Regulatory Compliance in Crowdfunding

The more that I blog or comment about the foolishness in the Crowdfunding industry the more people seem to want to shoot the messenger. Of late, several prominent people in the industry have taken umbrage at my comments; a few have gotten personal. Obviously, I have hit a nerve.

I have never been a particular fan of regulation.  I do, however, appreciate that regulations keep the food supply safe, make the air and water cleaner and force people to buckle up their children into their cars that saves many young lives every year.

I also appreciate that the US capital markets are heavily regulated which keeps many of the scoundrels out. It also helps keep investor confidence in the market high and facilitates the formation and intermediation of capital upon which the entire economy relies. Many people see Wall Street as a den of thieves and want more regulation.  The Crowdfunding industry wants less.

The Crowdfunding industry seems to universally hate regulation. A loud cheer went up from the industry when a federal appellate court recently shot down an attempt by state securities regulators to review Crowdfunded offerings.  I doubt a single one of the cheering throng ever had a private placement reviewed by a state regulator. If they had, they might think differently.

Back in the 1980’s many states required private offerings to be reviewed. You would file the offering, pay the fee and usually get back a letter with comments. It was pretty clear from the comments that some knowledgeable attorney working for the state had actually read the document. You could just make the suggested corrections or get that attorney on the phone to discuss them. I never found the process to be adversarial.

To the contrary, I always took some comfort knowing that a seasoned professional had reviewed the document and passed on it. If one of the offerings had later been questioned by an unhappy investor, I would have taken comfort in being able to tell a judge that I had reviewed the offering with regulators in half a dozen states.

At this writing, only ten firms have registered with FINRA to become Crowdfunding portals under Title III of the Jobs Act. A portal will be able to offer Crowdfunded securities to non-accredited investors. It is something that a great many people in the Crowdfunding industry wanted. More firms will certainly take the plunge and register with FINRA to become portals as time goes on.

The Crowdfunding industry sees a need to offer these speculative investments to mom and pop investors. Everyone understands that most Crowdfunded startups will fail. Notwithstanding, the industry continues to stress the “opportunity” for mom and pop to invest in the next Amazon or Facebook.

To be fair, most of the people in the Crowdfunding industry are content to offer investments only to accredited investors on platforms that comply with Title II of the Jobs Act. Many appreciate that hundreds of billions of dollars worth of private placements are successfully sold by the mainstream financial industry every year and follow the well trodden path to success.

Let’s be clear about the fact that owning a Crowdfunding platform or portal can be a lucrative business. Issuers in the mainstream Reg. D private placement market often pay a 10% commission, most of which goes to the individual stock broker who makes the sale. Many Crowdfunding platforms charge a similar listing fee for each offering, all of which goes to the house.

There are a number of people in the Crowdfunding industry who are convinced that regulatory burdens are keeping Crowdfunding from reaching its full potential. They want Congress or the SEC to ease the regulatory scheme for Crowdfunded offerings. The primary concern is that compliance costs too much. The obvious retort is that non-compliance is likely to cost more.

The securities laws, both state and federal, deal primarily with the issuance and trading of securities. They are designed to provide transparency and stability to the capital formation process that is central to our entire economy. If you were to boil all of the laws and regulations down to a single word, that word would be “disclosure”.

FINRA has its own rules which govern the day to day operations of its member firms. A Crowdfunding portal will have no need to concern itself with most of FINRA’s rules. The portal is not trading securities, issuing research reports or handling transactions in options.

Three specific FINRA rules will get the most attention; the rule regarding investor suitability; the rule regarding communications with the public; and the rules regarding the offering and sale of private placements.

FINRA’s suitability rule restricts investment recommendations to those within the customer’s risk tolerance. Every customer who purchases a security on a Crowdfunding portal is buying a speculative investment. Every customer agrees that they understand they can lose every dollar they are investing and that they can afford to sustain the loss. Under the Crowdfunding rules the amount of money that a non-accredited investors can invest is limited. Compliance with the suitability rule is cheap and easy.

FINRA likewise has a fairly comprehensive set of guidelines regarding advertising materials and other communications with the public.  In most cases a portal will use a “tombstone” advertisement which is also cheap and easy.

Other marketing materials for each offering of securities will need to provide accurate information and a balanced presentation of what the investment provides and does not provide.  This applies to the videos with which the Crowdfunding industry seems enamored. If a video is used in conjunction with any offering the video must be accurate, balanced and otherwise comply with the advertising rules.  Again, compliance with these rules is cheap and relatively easy.

The most expensive rules with which a portal or platform will need to comply deals with the sale of private placements. The rules mandate a “reasonable” investigation of private placement offerings. FINRA issued specific guidelines for the offering and sale of private placements in 2010.

Those guidelines (FINRA Notice to Members 10-22) provide: “While BDs are not expected to have the same knowledge as an issuer or its management, firms are required to exercise a “high degree of care” in investigating and “independently” verifying an issuer’s representations and claims. Indeed, when an issuer seeks to finance a new speculative venture, BDs “must be particularly careful in verifying the issuer’s obviously self-serving statements.” The Notice goes on to make suggestions for how due diligence investigations are to be conducted in various circumstances and for various types of offerings.  It highlights the need to identify “red flags” and to resolve them.

The Notice also references several securities anti-fraud statutes, judicial opinions and enforcement actions. There is really nothing new here. I got my training in due diligence in the 1970s and attended my first conference on due diligence in the early 1980s. Not that much has changed.

The small segment of the FINRA brokerage firms that sell private placements to retail investors has a history of conducting due diligence very poorly.  In most cases, it is because they do not want to spend what it costs to do it right even though they may receive a 1% fee, from the sponsor, to do their own and independent due diligence.

