Ziyen Inc- Another Reg. A+ Question Mark

I have written several articles about specific Reg. A+ offerings. These offerings are targeted at small investors who are ill-equipped to judge their value as an investment, let alone, the accuracy of the disclosures.

I recently got a call from a colleague who works at a reputable brokerage firm.  He suggested that I look at the Reg. A+ offering of a company called Ziyen Inc.  He thought that it might be the grist for a blog article. He was not wrong.

Ziyen Inc. was incorporated in April 2016 to provide a suite of “cutting edge digital business intelligence, marketing and software services.”  By business intelligence it means information about available government procurement contracts, initially in Iraq and eventually globally.

The offering circular states: “Ziyen currently operates the B2B Procurement Portals “Rebuilding Iraq.net” and “Cable Contracts.net”.  “Rebuilding Iraq is our first B2B Procurement Portal, and the flagship service for the company. We are currently the number one international source for information on tenders, contracts, news and marketing services in Iraq.”

As far as I can tell, Rebuilding Iraq.net lists tenders for contracts that might be found elsewhere and does not charge for the information. It claims that 200,000 people visit the site every month.  When I checked Cable Contracts.net, which does charge for usage on a monthly subscription basis, I did not find any tenders listed. According to the financial statements in the offering circular the company has no revenue and roughly $7000 in the bank.

The company is selling up to 64,000,000 shares at $.25 per share. It is self-underwriting, meaning that there is no brokerage firm involved or even an established crowdfunding platform.  The offering circular mentions two crowdfunding platforms by name and the subscription agreement mentions a third, but I could not find this offering on any of them.

It appears that shares are being sold directly from the company website. The website actually uses shopping carts into which you can put a bundle of shares and check out using a credit card. And before you say that the shares are only $.25 a piece, the bundles go up to $25,000 so this is a serious offering of securities.

The subscription agreement also mentions an escrow agent where investors can deposit their funds, except that no escrow agent is being used.  According to the offering circular, “Subscription amounts received by the Company will be deposited in the Company’s general bank account, and upon acceptance of the subscription by the Company, the funds will be available for the Company’s use.”

No competent securities attorney would permit these types of inconsistencies. In truth, it appears that no competent securities attorney was involved in the preparation of this offering.  None is disclosed and no funds are allocated to pay an attorney to prepare the offering or deal with the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Corporate Finance which reviewed it.

It appears the offering was prepared by the company’s principal, Alastair Caithness, a Scottish-American businessman.  You can tell he wrote the offering circular because he refers to himself in the first person – “I was Head of Sales in a company in the UK” although he never discloses the name of that company.

The offering circular also obliquely refers to other employees and a Board of Directors, none of whom are named. The Company does business in Iraq and for all you know the Company might have people on its Board of Directors whom the US government might not look upon favorably.

I did find six other Board members on the Company’s website, but their backgrounds were short on the type of detail I would have expected to see in an offering circular. The disclosures give incomplete employment histories and several fail to disclose where they were educated.  Nothing negative was disclosed about any of them and I am not suggesting that there was anything negative to disclose. I am only questioning whether Mr. Caithness would have known what disclosures the rules required.

For a little perspective, back in the late 1970s when I was writing registration statements I took some flak from the Division of Corporate Finance because one of the executives at an issuer had claimed to have a Bachelor’s degree and did not. It seems he got his draft notice right before his senior year final exams and decided that graduating was not that important. When he took the job at the company years later his resume said that he had graduated and no one had ever checked. The Division of Corporate Finance told me at the time that was a misstatement of a material fact.

I must have missed the memo where they subsequently decided that not disclosing the names of the members of the Board of Directors in an offering circular was not an omission of a material fact.  Nowhere in the offering circular does it suggest that investors should review every page of the company’s website or every subsequent press release.

The offering circular is dated mid-October of 2016. In mid-April 2017, the Company announced separately that it had established a “new investment division in the company to focus on financing unfunded construction projects in Iraq”.  It claimed to have “the capabilities to provide the finance for long-term projects.”  Financing for long-term projects?  According to the offering circular the company has $7000 in cash in the bank.

