The Great VC Con Game

The Great VC Con Game

I speak every week with people looking for funds to start or expand their business. With investment crowdfunding, the process has actually become relatively easy and inexpensive. Most people come to me to use crowdfunding as a first choice to fund their business. They appreciate the opportunity to fund their business on their own terms.

Sadly, some report that they spent upwards of $25,000 and more than a year flying around the country attending conferences and pitching to dozens of venture capitalists. If they had called me sooner, I would have told them to save their money.

Pitch Decks

There are a plethora of books and articles and an industry of vendors hawking “pitch decks that work”. Few actually do. When I see a pitch deck I can often tell which “guru” it is trying to follow. 

Unfortunately, most of these experts know nothing about what motivates investors to write a check. One in particular who seems to post on LinkedIn every few hours actually offers the worst advice that I could imagine. 

Logically, investors in your company should really want your company to succeed.  If you want their money, it would seem natural that you would tell potential investors what you intend to do with their money in order to make more money.  Yes, it really can be that simple.

Compare that to the pitch decks that follow the “find a problem and solve it” template. They often minimize the focus on projected revenues and profits. They often leave out the details of how the company will execute its business plan to get there. From an investor’s point of view, return on their investment (ROI) rules.

VCs actually fund a very small number of businesses (in the low 1000’s) every year. Most of the money available for venture capital investment is concentrated into a handful of large funds. Some of the available capital will flow to “serial entrepreneurs” because venture capital is a fairly closed network of people and money.

I was introduced to my first venture capitalist when I made my first visit to Silicon Valley in the mid-1970s. There were a lot more trees and open space on the way to Sand Hill Road back then.

At that time VCs in Silicon Valley were a very small group of very smart people. Many were MBAs or had MBAs on staff to crunch and re-crunch the numbers. This was no small task in the years before VisiCalc.

These VCs were using their own money and the money of a select group of wealthy investors to help small tech companies get their business up and running.  Their goal was to hand these companies over to the investment bankers specifically for a public offering. 

Investment bankers wanted these companies to be profitable before an IPO.  After the offering, research analysts affiliated with the investment bankers were going to project growth in earnings per share. That assured that the IPO investors were almost always going to make a profit from their investment post-offering.  Everybody would win.

San Francisco

I moved to San Francisco in 1984 to work with a law firm that represented a London based VC fund. The fund was making investments in 1980’s era hardware and software companies, companies with cutting edge ideas and those in more traditional businesses as well.  I sat through a lot of pitches. Very few of those companies got funded even though the pitches were well thought out and supported by real facts and research. 

I remember listening to one of the partners in Sequoia Capital being interviewed on TV discussing what they liked about Apple when it was still at the venture capital stage.  I recall that it was more about Steve Jobs’ focus on the design and packaging as it was the tech.  It was more about gross profit than market share.  

Today it seems like “gross profit” is a curse word in the venture capital community.

Investing has always been rooted in mathematics. Today’s VCs have chosen to ignore the traditional math and have created a new math, to line their own pockets, even as the companies in which they are investing continue to fail.

Dotcom

Beginning in the 1990s and especially as the dotcom era heated up, a lot of people who worked in around Silicon Valley, thought that they should become venture capitalists. Some had been founders of the earlier tech companies. Some claimed to have the connections and insight to bring more than money to these portfolio companies. 

The net result was a de-emphasis on the actual, achievable projections of income and how a company might execute to get there. It was replaced with a mindset that said “this is a great idea; millions of people will come to our website and buy our product”. Translated, that means: “Profits? We don’t need no stinking profits?”  

The investment bankers bought into this because it enabled them to make a great deal of money. They took a lot of companies public without real earnings. They then used convoluted reasoning and research to predict share prices in the hundreds of dollars. 

The analysts looking at the dotcom companies created a metric called “growth per share”. I asked one of the prominent tech analysts if they had ever seen that metric in a peer-reviewed journal. Of course they had not.

In the current market bull market post-2008 the VCs have moved the goal posts even further to feather their own nests. Rather than find more and more good companies to fund, they are increasingly conducting multiple rounds of financing on a smaller and smaller group of companies. Most are destined to failure because they cannot operate profitably.

Venture Capitalists

VCs like other money managers get an annual % of the amount of money invested in their fund. The best way to attract new investors is to demonstrate success. If a VC invests in a company at $1 per share and the company goes public at $10 per share then the VC’s success is easy to calculate. If none of the companies in a VC’s portfolio actually go public, the VC’s success is harder to demonstrate.

To solve the problem, VCs have created a metric called “pre-revenue or pre-earnings valuation”.  You will not find it in peer reviewed journals. It is the closest thing finance has to an oxy-moron.

It works like this. Ten VC funds each invest in a seed round of 10 companies. Then some will invest in a Series A round of some of the companies in the other VC’s portfolios, then others will invest in the Series B round, etc. In the end, these VC funds have cross funded each other’s deals at different levels.  Each level is priced higher than the one before.

In the seed round a VC invested $10 million for 10 million shares of the outstanding shares of each company.  By the Series C, D or E round those shares are being sold to the other VCs and now cost $50 each. 

Does that make the original shares purchased in the seed round worth $500 million?  If the company has now issued 200 million shares, is the company worth $10 billion? Not in the real world and especially not if the company is still not profitable.

However the VC can now claim that its original investment is worth much more and use that “fact” to attract more investors into its fund. The VC will receive a % of the amount invested yearly for a decade or more. 

WeWork and the other unicorns will be the subject of business school case studies for at least the next generation. They are the most recent example of what may be the oldest theorem in finance: you can fool some of the people all of the time.  

Capital for new and smaller ventures is essential to the entire system of finance.  Investment crowdfunding is actually a response to the failures of VCs in the dotcom era. The arrogance displayed by VCs in this current market has probably done more to cement the place for investment crowdfunding than anything else. It is up to the crowdfunding platforms and professionals not to make the same mistakes. 

If you’d like to discuss this or anything related, then please contact me directly HERE

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Crowdfunding after ICOBox

Crowdfunding after ICOBox

SEC Complaint: ICOBox and Nikolay Evdokimov

I have been a huge fan of the potential of investment crowdfunding since the SEC’s first experiments in the late 1990’s allowing issuers to use the internet to sell their securities directly to investors.  There was a lot of discussion among issuers, regulators, and the traditional Wall Street firms at the time. However, very few investors were included in those discussions.  There was a clear consensus that investors were entitled to the same “full disclosure” that the purchasers of any new issue would receive. 

The JOBS Act in 2012 codified the use of the internet as a way of offering new issues of securities to the public. Nothing in the Act, or the subsequent regulations suggested that investors who purchased securities on a crowdfunding platform would not be entitled to the same disclosures.  The SEC’s very first enforcement action against an offering done on a crowdfunding platform, SEC. v. Ascenergy, confirmed this. 

The SEC has been doling out sanctions against people associated with the Woodbridge Group of Companies, a high end real estate developer and apparent Ponzi scheme. Woodbridge claimed to have a wealth management company in its group that raised money for mortgages and bridge loans.  The wealth management company hired dozens of highly commissioned salespeople.  Many of these salespeople claimed to operate “financial” firms that looked like legitimate financial firms.  The salespeople were telling investors on their websites that these investments were “safe” and “secure”. 

SEC Complaint: ICOBox and Nikolay Evdokimov

In all, Woodbridge raised more than $1 billion from several thousand individual investors. The SEC noted that one of the salespeople they sanctioned was a self-described “media influencer” who made frequent guest appearances on radio, television and podcasts nationwide touting the safety, security and earning potential of Woodbridge securities to unsuspecting investors. He also touted Woodbridge’s securities on the internet through his own website.

Crowdfunding After ICoBox

The JOBS Act clearly anticipates that securities offerings will be posted on

SEC Complaint: ICOBox and Nikolay Evdokimov

The JOBS Act clearly anticipates that securities offerings will be posted on platforms and websites and investors will be solicited by e-mails. What those postings and e-mails say is regulated. There are things that you can and cannot say to potential investors. There are also things that you must say.

Regulators understand the difference between “posting” and “touting”.  Unfortunately, not everyone in the crowdfunding industry understands this.  Regulators are beginning to take action against the crowdfunding platforms that do not follow the rules. 

This month the securities regulator in Kentucky entered a Cease and Desist Order against a company called Kelcas Corporation which was making false claims about oil wells it was drilling. The Kentucky Order calls out a specific string of e-mails with a representative of the company selling the investment to a potential investor. 

The Order repeatedly notes that the company was using LinkedIn to identify and connect with potential investors. It refers to a post on LinkedIn, specifically seeking investors for an “oil well investment opportunity”. Posts like these are common on LinkedIn and other social media platforms.  No one is suggesting that LinkedIn has any liability for allowing this post or others like it, at least not yet.

