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.
As I’ve blogged about in the past, the SEC in recent years has taken a relatively strict position against payments to “finders” who are not registered broker-dealers, as compensation for introducing investors to companies. The SEC’s focus has primarily been on “transaction-based compensation,” i.e., payment to the finder that is contingent on investment by the introduced investor, which according to the SEC is a hallmark of broker-like activity that requires registration.
Bloomberg Law’s Corporate Transactions Blog recently posted an item entitled “At the Market Offerings are Again Wildly Popular.” (I should note that I am in favor of trying to spice up securities law articles by using words like “wildly,” though if we’re being honest, there is nothing remotely wild described in that article, or this one either.) ATM offerings are a way for already-public companies to raise further capital by selling newly issued shares. They are particularly popular among life sciences companies, which often need to continually raise capital for research and regulatory clearance efforts before having significant revenue with which to fund those activities.
The SEC recently brought an enforcement action against a fund investing in digital assets for a failure to register a sale of securities under Section 5 of the Securities Act. The fund had filed a Form D with the SEC that, in itself, offers no clue as to what went wrong. The form reports the sale of fund interests under the exemption provided by Rule 506(b) of Regulation D. This is the common exemption used for private placements of securities, and by complying with the applicable rules under Regulation D, there would be a safe harbor protecting the issuer against a registration violation.
Rule 506(c), the provision arising out of the JOBS Act that enables companies to raise capital using general solicitation and advertising while still being exempt from SEC registration requirements, has always had the potential to revolutionize the capital raising process. With the ability of companies to connect easily with potential investors anywhere via the internet and social media, one could imagine a world where this supplants private placements under Rule 506(b), in which the investor base is, by definition, limited based on existing relationships with the company or its broker-dealer. While the use of Rule 506(c) has grown since enactment, it has nowhere near the usage rate of Rule 506(b). In 2017, Rule 506(c) offerings represented only 4% in dollar amount of all Regulation D offerings.