Approximately 90 small FINRA firms sold interests in various real estate offerings made by a company called DBSI. DBSI was operated as a classic Ponzi scheme with previous investors being paid from new investment not operations or profits. When the court appointed receiver sued those firms for a return of the commissions that they had illegally obtained, 50 of the firms went out of business.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts sued Securities America, one of the larger FINRA firms selling private placements over another Ponzi scheme called Medical Capital. Securities America apparently had a due diligence report that raised a number of questions and red flags about Medical Capital and chose to ignore the report. Securities America apparently sold $967 million worth of securities in this Ponzi scheme to retail customers. Medical Capital sold $2.2 billion worth overall. Adequate due diligence would have stopped Medical Capital in its tracks.

Over the years, I have met a number of due diligence professionals who are serious about their job and who do it well. The best bring some judgment and a healthy amount of skepticism to their work. They understand what a “red flag” looks like.

I have also personally cross-examined due diligence officers and industry experts who worked at FINRA firms and outside companies many times.  If they are on the witness stand, it is because I have alleged in the complaint that the loss suffered by the investor could have been avoided. I would argue that if the firm had adequately investigated the offering, they would not have sold it.

Within the first 10 questions I usually ask about their training in due diligence.  Most of the people who do not conduct due diligence investigations correctly were never trained to do so. That fact seems to be true in the Crowdfunding industry as well.

It is also true that due diligence investigations for many offerings are not cheap. That is the primary reason that Crowdfunders do not like to be reminded that they are required to do it. If a company approaches a platform on Monday and the due diligence report is ready on Wednesday, the odds are that the investigation was inadequate.

I wrote a blog article last fall when the SEC brought its first enforcement action against a Crowdfunded company, Ascenergy. The article was reprinted in several Crowdfunding publications. I do not believe that the Crowdfunding industry wants to offer the public fraudulent offerings. I think that most people in the industry unfortunately do not know how to spot one.

I also wrote a blog article about Elio Motors.  I chronicled a number of red flags that I saw when the shares were being offered. Those included the fact that the firm had no patentable product and was raising less money than it needed to deliver one by a factor of 20.  Elio had apparently been taking orders and promising delivery before it made its offering and continues to take orders and deposits even though it has no way to deliver the product.  Notwithstanding, many people in the Crowdfunding industry herald Elio Motors as a success because it was one of the first to raise funds under the new Reg. A+.

The very first call I received about the article was from a class action attorney who saw what I saw.  I suspect that the attorney had someone buy some shares in Elio so that he will be first in line to file a class action when Elio goes under. You can bet that the officers, directors, lawyers and Crowdfunding platforms that participated in the offering will all get sued when the time comes.

Some people in the industry seem to think that if they do not register with FINRA these rules do not apply to them.  Actually, the rules are what is known as a “codification of reasonable conduct” which was a phrase the SEC used to use for rules that were proposed but not finalized. If you sell private offerings on your platform that turn out to be fraudulent, you can explain to the judge why you ignored these simple rules that would have avoided the fraud and protected the investors.

Some people in the Crowdfunding industry despise regulation because they believe that the inherent unfairness of the capital markets that keeps otherwise worthy entrepreneurs from becoming billionaires.  I could glibly remind you that life isn’t fair but the truth is there is no data to support this particular unfairness.

There have always been ways for entrepreneurs and small businesses to get funded.  Before Crowdfunding, entrepreneurs worked two jobs or hustled family and friends for startup cash. The SBA has pumped billions of dollars directly to this market for decades. We managed to get the light bulb, radio and the personal computer into the marketplace before Crowdfunding.  There is far more venture capital money around today than ever before.

There are certainly many professionals in this industry who are doing it right. But there are also many who write blogs, give interviews and put on conferences that do not.  This is the group that keeps chanting, “Regulation is killing Crowdfunding”.  Respectfully, foolish amateurs are killing Crowdfunding with a desire to change the rules rather than play by them. There is much too much hype and much too little substance in this industry.

The fulcrum in the Crowdfunding industry is the desire to fund new businesses. There is an amazing lack of concern for the investors, without whom the industry will wither and die.

As a matter of full disclosure, I am currently counseling people actively involved in the Crowdfunding business. I have been advising a group of realistic executives who want to remove the risk from investors in this market. It is not that difficult. They have spoken to a number of existing platforms about this but have gotten no takers. There does not seem to be a serious interest in protecting the investors at any level of the Crowdfunding industry.

I am also counseling established real estate and business brokers who want to add Crowdfunding to their arsenal of capital raising tools. These are two groups that appreciate the value of raising money efficiently and who are beginning to understand how they can leverage Crowdfunding to make money. To no one’s surprise, most are professionals who have been around the block once or twice. They understand that regulations need to be complied with rather than complained about.

I do not go out of my way to seek out negative aspects of the Crowdfunding industry about which to blog or comment. Many of my negative articles were the result of articles by other bloggers. One lawyer in particular who blogs regularly about Crowdfunding made favorable comments about both Elio Motors and Med-X which in my opinion are scams.

The same blogger spoke highly about two vendors to the Crowdfunding industry who offer a lot for very little but who did not impress me as people who could deliver anything of value when I interviewed them. I would be happy to send my clients to a good vendor if the vendor can supply what the clients need. In both of these particular cases, the vendors were too inexpensive to be able to provide what was actually required. Crowdfunders hate to spend their own money to obtain investors’ money.

I fully intend to continue to call out foolishness in the marketplace whenever and wherever I see it.  I think that is especially fair if I see someone who does not want to play by the rules and who wants your money anyway.

 

 

 

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