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Gustav Schmidt is a member of Gunster’s Banking & Financial Services and Securities and Corporate Governance Practice Groups.  He regularly advises public and private companies on matters involving securities and banking laws and regulations, compliance with national securities exchange rules, corporate governance issues and practices, M&A transactions, capital raising transactions, and general corporate law issues.

As we previously reported, the SEC has adopted amendments to the public company disclosure rules intended to further streamline and simplify the reporting process for public companies. The amendments also significantly change the process for requesting and renewing confidential treatment of exhibits to SEC filings. Most of these amendments became effective on May 2, 2019. Below is a brief summary of several of the significant changes that resulted from these amendments.

Amendments to Form 10-K, Form 10-Q, and Form 8-K Cover Pages

Companies must now list on the cover page of Form 10-Q and Form 8-K each class of securities registered under Section 12(b) of the Exchange Act, the trading symbol, and the exchange(s) on which the securities trade, similar to the current requirements for the Form 10-K cover page. The cover page of Form 10-K was also modified to require the inclusion of the trading symbol for each class of registered securities, which previously was not required to be provided. The new Form 10-K cover page will also no longer include the checkbox related to delinquent filers under Section 16.

Description of Material Properties

Item 102 of Regulation S-K was revised to encourage disclosure regarding only material properties, plants and mines. The new rules make clear that it is acceptable for a company to determine that none of its properties are material for purposes of Item 102. However, the amendments do not alter disclosure requirements for companies engaged in the real estate, mining, and oil and gas industries, in which physical properties may be of particular importance. Companies in these industries must continue to comply with the existing instructions to Item 102 and applicable SEC industry guides governing their industries.
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Following a tweet from the President last August, the SEC has begun the process of reviewing the existing quarterly reporting regime and will be further exploring possible changes that may ease administrative and other burdens on public companies. Specifically, the President “asked the SEC to study!” whether less frequent reporting for publicly traded companies would “allow greater flexibility and save money.” This is not a new issue on the SEC’s radar screen, but it has recently regained traction– the SEC issued a concept release in 2016 soliciting public comments more specifically on reporting frequency and the current quarterly reporting process.

The request for comments, which can be viewed here, asks for public input on several questions related to the existing reporting regime. One of the more interesting questions on which the SEC is seeking input is whether the practice of public companies issuing forward earnings guidance places undue pressure and focus on short-term results and negatively impacts long-term results. Several commentators have expressed concern on this issue over the years and believe management teams with a longer-term view would be better stewards of investor capital. Many of the other specific questions asked by the SEC in its request for comments relate directly to the current reporting process and whether changes could be made that balance the interests of investors while making the reporting process more efficient, including, among other things:
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In July 2018, Coinbase – one of the largest cryptocurrency platforms — announced that it had won regulatory approval for a trio of acquisitions. This announcement generated a lot of publicity that Coinbase is on its way to creating the first marketplace on which blockchain-based tokens classified as “securities” can be traded. As it turns out, Coinbase never received regulatory approval for the acquisitions. However, the announcement was nevertheless a potentially significant event for the future of crypto trading.

In order to operate an exchange for securities, an entity must register as a national securities exchange or operate under an exemption from registration, such as the exemption provided for alternative trading systems (ATS) under SEC Regulation ATS. An entity that wants to operate an ATS must first register with the SEC as a broker-dealer, become a member of a self-regulating organization, such as FINRA, and file an initial operation report with the SEC on Form ATS.

Because Coinbase is neither registered as a national securities exchange nor operates under an exemption, it cannot operate an exchange-based trading platform for blockchain-based securities. However, the recently announced acquisitions indicate that Coinbase may be headed in that direction. The three companies acquired by Coinbase were:

  • Venovate Marketplace, Inc. (registered as a broker-dealer and licensed to operate an ATS)
  • Keystone Capital Corp. (registered as a broker-dealer)
  • Digital Wealth LLC (registered as an investment advisor)

By acquiring companies with the proper licenses already in place, Coinbase may be able to speed up its plan to create an exchange-based trading platform for blockchain-based securities as a regulated broker-dealer.

