Reg. A+ Assessing the True Costs

From the laptop of Irwin G. Stein, Esq.Many small and mid-sized companies seem to be assessing their option to raise equity capital using the SEC’s new Regulation A+, which was promulgated under the JOBS Act. The regulation allows companies to register up to $50 million worth of their shares with the SEC and then offer them for sale to members of the general public.

Until now, companies seeking equity capital at this low end of the market could only seek funds from wealthy, accredited investors using a different regulation; Reg. D, the private placement rule.

The upfront costs of preparing a private placement offering will always be less than the costs of a Reg. A+ offering. In both cases competent securities attorneys will prepare the prospectus. Reg. A+ requires that the company’s books be audited as well. This is an added expense. The true costs however, will be determined by who sells the offering and how it is sold.

It is not unusual for a private placement being sold under Reg. D to have an upfront load of 15% of the total amount of the offering or more. The issuing company only receives 85% or less of the funds that are raised by the underwriter.

One percent of the load might repay the company’s costs of preparing the offering. Another one percent might cover the underwriter’s marketing and due diligence costs. The rest is the sales commission and other fees that the underwriter is charging for selling the private placement.

Many accredited investors are currently purchasing Reg. D offerings and paying the 15% or more front-end load. There is no incentive for the brokerage industry to charge Reg. A+ issuers any less.

When you purchase shares in a private placement you generally cannot re-sell them. Even if the company does well at first, if it fails in later years, you still lose your money.

With Reg. A+ the shares are supposed to be freely trade-able, except that they are not. The market in which they are supposed to trade is not yet fully developed. It may not develop for quite some time.

How much will the underwriters charge for a fully underwritten Reg. A+ offering? The rule of thumb has always been that commissions go up as the risks go up. Shares issued under both Reg. D and Reg. A+ are speculative investments.

Since both regulations will yield securities that are speculative investments that cannot be re-sold, it is reasonable that underwriters will charge the same for both types of offerings.

Some companies will attempt to sell their shares under Reg. A+ directly to the public without an underwriter. Investors who purchase these shares will get more equity for their investment. That does not necessarily mean that they will get greater value. If many issuers can self-fund without an underwriter it might cause downward pressure on loads and commissions that underwriters can charge.

If commissions on Reg. A+ offerings turn out to be substantially less, many accredited investors may shift to the Reg. A+ market. More likely, some brokerage firms will sell both Reg. D and Reg. A+ offerings side by side. If they do, the commission structure and total load on each should be similar.

Remembering the “customer’s man”

Several weeks back I had lunch with a colleague who, like me, had started in the brokerage business in the 1970s. At one point he referred to himself as a “customer’s man”. It was a term used to describe a registered representative that I had not heard in years. It evoked a way of doing business that has largely been lost.

At that time, commissions and costs were fixed across the industry. Today, we see these costs as an impediment to our ability to maximize investment returns. We have lost sight of the value that a good customer’s man brought to the process.

A good customer’s man got to know you.

The brokerage firms encouraged every customer’s man to get to know every one of his customers and to get to know them well. You would meet in person to share lunch, drinks or dinner or to play squash, tennis or golf. Over time and many conversations you would get to know quite a bit about each others’ lives and families. Your customer’s man would become one of your trusted advisers.

A good customer’s man was a good stock picker.

Customers’ men were always on the look-out for the next stock that was about to make a move. They were selling their ability to pick stocks and to buy them for you at the right price.

Your customer’s man would always tell you which stocks he was following and why he was following them. He would call to tell you when the price had dipped and to recommend that you give him an order to buy a few hundred shares for you. You would not hesitate.

A good customer’s man made money for you.

Customer’s men were judged by how much the stocks that they recommended went up. It was a simple metric that everyone understood. Very few built their book of customers by advertising or seminars. The best built their books by word of mouth. They asked existing customers for referrals. Customers who made money following their broker’s recommendations gave the best referrals.

From the 1970s forward if the firms wanted more customers, it meant having more brokers with bigger and bigger books of customer accounts. The big action was moving established producers around from firm to firm. Front-end bonuses for really big producers became really big. Just about every broker wanted to be a bigger producer.

That attitude was good for the firms and they encouraged it. Brokers became almost exclusively focused on bringing in more customers. No longer were they judged for the stocks that they picked or how much money their customers made. Producers were now judged on how many “assets under management” they have.