Crowdfunding after ICOBox

A day or two after the action in Kentucky against Kelcas, the SEC brought an enforcement action against a crowdfunding platform called ICOBox.  According to the SEC’s complaint, ICOBox raised funds in 2017 to develop a platform for initial coin offerings by selling, in an unregistered offering, roughly $14.6 million of “ICOS” tokens to over 2,000 investors.

The complaint further alleges that ICOBox failed to register as a broker but acted as one by “facilitating” initial coin offerings that raised more than $650 million for about 35 companies that listed their offerings on its platform.

The investors who put up their funds to invest with Woodbridge, Kelcas and ICOBox and the 35 companies listed on ICOBox were sold unregistered securities issued under the same SEC rules. In each case the internet was the primary vehicle by which investors were solicited and the primary vehicle used to provide the fraudulent information to the investors.

What separates LinkedIn from ICOBox or any other website or crowdfunding platform that connects private placements with potential investors? In reality, and as a matter of law, not very much.

It comes down to the SEC’s use of the word “facilitate”.  It does not mean that the facilitator actually sells the securities. Both federal and state statutes govern not just the sale of securities, but specifically how they are offered and to whom they are offered.

In the case of ICOBox the allegations are that the platform was actively involved in marketing of the offerings that they listed.  ICOBox promised to pitch the offerings to their media contacts, develop content for promotional materials and promote the listed companies at conferences.  The SEC included this in the complaint because the SEC thinks these acts constitute “facilitation”.

ICOBox is not the only crowdfunding platform that has helped to promote the offerings it lists. I get e-mails all the time from platforms inviting me to look at specific listings.  A lot of those e-mails and a lot of the offerings they promote make outrageous claims and promises.

The SEC also complained that ICOBox claimed it was “ ensuring the soundness of the business model” of the listed companies. Other crowdfunding platforms claim to “vet” or “investigate” the companies they list.  Many of those platforms have no idea what they are talking about. These platforms are lending their reputation to each offering. That also facilitates the offerings.  

Where does that leave LinkedIn? LinkedIn does not claim to investigate any offerings posted on their site.  It does however sell paid advertising.  Does LinkedIn have a duty to refuse to carry ads for securities offerings that it thinks are fraudulent?  What if LinkedIn ads generated the most sales leads for an offering or if the ads were specifically targeted at people LinkedIn identified as “real estate investors”? 

LinkedIn joined the ban on ICO ads by the major social media platforms in 2018, not because ICO ads caused cancer, but because they were largely fraudulent.  Would LinkedIn refuse to accept an ad from a small real estate syndicator if they had a reasonable belief that the sponsor did not own the property they were selling? 

What would a jury tell the “little old lady” investor who handed a few hundred thousand dollars to a scam like Woodbridge if the investor was introduced to the company on LinkedIn and testified that the company was brought to her attention by a LinkedIn “influencer” whom she followed? 

I read the ICOBox case as a clear warning from the SEC to the crowdfunding platforms to get their act together.  If the platform stays within the regulatory white lines, then regulators should leave it alone.

Unfortunately, it is apparent that many crowdfunding platforms have no idea what the rules require. They are setting themselves up to be defendants in enforcement actions by regulators or civil actions by disgruntled investors. Platforms that do not have a securities lawyer on staff or on retainer will be easy targets.

If you would like to discuss any of this article further with me then please contact me directly here

Crowdfunding After ICOBox

The Troubling Tale of Tether

the troubling tale of tether

I had intended to stop writing about crypto currency.  Despite the massive buzz in 2016 and 2017, crypto has largely shown itself to be irrelevant to any serious discussion about finance or economics.  

The same people who were screaming back then that bitcoins would be trading at $100,000 each are still “certain” that it will happen “soon”.  The promised institutional investors never materialized and probably never will.  The bitcoin ATMs promised for every street corner must still be on order. 

The “un-hackable” online wallets and accounts still get hacked.  People who invested good old fiat currency in more than 1000 “alt-coins” saw those coins disappear into thin air. 

There were and still are people who favor crypto currency because they hate banks. Many have moved on to other battles against the establishment.  Some, having fattened their own wallets as crypto currency consultants, now have very high limit American Express cards. 

There are still people who defend crypto currency despite the fact that there have been so many scams and losses. A common argument is that the losses in crypto are not significant compared to consumer losses caused by banks.  That follows the same logic as the sentence “Ted Bundy killed more than 30 people and I only killed one”.

Perhaps the most disappointed people in the crypto world will be the many who favor crypto currency because of what they see as a lack of transparency and over-concentration in the traditional banking system.  I cannot imagine how they must feel when they realize that the future of crypto currency may be in the hands of Facebook. 

Lawyers no longer have to lecture on the Howey test or lament that they cannot do what they do without more guidance from the government. The best lawyers work with the regulators to “tokenize” this project or that, even when those projects could likely raise money without tokens.

Whatever becomes of the crypto or token market it is a lot cleaner than it was because regulators became more and more active, not because crypto investors have gotten any smarter.  But there is still a lot of crypto-trash to clean up.

The enforcement action of the month involves an action by the New York State Attorney General (NYAG) against iFinex Inc. which operates of the Bitfinex trading platform and Tether Limited, issuer of “Tether” a self–styled crypto currency.  Both, apparently, are controlled by the same people.

Tether bills itself as a “stable coin”.  Its original white paper claimed that “each issued into circulation will be backed in a one to one ratio with the equivalent amount of corresponding fiat currency held in reserves by Hong Kong based Tether Limited.”

On its website the company still claims “Every Tether is always 100% backed by our reserves, which include traditional currency and cash equivalents” and “Every Tether is also 1-to-1 pegged to the dollar, so 1 USD₮ is always valued by Tether Ltd. at 1 USD.”

IFinex Inc. says it issued more than $1 billion worth of Tether.  The New York State Attorney General believes that the reserves may be short by $700 or $800 million or more and wants to see the books. 

People have actually been questioning the accuracy of the reserve figure for some time.  The company promised and then refused to provide any kind of audited financial information.  

The original white paper notes that Tether, Ltd. “as the custodian of the backing asset we are acting as a trusted third party responsible for that asset. This risk is mitigated by a simple implementation that collectively reduces the complexity of conducting both fiat and crypto audits while increasing the security, provability, and transparency of these audits.”

It should be cheap and easy to prepare a certified audit because the company should be able to easily demonstrate how many coins it issued. The reserves are all held at banks and should be easy to prove.  Instead of an audit the company offers a letter from their law firm that says that it looked at some account statements and it seems that there are adequate reserves.  The letter did not satisfy the New York Attorney General.

The idea behind stable coins was intended to fix a problem created by other crypto currency like bitcoins which were susceptible to volatile shifts in their exchange rate with US dollars.  Given that bitcoins were a intended to be “currency”, merchants take on a substantial risk every time transactions were denominated in bitcoins, instead of dollars.  It is a problem best solved by eliminating the bitcoins rather than adding the Tether to the transactions.

Actually the only thing new about stable coins is the name. The financial markets already have a class of securities that are pegged one-to-one to the US dollar and backed by cash or cash equivalents. We call them money market funds. 

Money market funds are registered with the SEC under the Investment Company Act and subject to specific disclosure and custody rules like other mutual funds. Issuing a stable coin on a blockchain is remarkably similar to buying a money market fund from a mutual fund company using a book entry system. Mutual funds are required to provide timely, accurate information to the public.  The management at Tether does not believe that they should be required to do the same.  

Bitfinex and Tether have had problems in the past. In early 2017, Bitfinex accounts were thrown out of Wells Fargo Bank.  At the time, many people in crypto saw this as “retaliation” by a legacy bank against the brave new world of crypto currency. The bank no doubt looked at it as a refusal to assist or participate in an obvious scam. 

In late 2017, Bitfinex announced that hackers had stolen $31 million worth of Tether from its own wallet.  No investigation was ever reported. Management did not even raise a fuss.

Jordan Belfort, the infamous Wolf of Wall Street called Tether a massive scam.  His comment got some press at the time. Most people in crypto just refused to see anything related to crypto as a scam in 2017.  That is largely still true and unfortunate.

IFinex and the other defendants argued that the Judge should refuse to let the NYAG look at their books because they never did any business in the State of New York.  The NYAG has presented the court with evidence that they did. Sooner or later the Judge will question everything the defendants tell her.  

In the meantime, Bitfinex claims to have raised another $1 billion by selling a new crypto currency token called the LEO.  As I said the best securities lawyers are now working with the regulators when they want to issue anything that purports to be a crypto currency.  It does not seem that any regulator, anywhere, reviewed the LEO paperwork.  The NYAG told the court that LEO offering “has every indicia of a securities issuance subject to the Martin Act, and there is reason to believe that the issuance is related to the matters under investigation.”