In June 2017, the Company announced that Ziyen Energy, a division of Ziyen Inc., had just secured over $36 million dollars of oil reserves in Indiana in the United States.  The deal includes 7 existing oil producing wells worth over $6 million dollars of proven reserves along with a support water injection well and a water producing well for injection purposes with a further potential for 20 new oil producers on undeveloped reserves on the site worth over $30 million.

That would certainly be big news, except the offering circular does not mention Ziyen Energy nor any intention to be in the oil production business, much less in the oil production business in the US. If you were to download and review the offering circular today you would have no idea you were investing in an oil company. Even if you tracked down the press release, it does not disclose how much the company paid for these reserves, whether they were financed, how much the wells are producing or if contracts are in place to sell the production.

As I was researching this article I was prepared to give Mr. Caithness the benefit of the doubt. I thought he was just a businessman trying to raise some money for his own company on the cheap, i.e. without hiring a competent securities attorney.

Then I found this offering on a crowdfunding platform that specializes in Reg. A+ offerings called Wall Street Capital Investment. It is owned by Mr. Caithness who holds himself as an expert and offers to help raise money for others.

Ziyen Inc. is actually the second offering on that platform. The first is a company called Novea Inc. which shares the same address in Cheyenne, Wyoming as Ziyen. (Mr. Caithness is actually in California and presumably operates Ziyen from there. I have no reason to believe that Novea is actually in Cheyenne either.) The offering circulars for the two are remarkably similar and no attorney was apparently paid to prepare the Novea offering either.

Novea Inc. also has neither revenue nor cash in the bank and is in the business of offering warranties that “disrupt” the warranty industry.  One of its largest shareholders is Mr. Carlos Arreola who is Mr. Caithness’ partner in Wall Street Capital Investment. As an aside, the advertising for both companies feature the same actor and the marketing plan and press releases are also very similar.

I also suspect that this is about more than just saving some money on legal fees. Had Mr. Caithness come to me I would have suggested that he raise his funds through a Reg. D offering to accredited investors. He would have spent about the same as he anticipated (the offering budgets $20,000 for crowdfunding and related expenses) whereas the average cost of a Reg. A+ offering is in the neighborhood of $150,000 and much of that is for the lawyers.

Personally I think this offering might have been difficult to sell to accredited investors given that its business plan is weak. But if its Rebuilding Iraq.net website gets 200,000 views per month there would be a steady stream of non-accredited potential investors who are pre-disposed to the idea that Iraq needs rebuilding and might put a few shares in their shopping cart, even though they would actually be investing in a US domestic oil producer.

And that is really the point. Since there is neither a competent securities attorney nor broker/ dealer involved with this offering it is up to the individual investors to investigate this offering and make their own decision. No one has vetted this offering and no one can say whether every material fact is disclosed or accurate. The crowdfunding industry needs to stop deluding itself into thinking that small investors can actually perform due diligence.

Given the internal inconsistencies and inaccuracies, the failure to disclose the names of the Board of Directors and the fact that this was a DIY Reg. A+ offering I would have expected a little more scrutiny by the SEC’s Division of Corporate Finance before it was approved. But that no longer matters.

I know that about two dozen senior staffers at the SEC receive this blog through Linked-in, as do people at FINRA and the offices of state securities administrators in more than a dozen states. I know that people in a few Congressional offices that have oversight on the SEC and crowdfunding receive it as well. This one is a no-brainer.

From the company’s own press releases it is obvious that the information being disseminated to prospective investors in the offering circular does not reflect the current state of the company’s affairs. If a cease, desist and disclose order is not appropriate here, I cannot imagine that it will ever be appropriate anywhere.

I am older than most of my readers. I was around and litigated matters involving Stratton Oakmont and before them Blinder, Robinson and First Jersey Securities, so I think I have a pretty good idea of what a micro-cap fraud looks like. I was not certain that I was looking at one here until I got to the press release about the potential for 20 new producing oil wells. There have been quite a few micro-cap frauds involving oil stocks over the years. Mr. Caithness and his partner are registering a lot of their own stock. My gut tells me that there will be an enforcement action here sooner or later.

