Photo by Alyse & Remi

Possibly lost in the heat of summer and the false narrative that the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act had somehow repealed the Dodd-Frank Act, the recent Act, which was signed into law on May 24th, has a few provisions impacting the securities laws.  None of these are complete “game changers,” but all could assist earlier stage companies:

  • Investment Company Act. Venture capital funds that have less than $10 million in capital contributions are now deemed to be “qualifying venture capital funds.”  Qualifying venture capital funds can now have up to 250 investors (rather than 100) to remain exempt from being subject to the Investment Company Act of 1940.  This may have the effect of lowering the minimum investment amount in a fund, which may entice more investors to invest in funds.
  • Rule 701 Exemption. Private companies can rely on Rule 701 as a registration exemption to adopt stock option and stock purchase programs for employees, consultants, and advisors.  In any 12-month period, an eligible issuer can issue an amount of securities that is the greater of (i) $1 million; (ii) 15% of the issuer’s total assets; or (iii) 15% of the outstanding securities of the class being issued.  As long as the amount of securities sold during any 12-month period is less than $5 million, the issuer needed to only provide a copy of the compensatory benefit plan to employees, consultants, and advisors.  For larger private companies, the $5 million ceiling was easily exceeded, which then triggered much more burdensome disclosure requirements.  The recent Act increases that disclosure trigger from $5 million to $10 million.
  • Regulation A+. So far issuers and bankers are still warming up to Regulation A+.  I think Regulation A+ will likely become a commonly used registration exemption over the long-term.  The new Act may help.  Previously, issuers that were subject to the periodic reporting requirements under Section 13 or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 were not eligible to use Regulation A.  The new Act orders the SEC to remove that restriction.

Again, none of these tweaks will by themselves unleash an army of new startups, but we should applaud anytime Congress does anything remotely practical.

If you find the title of this posting confusing, let me explain:  On June 28, the SEC announced revisions to the definition of “smaller reporting company”that will significantly expand the number of companies that fit within that category (i.e., “smaller gets bigger”).  As a result, more public companies will be able to reduce the disclosure they are required to provide under SEC rules (i.e., “which means less”).  The new definition will go into effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.

Background

The SEC adopted the reduced disclosure requirements applicable to smaller reporting companies, or SRCs, in 2007. These reduced requirements were intended to ease the costs and other burdens of disclosure for small companies.  The reduced requirements enabled SRCs, among other things, to:

  • present only two (rather than three) years of financial statements and the related management’s discussion and analysis;
  • provide executive compensation for only three (rather than five) “named executive officers”;
  • omit the compensation discussion and analysis in its entirety;
  • present only two (vs. three) years of information in the summary compensation table; and
  • omit other compensation tables, pay ratio disclosure, and narrative descriptions of various compensation matters.

In addition, SRCs that are not “accelerated filers” (companies that must file their Exchange Act reports on an accelerated basis) need not provide an audit attestation of management’s assessment of internal controls, required by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.  More on this below. Continue Reading Smaller gets bigger, which means less (the new definition of “smaller reporting company”)

For the first time since 2015, the SEC has its full complement of five commissioners.  That’s a good thing.  And at least one new Commissioner – Robert Jackson – seems to have hit the ground running.  For example, he made a speech in San Francisco just the other day in which he expressed his disfavor of dual-class stock, suggesting that it would create “corporate royalty”. Specifically, because shareholders in at least some dual-class companies have no voting rights, leadership of the company could be passed down through the generations in perpetuity.

Commissioner Jackson is a smart man – I’ve seen him speak at a number of programs, and he’s demonstrated his intelligence as well as his telegenic appearance.  His use of the “corporate royalty” meme also shows that he’s witty, though don’t think we need to worry too much about CEO titles becoming hereditary.

What I do think we may need to worry about is where he goes with his concerns.  Specifically, the point of his speech is to suggest that exchanges adopt mandatory sunset provisions so that their dual-class structures would fade away over time.

Continue Reading Dual-class shares: marching toward merit regulation?

Photo by hamad M

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. Continue Reading Is your Initial Coin Offering a securities offering?

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

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?

