Monday, November 2, 2015
Here’s something everyone who has ever taken Securities Regulation should know: Section 3(a)(11) of the Securities Act, the intrastate offering exemption, has a safe harbor, Securities Act Rule 147.
As Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend.” The SEC is proposing to overturn that longstanding wisdom. If the SEC’s proposed changes to Rule 147 are adopted,Rule 147 would no longer be tied to section 3(a)(11) and section 3(a)(11) would no longer have a safe harbor. The intrastate nature of Rule 147 would be preserved, but the proposed changes would be adopted under the SEC’s general exemptive authority in section 28 of the Securities Act.
Here are the most significant changes that the SEC has proposed:
Tied to State Regulation
The premise of section 3(a)(11) and its Rule 147 safe harbor is to relegate purely intrastate offerings to state regulation. But there’s currently nothing in Rule 147 to enforce that premise; federal exemption does not depend on state regulation of the offering.
The SEC proposal would expressly tie the federal Rule 147 exemption to state regulation. An offering would qualify for the federal exemption only if it was (1) registered at the state level or (2) sold pursuant to a state exemption that imposes investment limits on purchasers and limits the amount of the offering to $5 million in any 12-month period. (This second possibility is clearly aimed at the crowdfunding exemptions that many states have recently enacted.)
Rule 147 does not currently limit the amount of the offering. The SEC proposal would limit the offering amount to $5 million in any 12-month period, unless the offering is registered at the state level.
State of Incorporation
Rule 147 currently requires that the issuer be incorporated or organized in the state in which the securities are sold. Because of that, even a corporation or LLC with all of its business in a single state cannot use Rule 147 if it happens to be incorporated or organized in another state, such as Delaware.
The SEC proposes to eliminate the focus on state of incorporation or organization, and require instead that the issuer’s “principal place of business” be within the state in which the offering is made. This would be defined as the state where “the officers, partners or managers . . . primarily direct, control and coordinate” the issuer’s activities.
Doing Business in the State
Under the current rule, the issuer must meet four requirements to establish that it is doing business in the state:
- It must derive at least 80% of its gross revenues from operations within the state;
- At least 80% of its assets must be located within the state;
- It must intend to use and actually use at least 80% of the offering proceeds in connection with operations in the state; and
- Its principal office must be located in the state.
All four of those requirements must be met.
The proposed rule is much less restrictive. An issuer only has to meet any one of the following requirements:
- It derives at least 80% of its gross revenues from operations in the state;
- At least 80% of its assets are located in the state;
- It intends to use and uses at least 80% of the offering proceeds in connection with operations in the state; or
- A majority of its employees are based in the state.
(Notice the addition of the new fourth test.) It will obviously be easier to satisfy a single one of the new requirements that it is to satisfy all four of the requirements under the current rule.
Intrastate Offers and Sales
Rule 147 currently provides that the securities must be offered and sold only to state residents. In other words, it’s not enough to screen out non-residents before sale. You can’t even solicit non-residents.
The SEC proposes to eliminate the restriction on offerees. An issuer could make a general public solicitation to the world, as long as it only sells the securities to state residents. This obviously makes it much easier to make Rule 147 offerings on the Internet.
Reasonable Belief Standard
The current rule requires that all of the purchasers (and offerees) be residents of the state. If one of them is a non-resident, the exemption is lost, even if the issuer thought the person was a resident.
The proposed rule adds a reasonable belief standard. The exemption is protected as long as the issuer had a reasonable belief that the non-resident purchaser was a resident.
Resales and the Issuer’s Exemption
Both the current rule and the SEC’s proposal limit resales to non-residents. However, there’s a crucial difference between the two.
The current rule makes the exemption dependent on meeting all of the terms and conditions of the rule, including the resale limit. Thus, if a purchaser immediately resold to a non-resident, the issuer could lose the exemption.
The proposed rule, like the current rule, requires the issuer to take certain precautions to prevent resales to non-residents, but the prohibition on resales is no longer a condition of the issuer’s exemption. Thus, if the issuer took the required precautions and a purchaser resold to a non-resident anyway, the issuer would not lose the exemption.
Protection from Integration
Rule 147 currently has a provision that protects the Rule 147 offering from integration with sales pursuant to certain other exemptions six months prior to or six months after the Rule 147 offering.