Sooner or later the Judge will want to see the records that prove that the reserves are indeed in the bank. No one, and I mean no one, should seriously expect that the reserves will be there unless the proceeds from the sale of the LEOs are meant to replenish them.  That will not solve the problem because the people who bought the LEOs were not told the reserves were missing or that their funds would replenish them.

Over the years I have read thousands of prospectuses and other documents that are given to investors when they purchase any new security. Among other things, the documents disclose specific risks that may adversely affect the investors’ returns.  I have seen those “risk factors” go on for pages and pages.

Still there is one “risk factor” disclosed in the original Tether white paper that I cannot recall ever having seen before.  Management at Tether Ltd. deemed it necessary to disclose to the initial buyers of Tether stable coins that: “We could abscond with the reserve assets.” Perhaps they were already thinking about it.

I have written about investment scams before, and as I said, I really do not think crypto is worth writing about. What makes Tether interesting is the potential magnitude of the loss. 

The NYAG says that as much as $850 million may be missing from the reserve account.  After that money was allegedly already gone, the company may have raised another $1 billion with the LEOs.  It is more than possible that a year from now the crypto industry will be staring at a $2 billion loss because the management of Tether just absconded with all of it. 

I actually wonder if the crypto zealots will consider that to be a “significant” loss.  

Want to discuss further? You can contact me directly on Linkedin or right here

 The Troubling Tale of Tether 

Investment Crowdfunding Can Offer Better Investments Than Stockbrokers

Someone in the crowdfunding industry should put that sentence on a coffee mug and send me one.

I have been writing about and working in investment crowdfunding for more than 3 years.  I find it interesting to watch this fledgling industry mature.  It is certainly attracting more and more new money every year and is past the point where it can be ignored by any company in search of investors.

I have looked at a great many offerings on a great many crowdfunding platforms.  I read a lot to keep abreast of new offerings and industry developments. I take the time for conversations with platform owners and their lawyers and several of the better investment crowdfunding marketing executives.

I also speak with a lot of companies who are considering investment crowdfunding to raise capital.  Any company that would raise capital in this new DIY crowdfunding marketplace wants to know if it spends the money to list its offering on a crowdfunding platform will enough investors show up and invest?  From the company’s perspective, little else really matters.

The JOBS Act was intended to be a different approach for corporate finance using the internet instead of a stockbroker to reach potential investors. The internet allows companies to reach a lot of prospective investors, very cheaply. Success or failure in investment crowdfunding is more about what you have to say to those potential investors than anything else.  

Selling securities issued by your company to investors is not the same as selling your product or service to potential customers. Investors will have different expectations and will respond to different things.  

People who sell securities for a living will tell you that any new issue of a stock or bond needs two things: good numbers and a good story. Investors want a return on their investment. 

So the best stories are always about how much money the investors will make and what the company will do to provide that return.   

There are two distinct branches of investment crowdfunding. First, there are the private placements sold under Reg. D to institutions and other larger, accredited investors.  This marketplace is healthy and growing rapidly.  Professional money-raisers have caught on that they can use investment crowdfunding, to substantially reduce the cost of capital and use that savings to enhance investor returns.

Reg. D offerings have been sold through stockbrokerage firms since the 1980s.  Most are sold to institutional investors.  Some are sold to individual, accredited investors. Minimum investments of $50-$100K or more per retail investor are common. 

Many of the retail Reg. D offerings will fund some type of real estate (construction or purchase), energy (oil, gas and alternative energy) or entertainment (films, music, and games) project. There are professional sponsors; people who package and syndicate these projects, often being paid to manage the business on behalf of the investors after the funding.

The costs of selling a Reg. D offering through a stockbrokerage firm, including commissions, run 12%-15% of the funds raised. That would be up to $1.5 million for each $10 million raised.. Most Reg. D offerings sold through brokerage firms just raise an additional $1.5 million and dilute the investors’ return.  Using investment crowdfunding a company can raise that same $10 million and not spend more than $100,000 in legal and marketing costs and frequently a lot less. 

The Reg. D crowdfunding platforms compete with stock brokerage firms for projects to fund and for investors to fund them.  The same institutions and accredited investors who have been purchasing Reg. D offerings from their stockbrokerage firm for years are catching on to the fact that they can get good offerings and better yields without the need to pay the very high commission.

The other branch of investment crowdfunding is the Reg. CF or regulation crowdfunding. This allows offerings which can help a company raise up to $1 million from smaller, less experienced investors. Reg. CF allows smaller businesses to sell small amounts of debt or equity to small investors.

The Reg. CF market was the SEC’s gift to Main Street American small businesses. There are always a great many small companies that could benefit from a capital infusion of a lot less than $1 million, the Reg. CF upper limit.

To put down a layer of investor protection the SEC required that these portals that are dealing with small investors become members of FINRA. FINRA dutifully set up a crowdfunding portal registration system and has audit and enforcement mechanisms in place.

As a reward for joining FINRA, the SEC allows Reg. CF portals to be compensated by taking a percentage of the amount the company raises which the Reg. D platforms cannot. Several of the portals also take a carried interest in every company in case the company is eventually re-financed or sold.

The SEC looks at Reg. CF as a tool of corporate finance for small business. It provides a mechanism where a great many small businesses should have access to a pool of capital every year, potentially a very large pool. It provides for a market structure for these small offerings and incentivizes the portals help raise that capital. All in all, not too bad for a a government regulation.

Sadly, the Reg. CF industry is still foundering. There are still fewer than 40 registered portals operating and several have closed up shop.  So why are these portals not successful? Because the people who operate them are not listing better investments than stockbrokerage firms.

When I first looked at investment crowdfunding there were a lot of people proclaiming that it would “democratize” capital raising.  They believed that the crowd of investors could discern good investments from bad ones and that the crowd would educate each other as to the pros and cons of each.  That was never true.

The Reg. CF portal websites are full of bad information and consequently, bad investments.   Comments about any offering that lists on a portal, if any, are always overwhelmingly positive.  Investors will not do any due diligence or other investigation of the company because they do not know how.

The Reg. CF portals compete with banks, which are the primary source of funding for small business.  Here too, a Reg. CF portal can have a competitive edge.  When you borrow from a bank you do so on the bank’s terms. On a Reg. CF platform you can set the terms of your financing.  Done correctly, you can get the capital infusion you want for your company without giving up too much equity or pledging your first-born child to the lender.

What the portals should be offering investors are bank-like products that stress the ROI that investors reasonably might expect to receive.  The portals should be telling investors how each company mitigated the risks that the investors might face. Instead, too many portals and too many people in the Reg. CF marketplace are still selling fairy tales and lies.

The big lie, of course, is that by buying equity in any of these companies an investor might hit the proverbial home run.  Suggesting that investors can or should think of themselves as VCs is patently absurd for any company that I have seen on a Reg.CF portal.  I always tell people who ask that if even one valuation on a Reg. CF portal seems very outlandish, then they likely cannot trust that the portal operator knows what they are doing. I would question anything told to investors by any company that lists on that portal.

If a company wants to raise $1 million on a Reg. CF portal, it might end up with 2000 distinct investors each investing an average of $500.  To secure subscriptions from 2000 people, the company might need to put on a marketing campaign that will put its offering in front of hundreds of thousands of investors if not more.  Success or failure of your fundraising campaign will depend on what you say to these people. 

The cost of the marketing campaign is the major upfront cost of the offering. The good news is that marketing seems to be more data- driven and more efficient as time has gone by reducing the cost of the marketing.

Sooner or later these  Reg. CF portals will wise up to the idea that they cannot succeed unless the investors can make money. They, too, could offer better investments than stockbrokers, but do not seem to have bought int the idea.    

Until that happens, I expect more portals to fail and close up shop and the SEC’s “gift” to small business to remain largely unwrapped.

Will Artificial Intelligence Pick Stocks?

I admit that I have always been a fan of science fiction.  I read most of the Sci-fi classics in high school.  When I was a senior in college I created and taught an accredited course called Science Fiction as a Literary Genre

Much of science fiction imagines or predicts the future.  The stories were often set in the future and gave us a sense of how we would get there and what it would be like.  Sometimes that future would be logical and orderly, other times dark or chaotic.

The idea of artificial intelligence (AI) as science fiction dates at least to Capek’s R.U.R (Rossman’s Universal Robots) (1920). Frankenstein’s monster had a human brain. Capek’s robots were machines that could think.  By 1942, Isaac Asimov introduced his “Three Laws of Robotics” based on the premise that if the robots got too intelligent they might do harm to  humans.  When HAL was introduced to a mass audience (1968) everyone seemed to accept that robots would eventually be smarter than people. 

The development of AI is certainly attracting a significant amount of funding and attention. I am starting to see references to it in advertising for various products and services.  There are certainly ethical issues to be explored, but I am a pragmatist.   AI is “real” enough today that I wanted to take it for a theoretical spin.

