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The Securities Edge

Securities Blog for Middle-Market Companies

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

Nasdaq reverses course on compensation committee independence

Posted in Corporate Governance

Nasdaq reverses course on independence standardsApparently, corporate governance cannot be dictated by the stock exchanges.  As we had blogged about last year, Section 952 of Dodd-Frank required each national securities exchange to review its independence standards for directors who serve on an issuer’s compensation committee.  Each national securities exchange had to ensure that its independence definition considered relevant factors such as (i) the source of the director’s compensation, including any consulting, advisory, or other compensatory fees paid by the listed company and (ii) whether the director has an affiliate relationship with the company.

As it turns out, Nasdaq interpreted the Dodd-Frank requirement to be much stricter than the NYSE.  At the time I suggested that Nasdaq was trying to “out corporate governance” the NYSE by layering on an extra independence requirement of prohibiting any director serving on the compensation committee from accepting “directly or indirectly any consulting, advisory, or other compensatory fee” from the issuer.  I still think that is the case.  As we have blogged about before, the NYSE and Nasdaq are fierce competitors in their attempts to obtain an issuer’s listing.  In fact, Nasdaq stresses that its stringent corporate governance requirements are a reason why an issuer should list on Nasdaq rather that the NYSE.

Well, I thought that Nasdaq’s stringent interpretation of the rule made little sense and that the burden simply outweighed any limited improvement in corporate governance, especially for community banks where directors often maintain some limited business with the issuer.  Apparently, Nasdaq-listed issuers agreed with me and “based on feedback” and indications that the stringent interpretation of Section 952 of Dodd-Frank “could influence a company’s choice of listing venue” Nasdaq quickly reversed course.

Nasdaq has proposed to eliminate the prohibition of compensation committee members from receiving any compensation beyond board fees.  Instead, Nasdaq-listed issuers will merely need to consider whether the compensation impairs the director’s ability to make independent judgments about the issuer’s executive compensation.  Nasdaq’s revised independence requirement is substantially the same as the NYSE.  Nasdaq expects to adopt the rule amendment prior to the start of issuers’ 2014 annual meetings.

Publicly Traded Banks Illustrate the Side Benefits of EDGAR

Posted in Financial Institutions

Publicly traded bankDid you know that banks can go public and trade on Nasdaq and not have to file reports on the SEC’s EDGAR filing system?  Well, they can, but it may not be such a good thing.  You get this result when a bank goes public without a holding company.  These banks are instead required to register with their primary federal regulator (i.e., the FDIC, the Federal Reserve or the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency) and these regulators do not use the SEC’s EDGAR filing system.  So no EDGAR filings are required for these banks.

The problem is that EDGAR helps public companies satisfy SEC and other requirements.  For example, the national exchanges have listing requirements that are in addition to the reporting requirements of the SEC and the bank regulators. To comply, listed banks and bank holding companies must, on or before the applicable due date, file copies of all reports and other documents filed with the SEC or their appropriate regulatory authority. For listed bank holding companies, compliance with these requirements is easy because they file on EDGAR, which provides public access and download capabilities at no cost. Due to electronic links with the EDGAR system, most national exchanges generally provide that their filing requirements are considered fulfilled if the bank holding company files a required report or document with the SEC on EDGAR.  This is the result for the vast majority of publicly traded banks in the U.S.  According to the Federal Reserve, currently, about 84% of commercial banks in the U.S. are part of a bank holding company, and in addition, only a limited few publicly traded banks don’t have holding companies.

But what about banks that do not have holding companies? These banks can still go public by registering with their primary federal bank regulator, but they don’t get the benefit of the EDGAR system.  Instead, the bank regulatory authorities have their own filing requirements and the banks must comply with these rules to maintain their good standing as a public company. Where does this leave these publicly traded banks when it comes to their Nasdaq or national exchange filing requirements?  The answer is that these banks must still comply with the reporting requirements of Nasdaq or the national exchanges by undertaking an alternative filing process. For example, the Nasdaq requires these banks to provide it with three paper copies of the applicable filing. So there are more filings involved and more room for error.