The SEC proposal offers a much broader anti-integration safe harbor, similar to the integration safe harbor included in Regulation A. Offers or sales under the amended Rule 147 exemption would not be integrated with any prior offers or sales. And Rule 147 offerings would not be integrated with subsequent offers or sales that are (1) federally registered; (2) pursuant to Regulation A; (3) pursuant to Rule 701; (4) pursuant to an employee benefit plan; (5) pursuant to Regulation S; (6) pursuant to the crowdfunding exemption in section 4(a)(6); or (7) more than six months after completion of the Rule 147 offering.
There is also some protection against integration when an issuer begins an offering under Rule 147 and decides to register the offering instead.
Section 3(a)(11) Remains Available
As I mentioned earlier, the amended Rule 147 would no longer be a safe harbor for section 3(a)(11) of the Securities Act. But Section 3(a)(11) would remain available. It just wouldn’t have a safe harbor.
An issuer would be free to use the section 3(a)(11) statutory exemption, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless everything is unquestionably intrastate. It was the uncertain interpretations of section 3(a)(11) that led to Rule 147 in the first place.
A Move in the Right Direction
I think the proposed exemption is a move in the right direction. Rule 147, one of the SEC’s earliest surviving safe harbors, was a little long in the tooth. The proposed changes will make it a little more viable.
Wednesday, October 28, 2015
I had the honor of being invited to speak at the annual symposium for the Wayne Law Review two weeks ago. The event, which focused on Corporate Counsel as Gatekeepers, was well organized and attended--and also very stimulating. Speakers included Tony West as a keynote, a few of us academics, and a bunch of current and former practitioners--prosecutors, in-house counsel, and outside counsel.
My presentation focused on a story that bugs me--a story built on an experience I had in practice. In the story (which modifies the true facts), an executive flagrantly violates a securities trading compliance plan that I drafted in connection with a subsequent transaction that I worked on for the executive's firm. Specifically, the executive informs a friend about the transaction the day before it is announced, believing that the friend will never trade on the information. The friend trades. The incident results in a stock exchange and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) inquiries. No enforcement is undertaken against the firm. However, the executive signs a consent decree with--and pays a cash penalty to--the SEC and, together with the firm, suffers public humiliation via a front-page article in the local newspaper (since the SEC would not agree to forego a press release). This fact pattern gnaws at me because I wonder whether there is anything more legal counsel can do to prevent an executive from violating a compliance policy to the detriment of himself and the firm . . . .
Tuesday, October 27, 2015
This hit my mailbox this morning. If the report is correct, we'll know in a few days whether we have a path to unregistered, broad-based securities crowdfunding in the United States. More as news is reported . . . .
[Additional information: Based on the link to the SEC's notice of meeting in Steve Bradford's comment to this post, it also appears that the SEC is considering amendments to Rules 147 (intrastate offerings) and 504 (limited offerings under Regulation D of up to $1,000,000).]
Monday, October 26, 2015
The Second Circuit decision in the Newman case has provoked much discussion of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Dirks and how to interpret the requirements it lays out for tippee liability. But it’s important to remember that Dirks was not writing on a clean slate. This year is the 35th anniversary of the case that preceded Dirks and laid the foundation for the Supreme Court’s insider-trading jurisprudence, Chiarella v. United States.
I realize that this was not the Supreme Court’s first look at insider trading. That honor, arguably, goes to Strong v. Repide, 213 U.S. 419 (1909). But Chiarella was the court’s first discussion of insider trading under Rule 10b-5.
The facts of the Chiarella case are relatively simple. Vincent Chiarella, the defendant in the case, was an employee of Pandick Press, a financial printer. His company was hired to print announcements of takeover bids. Although the identities of the target corporations were concealed in the announcements, Chiarella was able to figure out who they were. He bought stock in the target companies and made a profit of roughly $30,000. He was convicted of a criminal violation of Rule 10b-5, but the Supreme Court overturned his conviction.
It’s important to remember the basic problem Chiarella had to deal with (or perhaps it’s fairer to say the problem as the Chiarella majority constructed it). Rule 10b-5 prohibits securities fraud. People engaged in insider trading don’t usually make false statements and, under the common law, mere silence is not usually fraud. Because of that, the majority in Chiarella rejected the notion that a mere failure to disclose nonpublic information prior to trading violates Rule 10b-5. There’s no fraud.
However, the majority pointed out that a failure to disclose can be fraudulent when the non-disclosing party has a duty to disclose to the other person “because of a fiduciary or other similar relation of trust and confidence between them.” That fiduciary duty, the majority indicated in dictum, does exist in the case of corporate insiders. But Vincent Chiarella was not an insider of the corporations whose stock he traded. Since the government had not otherwise shown that Chiarella violated a fiduciary duty by not disclosing to anyone, he was not liable under Rule 10b-5.
