Sex and crowdfunding

Crowdfunding is very much an exercise in self-funding. The companies that are raising funds on the crowdfunding platforms are often expected to solicit their own customers, suppliers, friends and family to become investors in the business as part of the crowdfunding process.

There is a burgeoning industry of consultants who will help companies that want to raise money on these platforms. These consultants exist because there is still far too little capital available in this market. These consultants specifically help companies compete for that capital, but the crowdfunding process is still largely hit or miss.

It seems to be common knowledge that a good social media campaign should accompany any equity offering on a crowdfunding platform. Like all advertising, a social media campaign is a “numbers” game. Its goal is to bring enough eyeballs to your offering so that all of the shares you are offering will get sold.

If eyeballs are what you need to successfully crowdfund a company, it would seem logical then that the easiest company to crowdfund might be one selling a line of lingerie. No crowdfunding consultant worth his/her fee would likely tell the company not to include its product catalog in its presentation to investors if that catalog had pictures of models wearing lingerie.

Titillation aside, lingerie companies sell products that may be easily and inexpensively sourced and which can often be sold at substantial mark-ups. But that is not what the conversation is likely to be about.

In a perfect economic world, investors would travel to the “efficient frontier” (a great name for a crowdfunding platform, in my opinion) and select investments suited to their taste for a blend of risk and reward. Illiquid shares received by crowdfunding investors will always be speculative, so reducing the risk or increasing the potential reward seems to be the obvious way for the platforms to gain the most customers.

When a crowdfunded business finally monetizes the investors’ “bet” there should be every expectation that the investors will be well compensated. Greed, not sex, should be the emotional basis for any crowdfunding investment.

The crowfunding platforms are filled with companies seeking funding for real estate projects, technology projects, electronics, toys, bio-tech, consumables, films and office applications. A prospective investor visiting a few of the larger platforms would likely find a few hundred very different offerings to consider. As the offerings attempt to distinguish themselves one against the other, there seems to be more showmanship than substance.

The classic business model for offering new securities to the market would have them underwritten by an investment bank or brokerage firm. This model works for the companies that are being funded because they get funded. It is also exceedingly profitable for the investment banks.

Investors in an underwritten offering can expect to get a reasonably investigated, intelligently structured investment into which someone at the investment bank, independent of the company, has given some time, thought and analysis. The value added to a funding transaction by an investment bank is the judgment that they bring to the transaction. Investors who may know nothing about the company seeking funds will invest if they have relied upon the bank’s judgment in the past and made money.

I was only able to find one crowdfunding platform that even attempted to offer this type of assistance to companies that were listing on it. Only one platform that seems to see what everyone else is missing.

I should not have to tell you that many of the companies that are currently seeking funding on the crowdfunding platforms are very weak. Even companies which have a “cool” new product created by a great team of engineers will often employ no one with the experience to effectively get the product to market.

There are many start-ups on these platforms that are not yet in business. Someone independent of the company issuing its shares still needs to ask the question: “can you get this to market, on time, sell it and make a profit?” In the crowdfunding marketplace, at least up until now, no one really asks this question because no one considers it their job to do so.

Sooner or later, the platforms will likely realize that they are in the business of selling equity shares to investors and step up. Goldman Sacks is also in that same business and makes a lot of money doing it. As billions of dollars find their way to these platforms in the next few years, there will be a lot of money to be made as the crowdfunding industry matures.

The crowdfunding industry will have matured, in my opinion, when the social media messages change direction. Eventually, the current outgoing “please buy my offering” messages will be replaced by the incoming ”I wonder what the ‘Efficient Frontier’ crowdfunding platform is offering this week?”

Looking back ten years from now, will any of the crowdfunding platforms now operating be able to boast that “97% of the companies funded on our platform in the last 10 years are still operating” or anything close? Certainly the platforms should realize that this type of track record would draw a lot of new investors to their offerings and encourage loyalty from the investors that they already have.

Crowdfunding success or failure should never really be determined by sexy catalogs or the size of your social media campaign. The cream should always rise to the top. The crowdfunding market is new and growing rapidly. All that it needs to succeed is an infusion of a little judgment and some common sense.

Due Diligence by Dummies

Due diligence is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the financial world.

As an attorney, I have examined and cross-examined quite a few due diligence officers and experts employed by FINRA brokerage firms. Even those people who are specially tasked with the job of conducting due diligence investigations often do not know what they are doing or why.

The why is easy. Lawyers and underwriters who prepare securities offerings are required to include all the material facts in the offering documents. To do it properly, the lawyers and underwriters must independently investigate the facts to make certain that the sales materials given to potential investors are accurate, complete and the sales pitch for the security is honest.

The law does not presume that the management of any business will necessarily tell their lawyers or underwriters the whole truth. Management, especially management that is in the process of raising money, will often emphasize the positives about the business and leave the negatives out entirely. A good due diligence investigation is always infused with a healthy amount of skepticism about the managements’ claims for the business.

