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The Securities Edge

Securities Blog for Middle-Market Companies

SEC increases focus on cybersecurity

Posted in Financial Institutions
Cybersecurity in the cross hairs of the SEC

Photo by Marina Noordegraaf

The SEC continues to increase its focus on cybersecurity preparedness. As we have reported in prior blogs here and here, we believe that cybersecurity will become an increasingly important element of the SEC’s disclosure and enforcement efforts. Recent events show that the SEC is ramping up its efforts in the cybersecurity area, and we believe that all companies who are potentially affected by these SEC activities should pay special attention to their cybersecurity preparedness and should anticipate possible SEC action in this area.

The SEC’s most recent activity in the cybersecurity area involves registered broker-dealers and registered investment advisers. These entities are logical choices for a cybersecurity focus because of the large volume of confidential and very sensitive customer information that they hold. The SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) announced this cybersecurity focus in an April 15, 2014 Risk Alert which stated that the SEC plans to mount an initiative to assess cybersecurity preparedness in the securities industry. The SEC had previously laid the groundwork for this initiative during a March 26, 2014 Cybersecurity Roundtable when Chair White stressed the vital importance of cybersecurity to our market system and consumer data protection. She also called for more public/private cooperation in strengthening cybersecurity preparedness. Other SEC participants at this Roundtable stressed the importance of gathering data and information regarding cybersecurity preparedness so that the SEC could determine what additional steps it should take in this area.

The OCIE’s cybersecurity initiative will assess cybersecurity preparedness in the securities industry and obtain data and information about the securities industry’s recent experiences with cyber threats and cybersecurity breaches. As part of this initiative, the OCIE announced that it will conduct examinations of more than 50 registered broker-dealers and registered investment advisers to obtain cybersecurity data and information and to assess the preparedness of these entities to defend against cyber threats. According to the Risk Alert, this investigation will focus on such things as Continue Reading

Bank Secrecy Act: Broker-Dealers Must Also Comply

Posted in Financial Institutions

BSA ComplianceGenerally speaking, the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) requires financial institutions in the United States to assist U.S. government agencies to detect and prevent money laundering. But while anyone can imagine that the BSA and its implementing regulations apply to those entities we typically classify as “financial institutions” such as banks and other depository institutions, it is important to note that the BSA Rules also apply to other entities that we may not traditionally think of as “financial institutions” including securities broker-dealers.

The BSA rules require brokers-dealers to, among other things, develop and implement BSA compliance programs. In accordance with the BSA rules, FINRA Rule 3310 sets forth minimum standards for broker-dealers’ BSA compliance programs. First, the rule requires firms to develop and implement a written BSA compliance program. The program has to be approved in writing by a member of senior management and be reasonably designed to achieve and monitor the firm’s ongoing compliance with the requirements of the BSA Rules. Additionally, and consistent with the BSA Rules, the rule also requires firms, at a minimum, to:

  • establish and implement policies and procedures that can be reasonably expected to detect and cause the reporting of suspicious transactions;
  • establish and implement policies, procedures, and internal controls reasonably designed to achieve compliance with the BSA and implementing regulations;
  • provide for annual (on a calendar-year basis) independent testing for compliance to be conducted by member personnel or by a qualified outside party. If the firm does not execute transactions with customers or otherwise hold customer accounts or act as an introducing broker with respect to customer accounts (e.g. engages solely in proprietary trading or conducts business only with other broker-dealers), the independent testing is required every two years (on a calendar-year basis);
  • designate and identify to FINRA (by name, title, mailing address, e-mail address, telephone number, and facsimile number) an individual or individuals responsible for implementing and monitoring the day-to-day operations and internal controls of the program.  Such individual or individuals are associated persons of the firm with respect to functions undertaken on behalf of the firm.  Each member must review and, if necessary, update the information regarding a change to its BSA compliance person within 30 days following the change and verify such information within 17 business days after the end of each calendar year.

Compliance with the BSA Rules is no easy task. To effectively address these rules, Continue Reading

Don’t cross the border!: Intrastate offering exemption still not useful despite new interpretations

Posted in Capital Raising
Intrastate offering exemption

Photo by Jimmy Emerson

Last week, the SEC issued three new interpretations related to the so-called “intrastate offering exemption,” which is a registration exemption that facilitates the financing of local business operations.  An intrastate offering is exempt because it does not involve interstate commerce, and is therefore, outside the scope of the Securities Act.

We have received a few calls this week from startup companies who mistakenly believed that these new interpretations were creating a new registration exemption.  Largely, the mistaken belief is caused by the confusion stemming from some recent state law changes that allow for intrastate crowd funding.  While the new SEC interpretations were prompted by the recent state law changes, the intrastate offering exemption has been around since 1933, but for many reasons, it is not heavily relied upon.  And, despite the three new interpretations, we still advise against using the intrastate offering exemption.

