Monday, November 11, 2013
The SEC’s crowdfunding proposal offers small, startup businesses a new way to raise capital without triggering the expensive registration requirements of the Securities Act of 1933. But the capital needs of small businesses are often uncertain. They may need to raise money again shortly after an exempted offering. Or they may want to sell securities pursuant to another exemption at the same time they’re using the crowdfunding exemption. How do other offerings affect the crowdfunding exemption? The proposed crowdfunding rules are unexpectedly generous with respect to other offerings, but they still contain pitfalls.
Other Securities Do Not Count Against the $1 Million Crowdfunding Limit
The proposed rules make it clear that the crowdfunding exemption’s $1 million limit is unaffected by securities sold outside the crowdfunding exemption. As I explained in an earlier post, only securities sold pursuant to the section 4(a)(6) crowdfunding exemption count against the limit.
Crowdfunding and the Integration Doctrine
But the integration doctrine, the curse of every securities lawyer, poses problems beyond determining the offering amount.
Briefly, the integration doctrine defines what constitutes a single offering for purposes of the exemptions from registration. The Securities Act exemptions are transactional; to avoid registration, the issuer must fit its entire offering within a single exemption. It cannot separate what is actually a single offering into two or more parts and fit each part into different exemptions.
Unfortunately, the application of the integration doctrine is notoriously uncertain and unpredictable, making it difficult for issuers who do two offerings of securities at or about the same time to know whether or not those offerings qualify for an exemption. (For a critical review of the integration doctrine, see my article here.)
The SEC’s crowdfunding proposal begins with what appears to be absolute protection from integration. The proposal says (p. 18) that “an offering made in reliance on Section 4(a)(6) should not be integrated with another exempt offering made by the issuer, provided that each offering complies with the requirements of the applicable exemption that is being relied on for the particular offering.”
However, the SEC giveth and the SEC taketh away. First, this isn’t really a rule, just a pledge by the SEC. The anti-integration language does not appear anywhere in the rules themselves; it’s only in the release discussing the rules. Other integration safe harbors, such as Rule 251(c) of Regulation A and Rule 502(a) of Regulation D, appear in the rules. It’s not clear why the SEC was unwilling to write an integration provision into the crowdfunding rules, but an actual rule would provide much more comfort to issuers than the SEC’s bare promise.
And, unfortunately, the SEC doesn’t stop with the broad anti-integration pledge. It adds (pp. 18-19) that
An issuer conducting a concurrent exempt offering for which general solicitation is not permitted, however, would need to be satisfied that purchasers in that offering were not solicited by means of the offering made in reliance on Section 4(a)(6). Similarly, any concurrent exempt offering for which general solicitation is permitted could not include an advertisement of the terms of the offering made in reliance on Section 4(a)(6) that would not be permitted under Section 4(a)(6) and the proposed rules.
These qualifications may prove particularly mischievous. Assume, for example, that an issuer is offering securities pursuant to section 4(a)(6) and, around the same time, offering securities pursuant to Rule 506(b), which prohibits general solicitation. The issuer would have to verify that none of the accredited investors in the Rule 506(b) offering saw the offering on the crowdfunding platform. Since crowdfunding platforms are open to the general public, that might be difficult.
As a result of the second sentence quoted above, there’s also a potential problem in the other direction. Assume that an issuer is simultaneously offering the same securities pursuant to both section 4(a)(6) and Rule 506(c). Rule 506(c) allows unlimited general solicitation, but the crowdfunding rules severely limit what an issuer and others may say about the offering outside the crowdfunding platform. The SEC seems to be saying that a public solicitation under Rule 506(c) would bar the issuer from using the crowdfunding exemption to sell the same securities. Since the same securities are involved in both offerings, the 506(c) solicitation would arguably “include an advertisement of the terms of the offering made in reliance on Section 4(a)(6).”
Double-Door Offerings Redux
Before the SEC released the crowdfunding rules, I questioned whether “double-door” offerings using the crowdfunding exemption and the new Rule 506(c) exemption were viable. I posited a single web site that sold the same securities (1) to accredited investors pursuant to Rule 506(c) and (2) to the general public pursuant to the crowdfunding exemption. I concluded that, because of the integration doctrine, such offerings were impossible. The SEC anti-integration promise may change that result, if the SEC really means what it says.
The anti-integration promise doesn’t exclude simultaneous offerings, even if those offerings involve the same securities. And I don’t see anything in the rules governing crowdfunding intermediaries that would prevent both 506(c) and crowdfunding offerings on a single web platform, with accredited investors funneled to a separate closing under Rule 506(c). Funding portals could not host such a double-door platform, because they’re limited to crowdfunded offerings, but brokers could.
However, both the issuer and the broker would have to be careful about off-platform communications. Ordinarily, an issuer in a Rule 506(c) offering may engage in any general solicitation or advertising it wishes, on or off the Internet. But the SEC crowdfunding release, as we saw, warns that “any concurrent exempt offering for which general solicitation is permitted could not include an advertisement of the terms of the offering made in reliance on Section 4(a)(6) that would not be permitted under Section 4(a)(6) and the proposed rules.” To avoid ruining the crowdfunding exemption, any off-platform communications would have to be limited to what the crowdfunding rules allow, and that isn’t much.