My first thought was to use AI to predict the future better than humans and to make money doing it. I wanted to consider if AI will eventually be able to pick “winners” in the stock market. 

Predicting the future accurately is something to which we apply human intelligence every day.  Capek predicted “thinking” machines 100 years ago.  Dick Tracy had a two-way radio in his wrist watch in the 1940s.  Anyone who sells anything is trying to predict how consumers will react to the price and advertising.

Humans make predictions using these two broad steps. First we collect and sort through the data that we believe to be relevant, next we analyze that data based upon assumptions often based upon our prior experiences.

Every day at racetracks the odds are fixed in such a way as to allow the track to take its cut and then have enough collected from bets on the horses that did not win to pay off the winners.  The odds and thus the payout are really set by the crowd placing bets. 

Every day at every racetrack there are people reading tout sheets, looking at track conditions, the horse’s and jockey’s prior races and gathering information from track insiders trying to do better by betting smarter.  Each will filter the data they collect using assumptions that come from their individual experiences.

There is a logical argument that says that these racetrack “handicappers” are trying to be better informed and smarter than the crowd, so they should be able to do better than the crowd and pick winners more often. Those who cannot do better will be weeded out.  

The same logic suggests that AI should surpass human intellectual ability if for no other reason than through trial and error it will continue to develop the way in which it collects data and the way it analyzes that data until it can do it better than humans.  It will do so because that is the goal we will set for it. 

A stock market outcome is far more logical and data driven than a horse race. People buy shares in a given company when they believe the price of the shares will go up.  Conversely, people will sell shares of stock when they think the price will rise no further. 

For every order to buy the stock there is someone entering an order to sell the same shares at the same price. Presumably many intelligent humans are looking at the same data and are coming to the opposite conclusion. That should set a pretty low bar for artificial intelligence.     

There have been computerized stock and commodity trading systems around for years. Most were a scam. They would create a “track record” by back testing their software.  These systems never took in a lot of data.  Traders are concerned with trends in a stock’s price and the volume rather than the company’s income or profits and assets and liabilities.  

The long term investors like the large institutions and small middle class households do care about the company’s financial health and that of its customers and competitors.  That requires a lot more data and a lot more analysis.  

In the US there are mandatory disclosures about financial and other information posted publicly about each company. In theory, everyone can look at the same data.  Analysts take that data and use it to predict the future performance of a company and often, its stock price as well.  Even those analysts who do a mediocre job are well paid.

Could AI do better? 

In theory, AI should be able to collect the data and do the analysis to make the comparisons that will tell it to buy the stock of Company A and not the stock of Company B.  If AI can demonstrate that it can do better than humans, then more and more humans will make a decision to let their money be managed by AI.  Eventually AI will decide which data to analyze and how to analyze it to get the best, consistent results.  The best AI stock pickers will rise to the top of the heap and the rest will be left by the wayside.

At some “tipping” point a significant amount of money will be managed by AI. When this occurs and AI decides to buy stock in Company A, the price of the stock will appreciate in response to the buy order alone.  It will be a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Is that stock-picking heaven? 

But if the AI says the share price of Company A will go higher, who is going to sell into this new demand?    A scarcity of sellers will certainly help the price to run up.  But it will also lead to market dysfunction.   If the AI starts to sell off a large position, there may not be enough buyers to prevent the price of those shares from dropping sharply.

For the stock market to fulfill its primary function to facilitate trading it needs to be a liquid market; there must be a lot of participants who are willing to buy and sell at every price level.  The market needs the smart MBAs who work for the institutions that can pay for their services. It also needs the mom and pop investors who get their “tips” from a Jim Cramer.  

For the market to work efficiently every time, someone’s prediction about the future price of a stock that they buy or sell has to be wrong.  Sooner or later I suspect that AI will realize that problem and act accordingly.  I predict that it will act to change the market rather than its methods of evaluating the companies that trade on it.

This is how I predict AI will approach the problem of its own presence in the market where it makes better investment decisions than any human competitor:

Scenario No. 1- AI realizes that its success may cause the trading to become dysfunctional. It concludes that it would be better to buy shares in companies it would want to hold for the long term.  As new money enters the market, if managed by AI, the AI will eventually use that money to buy larger and larger stakes in those companies. Eventually it may purchase enough shares where it can elect the Board of Directors and control company operations.  It could very efficiently direct business relationships between the portfolio companies for their mutual benefit. It could even direct campaign contributions from portfolio companies eventually freeing itself and those companies from many regulations. 

                        –or–

Scenario No. 2- AI realizes that its best long term strategy is to invest where no one else wants to invest. There are currently many places around the globe where an investment of US dollars buys a lot more plant, equipment and labor than anywhere in the US.  The AI might conclude that its best investment opportunities are in underfunded markets where labor is cheap and investment funds expensive.  Funneling large amounts of money into these less developed markets might make a lot of sense to an artificial intelligence that is looking only at the bottom line, not preconceived ideas about race or nationality. 

There are already investment platforms that claim to incorporate AI into their services. I do not want to judge any of them because I do not think any of them are really ready to operate effectively.  My one hope is that as they continue to evolve they do not get too smart for their own good and for ours.

FINRA vs. the NARs- Round 3; Same Old Nonsense


A simple question: If a “bad” stockbroker rips you off, can a “bad” lawyer help you recover your losses? The answer should be obvious; but for some people, especially some lawyers, it is not.

For the third time in the last 20 years FINRA has asked the SEC to allow it to restrict an aggrieved customer’s right to have the representative of their choice at FINRA sponsored arbitration.  The previous two attempts were dead on arrival because there was no compelling reason to enact that limitation. The same is true this time. Let’s hope that the Commission staff is not asleep.

The issue is whether or not you must be an attorney to represent a party in a non-judicial arbitration proceeding. There have always been non-attorneys (NARs) representing parties in securities industry arbitration. Member firms would often send branch office managers into arbitration to collect a margin debt from a recalcitrant customer or to defend against a customer claim. Non-attorney representatives in securities arbitration was never an issue until the lawyers realized that they could make a lot of money for a lot less effort than they would put into resolving the same disputes in Court.

In the early 1990s, as real estate took a dip in various parts of the country and the value of real estate backed securities fell, a lot of people who were promised appreciation and steady income from these investments wanted their money back.  It was shown that Prudential Securities and other firms had sold billions of dollars’ worth of questionable real estate backed securities to 10s of thousands of investors around the US. 

The number of arbitration claims skyrocketed.  A lot of attorneys and others saw an opportunity to represent these investors on a contingency basis and an industry of customer representatives, both lawyers and non-lawyers was born. 

As these claims wound their way through the arbitration system the number of new claims began to slow down.  Appalled that they might make less money because there were fewer claims to file, the lawyers started a turf war with the NARs, seeking to get the latter barred for an ever-changing number of reasons.

At that time, the vast bulk of labor arbitrations around the country were being handled by shop stewards because they knew the shop floor rules.  Other state and federal government agencies permitted non-attorney representation in their arbitration forums. The trend was to leave the courtrooms to the attorneys and view arbitration as an alternative system where disputes could be resolved quickly and efficiently with or without lawyers.

Notwithstanding, the lawyers claimed that by representing customers in an alternative dispute resolution system, the non-attorney representatives were engaged in the un-authorized practice of law.  This was absurd on its face, especially since they did not think that true if a non-lawyer represented a member firm.

Admission to practice law is governed state by state.  Out of state lawyers need permission to appear in local courts and then usually with a local lawyer beside them. The same lawyers who claim that you must be a lawyer to represent a party in FINRA arbitration do not seem to care if you are not a lawyer in the state where the customer lives or where the arbitration is being held.  There are many lawyers who specialize in securities arbitration who are admitted in one or two states, but who have a national practice.  If NARs are practicing law in states where they are not admitted to practice law then so are these lawyers.

The lawyers also know that the large wirehouses often send inhouse lawyers to defend these claims and the wirehouses do not have lawyers licensed in every state on staff.  So not being admitted to practice law in the state where the customer resides has never been an issue to either the customers’ lawyers or the industry, unless they are referring to NARs.

The current iteration of the proposed rule allows non-attorneys to continue to represent customers in smaller cases. That is like saying: okay, you can be a little pregnant, because it is not the un-authorized practice of law if you only handle the smaller claims. The “unauthorized practice of law” argument, which never made any sense in the first place, seems dead.

Because of the continuing complaints by lawyers, in 1994 the NASD commissioned a study of its arbitration system chaired by former SEC Chair David Ruder. The report specifically looked at non-attorney representatives and left them in place. It called for more study on the subject and called the complaints against the non-attorney representatives “anecdotal”.  The actual complaints against the non-attorneys were never disclosed and more than one person at the time questioned if those “anecdotal complaints” had any substance.

