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The London Stock Exchange’s Proposal for Private Company Trading

The Wall Street Journal reported exclusively on plans by the London Stock Exchange to create a special market for the shares of private companies for limited public trading. The plan itself is not yet public, so the Journal was only able to report on limited aspects of what is contemplated. In the same way that U.S. private companies have increasingly been able to access public-like markets with new exemptions like Regulation CF, Rule 506(c) and Regulation A+ and the development of secondary trading markets for large private companies, this is an effort across the pond to provide some of the benefits of public market access to small and fast-growing companies.

One unusual aspect of the proposal, at least as compared to what’s been done in the U.S., is the plan to have only limited trading windows during which these companies’ shares can be available for trading. (In the U.S., public company insiders are subject to trading windows from time to time to protect against insider trading, but what the LSE is apparently proposing relates to all trading in the stock, not just by insiders.) The article suggests that the windows would be from one to five days once every month, quarter or six-month period. As the LSE hasn’t yet formally made any rule proposals, we don’t have the benefit of their thinking on the reasons for such a limitation, but I can think of a few:

  • The shares of smaller companies are usually thinly traded, leading to wide bid-ask spreads, so by artificially limiting time available for trading, there will be a more liquid market when trading does occur.
  • Being a public company means constantly having to think about public disclosure. In the U.S., various important events trigger a requirement to file a Form 8-K within a few business days, as opposed to being able to wait until the next quarterly filing. For the new LSE market, however, the companies will presumably need to focus on public disclosure only in the lead-up to each new trading window, so the small company isn’t forced to have a staff constantly focused on disclosure matters.
  • Limiting the ability to sell will condition investors to think of these shares as a long-term investment, as opposed to something you hold for a week or less to make a quick profit.

It will be interesting to read about the LSE’s thinking if it moves forward with this. The notion of limiting trading windows is an interesting thought, which U.S. regulators may want to consider even with already-public companies that are thinly traded.

The BuzzFeed Option Exercise Dustup

The New Yorker magazine, not my usual source of prompts for blog posts on corporate and securities law, posted a piece on the recent hiccup with stock option exercises by the newly public media company BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed went public by merging with a SPAC. Longtime employees that were hoping to cash in on their stock options were unable to do so right after the merger, at which point the company’s stock price sharply declined, making the options less valuable. The employees are aggrieved at the missed opportunity to exercise options and sell shares at the higher price.

Continental Stock Transfer & Trust Company is featured prominently in the piece. Continental is BuzzFeed’s transfer agent, a category of service provider unknown to most people outside the corporate finance world. As the back-office company responsible for keeping track of who owns which of BuzzFeed’s shares, Continental’s job, among others, is to process the exercise of BuzzFeed’s options and issuance of shares to the employees. (I’ve worked with Continental for years with my public company clients but have no personal connection to the BuzzFeed controversy.)

The article places some focus on the fact that BuzzFeed went public via SPAC merger, rather than a traditional IPO, implying that something about the SPAC structure led to a rushed process and contributed to the option exercise brouhaha. While there are legitimate concerns about the SPAC structure generally, I think in this case it’s a red herring. The BuzzFeed merger was announced in June 2021 and closed in December. That allows plenty of time for the company and its various advisors to get a handle on the outstanding stock options and ensure that everything would go smoothly upon closing, just as a traditional IPO involves months of planning.

The source of the delay with the employee options is that they were exercisable into Class B stock, but it’s only Class A stock that trades publicly. Therefore, the shares needed to be converted, and the conversion process has taken a few days to process at Continental.

Equity for Legal Fees (2021 Update)

Equity for Legal Fees | Andrew Abramowitz, PLLC | New York, NY

The payment of legal fees by issuing stock or other equity to the law firm in lieu of cash became popular in the late 1990s with Silicon Valley startups and has gone in and out of fashion since then.  The appeal of the structure, particularly with startups, is obvious.  Before these companies start generating revenue, cash may be hard to come by, so if both sides are willing, the payment of service providers like attorneys, at least initially, with equity, may be an attractive alternative.  It is also possible to have hybrid structures where, for example, the law firm is granted a small piece of equity issued in exchange for the firm’s agreement to discount cash fees and/or defer their payment for a period.

Thoughts on Remote Work from a (Relative) Pioneer

I can’t claim to have invented remote work, but I can say that I was doing it well before the majority of the workforce was forced into it in early 2020. My firm’s address, since its formation in 2010, has been at 565 Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. For the first several years, I took the Long Island Railroad in every day and worked in my office, like any other lawyer. As the firm evolved, I built a network of freelance attorneys that worked for the firm. Especially given that the first two of them resided in Spain and Alabama, respectively, I was never going to need to provide extra space for the attorneys; accordingly, they worked from wherever they wanted.

After a few years of this, it occurred to me that without any opportunity for literal face-time with my co-workers, it was kind of silly for me to endure the commute on days where I had no meetings with clients or others. So, I set up shop in a spare bedroom at home in Port Washington, LI, and went into the city only when there were meetings. Aside from the occasional unwanted noise during conference calls from dogs or teenagers, it’s worked quite well.