That’s the essence of Chiarella: nondisclosure violates Rule 10b-5 only if there’s a fiduciary duty to disclose. No fiduciary duty, no liability.
Everything that followed—Dirks; O’Hagan; the Second Circuit’s decision in Newman; even the SEC’s Rule 10b5-2—depends on Chiarella. How different things would have been if Justice Blackmun’s dissent had carried a majority. His view was that “persons having access to confidential material information that is not legally available to others” could not trade without liability under Rule 10b-5.
The ultimate irony of Chiarella is that, if the case were tried today, Vincent Chiarella would without a doubt be liable under Rule 10b-5. The Supreme Court’s subsequent decision in United States v. O’Hagan, 521 U.S. 642 (1997) makes it crystal clear that one can be liable for trading on the basis of nonpublic information obtained from one’s employer or client. But the majority in Chiarella refused, on procedural grounds, to reach that question.
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
Home court advantage alleged in SEC securities cases brought before administrative judges rather than a jury. Read this recent thought provoking article in the NYT DealB%k, A Jury Not the SEC, by Suja A. Thomas, a Univ. of Illinois law professor, and Mark Cuban, billionaire investor.
After losing several cases before juries, the S.E.C. went to a place where it generally cannot lose: itself. When it accuses a person of a securities violation, the S.E.C. has often brought the case in an administrative hearing where one of its own judges decides the case, not a jury. Rarely does the agency lose such cases before its judges
Thomas and Cuban refute the argument that after the financial crisis securities issues are considered public rights questions and can constitutionally be transferred to an administrative judge.
Despite the persistence of this public rights doctrine, there is no constitutional authority for it. First, Article I does not give Congress any authority to determine who decides civil cases. Second, the Seventh Amendment itself tells us who should decide these cases. Under it, juries decide money issues and federal judges decide other matters.
As Steve Bradford mentioned in his post on Monday (sharing his cool idea about mining crowdfunded offerings to find good firms in which to invest), our co-blogger Haskell Murray published a nice post last week on venture capital as a follow-on to capital raises done through crowdfunding. He makes some super points there, and (although I was raised by an insurance brokerage executive, not a venture capitalist), my sense is that he's totally right that the type of crowdfunding matters for those firms seeking to follow crowdfunding with venture capital financing. I also think that, of the types of crowdfunding he mentions, his assessment of venture capital market reactions makes a lot of sense. Certainly, as securities crowdfunding emerges in the United States on a broader scale (which is anticipated by some to happen with the upcoming release of the final SEC rules under Title III of the JOBS Act), it makes sense to think more about what securities crowdfunding might look like and how it will fit into the cycle of small business finance.
Along those lines, what about debt crowdfunding as a precursor to venture capital funding? Andrew Schwartz has written a bit about that. Others also may have taken on this topic. Professor Schwartz may be right that issuers will prefer to issue debt than equity--in part because it may prove to be less of an impediment to later equity financings. But I don't necessarily have a warm feeling about that . . . .
And what about the crowdfunding of investment contracts (e.g., what I have previously called "unequity" in this article (and elsewhere, including in this further article) and perhaps even the newly popular SAFEs)? There is no equity overhang with unequity and some other types of investment contract, but crowdfunded SAFEs, which are convertible paper, may be viewed negatively in later financing rounds--especially if the conversion rights are held by a wide group of investors. While part of me is surprised that people are not taking the investment contract part of the potential securities crowdfunding market seriously (since folks were crowdfunding investment contracts before the JOBS Act came along--not knowing it was unlawful), the other part of me says that crowdfunded investment contracts would have a niche market at best.
So, thanks, Haskell, for the food for thought. No doubt, more will be written about this issue as and if the market for crowdfunded securities develops. Coming soon, says the SEC . . . .
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
Friday, October 16, 2015
Recently, a number of the sports media outlets, including ESPN, the Pac-12 Network, and Fox Sports featured a company called Oculus that makes virtual reality headsets used by Stanford University quarterback Kevin Hogan, among other players, to prepare for games.
In 2012, Oculus raised about $2.4 million from roughly 9,500 people via crowdfunding website Kickstarter. Following this extremely successful crowdfunding campaign, Oculus attracted over $90 million in venture capital investment. In mid-2014, Facebook acquired Oculus for a cool $2 billion.
