Monday, April 22, 2019

The Internet & Business Disclosures: Observations

Co-blogger Ann Lipton has posted a number of times on Elon Musk's Twitter disclosures and their potential legal significance.  I chimed in once.  Unless I am mistaken, her most recent post (citing to our prior posts) on this subject is here.  Based on these posts, we both seem to understand that the Twitter Era has spawned some interesting disclosure-related legal questions.

I had these posts in the back of my mind when I got an email invitation yesterday from IPO Docs, a firm that sells "Regulation D Private Placement Memorandum Templates" to check into the firm's services.  I have never been a fan of online templates or form documents as drafting precedent, especially for investment disclosure documents.  In general, one-size-fits-all disclosure lawyering is just too far from my practice background (which involved reverse-engineering the work of my Skadden colleagues and others).  But I do tell students they should be familiar with these kinds of form/exemplar resources and that, after determining the quality and suitability of a resource for their purposes, they may want to use form documents as a cross-check for contents or phrasing.

These two examples of Internet-related disclosures (online commentary and disclosure forms) are two pieces of a larger disclosure regulation puzzle.  The puzzle?  How best to address challenges to disclosure regulation posed by our increased use of and reliance on the Internet.  Believe me; I am a fan of the Internet.  But having been engaged with disclosure regulation pre-Internet and post-Internet, I do see challenges.

Social media and blog posts or commentary, for example, raise issues about the nature of the speech and the identity of the speaker.  Are tweets made by firm managers disclosures of firm information or are they private statements?  Who is the person behind a social media or weblog account commenting on business affairs?  (I note that Ann's September 29, 2018 post on the Musk affair reports, based on information in the SEC's complaint, that analysts "privately contacted Tesla‚Äôs head of investor relations for more information and were assured that the tweet was legit."  And many may remember the dust-up--almost twelve years ago--around John Mackey's "anonymous" online posts.)

To the extent that we come to accept, from a disclosure compliance standpoint, business disclosures that are made through fractured online posts and commentary, we lose the benefits of standardization--including easy comparability--that comes from the traditional periodic and transaction-based disclosure regimes built into the Securities Act of 1933 and Securities Exchange Act of 1934.  While I understand the virtues of allowing for more customized business disclosures in certain circumstances (e.g., for Form S-8 registration statements, where a summary plan description geared to benefit-holders fulfills key prospectus disclosure requirements), should we be encouraging or mandating that investors of all kinds comb the Internet to find scraps of information to enable them to get comparable data?  (Of course, many investors do perform Internet searches, regardless.  But mandatory disclosure documents are the core elements of compliance, and they allow for relatively direct comparisons.)

What about disclosure challenges relating to Internet-available offering documents?  I admit that I have less concern here if these documents are purchased and used by a competent lawyer.  But I fear that will not be the dominant scenario.

In my view, a significant peril with disclosure templates is that people using them as drafting models may not be competent or skilled in their use.  Specifically, form end-users may not understand (or even consult) the legal rules relating to disclosures required to be made by a firm seeking capital under applicable federal and state securities law registration exemption(s).  The interpretation and interaction of some of these rules--and the preservation of arguments and remedies if an exemption is later found to be unavailable--can be complex.  It is too easy to use template text without questioning it.

Moreover, Internet forms may lull businesses into thinking they have met all attendant legal requirements relating to a financing transaction for which a form document has been purchased.  In a private placement, the existence of an accurate and complete disclosure document is but one of many legal compliance issues.  Private placements exempt under Regulation D have a number of moving parts, disclosure being only one.

I feel very "old school" in writing this post.  What are your views on these and other issues relevant to business disclosures made on or facilitated by the Internet?  As a person who has been known to describe herself as a "disclosure lawyer," I would appreciate any ideas you may have.  And tell me where I am wrong in the observations I make here.

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/business_law/2019/04/the-internet-business-disclosures-observations.html

Ann Lipton, Joan Heminway, Securities Regulation | Permalink

Comments

Hi Joan - great post! Was it one of your students who spoke at the BLPB conference in September and identified how some purveyors of form documents actually seemed to be getting the law wrong in some jurisdictions, or allowing for odd default arrangements?

The question you raise about standardization in an era of internet communication is also really important. I keep wondering if standardization matters when computers - not humans - are doing the reading. I mean, we're not fully there yet but so much trading an analysis is automated that maybe we're just looking at a future where standardization becomes less important?

Posted by: Ann Lipton | Apr 23, 2019 1:08:31 AM

Good memory, Ann. Yes, that was one of my students who raised the point about form documents. I must have been channeling that thought!

I do think standardization gets underplayed as a value of mandatory disclosure regulation. And yes, machine learning does make it possible that machines will perform potentially all investment analysis, given that we are on the path to fully automated analysis already. Assuming all have access to the machine learning (!), that may mean standardization falls away as a value.

Nice thoughts. Many thanks.

Posted by: joanheminway | Apr 23, 2019 4:42:59 AM

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