should be reviewed by all participants in the EB-5 arena because it demonstrates the SEC’s willingness to exercise its enforcement powers in connection with these immigration-related matters. It also shows the SEC’s willingness to partner with other regulatory agencies (in this case the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS)). The SEC’s action is summarized in its June 23 press release.

The Federal EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program is designed to provide a way for foreign nationals to achieve legal residency in the U.S. by investing in certain approved U.S.-based businesses or designated regional economic development centers. The requirement for investment in a regional economic development center is generally less than the amount required to invest in a U.S. business under this program.

According to the SEC’s Order, Ireeco LLC and a successor company, Ireeco Limited, acted as unregistered broker-dealers in raising funds from a number of foreign investors. According to the Order, these companies promised to help investors locate the best regional center in which to make their investments, but they allegedly only directed these investors to a small number of regional centers. These regional centers allegedly made payments to the Ireeco companies once the CIS granted certain approvals for conditional residence to the investors. The SEC alleged that the two Ireeco companies raised approximately $79 million in this manner

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More Positive Regulation A News

Posted in Capital Raising
Photo by Patricia J. Lovelace © All rights reserved

Photo by Patricia J. Lovelace © All rights reserved

This week, the SEC published a series of new Compliance and Disclosure Interpretations (“CDIs”) related to the newly revised Regulation A, which became effective on June 19, 2015. While many of the new CDIs addressed procedural and interpretational issues under the new rules, there was an important development that could make Regulation A that much more useful for companies.

The positive news comes in the form of the SEC staff’s response to Question 182.07 which asks whether issuers would be able to use Regulation A in connection with merger or acquisition transactions that meet the criteria for Regulation A in lieu of registering the offering on an S-4 registration statement. Based on the SEC’s final adopting release, it did not appear that Regulation A would be available for use in these types of business combination transactions. However, the interpretation published yesterday clarifies that issuers may, in fact, use Regulation A in connection with mergers and acquisitions. The one exception is that Regulation A would not be available for business acquisition shelf transactions that are conducted on a delayed basis.

This is a very positive development for issuers that want to issue equity in connection with acquisitions of other companies, but do not wish to become a public reporting company under the Exchange Act. Previously, these issuers had very few Continue Reading

“A-Day” has finally arrived – Reg A+ goes into effect

Posted in Capital Raising
Reg A+ is now effective!

Photo by Lisandro M. Enrique © 2015 All rights reserved

Today is June 19th.  It is an exciting day for companies that need to raise capital because Reg A+ finally goes into effect.

As a reminder, Reg A+ is a nickname for SEC Regulation A, as amended by the SEC.  Reg A has been around for many years but was rarely used because it was available only to very small financings, had too many limitations, and was costly.  As part of the JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) Act enacted in 2012, the SEC was instructed to update Reg A to make it more useful as a capital-raising tool.  Reg A+ is the result.

The main benefits of Reg A+ include the following:

  • Companies can raise up to $50 million every 12 months.
  • Insiders can sell their shares in a Reg A+ offering.
  • Investors in a Reg A+ offering have immediate liquidity – they can sell their shares once the offering is completed and don’t have to hold them for a period of time.
  • Some Reg A+ offerings are exempt from state securities or “blue sky” laws.
  • Some Reg A+ offerings are easier to list on an exchange.

We think Reg A+ provides a great opportunity to raise capital and can be looked at as an alternative to either a private placement or an IPO.  But, don’t take our word for it.  Here is what others are saying about Reg A+.  If you have any questions about Reg A+, please feel free to reach out to any of the Gunster attorneys in the Securities and Corporate Governance Practice.

First crowdfunding fraud enforcement action

Posted in Capital Raising

Doom over crowdfunding?The first enforcement action involving a crowdfunding project was recently brought by the Federal Trade Commission. It involved the development of a board game which did not go well despite a successful crowdfunding campaign. This matter is interesting and instructive not only because it is the first such case, but also because it highlights some of the significant risks inherent in the crowdfunding process. The FTC’s official press release on this matter contains a good summary of the relevant events.

According to the FTC complaint, Erik Chevalier discovered an idea for a board game called The Doom that Came to Atlantic City! This game was designed to be a dark fantasy take on the traditional Monopoly board game. The game had originally been developed by two designers, but Chevalier planned to take their concept and produce and distribute a finished game. To raise money for this venture, Chevalier turned to Kickstarter, probably the best known crowdfunding platform. According to the FTC complaint, Chevalier represented to investors that the funds raised would primarily be used for the development, production, completion, and distribution of this game, and that participants would receive certain rewards, such as copies of the final game and action figures, in return for their participation in this campaign.