Oculus is only one example, but it caused me to wonder how many companies are using crowdfunding to attract venture capital, and, if so, whether that strategy is working. This study claims that 9.5% of hardware companies with Kickstarter or Indigogo campaigns that raised over $100,000 went on to attract venture capital. Without a control group, however, it is a bit difficult to tell whether this is a significantly higher percentage than would have been able to attract venture capital money without the big crowdfunding raises.
If I were a venture capitalist (and I was raised by one, so I have some insight), I would see a big crowdfunding raise as potentially useful evidence regarding public support for the company and/or product demand. Crowdfunding, in some cases, might also be a helpful check on venture capitalist groupthink and biases.
As a venture capitalist, however, the type of crowdfunding used would matter to me. In most cases, I imagine I would see a large gift-based or rewards-based crowdfunding raise as a significant positive. Gift-based crowdfunding is essentially free money for the company, and reward-based crowdfunding usually comes with minimal costs or is simply pre-ordered product. Gift-based or rewards-based crowdfunders could create some negative press for the company when the company raises outside money, as the crowdfunders did in the Oculus case (see here and here), but that seems like a relatively small problem in most cases.
In contrast, the costs and risks associated with equity crowdfunding, in the states it is currently allowed, would raise at least a yellow flag for me. Equity crowdfunding comes with so many strings attached to various small shareholders that I could see it scaring off venture capitalists. The administrative headache, plus the risk of multiple lawsuits from uninformed investors seems significant. In addition, owners who have engaged in equity crowdfunding have a smaller percentage of equity in their hands and may have raised the crowdfunded money at an unattractive valuation.
At least two of my co-bloggers have written significant articles on crowdfunding (see, e.g., here and here), so perhaps they will weigh in on whether they have seen companies using crowdfunding as a strategy to attract venture capital, whether it is working, and whether the type of crowdfunding really matters.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Fellow BLPB editor Haskell Murray highlighted Laureate Education's IPO (here on BLPB) last week as the first publicly traded benefit corporation. Steven Davidoff Solomon, the "Deal Professor" on Dealbook at NYT, focused on the interesting issues that can be raised by public benefit corporations in his article, Idealism That May Leave Shareholders Wishing for Pragmatism, which appeared yesterday. Among the concerns he raised were the vagueness of the "benefit"provided by the company, the potential laxity or at least untested waters of benefit auditing, and the potential for management rent seeking at the expense of shareholder profit in the new form. Davidoff Solomon, who (deliciously and derisively) dubs benefit corporations the "hipster alternative to today’s modern company, which is seen as voracious in its appetite for profits," is certainly skeptical. But the concerns are valid and will have to be worked out successfully for this hybrid form to carve out a place in the securities market. What I found particularly interesting was his focus on the role of institutional investors, who as fiduciaries for their individual investors, have fiduciary obligations to pursue profits which may be in conflict with or at least require greater monitoring when investing in these alternative firms. The question of institutional investors' appetite for alternative purpose firms, like benefit corporations, is the focus of a recent article of mine, Institutional Investing When Shareholders Are Not Supreme, and a big question for the future success of these firms.
For those of you wanting to highlight alternative firms in a general corporations course or a seminar, this article would be a good introduction and an accessible summary of the issues on the forefront. I will be including this in my seminar reading next semester as it is surely to generate discussion.
Monday, October 12, 2015
Last week, I asked whether casebooks should include statutes. That post provoked a healthy debate in the comments and elsewhere. Today, I want to address another content question, this one dealing not with the content of casebooks but with the content of the Business Associations course itself. What securities law topics should be included in the basic business associations course?
The answer to that question obviously depends on whether the course is for three or four credit hours. I don’t think a comprehensive business associations course should ever be limited to three credit hours. But, if I had to teach a three-hour course, I would not cover any securities law. Agency, partnership, corporations, and LLCs are already too much to cram into a three-hour course. Adding securities topics on top of all that would, in my opinion, make the course too superficial.
Luckily, I have the hard-fought right to teach B.A. as a four-hour course. In a four-hour course, I think it’s essential to cover proxy regulation. Federal law or not, it’s mainstream corporate governance, at least for public companies, and many, perhaps most, securities regulation courses don’t cover it.
Beyond that, I’m not sure any securities coverage is absolutely essential. I spend a few minutes on the registration of securities offerings and a few minutes on Rule 10b-5 and securities fraud. I cover both topics in my Securities Regulation course, so I don’t want to cover either topic in any detail, but it’s so easy to stumble into these areas without even realizing it that every future lawyer should be warned. My main message: if you’re not a regular practitioner of securities law, call a securities lawyer. It’s too complicated to pick up on your own.
