Monday, March 10, 2014
The federal restrictions on offering securities are a mess. Section 5, even with the recent additions of subsections (d) and (e), is short—less than 600 words by my count. However, as every Securities Regulation student comes to appreciate, that brevity is deceptive. Section 5 is incredibly complex. The SEC regulations increase that complexity: almost everything in Section 5 has been modified or displaced by SEC regulations.
Consider just the question of what an issuer may say before filing its registration statement. Section 5(c) says the issuer may not make an offer to sell the securities. But the SEC says “offer to sell” means more than just asking people to buy the securities. It includes any communication, even if you don’t mention the offering, that might generate public interest in buying the security, what the SEC calls conditioning the market. But, if it’s more than 30 days prior to when you’re going to file your registration statement, see Rule 163A. After that, see Rule 163, Rule 168, or Rule 169, depending on what type of company you are. But don’t mention the offering in any of those communications, unless, of course, you fit within Rule 135.
Or consider section 5(b)(1)’s bar on transmitting a written offer to sell. Rule 433, the free-writing prospectus rule, has rewritten that statutory prohibition so extensively that the Rule 433 tail now wags the section 5(b)(1) dog. And then there’s Rules 172 and 173, which almost completely displace the final prospectus delivery requirements of sections 5(b)(1) and 5(b)(2).
Many of these regulations improve the statutory scheme, although simpler rules would be even better. But isn’t it about time to revise the statute, instead of constantly engrafting regulatory exceptions and rewrites on to the aging, obsolete statutory structure?
A statute that says “x” and a rule that says “but not x” don’t exactly promote public respect for the rule of law. Consider the way Rule 172(b) is written—it essentially says that any obligation under section 5(b)(2) to deliver a prospectus is satisfied if you don’t deliver a prospectus.
Wouldn’t it be better to have the rules assembled in an organized, coherent whole, instead of having to jump from place to place to figure out what’s allowed and what isn’t? If the SEC’s approach makes more sense, and in many cases I think it does, then let’s change the statute to reflect the SEC’s approach. In many cases, all the existing statute does is complicate the SEC’s rulemaking task.
It’s against my interest to suggest this. I teach two securities law classes, and statutory changes just mean more work for me. But I think it’s time we rewrote the Securities Act.