What is this intrastate offering exemption?

The intrastate offering exemption is actually two separate exemptions, Section 3(a)(11) and a safe harbor Rule 147.  Although the two exemptions differ slightly, generally, if the (i) issuer is incorporated or organized in the same state in which it is offering securities; (2) a substantial portion of the issuer’s business occurs within that state; (3) each offeree and purchaser is a resident of the state; (4) the offering proceeds are used primarily within that state; and (5) the securities come to rest within that state, then your offering would be exempt from federal registration requirements.  The investors do not need to be accredited (unlike Regulation D offerings), there is no limitation on the manner of offering, there are no prescribed disclosures, there is no maximum amount that can be raised (unlike Rule 504, Rule 505, or Regulation A), and the shares are freely transferable to other residents of the state.  In other words, it is a fairly broad exemption that allows a lot of flexibility to issuers, especially to startup companies who need as much flexibility as possible when raising capital.

Ok, so what is such a problem with the intrastate offering exemption?

While there is lots of flexibility with the exemption, the intrastate offering exemption Continue Reading

Proposed relief for companies going public is insufficient

Posted in IPOs
HR 3623 does not provide relief

The Great Flood of 1927 by Gil Cohen

In recent weeks, a bill has been reported out of the House Committee on Financial Services promising relief to companies going public.  While I applaud their intentions, this bill will not have much impact, and if anything, is a solution to problems that don’t exist.

On March 14, 2014, the House Committee approved 56-0, a bill titled “Improving Access to Capital for Emerging Growth Companies Act (H.R. 3623).  This purported bipartisan “relief” doesn’t actually provide that much real relief to public companies.  This proposed bill has four major goals.  First, it shortens the period of time that an emerging growth company must publicly file its registration statement before commencing its road show from 21 days to 15 days.  Second, if an issuer loses its emerging growth company status during the registration process, it will be allowed to register as if it had remained an emerging growth company.  Third, an emerging growth company will not be required to include in its registration statement certain historical financial information if the registration statement would be required to be updated to include more recent financial information prior to the registration statement going effective.  And fourth, emerging growth companies will be permitted to submit confidentially registration statements for follow on offerings for up to one year after its initial public offering.

Only one of the goals of HR 3623 is arguably helpful.  In the unusual situation where an issuer was just under $1 billion in revenue when submitting its registration statement and then, due to revenue growth, would no longer qualify as an emerging growth company, it can keep the “benefits” of being an emerging growth company.  It would seem unfair for the issuer to have to lose its status mid-stream, but I don’t know how many issuers this would actually help.

All of the other provisions of HR 3623 are not helpful.  First, not having to include financial information that would otherwise not be required in the final version of the prospectus can reduce some burden of going public; however, because most emerging growth companies voluntarily provide three years of financials rather than two (as permitted) to avoid being perceived as not a “real” public company, this provision is rather meaningless.

Second, shortening the time from which an issuer must publicly file its registration statement until it can commence its road show from 21 days to 15 days will likely be, in practice, meaningless, and potentially dangerous to investors.  There is real value in having the financial press and the public review the public filings of a company going public.  The more people who review the filings, the greater the likelihood that problems with the issuer’s business model or financial statements are discovered.  Most reputable investment banks will likely continue to wait at least three weeks prior to commencing the road show for this reason.

Third, I see very little value in providing an emerging growth company the ability to submit confidentially registration statements for follow on offerings.  The entire value of submitting confidentially is that an issuer can decide not to register its securities before it makes its information publicly available.  In a follow on offering, the issuer will already have made its information public through its initial registration statement and its subsequent periodic reports.

My recommendation is that if Congress truly wants to increase the number of public companies then it should reduce the disclosure obligations of public companies by extending permanently (rather than the current five year maximum benefit) the streamlined disclosure for emerging growth companies (and having it apply to all issuers) and make it more difficult for plaintiffs to recover damages from public companies in securities litigation.  The disclosure burden and litigation risk are contributing much more to the cause of companies not going public than what this bill is attempting to address.

Uniform Fiduciary Standard for Broker-Dealers: An Update

Posted in Financial Institutions
Uniform fiduciary duty standard for broker-dealers

Illustration by Divine Harvester

As we blogged about last August, Section 913 of the Dodd-Frank Act directed the SEC to study the need for establishing a new, uniform, federal fiduciary standard of care for brokers and investment advisers providing personalized investment advice. Recall that, traditionally, broker-dealers and investment advisors are subject to different duties of care: a suitability standard for broker-dealers and a more stringent, fiduciary duty for investment advisors. 