When I say I cover those topics in a few minutes, I mean no cases and, except for the text of 10b-5, no regulations. Just a brief summary by me of the potential pitfalls.
I do cover insider trading in depth. It could be relegated to the basic securities course; I cover the rest of Rule 10b-5 in Securities Regulation. But it just seems to work better in Business Associations, perhaps because of its focus on fiduciary duties. And covering it in B.A. keeps me from having to cram even more into my three-hour Securities Regulation course.
I would be interested in hearing what others think about this. Which securities law topics should be covered in the basic B.A. course and which should be relegated to Securities Regulation?
Sunday, October 11, 2015
Between the US Supreme Court's decision to let Newman stand and the Delaware Supreme Court's Sanchez decision, the intersection of friendship and corporate governance has been a hot topic this past week. While the commentary has been enlightening, it's always good to reflect on the primary sources. To that end, I have collected below a series of what I perceive to be interesting quotes from the relevant opinions as follows (I also included an excerpt from a law review article referencing Reg FD, which has something to say about the extent to which we need to protect insider communications with analysts):
1. Dirks v. S.E.C.,
2. United States v. Newman,
3. United States v. Salman,
4. Delaware Cnty. Employees Ret. Fund v. Sanchez,
5. Dirks v. S.E.C. (dissent, excerpt 1),
6. Dirks v. S.E.C. (dissent, excerpt 2), and
7. Donna M. Nagy & Richard W. Painter, Selective Disclosure by Federal Officials and the Case for an Fgd (Fairer Government Disclosure) Regime.
Obviously, Sanchez may be viewed as an outlier here, but perhaps this will spur some creative work on how the standard for director independence might inform the standard for improper tipping or vice versa.
Wednesday, October 7, 2015
Two weeks ago I wrote my first in a series of posts on the SEC's proposed liquidity and redemption rules for mutual funds. The first post, available here, focused on swing pricing. Today's post will focus on the liquidity management proposals contained in the proposed rules to address liquidity risk.
The proposed rules would require all open end mutual funds (not UITs, closed-end funds or money management funds) to create a written liquidity management program and to disclose it to the SEC via the proposed forms N-CEN and N-PORT. Under the plan, funds would (1) classify and conduct ongoing reviews of liquidity of each of the fund's positions in portfolio assets, (ii) assess and conduct periodic reviews of the fund's liquidity risk, and (iii) manage the fund's liquidity risk through a set-aside minimum portion of fund assets that are convertible within 3 business days at a price that does not materially affect the value of that asset immediately prior to sale.
Liquidity risk is born of concern that a fund "could not meet requests to redeem shares issued by the fund that are expected under normal conditions, or are reasonably foreseeable under stressed conditions, without materials affecting the fund’s net asset value." (Proposed Rules at 44-45).
Fund classification of portfolio liquidity is in addition to the 15% illiquid asset cap under current SEC guidelines (Release Nos. 33-6927; IC-18612, March 12, 1992). The proposed liquidity classifications "would require a fund to assess the liquidity of its portfolio positions individually, as well as the liquidity profile of the fund as a whole” and unlike the 15% cap to take "into account any market or other factors in considering an asset’s liquidity," and assess "whether the fund’s position size in a particular asset affects the liquidity of that asset." (Proposed Rules at 62-63).
A fund would assess the relative liquidity of each portfolio position based on the number of days within which it is determined, using information obtained after reasonable inquiry, that the fund’s position in an asset (or a portion of that asset) would be convertible to cash at a price that does not materially affect the value of that asset immediately prior to sale.” (Proposed Rules at 63-64). Funds would report portfolio classification in one of 6 categories of liquidity ranging from 1 day conversion to cash to 30 days conversion to cash to be reported on proposed N-PORT form.
The liquidity factors include:
o Existence of an active market for the asset, including whether the asset is listed on an exchange, as well as the number, diversity, and quality of market participants;
o Frequency of trades or quotes for the asset and average daily trading volume of the asset (regardless of whether the asset is a security traded on an exchange);
o Volatility of trading prices for the asset;
o Bid-ask spreads for the asset;
o Whether the asset has a relatively standardized and simple structure;
o For fixed income securities, maturity and date of issue;
o Restrictions on trading of the asset and limitations on transfer of the asset;
o The size of the fund’s position in the asset relative to the asset’s average daily trading volume and, as applicable, the number of units of the asset outstanding; and
o Relationship of the asset to another portfolio asset.”
(Proposed Rules at 80).
Monday, October 5, 2015
Alicia Plerhoples (Georgetown) has the details about the first benefit corporation IPO: Laureate Education.*
She promises more analysis on SocEntLaw (where I am also a co-editor) in the near future.
