January 2014

Uncertainty lingers in recent exception to Volcker Rule
Photo by Patrik Jones

In a joint press release issued on January 15, 2014, five federal agencies indicated their approval of an interim final rule to permit banking entities to retain interests in collateralized debt obligations backed primarily by trust preferred securities (“TruPS CDOs”).  These interests would have otherwise been prohibited under the new Volcker Rule, which prohibits certain investments by banks and is found in Section 619 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank Act”). The interim final rule comes just weeks after the agencies’ approval of the Volker Rule on December 10, 2013.

With the hope of avoiding the need for future bailouts of the financial system, the Volker Rule prohibits an insured depository institution and its affiliates from engaging in “proprietary trading,” from acquiring or retaining any equity, partnership, or other ownership interest in a hedge fund or private equity fund, and from sponsoring a hedge fund or a private equity fund. Essentially, the Volcker Rule is intended to limit profit-seeking proprietary trading at commercial banks by essentially banning these banks, which accept federally insured deposits, from making speculative bets with that money.

So, preventing banks from taking unreasonable risk with customer money, isn’t this a good thing? Well, according to critics, the issue with the Volker Rule is that, in strict application, the rule would capture a substantial amount of legitimate activity conducted by banks, activity that is essential to growing jobs and small businesses. In this regard, the American Bankers Association took specific issue with the Volcker Rule provisions that would force banks to rid themselves of TruPS CDOs, arguing that such provisions are against the spirit of the rule since banks that invested in TruPS CDOs “do not pose the kind of systemic risk the Volcker rule is intended to capture” and are “facing unexpected and precipitous write-downs on these investments that are not justified by any safety and soundness concern.”

In the run-up to the financial crisis, some banks issued trust-preferred securities, which have characteristics of both debt and equity, to raise capital. Some of those securities were then packaged into CDOs and sold to banks and other financial institutions, i.e. TruPS CDOs. These securities lost much of their value during the financial crisis, and banks that invested in them have been holding on to them in the hope that they will recover in value. The Volcker Rule, if left unchanged, would have forced banks not only to sell those securities but also to recognize the losses on them.

In issuing the interim rule, the regulators have sought to balance the spirit of the Volker Rule with the need for banks to engage in legitimate types of trading. Among other exemptions provided, the interim final rule permit the retention of an interest in or sponsorship of covered funds such as a TruPS CDO by banking entities if the following qualifications are met:

  • the TruPS CDO was established, and the interest was issued, before May 19, 2010;
  • the banking institution reasonably believes that the offering proceeds received by the TruPS CDO were invested primarily in Qualifying TruPS Collateral; and
  • the banking institution’s interest in the TruPS CDO was acquired on or before December 10, 2013, the date the agencies issued final rules implementing Section 619 of the Dodd-Frank Act.

While the rapidity with which the regulators responded to industry-wide concerns demonstrates the regulators’ intent to cooperate with industry stakeholders, it might also show a more reactionary approach to implementing final rules under other controversial Dodd-Frank Act provisions, which have taken them years to write. If this is the case, the full impact of the Volker Rule, and other controversial Dodd-Frank Act provisions not yet finalized, will continue to remain an uncertainty.

SEC Staff issues interpretive advice on Rule 506 offeringsAs more and more companies take advantage of the SEC’s recent rule change allowing general solicitation and advertising in private offerings, lots of interpretative questions on how to apply the new rules have arisen.  Over the course of the last couple of months, the Staff at the SEC has provided some guidance on some of the more frequently asked questions.  To help our readers keep up, I have included the Staff’s advice below with my own commentary.

Question:  An issuer takes reasonable steps to verify the accredited investor status of a purchaser and forms a reasonable belief that the purchaser is an accredited investor at the time of the sale of securities.  Subsequent to the sale, it becomes known that the purchaser did not meet the financial or other criteria in the definition of “accredited investor” at the time of sale.  Assuming that the other conditions of Rule 506(c) were met, is the exemption available to the issuer for the offer and sale to the purchaser?

Answer:  Yes.  An issuer does not lose the ability to rely on Rule 506(c) for an offering if a person who does not meet the criteria for any category of accredited investor purchases securities in the offering, so long as the issuer took reasonable steps to verify that the purchaser was an accredited investor and had a reasonable belief that such purchaser was an accredited investor at the time of the sale of securities.  [Nov. 13, 2013]

My Take:  This interpretation should not be a surprise, but it is welcomed anyway.  Rule 506(c) offerings require issuers to take reasonable steps and to form a reasonable belief that each investor is accredited, but Rule 506(c) does not contain an absolute belief standard.  If an offering was to fail simply because an investor committed fraud on the issuer or an issuer relied on an erroneous third party verification of the investor’s accredited investor status, then it would make Rule 506(c) a very unpopular and hardly ever used exemption. 

Question:  An issuer intends to conduct an offering under Rule 506(c).  If all of the purchasers in the offering met the financial and other criteria to be accredited investors but the issuer did not take reasonable steps to verify the accredited investor status of these purchasers, may the issuer rely on the Rule 506(c) exemption?

Answer:  No.  The verification requirement in Rule 506(c) is separate from and independent of the requirement that sales be limited to accredited investors.  The verification requirement must be satisfied even if all purchasers happen to be accredited investors.  Under the principles-based method of verification, however, the determination of what constitutes reasonable steps to verify is an objective determination based on the particular facts and circumstances of each purchaser and transaction.  [Nov. 13, 2013]

My Take:  The Staff is taking a very Continue Reading SEC provides guidance for new Rule 506 offerings

SEC gets an A+ for proposed Regulation A+ rulesOne of the most anticipated items from the JOBS Act enacted in April 2012 was the so-called Regulation  A+ –  a new and improved exemption that would allow issuers to raise up to $50 million in a 12-month period through a “mini-registration” process that is similar to that of rarely used Regulation A exemption. On December 18, 2013, the SEC issued its proposed rules which were mandated under Title IV of the JOBS Act.

The proposed rules would amend the current Regulation A to create two tiers of exempt offerings. Tier I would become the current Regulation A exemption, which maintains the $5 million offering limitation. Tier II would implement Regulation A+ and would permit offerings of up $50 million in any 12-month period.

Since its implementation years ago, Regulation A has not received widespread use, primarily because it did not provide for preemption of state securities laws and also had a relatively modest dollar limitation on the amount that could be raised. However, Regulation A+ (i.e., Tier II) promises to be a significant improvement over the old Regulation A because of the increased dollar limitation and the other benefits, including the potential preemption of state securities laws and regulations in certain circumstances.

All 387 pages of the proposed rules can be read on the SEC’s website, but a summary of these proposed rules are provided below for those not inclined read the entire release.

Issuer Eligibility

As proposed, Regulation A+ would be available only to United States and Canadian companies that have their principal place of business in the U.S. or Canada. Like the current Regulation A exemption, the Regulation A+ would not be available to certain types of issuers, such as companies that are already SEC reporting companies, registered investment companies and “blank-check companies.” However, under the currently proposed rules, shell companies may avail themselves of the Regulation A+ exemption so long as they are not blank-check companies.

Eligible Securities

The securities that may be offered under Regulation A are limited to equity securities, debt securities and debt  securities convertible into or exchangeable into equity interests, including any guarantees of such securities, but would exclude asset-backed securities.

Investor Limitations

As proposed, investors in a Tier II offering may acquire no more than Continue Reading The SEC gets an A+ with the proposed “Regulation A+” rules