The actual management and investing of the customers’ funds was increasingly handled elsewhere. Enticing new customers meant selling the investing and management skills of others.

This was logical as so many of the customers’ men had not seen the 1987 crash coming. If they had, logic suggested that they would have pulled their customers out before it happened.

It was time to let the experts manage your investments. Customers were sold many different kinds of managed funds, annuities and other “packaged” financial products. All of these products were expensive from the customers’ standpoint. The firms had built in significant underwriting costs and management fees.

Many of these fund managers drank from the Kool-aid that said that price/earnings ratios of 50 or more were sustainable and likely to go higher. Individual brokers who questioned the wisdom of the high paid fund managers and research analysts were brought into line or shown the door.

When the tech market inevitably crashed, many in the industry argued that “no one had seen it coming.” They said the same when the market crashed again in 2008. It was a phrase that was repeated so often that people started to believe it.

It re-enforced the idea that the average financial adviser can do no better than average. Everyone just started buying the index, certain that no human being who actually works in the markets every day could actually have awareness of what was going on or to help customers profit from it.

The index was much cheaper than a human adviser in any event. Lower costs were more efficient and would increase returns, provided, of course, the market goes up.

A good customer’s man always put the interests of his customers first. It was an era when almost every business adhered to the idea that “the customer was always right.” When is the last time that you heard that phrase or saw it posted in a business or an office?

Today, the industry staunchly opposes any regulation that would require individual brokers to put their customers’ interests first. That should tell you everything that you need to know about the financial services industry today.

The individual registered representative, the back-bone and the public face of the brokerage industry will likely not survive another generation. Their jobs are already foolishly being replaced by computer driven robo-advisers.

The industry will survive and prosper without the customer’s men. It is already oblivious to what it has lost.

Accredited Investors-Here Comes Direct Solicitation

The JOBS Act required the SEC to permit issuers of certain common private placements to greatly expand their marketing efforts. Issuers using the Reg. D exemption had been prohibited from using any form of “general solicitation” or “general advertising” to market their interests. The SEC has amended its rules to lift that prohibition.

“General solicitation” and “general advertising” were not defined terms, but the rule states that these may include, “any advertisement, article, notice or other communication published in any newspaper, magazine, or similar media or broadcast over television or radio; and any seminar or meeting whose attendees have been invited by any general solicitation or general advertising.”

A private placement offering is frequently structured to be sold to accredited investors only. This includes banks and insurance companies and retail customers provided the latter have either a $1 million net worth or earn $200,000 per year.

Under the old rule, a stockbroker could not address a stranger with a solicitation for a private placement. There needed to be a pre-existing business relationship between the stockbroker and the potential investor. This was always a chicken and egg problem for the brokerage industry. Many brokerage firms and issuers found interesting ways to comply with the rule and still attract “new” customers.

Under the new rules, accredited investors will likely be bombarded with advertisements for Reg. D offerings of every kind. There will be print and website ads, U-Tube videos and infomercials. Seminars will be less informational and more focused on making sales.

This rule change is likely to launch billions of e-mails. Mailing lists with e-mail addresses for accredited investors are currently available from list brokers. The lists can be sorted geographically and will identify people who previously invested in Reg. D offerings.

If these advertisements emanate from FINRA brokerage firms there is at least a presumption of compliance with the rules that require the advertisements not to be misleading. If the ads emanate from the issuers themselves, there is less oversight.

More likely than not there will be more abuses. In the last cycle, we saw issuers put out glossy brochures offering interests in “Class A” office buildings that were not “Class A” and ads for oil drilling programs with “proven reserves” that were not “proven”.

Some ads will likely target seniors. It is not hard to imagine an advertisement for a Reg. D offering that asks: could you use more monthly income? I should not have to tell you that scam artists will be especially active.

The interests sold in Reg. D offerings are speculative investments. The ideal customer for a Reg. D offering is an accredited investor who is willing to take the risk of these investments and who can afford to take the loss if it occurs. They should be sophisticated enough to understand the offering materials and to make an informed decision whether or not to invest.

General advertising will cast a much wider net. It will undoubtedly bring more investors and more capital into this market. It will also bring more investors into the market who will not understand the offering documents or be able to accurately assess the risks.

Advertising appeals to our emotional nature. Emotions are never a good tool for evaluating risky investments.