The link to Laureate Education's S-1 is here. Laureate Education has chosen the Delaware public benefit corporation statute to organize under, rather than one of the states that more closely follows the Model Benefit Corporation Legislation. I wrote about the differences between Delaware and the Model here.
Plum Organics (also a Delaware public benefit corporation) is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the publicly-traded Campbell's Soup, but it appears that Laureate Education will be the first stand-alone publicly traded benefit corporation.
*Remember that there are differences between certified B corporations and benefit corporations. Etsy, which IPO'd recently, is currently only a certified B corporation. Even Etsy's own PR folks confused the two terms in their initial announcement of their certification.
October 5, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Delaware, Haskell Murray, Research/Scholarhip, Securities Regulation, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, October 1, 2015
Last night, I took my husband (part of his birthday present) to see The Illusionists, a touring Broadway production featuring seven masters of illusion doing a three-night run in Knoxville this week. I admit to a fascination for magic shows and the like, an interest my husband shares. I really enjoyed the production and recommend it to those with similar interests.
At the show last night, however, something unusual happened. I ended up in the show. I made an egg reappear and had my watch pilfered by one of the illusionists. It was pretty cool. After the show, I got kudos for my performance in the ladies room, on the street, and in the local gelato place.
But I admit that as I thought about the way I had been tricked--by sleight of hand--into performing for the audience and allowing my watch to be taken, I realized that these illusionists have something in common with Ponzi schemers and the like--each finds a patsy who can believe and suckers that person into parting with something of value based on that belief. That's precisely what I wanted to blog about today anyway--scammers. Life has a funny way of making these kinds of connections . . . .
So, I am briefly posting today about a type of affinity fraud that really troubles me--affinity fraud in which a lawyer defrauds a client. Most of us who teach business law have had to teach, in Business Associations or a course on professional responsibility, cases involving lawyers who, e.g., abscond with client funds or deceive clients out of money or property. I always find that these cases provide important, if difficult, teaching moments: I want the students to understand the applicable law of the case, but I also want them to understand the gravity of the situation when a lawyer breaches that all-important bond of trust with a client.
Friday, September 25, 2015
Regular readers of this blog know that I have chastised the SEC on several occasions for its lengthy delay in adopting rules to implement the exemption for crowdfunded securities offerings. (It has now been 1,268 days since the President signed the bill, 998 days past the statutory rulemaking deadline, and 702 days since the SEC proposed the rules.)
The long wait may soon be over. According to BNA, SEC Chair Mary Jo White said yesterday that the SEC will finish adopt its crowdfunding rules in the "very near term."
I don't know exactly what "very near term" means to a government official. Given my luck, it probably means immediately prior to the two crowdfunding presentations I'm scheduled to give in October. Nothing like a little last-minute juggling to keep me on my toes.
Wednesday, September 23, 2015
Yesterday (September 22, 2015) the SEC announced proposed rules regarding mutual funds and ETFs aimed at regulating liquidity and redemption risks as well as enhancing disclosures. Included in the 400+ pages of proposed rules and analysis, the SEC focused on swing pricing, a practice to mitigate the impact of forward pricing required under Rule 22c-1 of the Investment Company Act. Before this feels too in the weeds of securities law, let’s discuss what this means. Funds are required to redeem shareholders’ interests at NAV (net asset value pricing), when faced with redemption requests by shareholders wanting to exit the fund. The fund then sells assets to pay the NAV to the departing shareholder or keeps a certain pool of assets liquid to meet such requests. The costs of these trades or lost investment cost of the liquid assets are born by the shareholders who remain in the funds. Additionally, shareholders who purchase new shares of the fund, do so at the daily NAV, which doesn’t reflect the liquidity cost imposed by the departing shareholders. Similarly, when the fund receives the investment of new shareholders, the fund invests that money, but the purchase price NAV does not reflect the trading cost of when the fund purchases new portfolio assets. Consider these helpful examples from the proposed rules:
If a fund has valued portfolio asset X at $10 at the beginning of day 1, and market activity on day 1 (including the fund’s sale of portfolio asset X) decreases the market value of portfolio asset X to $9 at the end of day 1, the fund’s remaining holdings of portfolio asset X at the end of day 1 would be valued at $9 to reflect the asset’s market value on that day. However, staff outreach has shown that it is common industry practice, as permitted by rule 2a-4, for the fund’s current NAV to not reflect the actual price at which the fund has sold the portfolio assets until the next business day following the sale. In the example above, if the fund selling portfolio asset X sold the asset during the day at $8 on day 1, the price that the fund received for these asset sales would not be reflected in the fund’s NAV until day 2. Thus, redeeming shareholders would have received an exit price that would reflect portfolio asset X being valued at the close of the market at $9 on day 1, whereas remaining shareholders would hold shares on day 2 whose value reflects portfolio asset X being sold at $8 (the actual price that the fund received when it sold the asset on day one).