I am not a whistle blower. I know a lot of lawyers and others who are trying to navigate the Reg. A+ waters specifically because they believe that more companies need access to capital and that smaller offerings should be open to smaller investors. Their hard work will go for naught if the investors are drawn into scam after scam.

I am not the world’s biggest fan of government regulators. But if you want the fire department to show up and put out a fire, you need to scream FIRE at the top of your lungs. That is really all that I am trying to do.  I am optimistic that some securities regulator will hear me. There have already been far too many examples of fraudulent Reg. A+ offerings that the crowdfunding industry does not want to talk about.  Here is an opportunity for the SEC to re-enforce the need for compliance with the rules. Investors should be able to look at an offering circular and at the very least get accurate disclosures of all of the facts.

 

Crowdfunding – Letter to the SEC

The SEC and New York University recently held a dialogue on securities crowdfunding.  SEC Commissioner Kara M. Stein offered closing remarks and asked some questions that need to be answered. https://www.sec.gov/news/statement/stein-closing-remarks-sec-nyu-dialogue.html. These are my thoughts and responses to Commissioner Stein’s remarks.

Dear Commissioner Stein:

By way of background I am a securities attorney with 40 years of experience representing broker/dealers, issuers of securities and large and small investors.  I have also taught economics and finance at a well reputed business school.

My interest in securities offerings that are made directly to investors over the internet goes back to the late 1990s when the first offering was made by the Spring Street Brewery company. I have spent the better part of the last two years studying and writing about crowdfunding under the JOBS Act.

I currently advise clients who are issuers, Title II platforms and Title III portals.  I believe that crowdfunding can work and that it can be a valuable tool in aid of the capital formation process especially for smaller companies.

To this point in time, a large percentage of successful offerings involve various forms of real estate investments. The vast majority are being offered under Regulation D. Several real estate funds have raised $25-$50 million from accredited investors on Title II platforms. Thousands of smaller real estate offerings have also been successful. These offerings are proof that funding is available outside of the traditional broker/dealer sales network.

Small companies and start-ups on the other hand, have had a much more difficult time attracting investors.  Start-ups, of course, are far riskier investments than most real estate offerings.  There are far fewer investors in the market place who are looking for that risk.  Some will take on the risk if they are satisfied with the potential for the company’s success.

There has been a push to offer securities in these companies to smaller investors under Regulations A and CF on Title III portals. The question that you asked in your remarks at the SEC-NYU dialogue: “Are registered portals appropriately considering the companies and offers hosted on their platforms?” is the appropriate question to ask.

There are fewer than 2 dozen registered portals today. I have reviewed offerings on most and have had direct contact with several. The answer to your question is that some of the portals do indeed act appropriately and several clearly do not.

You can easily identify those portals that do not comply with the rules. Most of those do not have a well trained and experienced professional in the role of compliance director.  The compliance director at any Title III portal should, at the very least, have a complete familiarly FINRA’s due diligence and advertising rules.

There are several portals who do not even attempt to conduct a due diligence review. There are also several consulting firms that provide due diligence investigations to the crowdfunding industry that lack the experience or expertise to do it correctly. These consultants get a lot of work from the portals because they charge very little.

You asked whether there should be minimum and uniform standards for vetting companies seeking to be hosted on a portal.  FINRA already has very specific rules for due diligence that require the member firm to verify the facts that the issuer is presenting to investors.  New rules are not needed; just compliance with and the enforcement of the existing rules.

One FINRA member portal in particular that has specialized in Reg. A offerings has listed several issues which are questionable in terms of their disclosures and economic viability. That portal makes no attempt to vet the offerings it lists.  One of these offerings is currently the subject of an SEC enforcement action.  I cannot know if the Commission’s enforcement staff intends to sanction the portal for its participation in that offering.  In my opinion, it should.  This portal unfairly competes with the portals that take their responsibilities seriously.

This portal does not spend money on due diligence. It does not care whether the issues it lists misrepresent their prospects for success to prospective investors.  It has a track record of successful offerings because the issuers are making promises to investors that they are unlikely to keep.

