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On November 2, 2020, the SEC announced the adoption of extensive amendments to the rules governing exempt offerings, more commonly known as “private placements.” The announcement stated that the amendments are intended to “harmonize, simplify, and improve” the exempt offering framework, allowing issuers to move from one exemption to another, and to (1) increase the offering limits for certain private placements and revise certain individual investment limits, (2) establish consistent rules governing offering communications and permit certain “test-the-waters” and “demo day” activities, and (3) harmonize disclosure and eligibility and bad actor disqualification provisions.

The amendments are designed to promote better access to private capital while maintaining investor protections and simplifying the complex patchwork of federal private placement exemptions that has existed for over 50 years. However, they contain their own complexities and some pitfalls that can make compliance challenging.

Below are highlights of the amendments adopted by the SEC.
Continue Reading The SEC Harmonizes the Private Placement Exemption Rules

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On October 7, 2020, the SEC proposed the creation of “limited, conditional” exemptions from broker-dealer registration for certain “finders” in private company capital raising transactions. This has long been a problem area for private companies, as current regulations impose restrictions that may prevent them from using unregistered finders to raise capital, or impose draconian penalties on them if they do. Since these companies are often unable to raise capital on their own and normally do not have access to the efforts of established, registered broker dealers, the already difficult challenge of raising early stage capital is made even more difficult. The SEC’s October 7, 2020 Press Release and Fact Sheet lay out these proposed exemptions in detail, and the Fact Sheet contains links to a chart and a video that may be helpful.

It’s too early to tell if these proposed exemptions will be beneficial to small companies. Will they actually facilitate small companies’ ability to raise early stage capital? That remains to be seen, but it’s a positive sign that the SEC is expending at least some efforts to help small companies in their capital raising efforts.

Here are the high points of the proposed exemptions:
Continue Reading Will Finders Find Relief from SEC Restrictions?

I’ve often said that lawyers representing corporations should never underestimate the creativity of the plaintiffs’ bar.  However, it seems that the white collar criminal defense bar may not be slouches in the creativity department either.

I’m referring to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal that the legal team representing Elizabeth Holmes, the “disgraced Theranos founder,” is considering using her mental health (presumably, the lack thereof) as a defense in her upcoming federal trial for engaging in a variety of frauds.

I’m prepared to admit that I am totally if morbidly fascinated by the Theranos case: I’ve read the phenomenal book, Bad Blood, by John Carreyrou – twice, in fact – and will surely be among the first to see the movie (which reportedly will star Jennifer Lawrence as Holmes in what strikes me as the best casting choice ever); I’ve attended programs featuring Tyler Shultz, the whistleblower who blew the top off the fraud (and whose grandfather, former Secretary of State George Shultz, was on the Theranos board at the time in a family saga worthy of Aeschylus); I’ve listened to the podcast; I’ve watched the HBO documentary; and much more.  Still, it seems just surreal.
Continue Reading Legal surrealism

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On August 26, 2020, the SEC adopted changes to its definition of “accredited investor.” The SEC Release can be found here. The new rules will become effective 60 days after their publication in the Federal Register (around the end of October 2020). These changes are definitely a move in the right direction, and they indicate that the SEC may be willing to further expand and modernize the accredited investor qualification requirements, but I don’t believe they will have a significant impact on the private securities offering process. .

The accredited investor requirements largely determine eligibility to participate in private securities offerings. The current requirements are primarily based on financial status. For most individual investors to qualify as accredited investors, they need an annual income of $200,000 (or $300,000 combined with their spouse) or a net worth (including their spouse’s net worth but excluding the value of their primary residence) of $1 million.

These quantitative requirements have been subject to criticism. They have been in effect since 1982, with the only change being the exclusion (in early 2012) of the value of the investor’s primary residence in the net worth test. Some commentators say that these requirements are too restrictive and exclude too many investors from participation in private offerings, thus stifling the capital available to smaller companies. That criticism may have become less valid over time; when the $200,000 annual income test was first implemented in 1982, less than 1%  of potential investors qualified. Due to inflation and the lack of an increase in the income requirement, approximately 9% of potential investors currently qualify. . Conversely, however, this standard has been criticized by other commentators on the basis that it allows more investors to participate in risky and dangerous private investments because the qualification standards have not changed over time. This has led to some calls for indexing the income standard to inflation. The SEC did review these quantitative standards but declined to make any changes at this time.
Continue Reading SEC changes “accredited investor” definition – good, but not enough

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?
Continue Reading Coinbase takes steps toward first blockchain-based token exchange

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?

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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.
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