EQUITY CROWDFUNDING HAS FINALLY ARRIVED – SEC ADOPTS FINAL RULES ON CROWDFUNDING

On October 30, 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), in a 3-1 vote of the SEC Commissioners, approved final rules to adopt Regulation Crowdfunding, which sets forth the framework by which companies can “equity crowdfund” – sell small amounts of securities (typically for a small purchase price) to a large number of investors over the Internet. The final rules, which will become effective 180 days after they are published in the Federal Register, follow the SEC’s adoption of proposed rules in October 2013 (which we previously blogged about). The SEC’s proposed rules were widely criticized as unworkable and elicited more than 480 comment letters that raised a host of concerns regarding, among other things, the effectiveness of the proposed rules in promoting capital formation and protecting investors.

Issuers and investors, particularly in the startup community, have been abuzz about equity crowdfunding since the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (“JOBS Act”) was enacted in April 2012.  Title III of the JOBS Act added Section 4(a)(6) to the Securities Act of 1933 (the “Securities Act”) to provide an exemption for equity crowdfunding transactions from the registration requirements of the Securities Act.  After seeing the success of non-equity crowdfunding – the Kickstarter fundraising campaigns of Pebble (~$20M raised) and Pono (~$6M raised) come to mind – it is understandable why issuers and investors have placed so much hope in the promise of equity crowdfunding.  With the SEC’s final rules in place, equity crowdfunding, with its numerous limitations and requirements, will shortly become a reality.

Under the final rules, an issuer may raise up to $1 million in a 12-month period in a crowdfunding offering conducted via a single intermediary – either a broker-dealer or a funding portal registered with the SEC.  An issuer engaging in a crowdfunding offering must complete and file with the SEC a newly-created Form C (similar to the Form 1-A offering statement under Regulation A, but with fewer required disclosures), which will require the disclosure of certain business and financial information including  financial statements of the issuer. Depending on the amount sought in the crowdfunding offering and whether an issuer has previously conducted a crowdfunding offering, the final rules will require that an issuer provide audited or reviewed financial statements.  For example, an offering of more than $500,000 of securities will require reviewed financial statements unless the issuer is not a first time issuer, in which case audited financial statements will be required.

The final rules also limit the amount of funds that an individual investor may invest in all crowdfunding offerings over a 12-month period, based on an investor’s annual income and net worth. Interestingly, despite criticism on the workability of the investment limitations set forth in the proposed rules, the final rules have more stringent limitations than those included in the proposed rules.  An investor with either annual income or net worth less than $100,000 can invest up to 5 percent of the lesser of annual income or net worth, or $2,000, whichever is greater, every 12 months. An investor with both annual income and net worth greater than $100,000 can invest up to 10 percent of the lesser of annual income or net worth every 12 months, subject to a cap of $100,000 in a 12-month period.   One effect of the limits will be that crowdfunding issuers may end up with numerous investors providing small investments – for example, an issuer raising $1 million would have 500 shareholders if the $2,000 limitation applied to those investors.

Only time will tell whether the regulatory environment created by the final rules will allow equity crowdfunding to reach the heights envisioned by many proponents. Among other reasons, the costs and compliance burden for issuers and the potential returns to investors are difficult to forecast at this time.  Regardless, many issuers, especially startups, now have an additional tool to raise capital in the United States. A more detailed summary of the final rules is provided below.

Sales Limitations

The following sales limitations apply to a crowdfunding offering:

  • An eligible issuer (see below for a description of ineligible issuers) is permitted to raise a maximum aggregate amount of $1 million through crowdfunding offerings in a 12-month period. In addition, entities controlled by, or under common control, with the issuer are aggregated for purposes of determining compliance with the offering ceiling.
  • Individual investors, over the course of a 12-month period, are permitted to invest in the aggregate across all crowdfunding offerings up to:
    • If either their annual income or net worth is less than $100,000, then the greater of: (1) $2,000, or (2) 5% of the lesser of their annual income or net worth.
    • If both their annual income and net worth are equal to or more than $100,000, then 10% of the lesser of their annual income or net worth, subject to a cap of $100,000 in a 12-month period.
  • The JOBS Act requires that the SEC adjust the issuer sales limitation and investor investment limitations not less than every five years to account for changes in the CPI.