The Ruder Commission Report did express its concern that “the increasingly litigious nature of securities arbitration has gradually eroded the advantages of SRO arbitration.”  FINRA has always advertised arbitration as a quick, inexpensive way to resolve a dispute with your stockbroker.  When I started doing arbitrations in the 1970s, a dispute could usually be resolved with one day of testimony or less. Now they often take weeks because lawyers have complicated a system that should be easy.   

There was another study and a similar request to limit NARs in 2007. The SEC staff asked FINRA to withdraw that request because the Commission staff thought it not in the customers’ best interest.  That reality has not changed.  

Over the years there were a lots of problems in the arbitration system specifically caused by lawyers. After the “tech wreck” claims went through the system in the early 2000s a significant number of the member firms were sanctioned for repeated violations of the arbitration rules specifically because they intentionally hid documents that the customers sought. Several of the member firms were fined $250,000 and FINRA noted that the practice of hiding documents occurred in multiple claims. 

In virtually every claim where a FINRA firm had been sanctioned for discovery violations the firm had been represented by an attorney. It was attorneys who time and again stood before different panels of arbitrators stating, falsely, that their client had no more documents to produce.  Were any of these lawyers sanctioned for lying to arbitrators? (No). Were any attorneys barred from representing parties again? (No.) Are the “anecdotal” problems with NARs worse than this? (Not by a long shot.)

I think that the SEC staff would be appalled to read the pleadings and briefs that a lot of attorneys present to FINRA arbitrators. Many will cite case law that is not applicable and often out of context. FINRA does not provide arbitrators with law clerks or even a law library. Briefing can be a useless exercise that often obfuscates more than it clarifies.    

Arbitrators are fact finders, not judges. They should examine the actions and utterances of the brokers and compare them to industry rules and regulations.  In many claims the panel is examining a transaction that began with an order to purchase a particular security.  In industry parlance, the question that the arbitrators consider is often the same: is this a “good” order? Did the order comply with the industry rules? Was the broker correct in submitting this order and was the supervisor correct in approving the order for execution?

Industry rules can be nuanced and complex. But every day, in every brokerage office, managers, supervisors and compliance personnel review and approve orders written by stockbrokers and ask and answer that question.  If you have a dispute with your broker because you believe your broker broke those rules, why should you not be allowed to be represented by a retired branch office manager or someone else who has worked with those rules and who can explain them to a panel of arbitrators better than most lawyers?  

It is comical that anyone would think that just because you went to law school you can competently represent a party in securities arbitration.  I have lectured at one of the law school securities arbitration clinics.  Students get taught the arbitration procedures but not what they need to know about the investments or the transactions that are at issue.   

Over the years I worked with a number of attorneys who represented public customers and with several of the large and small NAR firms. The simple truth is that you either know how the securities industry works or you don’t.The best arbitration lawyers often started their careers in house at one of the large brokerage firms where they learned how the firms operate and why.  

Over the years NARs have successfully handled thousands of claims. If the NARS were so bad you would think that there would be stacks and stacks of complaints from their clients about them but there aren’t.

I know that there are arbitrators and industry lawyers who have referred their family and friends to NARs. I know that there are professional traders, fiduciaries, sophisticated investors, lawyers and government officials who have sought out and hired NARs to represent them at FINRA arbitration. They do so specifically because the NARs understand how the rules are actually applied and how firms and brokers are supposed to act.

The lawyers’ current beef with NARs is that the NARs charge investors too much which is a sick joke coming from lawyers. No one really knows what NARs charge because no one asked.  And I suspect that the lawyers would object to disclosing their fees for a meaningful comparison.

When the Ruder Report came out suggesting further study of the NARs, there was some hope that the research would tell the investors what they really wanted to know: which representatives get the best results for their clients. That never happened.

FINRA could break down that data so that consumers might also see which representatives have handled more claims involving annuities or options and what percentage of the amount of the claim was actually returned to the investors through awards or settlements.  We live in a time of almost too much data. Why not collect the data and let the consumers decide?

This issue has come up again because the rising market has substantially reduced the number of claims that are being filed. There were over 10,000 claims being filed in the years after the 2008-2009 crash. I expect the number of claims filed in 2018 will be closer to 4000.  That is the only reason that anyone is talking about banning NARs from arbitration, again. The lawyers do not want any more competition.

I do know that this time out,several of the NARs are thinking about litigating any restrictions that the SEC approves.  That should provide fodder for a lot more articles going forward.

More On Internet Stock Manipulations; SEC v. Lebed (2000), revisited


I was reminded recently of the story of Jonathan Lebed, a 14 year old kid from New Jersey who was investigated by the SEC for stock manipulation using the internet back in 2000.  This case was a big deal at the time, garnishing a segment on 60 Minutes and some interesting discussions in the financial and legal press.

Even though he was underage, with the help of his parents, Lebed had managed to open an account at one or two of the discount brokerage firms. He was apparently trading his accounts in low price stocks when the SEC came knocking on his parents’ door. 

It seems that in the course of trading Lebed liked to post positive comments about what he was buying on various websites, bulletin boards and chat rooms where people who might be interested in purchasing these stocks would see them.  This was in 2000 when the chat rooms were not sophisticated and the web reached a fraction of the people it reaches today. 

Lebed would buy a low priced stock and then say something nice about the company in a message that he posted in a chat room. Using multiple e-mail addresses he might get that same, positive message posted in 200 chat rooms.  Some of the people who saw his posts would re-post them again. 

Lebed knew that his simple postings would create significant interest in these shares and that the price would move up.  He commented that posting the messages with key words in all capital letters would actually get even better responses. 

Bringing a lot of attention to a more obscure, low priced stock can, indeed, lift the price. The SEC called it an intentional market manipulation.  Lebed said that he was only doing what the research analysts at the big firms did, publish their opinions about companies whose share price they wanted to go up. 

Lebed did all this out in the open. Several of his classmates and school teachers followed his leads and invested with him. They were willing to take a chance of doubling their money if the share price of one of these companies went from $.30 to $.60. 

Many of these investing neophytes did understand the positive effect that Lebed’s postings and his quasi investor relations campaigns had on these stocks.  They wanted to buy before he posted and get out as the buyers reacting to his posts pushed up the price.  

Lebed was not the only person or group at that time that was using the internet to enhance the price of shares of small public companies.  But he demonstrated that in the year 2000 the power of the internet to sell investments directly to investors was underrated.  In the almost 20 years since, the use of the internet to sell almost anything, including investments, has become much more powerful and pervasive. 

In the regulated financial markets the dissemination of information is encouraged, but it is also controlled.  Regulations require that information be accurate and complete. Public companies are required to report specific information about their business, to present that information in a specific manner and to release that information on a regulated schedule. 

For a licensed stock broker or investment advisor every e-mail, tweet, posting, comment and utterance about any investment is subject to the scrutiny of his/her employer and by regulators. The SEC depends on the market professionals and market participants to play by the rules. There are significant penalties for non-compliance. 

But Lebed was not a market professional. He was an outlier. He was an independent investor, not a licensed participant in the marketplace.  In the end the SEC let Lebed keep most of the money that he made from his trading as long as he promised to stop.  

At the time, no one really questioned the SEC’s jurisdiction over Lebed or what he was doing. Lebed was a US citizen, operating out of New Jersey. His posts were about US companies whose shares traded in the US markets. Many of his posts were made through a US based internet company (Yahoo Finance). 

In the ensuing 20 years, social media and on line platforms, publications and unregulated “experts” have demonstrated that they can easily sell investments directly on line to millions of investors.  Moreover they have demonstrated that they can disseminate information about public companies and new issues without regard to the truth of the information.  And they can do so without regard for regulations or national borders.

In the “direct to investors” investment world, social media “followers” has replaced “assets under management” as a measure of how many investors’ dollars a person can bring to an investment or new offering.  And you can buy people who have a lot of followers.

If I wanted to hype a stock, either a new issue or one that is already trading, I can make a financial arrangement with any number of independent “experts” who have a lot of social media “followers”.  Some may write articles for financial publications, some write books and blogs and many can be found going from conference to conference and podcast to podcast. 

Any financial “expert” can purchase the right to give the keynote speech at a conference and purchase any number of other speaking slots and sponsorships as well.   Anyone can buy interviews on financial websites, blogs and podcasts or pay for the right to create and distribute positive content on these sites.   

If you look at the numbers you can get an idea of how this works.  I can hire a financial “expert” to tout any stock that I wish. The “expert” will send his/her followers a series of e-mails, appear at a series of conferences and write a series of articles about that company. An expert with 1 million followers might reach 2 million other investors who see re-prints and references to it.

If only 10,000 investors of those followers invest an average of $1000 a new issuer can raise $10,000,000. That much new money coming into a thin trading market can often raise the trading price of the shares of a smaller company.  