What exactly are blockchain-based securities anyway?
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Wyoming Blockchain
Photo by Kenneth Vetter

While Bitcoin initially paved the way for the introduction of blockchain and distributed ledger technology in the mainstream, most would agree that the potential applications of this relatively new technology goes far beyond just cryptocurrencies.

Blockchain technology, at its core, is merely a set of linked records that form an immutable ledger. Information is added in “blocks” which are linked to the prior information on the block by a cryptographic hash of all of the prior information. The information on the blockchain is secure because any attempts to change information in an earlier block would result in a different “hash” that would be easily detected by the network, which would reject that version of the blockchain as being unauthentic (there are several articles about how cryptographic hash functions work, but at the most basic letter, these functions take an input of any size and convert it to an alphanumeric output of a specified length). Furthermore, because the blockchain is distributed among multiple computers, each operating as a node running the underlying software, there is no single centralized entity or system responsible for maintaining the blockchain. Rather, the collective nodes maintain the blockchain pursuant to the underlying software code.

The potential applications of blockchain technology are seemingly endless. For example, digital representations of shares of stock of a corporation could be tokenized and traded on a blockchain, which would allow companies to maintain a corporate stock ledger without the need for a transfer agent. These shares of stock could also be traded on a decentralized exchange that would provide liquidity to shareholders without the burden of applying to be listed on a national securities exchange.

Several states have taken steps to facilitate these kinds of applications for blockchain technology. For example,
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Initial Coin Offerings, or ICOs, have generated a lot of buzz recently as a new method by which companies can raise capital to fund their businesses. At the same time, the SEC has been cracking down on ICOs that involved the offer or sale of a security that was not registered or structured to comply with an exemption from registration. For example, the SEC announced last week that it halted a $600 million ICO by AriseBank, which allegedly involved the offering of a coin that was a security without properly registering the transaction. Despite the apparent scrutiny of ICO transactions by the SEC, there’s much uncertainty in the space as to when securities laws may or may not apply to a specific ICO transaction.

Currently, we are seeing two primary types of ICOs – those that involve the sale of a “security token” and that are intended to be offerings of a security and those that involve the sale of a so-called “utility token,” which do not involve the offer or sale of a security. The primary difference between these two types of tokens is that a utility token is designed such that it has some intrinsic value that is not based upon prospective price appreciation. For example, a cloud computing company might sell utility tokens that are redeemable with the issuer for storage space on the issuer’s servers. In this sense utility tokens are not unlike gift cards where a purchaser is acquiring something that can be redeemed for products or services from the issuer in the future. Like gift cards, an incentive to purchase a utility token could be that the token offers a discount to the normal price for the issuer’s goods and services. While a secondary market for the utility token might develop, just like there are secondary markets for the purchase and sale gift cards, issuers usually intend for these tokens to fail the Howey test, which is the test that is used to determine whether something constitutes an “investment contract” (which would be a security) for federal securities law purposes.
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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
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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:
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Photo by Rachita Singh

A little over two years ago, the Council of Institutional Investors (“CII”) asked the SEC to review its proxy disclosure rules related to director compensation received from third parties, which we had blogged about here. At the time, the CII was concerned that the existing proxy rules did not capture compensation that may be paid to directors serving on the board of a public company by a third party, such as a private fund or an activist investor, which are typically referred to as “golden leashes.”

In its letter to the SEC, the CII cited concerns that compensation under golden leash arrangements is not generally covered by the existing proxy disclosure rules, but could be material to investors due to the potential conflicts of interest arising under such arrangements. We had noted many of these issues in a prior blog post discussing the performance-based compensation arrangements of hedge fund-nominated directors for the boards of Hess Corporation and Agrium, Inc. in 2013. As we predicted would be the case, nothing really transpired on this topic in the wake of the CII’s request. That is until recently, when Nasdaq filed a proposed rule change, subsequently approved by the SEC, attempting to address this issue.
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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
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