In late July, S&P Dow Jones and FTSE Russell announced that they were changing or proposing to change the standards that govern whether a company is included in their indices.  Although their approaches differ, the changes would effectively bar most companies with differential voting rights from their indices, as follows:

  • In its July 31 announcement, S&P Dow Jones said that companies with multiple share classes will no longer be included in the indices comprising the S&P Composite 1500 – which includes the S&P 500, S&P MidCap 400 and S&P SmallCap 600. There are some exceptions; companies currently in these indices will be grandfathered, as will any newly public company spun off from a company currently included in any of the indices.
  • Five days earlier, FTSE Russell proposed to require more than 5% of a company’s voting rights – across all equity securities, whether or not listed or traded – to be held by “free float” holders to be eligible for inclusion in the FTSE Russell indices.

Continue Reading Class Acts: Stock Indices Bar Differential Voting Rights

waldryano
waldryano

I don’t know when Congress decided that every piece of legislation had to have a nifty acronym, but the House Financial Services Committee recently passed (on a partisan basis) what old-fashioned TV ads might have called the new, improved version of the “Financial CHOICE Act”.  The word “choice” is in solid caps because it stands for “Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Entrepreneurs”.

Whether and for whom it creates hope, opportunity or something else entirely may depend upon your perspective, but whatever else can be said of the Act, it is long (though at 589 pages, it is slightly more than half as long as Dodd-Frank), and it addresses a very broad swath of issues.  Here’s what it has to say about some key issues in disclosure, governance and capital formation, along with some commentary. Continue Reading The Financial CHOICE Act – everything you’ve ever wanted, and more?

SMU Central
SMU Central

Things are looking pretty good for the venture capital industry. Potential VC investors have a lot of money available, and industry and geographical trends show a positive outlook for VC investing in the near term. There are numerous factors that could negatively affect the outlook for VC investments, but it certainly appears that substantial VC investment activity could occur over the next twelve months.

The most significant positive factor for VC activity in the near term is the supply of available cash. According to a recent report, VC funds currently have approximately $120 billion available for investment. Even though this is a composite number that is applied across the whole VC industry, it is a huge amount of available investment funds.

Another positive factor is the increase in corporate VC investment. In a relatively short time (aided by large amounts of cash on corporate balance sheets), corporate investors have begun to play a key role in the VC industry, especially in larger deals. Last year corporate VC deals comprised 25% of total VC deals, and this percentage will continue to increase. See my prior blog post on the rise of corporate VC investors (Corporate Venture Capital Investments – Good for Startups?).

Continue Reading It’s a good time to be a VC fund

Photo by Chad Cooper
Photo by Chad Cooper

Good, but not surprising, news for issuers considering a Regulation A+ offering. Back in May 2015, Massachusetts and Montana sued the SEC in an attempt to invalidate the Regulation A+ rules.  Montana had attempted to obtain an injunction to prevent the Regulation A+ rules from going into effect last June, but was denied.  Now, the DC Circuit has officially rejected the lawsuit brought by the two states.

As we have discussed, Regulation A+ is a vast improvement over the previous version of Regulation A.  The biggest improvement, state pre-emption, was the most controversial (from the states’ perspectives).  Because Regulation A is already a more burdensome exemption than Regulation D (private offerings) due to the need for SEC review and qualification, pre-empting state securities laws for Tier II offerings was a welcome improvement.  The North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA), which represents the state securities regulators, was strongly against pre-emption.  NASAA is largely seen as the force behind the lawsuits by Montana and Massachusetts.

I will boil down the details of the lawsuit into a sound bite. The states argued that the SEC acted beyond its authority in enacting rules that pre-empted state securities laws.  The court disagreed and said that Congress, in passing the JOBS Act, pre-empted the state laws.

Massachusetts and Montana could appeal, but I doubt that they will. The validity of the states’ argument was not well grounded because the JOBS Act clearly states that the new Regulation A+ exemption would be a “covered security” – which means state law is pre-empted by federal law.

In any event, the conclusion of the lawsuit provides additional clarity for Regulation A+ offerings. We expect that Regulation A+ will become more widely used as bankers and issuers become more comfortable with the exemption.