Monday, November 4, 2013
I support crowdfunded securities offerings, but I have criticized the crowdfunding exemption in the JOBS Act. I won’t repeat those criticisms here, but, after wading through the 585-page SEC rules proposal, I am happy to report that some (but not all) of the proposed rules would significantly improve the exemption.
1. The proposed rules clear up the statutory ambiguities relating to investment limits and the amount of the offering
Title III of the JOBS Act includes a number of ambiguities relating to the investment limits and the amount of the offering. The proposed rules clear up those ambiguities. I have already discussed this aspect of the proposed rules and won’t repeat that discussion here.
2. Both issuers and intermediaries can rely on information provided by investors to determine if the investment limits are met.
The amount that an investor may invest in a crowdfunded offering depends on that investor’s net worth and annual income and also on how much that investor has already invested in section 4(a)(6) offerings in the last 12 months. I have argued that crowdfunding issuers and intermediaries should not be required to verify these numbers--that investors should be able to self-certify.
I am happy to report that the SEC’s proposal recognizes the substantial burden that verification would impose and allows both issuers and crowdfunding intermediaries to rely on the number furnished by investors.
Proposed Rule 303(b)(1) allows crowdfunding intermediaries to rely on an investor’s representations as to net worth, annual income, and previous investments unless the intermediary has reason to question the reliability of the investor’s representations. And Instruction 3 to proposed Rule 100(a)(2) allows the issuer to rely on the intermediary to ensure that investors don’t violate the limits, unless the issuer knows an investor is exceeding the limit.
3. The proposed rules include a “substantial compliance” rule that preserves the exemption in spite of immaterial violations.
The crowdfunding exemption’s requirements are detailed and extensive, and the availability of the exemption is conditioned on the issuer’s and intermediary’s compliance with all of those requirements. Most crowdfunding issuers will be relatively inexperienced small businesses and often won’t have sophisticated securities counsel, so violations are likely. The exemption could be lost due to a relatively minor technical violation of the exemption’s requirements.
The SEC solved this problem in Regulation D by adding a “substantial compliance” rule, Rule 508, that sometimes preserves the Regulation D exemptions even when issuers are not in full compliance.
The SEC has included a similar rule in the proposed crowdfunding rules. Proposed Rule 502 provides that a failure to comply with a requirement of the exemption will not result in loss of the exemption as to a particular investor if the issuer shows:
(1) The failure to comply was insignificant with respect to the offering as a whole;
(2) The issuer made a good faith and reasonable attempt to comply with all of the exemption’s requirements; and
(3) If it was the intermediary who failed to comply, the issuer was unaware of the noncompliance or the noncompliance was solely in offerings other than the issuer’s.
4. The proposed rules require the intermediary to provide communications channels for issuers and investors.
As I have discussed elsewhere, the statutory exemption
omits a crucial element of crowdfunding—an open, public communications channel allowing potential investors to communicate with the issuer and each other. Openness of this sort would allow crowdfunding sites to take advantage of “the wisdom of crowds,” the idea that “even if most of the people within a group are not especially well-informed or rational . . . [the group] can still reach a collectively wise decision.” Open communication channels can help protect investors from both fraud and poor investment decisions by allowing members of the public to share knowledge about particular entrepreneurs, businesses, or investment risks. Open communication channels also allow investors to monitor the enterprise better after the investment is made. [C. Steven Bradford, The New Federal Crowdfunding Exemption: Promise Unfulfilled, 40 SEC. REG. L. J. 195 (2012)]
(For more on why I think open communications channels are a good idea, see here, at pp. 134-136.)
Proposed Rule 303(c) requires crowdfunding platforms to provide “communication channels by which persons can communicate with one another and with representatives of the issuer about offerings made available on the intermediary’s platform.” Those communications channels must be accessible by the general public, although only investors who have opened an account with the crowdfunding platform may post.