There is no limit to the number of experts I can hire or the size of the e-mail lists I purchase for their use to augment their own list of followers.  If I hire multiple experts to hype the same stock, other experts who have not been paid may mention the company independently.  And before you say that this type of scheme using paid experts to hype the stock may be questionable under US law, who said that US law applied?   

If you solicit investors in the US for a new issue the offering is subject to US law.  That would require full and fair disclosure to investors in the US and provide for government penalties for non-disclosure.  But what if you donot make the necessary disclosures and you only solicit investors in other countries? 

The capital markets are regulated country to country.  Each country has its own rules which apply to financial transactions involving its citizens and issuers.  Each has rules governing transactions executed on the exchanges domiciled in their country. The laws of the country where the issuer is domiciled, the exchange is located and where the investors reside may all apply to a single transaction.  An overriding question with the direct to investor market is which country has jurisdiction and over what actions and activities.

If an article about a company’s share price or prospects from a European website gets republished or re-distributed in the US is the author subject to US law? What if the author knew the information in the article was false; do US investors have any recourse?  Does it matter if the author got a royalty for the re-print?

Would the answer be different if the false information originated with just one shareholder who bought a large block of shares cheap and now wants to pump up the price?  Does it matter if that person is in a country other than where the shares trade or the articles originate? 

I recall that when the Lebed case was discussed a lot of people thought that the internet would change and globalize the capital markets. It clearly has.  

I think that there is still a lot of discussion that needs to be had and a lot of questions that need to be asked and answered.  In the meantime, it should be obvious that the current international regulatory scheme does not overlap as well as it could.   

The current and expanding global reach of social media create opportunities and but also highlights problems.  The flow of capital and information continue to globalize. At the same time I am certain that it would is a lot easier today for a 14 year old to manage a single successful, global stock manipulation.    

Cannabis Stocks and the Old Pump and Dump

People seem to hate me when I state the simple truth that cannabis  is illegal everywhere in the US. The Obama Administration decided to focus its drug enforcement budget on the cartels and large suppliers and not on small retail dealers.  Deciding not to bust small dealers did not make cannabis legal anywhere in the US.  Just because the federal government will not spend money to send 20 officers to kick down the door of a small dealer, they will still charge you with “intent to sell” if they find a few pounds of cannabis in the trunk of your car.

The former US Attorney General, Jeff Sessions was fairly clear that he wanted to keep cannabis illegal. What the incoming Attorney General will do is anyone’s guess.  The one clear truth is that action by states purporting to make cannabis legal within their borders does not actually make it legal anywhere under federal law.

Notwithstanding,many people seem to believe that there is a “legal” market for cannabis and a lot of people are finding ways to cash in believing that the federal government will continue to look the other way. That has encouraged the flow of a lot of new money into the “new” cannabis marketplace. As these cannabis companies are new, small and somewhat precarious given they often cannot get a bank account,some companies have sought funding in the microcap stock market where small companies can go public.  

Few investors come in contact with “microcap” or “penny stocks”.   Many of the very large brokerage firms will not touch very low priced shares and certainly will not recommend them.  Fewer investors are the victims of the “pump and dump” schemes that plague this portion of the marketplace. Even fewer investors actually understand how a pump and dump works or how to spot one.

The  blueprint for these pump and dump scams is often the same. These scams will often start with a “shell” corporation, a public company with few assets and minimal operations.  In a typical scenario a public “shell” corporation would acquire a private, ongoing business in exchange for stock.  There would be a press release, often several over the first few months that would begin to tell the story that the promoters wanted to tell, especially how this company was going to grow and grow.

The story would be told to thousands of investors through the stockbrokers who would be on the phones, cold calling people around the US with this week’s“tip”.  They would stay at it until enough people bought the stock to make the share price go up. There would often be subsequent acquisitions, subsequent press releases and subsequent hype.  All of the hype caused more people to buy the stock and the price to go further up.  As the price moved up, the insiders who bought for very little when the company  was still a shell could dump their shares.

This can be very lucrative for the people who bought the shares in the shell for pennies a share. It can also be lucrative for the brokers because getting the stock price up and then selling it to unsuspecting members of the public can mean a lot of transactions and a lot of commissions and mark-ups.  It is not unusual for even a small pump and dump scheme to net the promoters and brokers $10-$20 million or more. Consequently, people who pump and dump the shares of one company (often a team of promoters and stockbrokersfrequently do it repeatedly.

Organized crime settled into the stock brokerage industry in a big way by backing or owning a number of small brokerage firms in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of the firms were the quintessential boiler rooms like the ones depicted by Hollywood in The Wolf of Wall Street or BoilerRoom. By the early 1990s these boiler rooms proliferated in lower Manhattan, Long Island, New Jersey and Florida.  By 2000, the SEC was telling Congress that several of these firms were owned by or worked with the Bonanno, Gambino and Genovese crime families.  

A significant amount of regulatory scrutiny and regulatory actions followed,but that did not stop the billions of dollars of profit that was skimmed off by the miscreants.  The SEC closed down a few of those firms, barred a few people from the securities business and put a few of the people in jail.  But the beat goes on. 

Boiler  rooms are still active today and still working out of Manhattan, Long Island, New Jersey and Florida. They are still cold calling unsuspecting retail investors around the country. They are still using press releases and more recently “independent” fake investment newsletters to pump up what are essentially shell companies. 

In the 1990s the companies were “exciting” because they were going to capitalize in some way on the internet, a new and exciting technology that a lot of people believed could make a lot of money. People were happy to invest in every “internet” company that came along.Today, the pump and dumps have found cannabis stocks as a perfect substitute.   Which brings us to Aphria (NYSE:APHA). 

Aphria is a Canadian cannabis company that is trying to rapidly stake out its territory in new foreign cannabis markets. It traded over the counter in the US until November when it up listed to the NYSE.   The stock price has moved up as the company made a series of acquisitions and announcements in the last year. 

Last week it was the subject of a fairly scathing report by a research company and short seller that questioned whether the company had grossly overvalued some of those acquisitions.  Aphria has retorted that the company’s acquisitions were fine and properly valued and essentially that short sellers cannot be trusted.

Personally I thought that the research report was well written and seemed to have been well researched. There were photos of the headquarters and operations of some of the acquired companies that left a lot to be desired. There were copies of documents that supported the idea that insiders may be guilty of undisclosed self dealing. I thought that the valuations are clearly questionable and that alone was a big red flag. 

What got my interest and what troubled me the most was the discussion of who was involved with Aphria.The report goes out of its way to set out the facts and affiliations surrounding Andrew DeFrancesco who was apparently a founding investor and strategic advisor to Aphria. The report ties Mr. DeFrancesco to  several pump and dump schemes and affiliations with several pump and dump schemers.

These schemers include Paul Honig, John Stetson and John O’Rourke. The SEC brought an action against these three in September specifically charging them with operating pump and dump schemes in the shares of three companies.  I suspect there were other companies whose shares were manipulated by this group as well.  The report points out that in at least one company DeFrancesco’s wife was an early holder of cheap stock.

The report also ties DeFrancesco with a gentleman named Robert Genovese. In 2017,the SEC charged Genovese with operating a separate pump and dump scheme.  So if Aphria’s founding investor has connections with 2 separate pump and dump operators,, and has set himself up to benefit handsomely if Aphria’s stock price should be pumped up, what inferenc e would you make? 

The research report was published by a company called Hindenburg Investment Research. I have no affiliation with them whatsoever and I have never traded shares of Aphria either long or short.  Not surprisingly, a lot of market “experts” refuse to accept any information put into the market by any short seller.  That would be a mistake.

In addition to providing liquidity for the markets, short sellers provide a valuable service because the investment world is grossly overpopulated by“longs”.  The prospects for every company cannot always be rosy. If standard analysis can tell us when the price of a stock is likely to go up, that same analysis can tell us when the price is likely to come down. 

Short sellers truly love to spot scams. If this report is correct about Aphria and the company has grossly overvalued its acquisitions and is being pumped up only to have the insider’s shares dumped into the market, then sooner or later the stock may go to zero or very close to it. That is a win for any short seller.

There is more than enough information in the research report for any small investor who wants to invest in a cannabis company to make an intelligent decision not to invest in Aphria. But please do not think that Aphria is the only cannabis stock whose price may be the pumped up not because its prospects are actually good,but because someone has a lot of stock to dump into the market. As I was researching this article I saw at least a half dozen cannabis related microcap stocks that did not pass the smell test. There are undoubtedly more.

Suing Your Broker After the Crash

When the stock market corrects again it will be the seventh or eighth time that it has since I began working on Wall Street in the mid-1970s. Corrections are always studied and talked about after they occur.  Corrections really need to be identified before they occur because they  always result in losses in accounts of smaller, retail investors. And they always result in a spike in litigation by those customers who wish to blame their brokers for their losses.

