Elio Motors- A Crowdfunding Clunker?

A colleague asked me to look into the securities offering of Elio Motors in Phoenix, Arizona. The company is one of the first to register shares to be sold under the new Regulation A.

Reg. A allows smaller companies to raise up to $50 million without the use of an underwriter. Elio is selling its shares directly to investors through a Crowdfunding platform called StartEngine.

Elio is attempting to raise $25 million making it one of the largest direct to investor financings to date. Many people in and around the Crowdfunding industry are anticipating the offering’s success.

Elio claims to be a designer, developer and manufacturer of highly efficient, low cost automobiles. The company intends to offer a 3 wheeled, gas powered vehicle that will get 84 MPG and cost roughly $6800.

It certainly sounds good and from the pictures that accompany the offering the vehicles look pretty good as well. The company says that it hopes to be delivering its vehicles to consumers by the end of this year.

Unfortunately, that seems highly unlikely. The company currently has only a few drive-able early prototypes of its vehicles. It does not have a full production prototype, a final design, a built-out manufacturing facility or manufacturing processes. Even with this financing, the company will still need another quarter of a billion dollars to get its manufacturing facility into production.

I reviewed the prospectus and made a note of a number of “red flags” – items that seemed a little off base to me. A number of things caught my eye.

First, the company is insolvent and will continue to be insolvent even after investors put in $25 million. Investors will pay $12 per share and each share will have a negative book value and no liquidity for a long time to come.

Roughly $10 million is owed and due to an affiliate of a large shareholder within the next 6 months. That loan is already over due and subject to a forbearance agreement. If the agreement is not renewed roughly 1/2 of the proceeds of this offering will revert to the lender.

The company hopes to obtain a $165 million loan under a federal government program intended to help existing auto manufacturers expand their businesses. If unsuccessful in obtaining this loan Elio will need to find that much and more, elsewhere.

The government program was intended to help Ford and GM when they were having financial difficulty back in 2008/2009.The program is specifically designed to have low upfront borrowing costs. Elio is paying a lobbyist $1 million to help them to get funding under the program in addition to the lobbyist presently on staff. Perhaps the company does not believe that it could obtain the loan if the government agency judged the company solely on its merits.

There does not appear to be a single dollar of professional venture capital in this company. The company says this is because the venture capital industry moved away from investing in new vehicle startups. Personally, I believe it was because the venture capital industry spotted Elio as a loser or worse, a scam.

There are no patents. Despite years and millions of dollars worth of designs and modifications Elio does not have anything that it deems to be worth patenting. That always begs the question of whether or not their designs infringe on anyone else’s patents.

Perhaps the most disconcerting issue is that the company currently funds itself by taking vehicle deposits from consumers. The company has taken in more than $20 million in deposits from in excess of 45,000 people promising to deliver vehicles for which it does not yet have a final design and still needs up to a quarter of a billion dollars to produce.

The sales projections seem very rich. In order to get its retail price to $6,800 the company is projecting 250,000 units sold annually, meaning sales would be about $1.7 billion. With competition from other larger automotive manufacturers this number even if attainable would seem difficult to sustain.

No one apparently conducted a real due diligence review. StartEngine is not a FINRA firm and cannot be expected to conduct a due diligence review that is up to FINRA standards. The name of the law firm that prepared the offering is not disclosed. Experience suggests that this prospectus is not the product of one of the large Wall Street law firms.

Interestingly, Elio will pay a FINRA firm, FundAmerica Securities, to conduct due diligence on the investors to make certain that they comply with the SEC’s rules regarding how much they can purchase. FundAmerica Securities will receive up to about $950,000 for this service. (For the record, I would have cheerfully performed this administrative task for about ½ the cost).

No similar fee is being paid to anyone to verify the statements in the prospectus and to make certain that all appropriate disclosures have been made. Due diligence can be expensive and the amount spent, if material, would likely be disclosed.

If fully subscribed, this offering will cost Elio about $2.4 million which is about what it would have cost if the offering had been done in the traditional way by a FINRA firm using salespeople. The offering would have been subjected to real due diligence and if it passed more likely than not would have sold out before the end of last year.

