Initial coin offerings have taken off in 2017.

The SEC took two strong steps this week toward increased regulation of the cryptocurrency markets and specifically regulation of Initial Coin Offerings (“ICOs”). These steps included the halting of an ongoing ICO and a strong statement by the SEC’s chairman regarding ICOs and their status under the Federal securities laws. These steps were the SEC’s strongest actions to date regarding ICOs, but what is the probable long-term result here? This is getting very interesting as you pit the regulators and their application of traditional securities law concepts against an increasing strong demand in the investment community to invest in these cryptocurrency vehicles.

An ICO involves the offering of a token, “coin” or other digital product. In exchange for their investment, investors receive these tokens or coins. The company then uses the proceeds of the ICO for various corporate purposes similar to a regular offering of securities. ICOs have generally not been registered with the SEC.

On December 11, 2017, the SEC halted the ICO that was being conducted by Munchee Inc., a company that developed a restaurant review app. This action was based on the fact that the company had not registered this offering with the SEC. This ICO involved the issuance of MUN Tokens by Munchee, which the company said might increase in value. Munchee planned to raise about $15 million in this ICO. The SEC said that an investor could reasonably expect to earn a return on these Tokens, and accordingly the Tokens issued in the ICO were “securities” and should have been registered under the Federal securities laws. Munchee accepted the SEC’s findings without admitting or denying anything. The company agreed to halt the offering and to return all proceeds that it had received from investors in the offering.

The investigation of this matter was conducted in part by the SEC’s new Cyber Unit (a division of its Enforcement Section). The SEC had also issued other materials regarding concerns with cryptocurrencies and ICOs, including an Investor Bulletin issued on July 25, 2017 and a Report of Investigation issued on the same date. Continue Reading Cryptocurrency crackdown

No, I’m not referring to my age (I’m old, but not THAT old).

Rather, I’m referring to the supermajority shareholder votes that ISS has required, and that Glass Lewis now requires, for various matters.  Specifically, for the past several years, ISS policy has looked askance at any company whose say-on-pay proposal garnered less than 70% of the votes cast.  More recently, Glass Lewis has adopted a policy stating that boards should respond to any company proposal, including say-on-pay, that fails to receive at least 80% shareholder approval or any shareholder proposal that receives more than 20% approval.

Putting aside the irony that ISS and Glass Lewis have long railed against supermajority voting requirements imposed by companies, one wonders what the rationale is for upping the ante.  One possible reason is frustration that, despite negative voting recommendations from proxy advisory firms, the overwhelming majority of say-on-pay proposals pass – and by relatively large margins.  However, my hunch is that the real frustration is that companies don’t usually respond to shareholder proposals that don’t pass, and most shareholder proposals don’t pass.

Continue Reading 80 is the new 50

Yes, it’s that time of year again.  Turkey, Black Friday, decking the halls, office parties, and the annual issuance of ISS’s voting policies for the coming year.

To make sure I’m on Santa’s good list, I need to be honest – and, to be honest, the 2018 changes seem rather benign.  In fact, as noted below, ISS hasn’t gone as far as some of its mainstream members in terms of encouraging board diversity and sustainability initiatives.

Here’s a quick rundown on the key changes for 2018:

  • Director Compensation: Director compensation – or at least excessive director compensation – has been looming ever larger as a hot topic in governance.  ISS continues the trend by determining that a two-consecutive-year pattern of excessive director pay will result in an against or withhold vote for directors absent a “compelling” rationale.  Since the policy contemplates a two-year pattern, there will be no negative voting recommendations on this matter until 2019.

Continue Reading Tis the season

 

Photo by TaxRebate.org.uk

For several years we’ve been advocating that state-chartered banks that do not require a bank holding company should ditch the holding company structure. It now appears that several banks are paying attention. This morning, The Wall Street Journal published an article spotlighting banks that have recently dispensed with their bank holding company in an effort to reduce their regulatory burden.