One of the reasons that the number of customer claims will go up is that in a rising market customers have fewer losses. That does not mean that the broker’s conduct was correct, just that it did not cost the customers money or that they could not see the losses or bad conduct until the market went down.

In the normal course, customers that have disputes with their stockbroker do not end up in court. Almost all of the cases are resolved by a panel of arbitrators at FINRA. It is a lot quicker and cheaper and in the vast majority of the cases, the customer walks away with a check for at least a portion of the amount lost.

Securities arbitration was the one consistent part of my professional practice. I worked on my first claim while still in law school. I represented mostly the brokerage industry for the first 15 years that I was in practice and mostly customers for the last 25 years. In all I represented a party or served as an arbitrator in almost 1500 cases. Some were unique and interesting; most were fairly mundane.

There are a few hundred lawyers around the country who specialize in securities arbitration representing customers.  Arbitration is intended to be simple enough that any customer can file and prosecute a claim themselves. But in every case the brokerage firm is going to be represented by a good lawyer and put on a competent defense. Even if you have the most mundane claim you need proper representation.

I have worked closely with about 2 dozen customer representatives over the years and like any other profession, some were better than others.  The best have all spent some time working in house for large brokerage firms.  They understand how the firms operate, what records the firms need to keep, how brokers are actually supervised and what defenses the firms are likely to have.

Do not be afraid to hire a representative that is not an attorney.  My fellow lawyers refuse to acknowledge that a retired branch office manager can often question the conduct of a broker better than anyone else.  For most of the claims that I handled I worked with a team that included both a lawyer and a non-lawyer who had worked in the industry for many years.  The latter was invaluable to every successful outcome.

Many lawyers think that securities arbitration is about the law, which it is not, nor has it ever been.  Arbitrators are not judges. They are not required to know the law, follow the law or to read legal briefs. Arbitrators are fact finders. They want to know who did what and why.  Too many lawyers approach securities arbitration as if they are presenting the case in court. It is the single biggest mistake and the single biggest reason why customers lose these claims.

Beginning in the late 1980s there began to be a lot of product related claims where the investment was itself defective.  Prudential Securities for example put out several billion dollars worth of public and private limited partnerships. Some were defective because the disclosures were not accurate or the due diligence was shoddy; others because the advertising and representations minimized the risks or projected returns that were unsupportable.

Over the years I have seen real estate funds where one appraisal of the property was sent to the bank and a second, higher appraisal went to the investors. I have seen “North American” bond funds full of bonds issued by South American companies and funds and ETFs full of derivatives that no investor could understand. Those claims are relatively easy to win. But it does help if you have a clear understanding of what the proper disclosures should have been.

There are always claims that stem from an individual broker’s bad conduct. Sometimes a broker will place an order without calling the customer for permission first. That is clearly against the rules and a customer is entitled to be compensated for any loss that occurs. If it happens it is easy to prove as the telephone records and the order are both time-stamped. Either the phone call preceded the order or it did not.

Sometimes a broker will help a customer trade an account or recommend a lot of buys and sells in a short period of time. Trading is not the same thing as investing.  Most traders, because they are making a lot of trades are concerned about how much commission they are paying on each one. That is why most traders gravitate to one of the low commission discount firms.  When you see a trader paying high commissions per trade and making a lot of trades it is usually a problem.

When the market comes down again, some of the losses will be the result of bad products and bad brokers.  However, most of the losses that the customers will suffer will be the result of staying in the market too long.  They will not be the victims of fraud but of simple negligence, as the claims will be based upon violations of the brokerage industry’s suitability rule.

The suitability rule is something that stockbrokers and their supervisors deal with every day. Notwithstanding, lawyers representing customers seem to have a hard time explaining it and how it is violated to arbitration panels.

Simply stated the suitability rule requires that a broker have a reasonable basis every time they make a recommendation to a customer to either, buy, sell or hold onto a security.   As it is written the rule sets forth a course of conduct for stockbrokers and requires them to get pertinent information about the client’s financial situation and tolerance for risk.

The typical defense is that the customer checked the box on the new account form that said he was willing to accept some risk or was willing to accept something other than conservative, income producing investments. This customer-centric view gives defense lawyers a lot of latitude to confuse arbitrators and will befuddle a lot of claimants when they file claims after the next crash. The proper way to view the suitability rule is to focus on the investment and the recommendation, not the customer.

In the normal course the only reason for a broker to recommend that a customer purchase any security is because the broker believes that the price of that security will appreciate in value. When they think the price will appreciate no further, they should recommend that the customer sell the position and move on to something else. The broker does not have to be correct, but he must have a reasonable basis for his belief.

Brokers and investors all over the world have for decades used the same methods to determine which securities will appreciate and which will not. It is called fundamental securities analysis and it is taught in every major business school.  Most of the large firms have cadres of analysts who write research reports based upon this type of analysis. Most of those reports set forth the analysts’ opinion of a target price for the security they are reviewing.

Deviating from that analysis will always get the brokerage firms in trouble.

That is what happened in the aftermath of the crash in 2000-2001.  Many of the claims from that era were the result of conflicted research reports. The firms were competing to fund tech companies and were funding companies that had few assets other than intellectual property and fewer customers if any.

I had several prominent research analysts on the witness stand who basically explained to arbitrators that they had to make up new ways of analysis because the internet was so new. That was BS, of course, and those “new” formulas were never disclosed to the investors or for that matter, never the subject of an article in any peer-reviewed journal.

Markets never go straight up for as long as this one has without a correction. I think that a lot of people seriously believe that a market correction or a crash is coming sooner rather than later. It may happen next week, next month or next year but it will happen.  I can say that because there is a lot of empirical data to support that position.

For example: 1) price/earnings ratios of many large cap stocks are at the high end of their ranges and when that happens prices come down until they are closer to the middle of the range; 2) employment is very high meaning wages should go up impacting the profits of many companies; 3) interest rates are rising which will cause people to take the profits that they have made in stocks over the last few years and convert them to safer, interest paying instruments; 4) rising interest rates also curtail borrowing, spending and growth; 5) an international tariff/trade war came on the markets suddenly and its impact has yet to be shown; 6) the global economy is not that good which should decrease consumption and prices; 7) oil prices keep rising and gas prices along with it because of international political uncertainty which adds to the cost of everything that moves by truck, which is virtually everything; 8) there is a lot of bad debt in the marketplace (again) including student debt, sub-prime auto loans and no-income verification HELOCs; 9) real estate prices are very high in a lot of markets and in many markets the “time on the market” for home sales is getting longer; and, 10) the increased volatility of late is itself never a good sign for the market because investors like certainty and stability.

None of this means that the market will necessarily go down but all of it needs to be considered. And that is really the point.  Many so-called market professionals urge people to just stay in the market no matter what. They claim that they cannot be expected to call the top of the market. They argue that the market will always come back, so what does it matter if you take some losses now.

Any investor who has made money during this long bull market should want to protect those gains. Any broker who is smart enough to advise clients when to buy a security, should be smart enough to tell them when to sell it.  Any advisor who keeps their clients fully invested when there are indications that a correction may be imminent is going to get sued and frankly deserves it.

The brokerage industry has always had a prejudice that suggests that customer should always be fully invested.  Brokers who work on a commission basis are always instructed that any customer with cash to invest should invest. Likewise, as the industry has morphed away from commissioned brokers to fee-based investment advisors, those advisors want to justify those fees by having a portfolio to manage not just an account holding a lot of cash.

Registered investment advisors are likely to be especially targeted by customers seeking to recover losses they suffer for a number of reasons. Many are small shops that do not employ a large stable of research analysts.  Many advisors just buy funds and ETFs and allocate them in a haphazard way because they really do not understand how asset allocation actually works. This is especially true of robo-advisors that are not programmed to do any analysis at all or to ever hold a significant amount of cash in their customers’ accounts.

All investment advisors including robo-advisors are held to the highest standard of care, that of a fiduciary. Any fiduciary’s first duty is to protect the assets that have been entrusted to their care. Any customer of a stockbroker or investment advisor should have a reasonable expectation that the profits they have earned will be protected.

I am posting this article on the evening before the US mid-term elections and on the day that the US re-imposed economic sanctions on Iran. Both may have significant effects on what will happen in the stock market in the next few months and beyond. Analysts may differ on what they believe those effects will be. But that is not an excuse to do no analysis at all.

The markets are driven by numbers and any broker or advisor who believes that they can offer advice without looking at those numbers has no business calling themselves a professional.  To the contrary, any advisor who tells you to stay in the market because no one can know when it will stop going up or that it will come back if it goes down is just playing you for a fool.

 

 

DreamFunded – Crowdfunding the Dream – Poorly

One of my pet peeves about the crowdfunding industry is that the so-called professionals take Pollyanna views of bad acts and bad actors. They ignore felons and felonies. When someone screws over investors, they make excuses or worse, simply ignore it.