Assessing the Costs of SPACs

The casual reader of the business pages has seen over the past year or so many articles about SPACs, the financial structure du jour, which have actually been around for a while. (I worked on some in the ‘00s.) The acronym stands for Special (or Specified) Purpose Acquisition Company. For those of my readers that are not corporate finance professionals, the way to conceptualize a SPAC is that it’s a private equity fund that is publicly traded. In other words, investors put funds in a newly created entity via an initial public offering (IPO). The entity has no operations other than a plan to acquire an operating company with the IPO funds within the next couple of years, with a management team that is tasked with doing the acquiring. From the perspective of the operating company being acquired, it’s a way to go public, by merging with the already-public SPAC, as an alternative to a traditional IPO. (In a traditional IPO, there is no merger; rather, a bunch of new shares in the private company are sold to the public, and poof, it’s a public company.)

The investment community has been abuzz recently about an academic paper, summarized here, that found the costs of going public via SPAC merger to be much higher on average than doing so via a traditional IPO. For my non-finance professionals out there, the most concise way I can put it is that the typical SPAC structure is designed to favor the initial sponsors and initial investors, over investors who buy shares in the open market after the SPAC’s IPO and the target company shareholders. This is because of two concepts present in most SPACs but not in most other contexts: the promote and warrants.

A promote is a form of compensation for the management team that forms the SPAC, brings it public and finds an acquisition target. Generally, this sponsor team gets, for nominal cost, 20% of the post-IPO shares of the company. Ultimately, these shares dilute the ownership of the SPAC investors and of the target company’s shareholders, post-merger, in a way that doesn’t occur in a traditional IPO.

Additionally, in most SPACs, the IPO is done as a sale of units, comprised of regular shares and warrants to purchase additional shares. The warrants (which are like stock options for those unfamiliar with the term) have an exercise price somewhat higher than the IPO price. The warrants are essentially a free add-on for the SPAC IPO investor. They can elect to have the company redeem their shares in advance of the merger and get their invested money back, but they still can keep the warrant and cash in if the stock pops. The additional shares that are issued when warrants are exercised constitute dilution to other holders, again in a way that wouldn’t occur in a traditional IPO. At least as compared to the promote, a warrant exercise for cash would bring funds into the company, but if the warrant is in the money (i.e., the market price exceeds the exercise price), then the shares are being purchased at a discount, which is not the kind of dilution that existing holders want to see.

Ultimately, there are some advantages for private companies in going public by SPAC merger over a traditional IPO. For example, whether an IPO can be completed can depend on general market conditions at the time of pricing of the IPO that are completely outside the company’s control. A SPAC merger may be the right choice for certain companies. But they need to be sure they are taking into account and fully understand the SPAC structure before choosing this option over other alternatives, like a traditional IPO, an acquisition by another operating company or private equity fund, or simply staying put as a private company.

New York Relents on Form D Filings

Form D FilingsAs of December 2, 2020, New York has joined other states in requiring that Form Ds filed with the SEC for securities offerings be submitted to the state via the EFD electronic system, replacing the state’s previously-required Form 99.

New York has long been a holdout on this front since 1996 when Congress passed the National Securities Market Improvement Act, which was intended to rationalize the crazy quilt patchwork of individual state “blue sky” laws to be complied with wherever securities were sold. NSMIA expressly preempted any requirements from a state beyond filing a copy of the Form D along with a filing fee and a consent to service of process. Most states quickly amended their blue sky laws to require only what NSMIA permitted. New York, however, continued to require the filing of a Form 99, which clearly required more disclosure from issuers than was permitted under NSMIA. …

The Golden Age of Non-Interruption

The Golden Age of Non-InterruptionI have found over my 23 years of law practice that, assuming I’ve consumed my usual copious amount of coffee, I can be quite productive and efficient when I get into a flow. When that flow is interrupted – by a phone call, someone popping into my office for a quick question, a car alarm going off, etc. – it can be difficult to get back into the groove. The good news is that a number of workplace trends in recent years have resulted in a general decline in interruptions, leading to more efficient work.

At least for me, the key development has been the advent of email. Everyone likes to complain about email – not me! As long as you don’t set your email system to notify you of every incoming email, which for me would be crazy-making, you are in control of when you look at it. Unlike someone making a phone call, the sender of an email is not expecting a literally immediate response. Of course, law is a service business and clients have reasonable expectations of a prompt reply, but the checking of the email can wait until you’ve finished reviewing that convoluted contractual provision.

The SEC Streamlines Accredited Investor Verification Under Rule 506(c)

The SEC’s recent final rule release regarding exempt offerings covered various topics, including the subject of my previous post, on the expanded offering limits for Regulation CF crowdfunding and Regulation A offerings. In the release, the SEC also provided some welcome relief in the accredited investor verification process for Rule 506(c) offerings.

The SEC Broadens the Crowdfunding and Regulation A Exemptions

The SEC issued a 388-page final rule release, entitled Facilitating Capital Formation and Expanding Investment Opportunities by Improving Access to Capital in Private Markets. (The clunky wording seems like it was done to accommodate a catchy acronym, but “FCFAEIOBIATCIPM” doesn’t really flow.) The release details rule changes in a variety of areas relating to private offerings, but I will focus for this post on the expansion of the crowdfunding (Regulation CF) and Regulation A offering exemptions, and cover other topics in future posts. Here are the SEC’s press release and fact sheet about all the new rule changes.

The SEC Proposes a Clear Finder Exemption

I’ve noted in several blog posts (most recently here) that the SEC had not provided definitive guidance on an exemption for so-called “finders” from broker-dealer registration requirements. Now we have that guidance, at least in proposed form, which if enacted would provide clarity for issuers and would-be finders. The proposal was approved by the SEC Commissioners on a 3-2 vote (because it’s 2020 and of course it’s contentious), so there is perhaps a greater than usual possibility of changes to the rules before finalization.