Similarly, as noted above, the price that a purchasing shareholder pays for fund shares normally does not take into account trading and market impact costs that arise when the fund buys portfolio assets to invest the proceeds received from shareholder purchases. ….. the fund’s NAV on day 1 (and the purchase price an incoming shareholder were to receive on day 1) reflects portfolio asset X being valued at $10, but the fund were to purchase additional shares of portfolio asset X on day 2 at $11, the price that a purchasing shareholder pays on day 1 would not reflect the costs of investing the proceeds of the shareholder’s purchases of fund shares. These costs instead would be reflected in the fund’s NAV on days following the shareholder’s purchase, and thus would be borne by all of the investors in the fund, not only the shareholders who purchased on day 1. p.186-187
Shareholders who exit mutual funds pay for none of these transaction costs and entering shareholders only pay a fraction of them. Who foots the long-term bill? The existing fund shareholders do. I wrote about this feature of mutual fund investment here on BLPB last December when I was thinking about the impact of mutual fund investment features on long-term shareholders like retirement and 529 College Plan investors—investors I refer to as Citizen Shareholders in my scholarship.
To address these transaction costs the SEC proposed rule 22c-1(a)(3) to allow for partial swing pricing (not mandating it) when redemptions and purchases exceed a certain threshold. In addition to enhancing the NAV’s reflection of the true value of the fund, swing pricing may deter first mover advantage incentives to redeem shares early in negative liquidity stress. To understand more about liquidity and redemption risks, you can also read the accompanying White Paper from the Division of Economic and Risk Analysis: Liquidity and Flows of U.S. Mutual Funds.
The Commission is seeking comments on the proposed partial swing pricing (and other rule amendment). These changes are proposed in conjunction with other liquidity management tools and disclosure enhancements, features that I hope to highlight here on BLPB in future posts.
For those of you interested in securities laws, this post requires no further explanation or introduction. For readers more concerned with traditional corporate governance, the proposed rules should be of interest to you as well. These rules signal an increased focus by the SEC on mutual funds and ETFs regarding pricing, risk management, and disclosure. Institutional investors wield tremendous voting power and financial clout in public companies-- pressures imposed on these investors will be felt secondarily by the operating companies whose stock is held by these funds. If there was ever a meaningful distinction between corporate governance and securities, those boundary lines are under increasing pressure in light of institutional investor ownership trends.
Finally, let me just say that after a long hiatus from blogging....it is good to be back.
Monday, September 21, 2015
Haskell Murray had an interesting post on Friday about businesses buying fake reviews, followers, or friends online. That post led me to think about another issue—if a company did that, could it be liable under Rule 10b-5 for securities fraud?
Consider this scenario: An investor is thinking about investing in a company called Ebusiness, Inc. She carefully reviews the company’s online presence and sees that Ebusiness has more followers and friends than anyone else in the industry. The reviews of its products are overwhelmingly positive. She concludes that Ebusiness is destined for greatness and buys its stock.
Later, the press discloses that most of Ebusiness’s followers and friends, and most of its online product reviews, are fake. Ebusiness paid someone else to produce them. The price of Ebusiness’s stock drops precipitously. Would Ebusiness be liable under Rule 10b-5?
Rule 10b-5 makes it unlawful "to make any untrue statement of a material fact . . . in connecton with the purchase or sale of any security. There’s no question that Ebusiness, through its paid agent, made fraudulent statements. There’s also no question that the investor relied on those fraudulent statements and suffered a loss when the truth became known. The real issue is whether those fraudulent statements were “in connection with the purchase or sale of any security,” as required by Rule 10b-5.
The courts have read the “in connection with” requirement broadly, but its meaning is still far from clear. The Second Circuit has indicated that the false statement must be disseminated “in a manner reasonably calculated to influence the investing public.” SEC v. Texas Gulf Sulphur Co. 401 F.2d 833, 862 (2d Cir. 1968). The false statements do not have to be directed specifically at investors, as long as the statement is of a sort that reasonable investors would rely on. In Re Carter-Wallace, Inc. Securities Litigation, 150 F.3d 153, 156 (2d Cir. 1998). The Carter-Wallace case held that product advertisements in medical journals could be covered by Rule 10b-5, although the primary goal of advertising is to influence consumers, not investors.