Bank holding companies previously gained popularity as a means by which banks could conduct business across state lines when states had rules about interstate banking. Banks also used holding company structures to bolster their regulatory capital, including through the issuance of trust preferred securities. However, with the passage of Dodd-Frank, which effectively eliminated prohibitions on interstate banking and the ability of banks to count newly issued trust preferred securities for regulatory capital purposes, the reasons for smaller banks to maintain a holding company structure are fewer and farther between now more than ever.

Stand-alone bank structures can offer several advantages over bank holding company structures. For example, as compared to a bank holding company, banks can raise capital at a substantially lower cost due to the exemptions available under the Securities Act of 1933 for securities issued by a bank. Related to this, banking organizations that are publicly held, or are seeking to become publicly held, have the advantage of filing their Exchange Act filings and reports with the FDIC as opposed to the SEC. Among other advantages, the FDIC’s reporting system does not require the payment of any fees and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Certain filings with the SEC require the payment of filing fees and may only be filed during the times that the EDGAR filing system is open. Speaking of EDGAR, one of the other benefits of not filing with EDGAR is that it is more difficult for plaintiff lawyers to monitor the FDIC’s filing system to bring strike suits in connection with announced mergers. There are several software programs or services that can be used to monitor merger-related filings on EDGAR, but we aren’t aware of any such programs or systems for the FDIC’s system.

Reducing regulation, or at least the number of regulators, is also a key advantage to operating as a stand-alone bank. A publicly held bank holding company with a state-chartered non-member bank Continue Reading Our organizational suggestions for bank holding companies has gone mainstream!

The still relatively new SEC Chair, Jay Clayton, has let it be known that one of his missions is to improve the health of our IPO market and, thereby, to improve our capital markets generally.  His minions – including a senior SEC Staff member I recently heard in Washington – have been spreading this gospel according to Jay.

I wish him (and them) luck, but I wonder if the mission is impossible.  I’m thinking of some recent articles, including one by the inimitable Andrew Ross Sorkin entitled “Fixing the ‘Brain Damage’ Caused by the I.P.O. Process”, that makes the resuscitation of IPOs seem unlikely.  As if the title weren’t off-putting enough, one of the executives quoted in the article described his company’s IPO process as “a way of living in hell without dying”.  Not a good start.

Continue Reading Can the US IPO market be brought back from the dead?

Loyal readers of this blog won’t be surprised that we’re disappointed that the SEC has again perfunctorily approved another proposal of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, or PCAOB.  (If you haven’t been following our blog, you can find our prior screeds here and here, among other places.)

The victim this time is the auditor report.  The new PCAOB standard requires an expansion of the auditor report to include the auditor’s tenure; a statement that the auditor is required to be independent; and some other language changes.  It also requires the report to be addressed to the company’s shareholders and directors.  But the plotz (no typo) de resistance is a requirement to disclose so-called “critical audit matters”.

Continue Reading A missed opportunity (or, when more is less)

 

Photo by Jeffrey Beall

Last year, Congress required the SEC to review the public company disclosure requirements in Regulation S-K and make detailed recommendations as to how those rules might be changed to modernize and simplify the requirements while still requiring disclosure of all material information. The ultimate goal was to reduce burdens on public companies while improving readability and navigation of public company filings, including through reducing repetition in such filings. On November 23, 2016, the SEC released its initial recommendations in a report (the “2016 Report”). The 2016 Report which served as the basis for proposed rules, which were set forth in a 253 page rules release on October 11, 2017. While the proposed rules largely implement the recommendations from the 2016 Report, the proposed rules deviated in certain respects from the recommendations in the 2016 Report. Specifically, the release contains proposed changes to the following provisions under Regulation S-K:

  • Description of Property (Item 102);
  • Management’s Discussion and Analysis (Item 303);
  • Directors, Executive Officers, Promoters, and Control Persons (Item 401);
  • Compliance with Section 16(a) of the Exchange Act (Item 405);
  • Outside Front Cover Page of the Prospectus (Item 501(b));
  • Risk Factors (Item 503(c));
  • Plan of Distribution (Item 508);
  • Material Contracts (Item 601(b)(10)); and
  • Various rules related to incorporation by reference.