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Reg. A+ – Exuberance and Reality

The JOBS Act mandated the creation of new rules to help smaller companies obtain funds for development and expansion. One result is the SEC’s new Reg. A+.

Many people see the new regulation as an opportunity for small companies to gain access to the capital markets. It has created a fair amount of excitement and a plethora of seminars and experts.

There are groups prepared to assist businesses owned by women and minorities to take advantage of new sources of capital. There are bio-tech companies with patents (and those still developing their patents) looking for funds. There are consultants pitching Reg. A+ to the cannabis industry.

The sales pitch for Reg. A+ goes something like this: small investors will help to fund small companies that Wall Street ignores. Reg. A+ is a way for companies that could not get funded elsewhere to raise money from Main Street investors.

Some people seem to suggest that thousands of small companies will be able to take advantage of this new regulation. They seem to believe that there is a vast pool of underutilized capital eager for this type of speculative investment.

Reg. A+ will permit companies to raise a maximum of $50 million. Many of the offerings will be smaller; some a lot smaller. These are unlikely to attract the attention of any of the large investment banks. There will be some brokerage firms that will occupy this space, but they too are likely to be smaller.

The anticipation seems to be that many issuers will try to sell the shares to the public themselves without the help of an underwriter. Direct to the public securities offerings have been around for 20 years. Raising a relatively small amount of money from family, friends, suppliers and customers has always been an option.

The up front costs of a new Reg. A + offering are likely to be high. Lawyers and accountants who take companies public are specialists and frequently expensive ones. How little a Reg. A+ offering raise and still justify those costs has yet to be determined.

Underwriters provide essential services to every offering. Underwriters conduct due diligence about the issuer and the offering. Underwriters participate in preparing the registration statement. They make the important pricing decisions and provide research and aftermarket support. All of these tasks will still need to be performed if the company decides to go it alone.

All of this will fall to the issuers, their attorneys and accountants. Issuers who do not use an underwriter will need to assemble an experienced team from scratch. The attorneys and accountants are not going to be much help in the effort to sell the shares. That is what the underwriters do best.

Liability under the federal anti-fraud statutes will rest with the issuers as well. Insurance companies are already advising management that raising funds from public investors without appropriate coverage is fool-hardy.

Proponents are looking to social media to create interest in these offerings. Reg. A+ has a provision allowing a company to use a preliminary prospectus akin to a red herring to obtain indications of interest before the offering becomes final.

As a practical matter, potential purchasers will likely be directed to a website that will allow them to read the preliminary prospectus and which will likely contain a video about the company. The latter is a modern version of what used to be called the “dog and pony show”.

The lawyers who are moving the registration statement through the SEC are likely to make certain that those videos are toned down. That does not mean that a company cannot generate some real excitement in a video. It means that the videos will need to be compliant with the regulations anbd offer a balanced presentation including the fact that investors could lose all the money that they invest.

Given the reach of social media, the video might be viewed by a great many potential investors. Success of a direct to the public offering may hinge upon how many people are excited enough to direct their friends and contacts to the website. At least with an underwriter the offering is likely to be funded.

Any investor willing to assume the risk will be able to purchase shares offered in a Reg. A+ offering. That is the point. Mom and pop can help fund a small business that might eventually turn out to be big. Investors will further benefit because sales made directly by the company will not be subject to sales commissions.

Institutions and accredited investors (wealthier individuals with $1 million net worth or $200,000 in income) are also expected to invest. Angel investors and professional venture capital funds may invest as well. These investors are currently purchasing offerings being made under Regulation D which frequently have substantial loads and commission costs. Direct from the company offerings that are commission free will certainly appeal to some accredited and professional investors.

Unlike Reg. D, investors in a Reg. A+ offering come away with freely trade-able shares, just like they would in an IPO, but not quite. The Reg. A+ market is brand new. Reg. A+ shares may be legally trade-able but if you wish to sell them the question will be: to whom? It may take a while for a truly liquid secondary market for these shares to develop.

Certainly there will be successful offerings made under Reg. A+ both underwritten and direct from the issuer. How many there will be and how much money they will raise remains to be seen.

One thousand Reg. A+ offerings per year at the maximum of $50 million each would add only $50 billion to this end of the market. I suspect that the actual amount of funds raised under this rule will be less.