The same can be said of false "likes" and product reviews. Their primary goal is to influence consumers, not to convince investors to buy the company's stock. A reasonable investor certainly would not rely on a single "like" or product review. But, given the importance of a company's Internet presence, a reasonable investor might rely on the overall weight of likes and product reviews. Such use by an investor is certainly reasonable foreseeable.
Given the uncertainty of the case law, a definite conclusion is impossible. But it is at least possible that fraudulent product reviews or Facebook “likes” could trigger liability under Rule 10b-5. It’s probably just a matter of time before an ambitious plaintiff’s lawyer tries.
Thursday, September 10, 2015
Are Crooked Executives Finally Going to Jail? DOJ’s New White Collar Criminal Guidelines and the Questions for Compliance Officers and In House Counsel
I think my life as a compliance officer would have been much easier had the DOJ issued its latest memo when I was still in house. As the New York Times reported yesterday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch has heard the criticism and knows that her agency may face increased scrutiny from the courts. Thus the DOJ has announced via the “Yates Memorandum” that it’s time for some executives to go to jail. Companies will no longer get favorable deferred or nonprosecution agreements unless they cooperate at the beginning of the investigation and provide information about culpable individuals.
This morning I provided a 7-minute interview to a reporter from my favorite morning show NPR’s Marketplace. My 11 seconds is here. Although it didn’t make it on air, I also discussed (and/or thought about) the fact that compliance officers spend a great deal of time training employees, developing policies, updating board members on their Caremark duties, scanning the front page of the Wall Street Journal to see what company had agreed to sign a deferred prosecution agreement, and generally hoping that they could find something horrific enough to deter their employees from going rogue so that they wouldn’t be on the front page of the Journal. Now that the Yates memo is out, compliance officers have a lot more ammunition.
On the other hand, the Yates memo raises a lot of questions. What does this mean in practice for compliance officers and in house counsel? How will this development change in-house investigations? Will corporate employees ask for their own counsel during investigations or plead the 5th since they now run a real risk of being criminally and civilly prosecuted by DOJ? Will companies have to pay for separate counsel for certain employees and must that payment be disclosed to DOJ? What impact will this memo have on attorney-client privilege? How will the relationship between compliance officers and their in-house clients change? Compliance officers are already entitled to whistleblower awards from the SEC provided they meet certain criteria. Will the Yates memo further complicate that relationship between the compliance officer and the company if the compliance personnel believe that the company is trying to shield a high profile executive during an investigation?
I for one think this is a good development, and I’m in good company. Some of the judges who have been most critical of deferred prosecution agreements have lauded today’s decision. But, actions speak louder than words, so a year from now, let’s see how many executives have gone on trial.
September 10, 2015 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Lawyering, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (1)
Monday, August 31, 2015
Andrew Vollmer, a law professor at the University of Virginia and a former SEC deputy general counsel, has written two excellent papers on SEC enforcement.
The first, SEC Revanchism and the Expansion of Primary Liability under Section 17(a) and Rule 10b-5, is a critical look at the SEC’s decision in the Flannery administrative proceeding. If you’re a securities lawyer and you’re not familiar with Flannery, you should be. It stakes out a number of broad interpretations of liability under Rule 10b-5 and section 17(a) of the Securities Act. I (and Professor Vollmer) believe some of those positions are inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent, but the SEC’s is clearly trying to set up an argument for judicial deference under Chevron.
Professor Vollmer’s second article is Four Ways to Improve SEC Enforcement. He discusses the problems with SEC administrative proceedings and how to fix them.
Both articles are definitely worth reading.
Friday, August 28, 2015
I don't agree with SEC Commissioner Luis Aguilar on many issues. But I agree with his recent call for transparency in the disqualification waiver process.
A number of SEC rules, such as some of the offering registration exemptions, are not available to companies that have engaged in certain misbehavior in the past. But the SEC has the authority to waive those disqualifications, and it often does. Or, I should say, the SEC staff often does. As Commissioner Aguilar points out, the commissioners are often unaware that a waiver has been requested. And, as with staff no-action letters, it's often unclear why some waivers are granted and others are not.
I'm not a fan of the whole idea of discretionary waivers. Allowing government employees to waive the law on a case-by-case basis with little explanation strikes me as inconsistent with the rule of law. But, if we're going to have them, the process should be as transparent as possible.