Additionally, Some of the proposed amendments would require additional disclosure or incorporation of new technology. These include proposed changes to:

  • Outside Front Cover Page of the Prospectus (Item 501(b)(4));
  • Description of Registrant’s Securities (Item 601(b)(4));
  • Subsidiaries of the Registrant (Item 601(b)(21)(i)); and
  • Various regulations and forms to require all of the information on the cover pages of some Exchange Act forms to be tagged in Inline XBRL format.

While somewhat underwhelming with regard to the actual relief provided, the proposed changes are certainly a step in the right direction for improving the disclosure requirements for public companies. Nevertheless, the proposals seem to be relatively minor in nature and won’t likely do much for public companies as far as reducing their disclosure burdens. Below is a summary description of the material changes proposed in the release: Continue Reading SEC’s Attempt to Modernize and Streamline Disclosures for Public Companies Falls Short

 

With Chair Jay Clayton and Corp Fin Director Bill Hinman now in office for several months, the SEC seems to be gaining traction in a number of areas of interest to
public companies.

Pay Ratio Disclosures

As we noted in a Gunster E-Alert, on September 21, the SEC issued interpretations to assist companies in preparing the pay ratio disclosures called for under Item 402(u) of Regulation S-K.  The consensus (with which we agree) is that the interpretations will make it much easier for companies to prepare their ratios and related disclosures and hopefully to reduce litigation exposure associated with those disclosures.

Continue Reading Your tax dollars at work (at the SEC)

This is a first for The Securities Edge – a book review.  The book in question is The Chickenshit Club – Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives by Jesse Eisinger.  Mr. Eisinger is a writer for Pro Publica.  He’s a very smart man and a good (even great) reporter; among other things, he’s won the Pulitzer Prize.  I met him once and was impressed by his intellect and commitment.

However, the book bothers me greatly, and that’s why I’ve decided to post this review.  As indicated by his title, he is concerned with the failure to prosecute executives, both generally and in connection with the financial collapse.  That concern is legitimate; many people – including people in business – share it, and some hold the failure at least partially responsible for our political situation today.  The problem with the book is that in Mr. Eisinger’s view there are heroes and villains and nothing in between; those who prosecute are good, and those who don’t (or who do so halfheartedly) are bad – and the businessmen themselves are the worst of all.

For example, among the people he idolizes is Stanley Sporkin, a retired USDC judge who previously served as the SEC’s Director of Enforcement. Mr. Sporkin’s integrity may be beyond question, but in Mr. Eisinger’s view, his judgment is (and was) as well.  Those of us who practiced during Mr. Sporkin’s tenure at Enforcement may have a different view.  Among other things, Mr. Sporkin was responsible for pursuing insider trading cases against Vincent Chiarella and Ray Dirks.   Mr. Eisinger lauds Mr. Sporkin for going after Mr. Chiarella – a typesetter for a financial printer who saw some juicy (nonpublic) information and traded on it.  Did he trade on the basis of inside information?  Yes, but at the end of the day he was a schnook who should have gotten a slap on the wrist rather than being subjected to a (literal) full court press by the federal government.  The courts apparently felt the same way, and, as courts often do, they found a way to let him off the hook by developing a strained approach to insider trading law that continues to haunt us today.  (Mr. Eisinger doesn’t mention the equally ill-advised insider trading prosecution of Ray Dirks, which also contributed to the current garbled state of affairs in insider trading law.)

Continue Reading Heroes and villains: A review of “The Chickenshit Club” by Jesse Eisinger

Now that I have your attention, you may be disappointed to know that I’m referring to another s-word: “sustainability”.  It’s surely one of the big governance words of 2017.  Investors are pressuring companies to do and say more about it.  Organizations are developing standards – sometimes inconsistent ones – by which to measure companies’ performance in it.  And companies are dealing with it in a growing variety of ways, including through investor engagement and disclosure.

Being a governance and disclosure nerd, I’ve given lots of thought to sustainability in both contexts.  Lately, I’ve come up with two thoughts about it.

Thought 1 Continue Reading The s-word and your investment portfolio