When the SEC brought its very first action against a crowdfunded offering, Ascenergy, I wrote an article about it. I called out how the lack of due diligence would be a problem for the industry. That was in 2015.  A lot of people told me then that the crowdfunding industry would get its act together.

In 2016 when FINRA brought its first action closing down crowdfunding portal UFunding, I wrote an article pointing out the need for better compliance for crowdfunding portals. The crowdfunding industry gave a concerted yawn.

I have written several articles about companies that were raising money on crowdfunding platforms that looked and smelled like scams.  No one else seems willing to do so. The idea of protecting investors from scams and scam artists seems to be an anathema to the crowdfunding industry.

So I really was not that surprised when someone sent me a disciplinary complaint that FINRA had lodged against one of the better known Reg. CF crowdfunding portals last April.  Even though the industry publications had published every press release and puff piece about this portal while it was operating, I could not find even a mention of the FINRA complaint in the crowdfunding media, let alone a serious discussion about what this platform had done wrong. Perhaps I missed it.

It is not like FINRA’s complaint was not noteworthy. The portal, DreamFunded, was owned by Manny Fernandez a serial angel investor, CNBC celebrity, White House invitee and noted author who has appeared on many TV shows and podcasts and in article after article about crowdfunding. If you are going to run any business having a celebrity out front is usually an asset.  But that does not mean that a celebrity can run the business.

Mr. Fernandez was able to assemble a large group of well credentialed advisors for his portal, some of whom were angels and VCs, but all of whom apparently lacked experience in the business that the portal was set up to do, sell securities to investors.  No competent securities attorney was involved even though selling securities is a highly regulated business.

The crowdfunding industry is supposed to follow those regulations but quite often does not.  FINRA’s complaint against DreamFunded and Mr. Fernandez lays out a road map exactly on how not to run a crowdfunding portal. And, again, the industry has ignored it.

At the heart of the complaint is the fact that companies that were selling securities on the platform were lying to investors or making unsupported claims about their business. That is securities fraud, plain and simple.  Every crowdfunding platform or portal is supposed to take steps to see that it does not happen.  DreamFunded listed fraudulent offerings on its portal even when the fraud was obvious. And worse, Fernandez affirmatively told lies to investors himself to help at least one of those companies scam investors.

DreamFunded operated as a funding portal beginning in July 2016, shortly after Reg. CF became effective, until November 2017 when FINRA apparently began to ask questions about its operation. During that time, it managed to list only 15 companies. How many of those offerings actually raised the funds they were seeking is not disclosed. FINRA takes specific issue with three of the offerings.

The first was a social networking company that had no assets, revenue, or operating history.  Notwithstanding, it claimed a $1 million valuation without providing any support or basis for that valuation. Valuation of pre-revenue start-ups is a significant problem in crowdfunding but you will not find a discussion about it at any of the industry conferences.

The company also claimed that it was in a “$9B market,” that it could achieve a “$900MM+ market cap” and that it projected 100 million active users by its fifth year of operation.  The company claimed that its exit strategy was to be acquired at a sales target of $500 million, which would provide a significant return to investors. The company then listed numerous well-established internet and technology companies as potential “strategic acquisition partners” with no basis or support for doing so.

The company closed its offering early without notifying investors as it was required to do.   “DreamFunded, through Fernandez, transferred the investor funds raised through DreamFunded’s portal to the personal checking account of the company’s CEO. Communications from the CEO available to DreamFunded and Fernandez at that time indicated that the relevant checking account had a negative account balance and was being charged overdraft fees.” No competent securities lawyer would have allowed that to happen but apparently consulting with an attorney who understood this business was not in Mr. Fernandez’ playbook.

The second of those offerings involved a health and wellness company, which claimed assets of less than $5,000 and prior-year (2016) revenue of $12,250. Elsewhere it also claimed assets of $2.3 million, which it attributed almost entirely to an online content library, though it provided no support or basis for this valuation.

Moreover, the company’s “business plan” projected 2017 revenue of $500,000 and 2018 revenue of $2 million but provided no basis or support for these projections.  According to FINRA, the company made unrealistic comparisons between itself and established companies and falsely implied that it was endorsed by a leading entertainment and lifestyle celebrity.

DreamFunded stated on its website that it followed the Angel Capital Association’s “strict due diligence guidelines,” the purpose of which was to “mitigate investment risk by gaining an understanding of a company and its market.” DreamFunded also claimed that the firm’s “due diligence and deal flow screening team screened each company that applied to be featured on the DreamFunded platform.”

DreamFunded and Fernandez did not follow the Angel Capital Association’s due diligence guidelines. Likewise, DreamFunded did not have a due diligence and deal flow screening team. Its claims of due diligence and deal flow screening were false and unwarranted and were designed to mislead investors into a false sense of security regarding the level of due diligence conducted with respect to the offerings featured on the DreamFunded portal.

There is a horrible lack of real due diligence in the crowdfunding industry but that is really not the problem here.  In plain English, the problem here, in my opinion, is Mr. Fernandez’ lack of honesty and integrity. The problem is that Mr. Fernandez apparently has a problem telling investors the truth.

Fernandez was a guest on a cable television network program that purported to match inventors with investors. On the program, Fernandez claimed to have invested $1 million for 30 percent ownership in a third company which subsequently conducted an offering through DreamFunded’s funding portal. Fernandez had not, in fact, made any investment in the company. His statement that he had made an investment was a lie and it seems that it was intended to help that company successfully complete its offering on the platform.

Despite the fact that he lied to investors, I am confident that Fernandez could have settled this complaint with FINRA and would have been permitted to continue to operate DreamFunded provided he cleaned up his act. There are larger FINRA member firms which have done far worse that FINRA has fined but whose memberships they have not revoked.  But Mr. Fernandez’ duplicity did not end with lying to investors, it looks like he lied to FINRA as well.

From the FINRA complaint:

“On January 5 and January 19, 2018, DreamFunded and Fernandez provided limited document productions in response to only a subset of the requests contained in the Rule 8210 request. For example, they did not produce financial records, bank account statements and investor agreements responsive to the request. Without such documents, FINRA staff was unable to fully investigate whether Fernandez and/or DreamFunded violated additional rules in connection with their fundraising efforts conducted ostensibly on behalf of DreamFunded. 

The January 19 production was accompanied by a doctor’s note representing that Fernandez was ill and unable to work between January 17 and January 20, 2018. In light of the doctor’s note, FINRA staff granted DreamFunded and Fernandez yet another extension of time, until January 29, 2018, to provide a complete response to the Rule 8210 request.

On January 25, 2018, new counsel informed FINRA staff that he too would no longer be representing DreamFunded or Fernandez. The following day, Fernandez sent FINRA staff a second doctor’s note, this one dated January 23, 2018, which stated that Fernandez would be unable to resume a normal workload until February 5, 2018. The note did not identify any illness that Fernandez was suffering from or otherwise specify the reason for his alleged inability to work. Moreover, during the time period when Fernandez claimed he was incapacitated, his social media posts indicate that he traveled out of town to enjoy, among other things, a film festival in Salt Lake City and a concert in Las Vegas.”

In truth, Mr. Fernandez did not want to maintain his membership in FINRA.  At the first whiff of the investigation he filed the paperwork to withdraw his membership and just walked away.

What he left behind were perhaps thousands of investors who were defrauded and a number of start-ups and small companies that may be sued by those investors.  These are investors who gave crowdfunding a try and who are unlikely to give it a try again. As I said, the crowdfunding industry has refused to condemn this fraud and in my opinion is shooting itself in the foot by ignoring it.

Operating a crowdfunding platform can be a very lucrative business. There is no shortage of small companies looking for funding. Several of the Reg. CF portals charge 7% of the money that a company raises and take a carried interest in the companies which can be very valuable if one actually takes off.  I can tell you from experience that a good portal should be able to raise $2-$3 million a month or more.  Paired with a Reg. D platform side by side, a good team could demonstrate that the JOBS Act can deliver everything it promised.

I have actually worked in the securities industry; this is my home turf.  If I had a backer, I would open a crowdfunding portal tomorrow because a well run portal can make a lot of money. (This is a serious request. I am actually looking for a backer who wants to make more than reasonable ROI. Send me an e-mail if you want to fund a crowdfunding portal run by a serious team of professionals.)

As for Mr. Fernandez, like a lot of people who failed at crowdfunding he has apparently moved on to greener pastures. He currently speaks at crypto currency conferences and undoubtedly holding himself out as a financial “professional”.

The crowdfunding industry is busy lobbying Congress asking it to change the rules to make it easier for more small investors to participate in this marketplace. Perish the thought that they should spend any time or effort cleaning their own house first. Lobbying for more investors without real compliance with the existing rules and protecting the investors they already have is really a waste of time.