This crowdfunding campaign was very successful. Chevalier’s original goal was to raise $35,000, but this campaign raised more than $122,000 for the development of this game. Unfortunately, things went bad as the game development process encountered delays.

According to the FTC complaint, Continue Reading

Warren vs. SEC

Posted in Bob's Upticks, SEC

Unless you’ve been off the grid, you’ve surely read about the kerfuffle between Senator Elizabeth Warren and SEC Chair Mary Jo White (here’s an example). It seems that Senator Warren is unhappy that the SEC, under Chair White’s leadership, hasn’t done enough. Specifically – among other things – it hasn’t adopted a bunch of rules that the Senator believes are critical, such as requiring public companies to disclose the ratio of CEO pay to that of rank-and-file employees.

I’ve written before about Congressional interference in SEC rulemakings (for example, Connecticut Senator Blumenthal’s recommendation that the SEC should deem “fee-shifting” by-laws not just a risk factor but a “major” risk factor – discussed here). I’ve also called out the SEC when I think it’s out of line (for example, here). However, the recent attacks by Senator Warren seem to me to be beyond the pale – they’re strident and scream disrespect for Chair White and for the Commission generally.

Moreover, they demonstrate Senator Warren’s inability, failure or refusal (or all of the above) to recognize certain fundamental issues with which the SEC has to deal, including these (among many others): Continue Reading

SAFEs and KISSes – Alternative investment vehicles can help early stage companies get financed

Posted in Capital Raising

SAFE and KISSEarly stage and startup companies often face difficulty in obtaining initial financing.  These companies normally do not have access to traditional venture capital, angel, or bank financing.  Even when a startup finds an investor, the company may not have the time or the funds to pursue the long and complicated negotiation and documentation process required for a convertible debt or preferred stock investment.

Y Combinator (a Silicon Valley technology accelerator) developed a possible solution for this situation:  the SAFE (Simple Agreement for Future Equity). This is a short document that contains the basic terms of an investment in an early stage company. Y Combinator’s goal was to create a standard set of terms and conditions that the investor and the startup can agree upon without protracted negotiations so that the startup can obtain its initial funding relatively quickly and cheaply. Y Combinator offers both a summary of SAFE concepts and sample SAFE documents on its site.  Y Combinator first proposed this instrument in December 2013, but it is just now beginning to be used outside of Silicon Valley.

While the SAFE has appeared in a number of forms, the basic concept is that the investor provides funding to the company in exchange for the right to receive equity upon some future event.  The standard SAFE contains no term or repayment date, and no interest accrues.  The investor gets the right to receive the company’s equity when a future event occurs (normally a future equity financing). There is no need to spend time or money negotiating the company’s valuation, the terms of the conversion to equity or any similar items (which can often be tough and protracted negotiation items) – all of those decisions can be deferred into the future. The investor will receive shares in the subsequent offering, often at a discount to the price that other investors pay in that offering. The parties can also negotiate a cap on the valuation used in connection with the SAFE, and this may provide additional protection to the investor.

The beauty of the SAFE concept (from the company’s standpoint) is that it Continue Reading

Crazy is as crazy does – compensation run amok?

Posted in Bob's Upticks, Compensation

As we approach the end of the 2015 peak proxy season, the annual parade of articles and studies of executive compensation has begun. To no one’s surprise (at least not mine), the numbers keep going up, and some investors and media types are looking for someone to blame.   Companies and their boards or compensation committees are obvious targets (in some cases, quite justifiably), and some have criticized investors themselves, who continue to overwhelmingly support say-on-pay proposals whether or not their support seems warranted.

If you accept that one symptom of insanity is to repeat the same behaviors over and over again while expecting different results, then it appears we’re in the midst of an epidemic of compensation craziness. Why did anyone seriously think that say-on-pay votes would cause executive compensation to decrease? (Parenthetically, there are people who think that disclosure of CEO-to-median employee pay ratios will lead to a reduction in executive pay. Talk about crazy.) I learned a long time ago – from the mouth of Pearl Meyer herself – that every attempt to rein in executive pay by legislation, regulation or disclosure (i.e., shame) has failed. Why did anyone think this would be different? In other words, limiting executive compensation is like what Mark Twain said (or not) about the weather – everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. At least nothing that works.

Well, maybe not. It seems that Dan Price, the CEO of a company called Gravity Payments in Seattle, who’s been making over “a million-dollar salary,” decided this year that he would do something about it. Specifically, he cut his compensation and decided that everyone in his company would make at least $75,000 per year. You’d think that he’d be given laurel wreaths or maybe a ticker-tape parade, at least in some circles of compensation-land, but you’d be wrong. There have been articles (i.e., screeds) written by some in the industry that he’s going about it all wrong, that it’s not a solution that can be applied on a broad base, and so on. He’s even been referred to as crazy.

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