I suspect that the “crowd” will buy up all of the shares that Elio is selling, not because the crowd knows what it is doing, but because most people would not know an investment scam if it bit them on the butt.

As I said, a lot of people in the Crowdfunding industry are waiting for Elio to sell its shares as an indication of how the Crowdfunding industry has progressed. The industry would be better served if got behind companies that offered investors a better chance of success.

The lesson of Long Term Capital Management

Over the years I have marveled at the fact that some of the most intelligent people in the financial markets repeatedly get blindsided by market action. Frequently it is because in the real world the markets do not act in accordance with their view of how the markets should act.

A great many intelligent people lost money when the markets crashed in 2000 and 2008 because in each instance they did not see the crash coming. Many fall back on “nobody” can predict the market when what they mean is that “they” failed to predict the market.

A great deal of the advice given by the Wall Street firms is conflicted. Even simple tools like asset allocation are grossly misapplied. Finding a better than average financial adviser can be hit or miss.

Many people agree that investing requires time, information, analysis and discipline. There is logic that suggests using computers and mathematics to make investment decisions has merit. Computers will certainly analyze more information in less time and can trade any account subject to a rigid discipline.

Success should be dependent upon analyzing the right information in the right way. Hiring really smart and accomplished people to decide which information to collect and how to analyze it would seem to enhance the chance of success. Except that it does not always work.

The most outrageous example may be the case of Long Term Capital Management (LTCM), a Connecticut based hedge fund that lost about $4.5 billion of investors’ money in 1998 and almost brought the markets down with it. The investors were some of Wall Street’s biggest banks and many of the individual executives who managed them.

LTCM was started in 1993 by Lee Meriwether, a very accomplished trader who had made substantial profits for Salomon Brothers. Showcased members of the team were Myron Scholes and Robert Merton, two economists who had devised a mathematical model for pricing options. Merton and Scholes won the Nobel Prize in Economics for that model in 1997 just before the downturn that wiped out LTCM.

LTCM performed arbitrage with its investors’ money. They looked for small discrepancies in the price of the same or similar instruments in different markets. They assumed that the markets would always efficiently close those gaps.

LTCM created sophisticated mathematical tools to identify those discrepancies and to evaluate the greater markets so they could estimate how those gaps would close. No one has suggested that LTCM’s math was wrong; it is just that the events that occurred were not in the database that they were analyzing.

In 1997 the government in Thailand devalued its currency. The ensuing defaults roiled the markets in Asia and caused a serious decline in the equity markets. Credit markets in Japan, a major US trading partner and the most important capital markets in Asia tightened significantly. It did not help that Russia defaulted on its own sovereign debt shortly thereafter.

Importantly, LTCM did not lose money when the devaluation occurred in 1997 but a year later. The LTCM fund was very profitable into 1998. Losses started to mount up when its mathematical models could not account for the shifting market conditions caused by the devaluation. They were useless to predict the effects of the often conflicting ways in which other Asian governments and central banks would deal with it.

The lesson to learn from LTCM is quite simple. Even the best mathematical models created by the smartest people should not be relied upon to tell us what the markets may do. No computer program can accurately predict the price of securities one month or one year from today.

Despite this fact, there are currently a multitude of “quant” firms that are developing and using ever more sophisticated mathematics to do just that. Most are focused upon making predictions of what will happen in the markets today not next month. I wish them luck but I would not give them any of my money to invest.

The markets will continue to evolve, globalize and expand. Developing mathematical models based upon how the markets have acted up until today will be less and less accurate and have less and less utility going forward.

Millennials think otherwise and are expected to invest trillions of dollars with robo-advisers who use mathematics in the same way. A substantial percentage of those funds will be lost the next time the market turns down.

Then the market”professionals” and pundits who currently sell and endorse robo-adviser programs will remind the millennials that “nobody can predict the market” because some things about the markets never change.

Sex and crowdfunding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reg. A+ Assessing the True Costs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accredited Investors-Here Comes Direct Solicitation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reg. A+ – Exuberance and Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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