Another problem with not using the EDGAR system is that Continue Reading

Do forum selection clauses in bylaws make sense for companies not incorporated in Delaware?

Posted in Securities Litigation

forum selection bylawsMore and more plaintiff lawyers are suing issuers outside of an issuer’s state of incorporation, which requires issuers to defend substantially identical claims in multiple forums at added expense with little to no benefit to the shareholders.  While plaintiff lawyers enjoy this lucrative source of revenue, the increasing amount of time and money expended on this multiforum shareholder litigation drives the need for a creative solution for issuers.  A 2010 Delaware court decision, provided such a solution by suggesting that Delaware corporations could amend their organizational documents to provide that Delaware courts are the exclusive jurisdiction for settling intracorporate disputes, including derivative claims.  Thus, dozens of issuers have adopted so called “forum selection” clauses in their bylaws.  Generally, these clauses are similar to Chevron’s:

Unless the Corporation consents in writing to the selection of an alternative forum, the sole and exclusive forum for (i) any derivative action or proceeding brought on behalf of the Corporation, (ii) any action asserting a claim of breach of a fiduciary duty owed by any director, officer or other employee of the Corporation to the Corporation or the Corporation’s stockholders, (iii) any action asserting a claim arising pursuant to any provision of the Delaware General Corporation Law, or (iv) any action asserting a claim governed by the internal affairs doctrine shall be a state or federal court located within the state of Delaware, in all cases subject to the court’s having personal jurisdiction over the indispensible parties named as defendants. Any person or entity purchasing or otherwise acquiring any interest in shares of capital stock of the Corporation shall be deemed to have notice of and consented to the provisions of this Article VII.

And while the 2010 Delaware court decision suggested these clauses were permissible, it was not until earlier this year that a Delaware court specifically ruled that the forum selection clause adopted by Chevron was valid. Although the Delaware Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on the issue (the plaintiff dropped its appeal in the Chevron case), it is clear that Delaware corporations have the power to adopt these forum selection clauses.  What is not clear is Continue Reading

The FDIC should consider updating its outdated statement of policy on bank stock offerings

Posted in Capital Raising, Financial Institutions

FDIC Statement of Policy on Bank Stock OfferingsWith the costs of compliance on the rise, we are seeing some significant consolidation in the banking industry, particularly among community banks. In a recent article on www.bankdirector.com, Rick Maroney writes that although bank M&A has been tepid thus far in 2013, some key drivers of M&A activity are starting to emerge and he predicts that we are likely to see increased merger and consolidation activity in the industry as smaller banks need to grow to remain viable. Additionally, the heightened regulatory capital requirements that are expected to be adopted as a result the Basel III accord may be an additional driver of consolidation in the banking sector.

In these merger transactions, it is fairly common for acquiring institutions to offer its common stock to target shareholders as part of the consideration to be paid. Depending on the organizational structure of the acquiring institution, there are a few options for offering stock to target shareholders as merger consideration. If the acquiror is a bank with a holding company structure, the stock portion of the merger consideration is almost always common stock of the holding company. The most significant issue when offering bank holding company stock is that the transaction must either (i) be registered on an S-4 registration statement, which involves substantial time and cost for the acquiror and would subject the acquiror to periodic reporting requirements under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 or (ii) alternatively, the holding company stock must be issued pursuant to an exemption from registration (typically the Rule 506 safe-harbor for the Section 4(a)(2) private offering exemption). Many smaller banks, to the extent possible, will attempt to avoid registering the transaction due to the high costs and rely on an exemption to registration. If an acquiror considers privately placing holding company securities in a merger transaction, there are a number of considerations to address, some of which may be slightly alleviated by the recent changes under the JOBS Act as described in Kobi Kasitel’s recent blog post regarding stock issuances in M&A transactions after the JOBS Act.

For state-chartered banks regulated by the FDIC that do not have a holding company, the issuance of bank stock in connection with an acquisition may, at first glance, appear simpler. Under section 3(a)(2) of the Securities Act of 1933, securities issued or guaranteed by a bank are exempt securities and may be issued Continue Reading