The large Wall Street investment banks usually do a pretty good job of due diligence. The bankers and lawyers usually charge the issuers at Wall Street billing rates to get the investigation done as part of the underwriting process. They frequently bring in experts with unique knowledge of the industry that the business is in.

A good due diligence investigation is the best way for these bankers and lawyers to protect themselves against investors’ claims of misstatements or omissions in the offering documents down the road. For securities lawyers, a good due diligence investigation is their insurance carrier’s best friend.

The due diligence team needs to have a sense of the business that they are investigating. They need to understand the cash flow, the real risks facing the business and how its competitors are positioned.

Even the best sometimes make mistakes. Those who really do not understand the process and those who focus on cutting costs make mistakes more often. Billions of dollars in offerings for Ponzi schemes that were sold by FINRA firms would not have made it to the market if the FINRA firms conducted real investigations of the facts they were presenting to their customers.

Here are some examples of poor due diligence from actual cases:

1) A few years back one of the larger Wall Street firms raised $60 million for a real estate developer who was planning to build a new high-end residential community in Southern California. The carefully calculated projections that came with the offering documents promised that 300 homes could be built and sold in the first year. Only after the money was raised was it discovered that the County in which the development was located, which had been through several years of drought, was not authorizing that many new residential water hook-ups.

2) In a case where a single office building was being syndicated to investors, no one bothered to have the building inspected by a professional building inspector. If they would have done so, they probably would have discovered that the roof of the building leaked, and leaked badly. Most prudent people would not purchase a home without an inspection. Many lenders insist upon it. The brokerage firm executives, some of whom had partied on the promoter’s yacht, apparently did not think that an inspection was necessary.

3) A prospectus will frequently describe the people behind the company as “successful”. Investors value prior success and many people who are raising money claim that they were successful in prior ventures. One real estate developer was described as successful even though he had put his only prior development into bankruptcy. I have asked a lot of due diligence officers to produce their files on an executive’s participation in the success of prior ventures. Very few could produce one.

4) For example, one real estate promoter who raised hundreds of millions of dollars in Reg. D offerings through FINRA firms was described in the prospectus as having previously been the owner of a successful financial firm. Due diligence officers at each of the FINRA firms that sold the offerings failed to discover that the SEC had determined that the financial firm was actually owned by someone else and that the promoter had lied to the SEC when they asked him about it. The SEC case was a matter of public record.

5) Banks frequently use their own appraisers when making a loan because they are risking their own money. A brokerage firm that is risking only investors’ money will often accept the appraisal that the promoter provides. That is never prudent, nor diligent.

I have seen two appraisals that were issued by the same appraiser on the same day for the same property. The one that went to the brokerage firms estimated that the property was worth 5% more than the amount they gave to the bank. Giving a false appraisal to a bank is a felony which is often prosecuted. Giving a false appraisal to a brokerage firm’s due diligence officer is not. Underwriters need to get appraisals from appraisers that they trust and who they pay for, even if ultimately reimbursed by the issuer for the cost.

6) Several large and respected VC funds and investment banks invested funds to build a $500 million processing plant for a company that claimed to have a new process to produce ethanol from wood scraps. The company claimed that the process was proprietary and ready to go which was why they were seeking funds for construction of a large plant to begin producing ethanol. After the bankruptcy, it was determined that the process did not actually work and had never been patented. None of the firms hired a chemical engineer to review the patents or the process. They saved $5000 by not doing so and wrote –off over $500 million because they did not.

7) An offering for a franchised hotel stated that its occupancy would be largely dependent upon events at a new arena being built just across the freeway. The projections indicated that the arena had sporting events, concerts and other events scheduled 340 days a year. A call to the arena box office confirmed that the arena was largely dark for its first few years of operation and was never projected to be occupied 340 days a year. Had a due diligence officer made the same call at the time the securities were being offered and the correct projections given to investors, there probably would not have been any litigation.

8) The SEC just recently brought actions against 22 banks and brokerage firms for failing to conduct adequate due diligence investigations on municipal bond offerings. You can almost hear the due diligence officers saying: “it is a municipality, why spend the time and money investigating it?”

Economic problems are sometimes best viewed along the margins of the markets. The new crowdfunding industry is certainly on the margin of the capital markets. Although each funding project is relatively small, no one doubts that hundreds of billions of dollars will be raised on these platforms as time goes on. Investors on these platforms are entitled to the same honest disclosures of material facts as are any other investors.

At the same time, because the offerings are small, the crowdfunding industry has loudly denounced the need for audited financial information because of the added expense. The probable result will be a great many small companies who will claim solvency when they are not and who will use investors’ funds to pay off undisclosed debts rather than expanding their business as promised.

