Without investors Crowdfunding will become a footnote in financial history. The Crowdfunding industry continues to demonstrate that it just does not care about playing by the rules or giving investors a fair shake.
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about Med-X, the first equity Crowdfunding campaign that the SEC stopped mid-offering. It was only the second time that the SEC’s Enforcement Division had gotten involved in a Crowdfunded offering and I thought it was worthy of an article.
Among other things, Med-X was raising money to research and sell products derived from cannabis. One of the larger cannabis websites re-printed the article and I got e-mails from a lot a people in the cannabis industry.
Several people suggested that the SEC’s action was part of a larger government effort to hold back the cannabis industry by denying it funding. They suggested that some Crowdfunding sites would not accept cannabis related offerings before the Med-X action. They thought that this enforcement action would have a chilling effect on their efforts to raise capital.
Frankly, I doubt this is the case. The SEC originally approved Med-X to sell its shares and there are a number of public companies in the cannabis industry. The SEC cares more about disclosure issues than it does about drug enforcement.
My article was also re-printed on a financial website. I got e-mails from several securities lawyers and people in the mainstream financial markets, many of whom, like myself, marvel about the fact that the Crowdfunding industry offers securities to investors seemingly thinking that the body of law surrounding the sale of securities does not apply to it. The JOBS Act gives some relief from the registration provisions of the securities laws. The anti-fraud provisions of the securities laws still apply.
My real issue with the Med-X action was with the Crowdfunding portal that offered it, StartEngine. Med-X had failed to file financial information that it was required to file, meaning that investors were not getting information that they were required to get. StartEngine is registered with FINRA as a Crowdfunding portal. FINRA’s rules certainly impose a duty on its members to disclose all material information whenever they offer securities to the public.
I got an e-mail from the Compliance Director at StartEngine who told me that the SEC’s action against Med-X was about a missed filing date and the SEC did not mention the word “fraud” in its paperwork. Under the securities laws, fraud is defined as the omission of material facts. The failure to provide required financial information to investors fits that definition like a glove.
The Compliance Director told me that StartEngine was represented by competent counsel which I have no reason to doubt. Regulatory compliance in the securities industry is not something that they teach in law school. You are not likely to become well-versed in day to day compliance issues working for a law firm or regulator. You learn compliance the same way that a surgeon learns surgery; by doing it under the guidance of someone who knows what they are doing.
I was trained in compliance when I worked at two large brokerage firms. I offered to explain the problem that she apparently did not see to the Compliance Director or her counsel, without charge. I told her that I really hated to see someone step in it when this was such an easy problem to fix. She respectfully declined.
There are only about a dozen Crowdfunding portals that have registered with FINRA to conduct Regulation A+ offerings. I have corresponded or been on the telephone with the Compliance Directors of four of those portals. Three of the four had no experience with FINRA compliance. The one who did have experience stood out like a rose in a garden of weeds.
One correspondent asked me why I brought up Elio Motors, another StartEngine offering in the article as well. Elio has become the poster child for the Regulation A+ offerings because it successfully raised about $17 million from investors. The marketing director from Elio recently spoke at one of the Crowdfunding conferences presumably to regale the attendees with Elio’s fundraising success.
I consider Elio Motors to be a nasty problem that will come back to bite the Crowdfunding industry on its butt. In my opinion Elio is a scam. I am not the only person who thinks so.
I base that opinion on the fact that Elio has been taking deposits and promising to deliver a vehicle to customers since at least 2014. Elio has no vehicles to deliver and is not actually building any. Taking deposits for and promising delivery of a product that you cannot hope to deliver is a deceptive business practice under state and federal laws.
In its Reg. A+ filing Elio disclosed that it was trying to get a loan from the Department of Energy to fund production. To qualify for the loan, Elio would have had to demonstrate that it had a strong balance sheet and that it could reasonably be expected to repay the loan. Elio is insolvent.
Elio has taken deposits from approximately 65,000 people. I would not bet that these customers will receive delivery of their vehicle in 2017, if ever.
Rather, I would bet that a regulatory action (or a bankruptcy, or both) is going to occur in 2017. Elio has raised a lot of money from the Reg. A+ offering and the deposits but does not seem have a lot of the cash on hand. It still needs between $200-$500 million more to deliver on its promises.
Is it possible that a VC fund will make a substantial investment in Elio and bail them out? Yes, but I do not see it. Elio still has not demonstrated that even if developed its vehicle will be street legal.
To me Elio does not pass the smell test. I cannot imagine how a competent due diligence officer gave Elio’s offering a green light.
Another e-mail came from a person who suggested I should not be concerned with Med-X’ failure to make proper disclosures because “everybody” knows that most Crowdfunded businesses will fail and that investors treat Crowdfunding as if they were gambling in Las Vegas. While I acknowledge that most Crowdfunded businesses will fail, the odds in Las Vegas are actually substantially better that the player will walk away with some of his money.
That person also told me that I do not appreciate that Crowdfunding is intended to “disrupt” the way in which capital is raised. I do appreciate that Crowdfunding is intended to allow companies that would not have access to that market to raise money from investors. I also appreciate that there is a correct, legal way accomplish this.
At the end of the day owning a Crowdfunding portal can be a lucrative business. All I ever suggested was that every portal needs to play by the rules and offer good investments to investors.
In just one year the SEC has acted twice against issuers who broke those rules. In both cases the issuers were enabled by the Crowdfunding industry “professionals” who were not acting professionally. If there is any take-away from this article it should be that I offered to set the Compliance Director at StartEngine on a straight path, without charge, and she declined.
There is a lot of promise in Crowdfunding that may be eclipsed by inappropriate behavior. Unless investors are willing to invest, and invest again because it worked for them, Crowdfunding will not fulfill this promise.
The SEC’s Enforcement Division is clearly looking for scam artists who are raising funds in the Crowdfunding market and for legitimate companies that fail to follow often complex rules. It will keep finding them until the Crowdfunding industry gets serious about its business and makes an effort to protect the investors it cannot survive without.