Ineligible Issuers

The following issuers are not eligible to utilize a crowdfunding offering:

  • Non-U.S. companies.
  • Reporting companies under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (the “Exchange Act”).
  • Certain investment companies.
  • Companies that are disqualified under Regulation Crowdfunding’s disqualification rules (i.e., bad actors).
  • Companies that have failed to comply with the annual reporting requirements under Regulation Crowdfunding during the two years immediately preceding the filing of the offering statement (i.e., Form C).
  • Companies that have no specific business plan or have indicated their business plan is to engage in a merger or acquisition with an unidentified company or companies.

Disclosure Requirements

An issuer conducting a crowdfunding offering is required to file certain information with the SEC on new Form C and to provide this information to investors and the applicable crowdfunding portal facilitating the offering. Among other things, in its offering documents, the issuer is required to disclose:

  • Information about officers and directors as well as owners of 20 percent or more of the issuer;
  • A description of the issuer’s business and the use of proceeds from the offering;
  • The price to the public of the securities or the method for determining the price, the target offering amount, the deadline to reach the target offering amount, and whether the issuer will accept investments in excess of the target offering amount;
  • Certain related-party transactions;
  • A discussion of the issuer’s financial condition; and
  • Financial statements of the issuer that are, depending on the amount offered and sold during a 12-month period:
  • If $100,000 or less, based on information from the issuer’s tax returns and certified by the principal executive officer,
  • If more than $100,000 and but not more than $500,00, reviewed by an independent public accountant, and
  • If more than $500,000, audited by an independent auditor, except that an issuer engaging in a crowdfunding offering for the first time would be permitted to provide reviewed rather than audited financial statements.
  • In any case, if audited financial statements of the issuer are available, then they must be provided.

Issuers are required to amend the offering document during the offering period to reflect material changes and provide updates on the issuer’s progress toward reaching the target offering amount.

In addition, issuers relying on the Regulation Crowdfunding exemption are required to file an annual report with the SEC and provide it to investors.  The reporting requirements will continue until:

  • the issuer is required to file reports under the Exchange Act;
  • the issuer has filed at least one annual report and has fewer than 300 holders of record;
  • the issuer has filed at least three annual reports and has total assets that do not exceed $10 million;
  • the issuer or another party purchases or repurchases all of the securities issued pursuant to the crowdfunding exemption), including any payment in full of debt securities or any complete redemption of redeemable securities; or
  • the issuer liquidates or dissolves in accordance with state law.

Crowdfunding Platforms

Each crowdfunding offering must be conducted exclusively through a single platform operated by an “intermediary” which is either a registered broker or a funding portal – a new type of SEC registrant. The rules require that such an intermediary:

  • Provide investors with educational materials;
  • Take measures to reduce the risk of fraud;
  • Make available information about the issuer and the offering;
  • Provide communication channels to permit discussions about offerings on the platform; and
  • Facilitate the offer and sale of crowdfunded securities.

The rules also prohibit a crowdfunding portal from:

  • Offering investment advice or making recommendations;
  • Soliciting purchases, sales or offers to buy securities offered or displayed on its platform;
  • Compensating promoters and others for solicitations or based on the sale of securities; and
  • Holding, possessing, or handling investor funds or securities.

The final rules provide a safe harbor under which crowdfunding portals can engage in certain activities, consistent with these restrictions.

Miscellaneous Restrictions

Securities acquired in a crowdfunding offering are generally subject to a one year holding period before they can be resold, subject to certain exceptions. Holders of securities acquired in a crowdfunding offering do not count toward the threshold that requires an issuer to register its securities with the SEC under Section 12(g) of the Exchange Act if the issuer is current in its annual reporting obligation, retains the services of a registered transfer agent and has less than $25 million in assets.

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