The SEC always tells investors to investigate before they invest. Underwriters, attorneys and crowdfunding platforms are equally charged to investigate before they offer securities to the public. It is just common sense.

Will securities fraud kill crowdfunding?

I have started to get a lot of e-mailed advertisements from crowdfunding platforms established under the JOBS Act. Many people see crowdfunding as a simple way for small companies to raise capital. Companies that are selling their securities can offer their shares or notes on a platform (website) for potential investors to consider.

Each of these offerings is still subject to the anti-fraud provisions of the federal securities laws and also the anti-fraud provisions of the states in which any investor lives. These provisions are not that hard to understand. Purchasers of securities are entitled to receive all of the facts that they would need to know in order to make an intelligent decision whether or not to make the investment. It is up to the people selling the securities to supply that information.

Liability for making a false statement or omitting a material fact falls on anyone who participates in the offering or sale of the securities. This generally includes the company issuing the shares or notes, its officers and directors and the lawyers and accountants who put the offering documents together. Liability will certainly adhere to the platforms that list the securities for sale without making certain that the proper disclosures are being made.

With this in mind, I looked at a number of different offerings on crowdfunding platforms. I was specifically looking for red flags, things that said to me that something might just not be right.

I limited my search to crowdfunding platforms that specialized in real estate offerings. I have seen more than a few fraudulent real estate private placements over the years. They frequently sound good until you look under the hood.

I came across one platform that caught my attention. It is aggressively advertising for investors under the new general solicitation rules for private placements. It is syndicating hard money loans to accredited investors. For reference, let us call the platform the HMLM Co. (Hard Money Loans to the Masses), not its real name.

What caught my attention was the sales pitch. The loans that HMLM is syndicating promise to pay investors double digit returns. The loans are secured by real estate that has been appraised. The loans are short term, usually for a one year term. There are often personal guaranties by at least one principal of the company that is borrowing the money. The website states that none of the people who have invested on the platform have ever lost money.

This is very similar to the sales pitch of a real estate fund that I called the Construction Investment Fund (CIF) in my book (Investment Schemes, Scams and Strategies Retirees Should Avoid ). Investors in that fund lost 80% of their investment ($400 million) in the last market cycle. I believe that people who invest on the HMLM platform are likely to experience a similar fate.

A hard money lender who is making loans at a 50% LTV has a lot of collateral and is usually not concerned where the real estate market might be 12 months down the road when the loan matures. As long as the lender is confident that the market price of the property will not come down by more than 50% they are still well collateralized.

Many of the loans on the HMLM platform were at 70% LTV which can be more of a problem. If you buy a property today, pay 15% interest on 70% of the purchase price for 12 months and then sell it with outgoing real estate commissions of 6% it is easy to see where the purchase price of property would need to appreciate by almost 20% just to break-even.

There are not that many markets in the US where real estate is likely to appreciate that much next year or the year after. If the people who are borrowing the money are likely to have difficulty selling the property down the road, why would any lender make the loan?

Logic suggests that a real estate investor with a string of successful projects, good credit, adequate collateral and a personal guarantee would not be interested in borrowing funds at 15% or more. It is one thing to tell investors that they might lose their money. It is quite another to advertise the security as a good investment when it clearly is not.

The platform describes its borrowers as “seasoned” real estate investors. To me “seasoned” would imply experience in real estate for at least a full 15 year market cycle. If you started in the real estate business in 2009 you might have some experience by now and you have probably been successful. If you started in 2000 and went through the 2009 bust then it is possible that you took some losses but at least you got “seasoned”.

I went to the webpage where the management of the platform disclosed its own business history. Not a lot of “seasoned” real estate people there, either. This platform does not sell toasters. It sells complex financial transactions which it has packaged as investments. Management really needs to understand its products. How else can they be certain that all of the material facts about these investments are being disclosed?

To clarify this point a little further, on some of the loans on this platform the names of the individuals who own the companies that are borrowing the money was redacted. If the platform does not believe that the names of people behind the companies who are borrowing your money is a “material fact” that investors would want to know, it certainly begs the question of what other information they are not disclosing.

No one questions that the platform is selling securities and that the securities are exceedingly speculative. Seniors and retirees are drawn to investments that claim to be secured and promise to pay double digit returns. Will this platform accept investments from seniors or allow people to invest their retirement funds? You bet.

Is the HMLM platform committing fraud when it sells these securities? I will leave that determination to the class action lawyers who will clean up the mess likely to result when the real estate markets inevitably turn down. There certainly are red flags that would warrant further investigation.

I singled out this platform because I found many of its shortcomings to be obvious. They would not be obvious to the average investor. There are many, many other platforms out there which I am certain are equally deficient. It is an issue that the crowdfunding industry and its regulators need to address and need to address quickly. If investors begin to realize that crowdfunding platforms cannot be trusted to tell them what they need toknow about any of their offerings, investors will take their money elsewhere.