The SEC recently issued a long “concept release” on harmonization of securities offering exemptions. Whenever I hear about one of these, my first thought is that it’s somehow like a concept album from a ‘70s prog rock outfit (and therefore to be avoided), but in reality, the point of concept releases is to solicit input from the securities law community on a broad topic without immediately proposing changes. In this case, it’s about the complex web of exempt offering types that have evolved over the years and whether and how to harmonize them.
A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted how sketchy brokers have been marketing problematic private placements to accredited investors. While the article focused on the brokers, I was struck by the identity of one of the investor victims noted in the article as having lost a lot of money: George Stephanopoulos, the ABC News anchor and former Clinton Administration official. I don’t mean to cause Mr. Stephanopoulos any further embarrassment by highlighting this here (though I’m guessing that the readership of my blog is far less than that of the Journal), but the fact that he was scammed is a useful illustration of the misguidedness of the accredited investor definition and associated rules.
The current definition of “accredited investor” under SEC rules essentially uses wealth as a proxy for sophistication, as an individual can qualify by either having an annual income of $200,000 or a net worth of $1 million not including the value of one’s primary residence. An offering made to all accredited investors does not have an information requirement, meaning the investors do not need to be provided with a similar level of disclosure that would be associated with a registered public offering.
Back when the equity crowdfunding rules were proposed following passage of the JOBS Act, the $1 million offering limit per year for what are now known as Regulation CF offerings was viewed as making this procedure impractical. The amount raised would not be sufficient in light of the legal, accounting and other costs needed to prepare for the offering. However, as crowdfunding is now a reality and companies are giving it a shot, a fix to the dollar limit has evolved: raise funds not just under Regulation CF, but under other exemptions that are not subject to that dollar limit.
Ernest Holtzheimer blogs with some statistics about how the new JOBS Act-authorized forms of securities offerings are being used following enactment. Both the revamped Regulation A and new Regulation Crowdfunding have seen somewhat underwhelming use to date. The most common objection to Regulation Crowdfunding, the $1 million offering limitation, has led companies to consider using Regulation A, which is more involved compliance-wise. Legislation to increase the offering cap for Regulation Crowdfunding might have a better chance of enactment with the coming all-Republican government, with its anti-regulatory bent. Of course, companies that are willing to limit their investor base to all accredited investors aren’t subject to the offering limit.
Holtzheimer mentions an advantage of crowdfunding that is less remarked-upon than some others: that crowdfunding can help save company founders time, as compared to more traditional forms of investment like angel investment and venture capital. Traditional capital-raising involves spending an enormous amount of time with potential investors, explaining the business, responding to due diligence requests, etc. In addition, when there is an investor syndicate rather than just one investor, the different members of the syndicate may have different requests/concerns, so the process is like herding cats. In contrast, at least in theory, with crowdfunding and Regulation A, once the proper disclosure is prepared and posted for investor review, the investors make their choices, and if there’s enough interest, you just go ahead and close.
The effectiveness of Title III crowdfunding got the high-profile Sunday New York Times treatment this past weekend. I think it will take some time for the flow of these deals to come, as portals apply for and receive approval from the SEC and the overall infrastructure develops.
The Times article has a quote from a Mintz Levin securities attorney expressing skepticism and noting that unlike venture capital investing, crowdfunding does not provide institutional validation of a company. I would agree that it doesn’t, but at the same time, it shouldn’t be considered a red flag. Because of the $1 million per year offering limit currently applicable to Title III crowdfunding, this route will only make sense if the business can execute its plans with those kind of funds. Capital-intensive ventures, like those in the life sciences industries, will likely continue to need venture funding. But for those who don’t, even if they don’t get the external validation of an institutional investment, they can get the funds they need to operate relatively easily and without the onerous terms often imposed by venture investors.
The article closes with an interview with a potential crowdfunding investor who said she skimmed the offering circular but says she’s financially sophisticated enough to take the risk. (The offering circular, which is linked to in the article, is actually for a Regulation A+ offering, not Title III crowdfunding.) Much of the commentary about risks for fraud in recent years has focused on Title III crowdfunding, rather than other JOBS Act initiatives, like Regulation A+, but ironically it’s only Title III crowdfunding that has the strict investment limits imposed on investors with low net worth or income, which protect them from being wiped out. The investor profiled in the Times may well lose a lot of money on her Regulation A+ investment (as she could, as well, by investing in a public company), but she’d automatically limit her risk exposure by sticking to Title III crowdfunding offerings only, because of these limits.