Despite the express mandate given to it by Section 913 of the Dodd-Frank Act, the SEC has made slow progress in determining whether to adopt a uniform fiduciary standard rule. In January 2011, the SEC issued its Section 913 Report, recommending “the consideration of rulemakings” that would establish a uniform fiduciary standard for both broker-dealers and investment advisers. In the wake of issuing its Section 913 Report, in March 2013 the SEC opened its doors comments, requesting data and other information relating to the costs and benefits of implementing a uniform fiduciary standard. While the comment period ended in July of 2013, the SEC has apparently not yet completed its anticipated cost-benefit analysis. Based on the SEC’s regulatory agenda for the 2014 fiscal year, it does not seem to be in much of a rush: in the agenda, the SEC listed the “Personalized Investment Advice Standard of Conduct” as a “long-term action” and as its 40th priority out of 43 items. That said, in a speech at the SEC Speaks Conference in Washington on February 21, 2014, SEC Chair Mary Jo White said she Continue Reading

4th and 108, SEC elects to punt on Regulation S-K disclosure reform

Posted in Disclosure Guidance

Section 108 of the Jump Start Our Business Startups Actrequired the

Study states more studies required - similar to a punt?

Photo by Duke University Archives

SEC to undertake a study of the disclosure requirements of Regulation S-K. Specifically, the statute mandated that the SEC shall:

conduct a review of its Regulation S-K to—

  1. comprehensively analyze the current registration requirements of such regulation; and
  2. determine how such requirements can be updated to modernize and simplify the registration process and reduce the costs and other burdens associated with these requirements for issuers who are emerging growth companies.

In addition, the JOBS Act required that the SEC report to Congress its specific recommendations on how to streamline the registration process in order to make it more efficient and less burdensome for prospective issuers who qualify as emerging growth companies.

That report was released not too long ago on December 20, 2013. However, it seems like the Commission elected to punt on the second part of the legislative mandate (i.e., to provide specifics), at least for now. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with governmental studies, the primary recommendation by the SEC Staff was to conduct further studies and investigations.  While disclosure reform is complex (and may be politically charged), further studies is not what investors or the capital markets need.  Too much money is spent on preparing duplicative and meaningless disclosures.

The report describes in great detail the history and evolution of the disclosure requirements contained in Regulation S-K – the primary source of disclosure requirements for registration statements and periodic reports filed by public companies with the SEC. All of this is well and good for government regulation historians and SEC buffs, but it provides nothing of real value to companies that are or may become subject to these rules and requirements. However, the report provides no real useful guidance to Congress (which may be the point if the SEC would rather control the reform process itself rather than have Congress control the process). Presumably, Congress had included this section in the JOBS Act for a specific purpose: Continue Reading

Regulation A+: Last gasp of the JOBS Act

Posted in Capital Raising
Last shot for JOBS Act?

Photo by Ksionic

The Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act was enacted on April 5, 2012 with much fanfare and high expectations. The JOBS Act was designed, in part, to help “Emerging Growth Companies” (annual revenues less than $1 billion) gain greater access to growth capital while reducing regulatory restrictions, compliance requirements, and costs. The JOBS Act was welcomed by a business community which was just emerging from a brutal recession and starved for growth capital. The general reaction to the JOBS Act has been disappointment and a feeling that the JOBS Act has failed to live up to its advance billing. With the proposed Regulation A+ still to come, however, the JOBS Act may at last provide some real financing opportunities for private companies seeking growth capital. For background on the JOBS Act see our Emerging Growth Companies Task Force page.

There is no doubt that some good things have come out of the JOBS Act as its various rules have become effective. The elimination of the ban on general solicitation and advertising for some private offerings may prove very helpful to companies trying to find potential investors. The confidential filing of initial public offering documents (which allows a company to file IPO documents and work with the SEC on a confidential basis to resolve problems before the documents become public) has been extremely popular. The maximum number of shareholders that a private company can have before it must register and report as a public company has increased. This allows large private companies to stay private longer, avoiding the dilemma that Facebook and other companies faced. Finally, issuers of securities are now allowed to “test the waters” in some circumstances to determine potential investor interest in an offering before undertaking it. All of these are positive items, but they have not caused a significant increase in successful financing activity.

So what is Regulation A+ and why do we care? This proposed Regulation is one of the last major rulemaking proposals available under the JOBS Act. The SEC voted on December 18, 2013 to propose new rules under the existing Regulation A that would substantially increase the potential for substantial financing transactions conducted under Regulation A. While we haven’t seen the final rules and likely won’t see them for some time, these proposals have been much anticipated in the corporate finance community because of the Continue Reading

Volcker Rule exception for trust preferred securities: A break for banks or a sign of uncertainty?

Posted in Financial Institutions
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 provides guidance for new Rule 506 offerings

Posted in Capital Raising

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

The SEC gets an A+ with the proposed “Regulation A+” rules

Posted in Capital Raising

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