You suggested that some people have registered their concern at what may be a “race to the bottom” as portals compete for offers. That is exactly what is happening.  That same portal is currently offering a one day Reg. CF workshop that provides issuers with accountants, lawyers, copywriters and other vendors to get their campaign to “go live” on the same day as the workshop with no cost.

I cannot imagine that the SEC staff or FINRA would believe that adequate due diligence is being done if the offering is going live on the same day that the portal is first introduced to the issuer. I cannot personally believe that a competent securities attorney would participate in the preparation of these offerings or that the attorney’s professional liability carrier would approve.

Your presentation also noted that FINRA had expelled a portal for listing 16 questionable Reg. CF offerings. Those offerings were essentially done with a “cookie cutter” approach. What besides a cookie cutter approach can be expected when a portal is proposing to create and list multiple offerings on a single day at a workshop?

I have singled out this portal because its conduct is so egregious that I suspect that the Commission staff has already taken note.  I am not the only person in the crowdfunding industry who would understand if FINRA or the Commission did its job and closed this portal down.  If the crowdfunding industry is to succeed, investors must be able to look to this market with confidence.

You also asked what needed to be done to ensure that crowdfunding opportunities are accessible to everyone from the businesswoman in Missouri to the immigrant in West Virginia.  I have personally been contacted by potential issuers from all over the country. I know that Title II platforms exist in many states and several portals are “under construction” outside of major money centers.

Many of these issuers lack the knowledge and skills to put together an offering that might attract investors.  They lack experienced managers, quality boards of directors and well thought out business plans.  The Small Business Administration (SBA) has an existing mentoring program (SCORE). The Commission would be doing the marketplace a service by partnering with the SBA to make accurate information about crowdfunding available to more potential issuers.

There is currently a lack of good information about crowdfunding in the marketplace and much of the information that is available is inaccurate.  Much of the information about crowdfunding is being disseminated by a remarkably small group of people.  Many of these people have no experience selling securities and treat the process as if they were selling soap powder.

You expressed a desire on behalf of the Commission to improve this marketplace. There are those who are advocating making these very risky investments more accessible to small investors. I urge the Commission to reject that approach.  The risk should be allocated to those investors who can afford to absorb the loss.

As you noted, “portals that are effective at vetting issuers and offers are important as both gatekeepers and facilitators of repeat investment.” Keeping the portals focused on that task is the best thing that the Commission can do for this market.  Investors will come when there are better offerings. Better offerings will come when the portals insist that issuers demonstrate that they have real potential for success.

Respectfully,

 

Irwin G. Stein, Esq.

 

 

 

Crowdfunding Mailbag

Without investors Crowdfunding will become a footnote in financial history.  The Crowdfunding industry continues to demonstrate that it just does not care about playing by the rules or giving investors a fair shake.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about Med-X, the first equity Crowdfunding campaign that the SEC stopped mid-offering. It was only the second time that the SEC’s Enforcement Division had gotten involved in a Crowdfunded offering and I thought it was worthy of an article.

Among other things, Med-X was raising money to research and sell products derived from cannabis. One of the larger cannabis websites re-printed the article and I got e-mails from a lot a people in the cannabis industry.

Several people suggested that the SEC’s action was part of a larger government effort to hold back the cannabis industry by denying it funding. They suggested that some Crowdfunding sites would not accept cannabis related offerings before the Med-X action. They thought that this enforcement action would have a chilling effect on their efforts to raise capital.

Frankly, I doubt this is the case. The SEC originally approved Med-X to sell its shares and there are a number of public companies in the cannabis industry. The SEC cares more about disclosure issues than it does about drug enforcement.

My article was also re-printed on a financial website. I got e-mails from several securities lawyers and people in the mainstream financial markets, many of whom, like myself, marvel  about the fact that the Crowdfunding industry offers securities to investors seemingly thinking that the body of law surrounding the sale of securities does not apply to it. The JOBS Act gives some relief from the registration provisions of the securities laws. The anti-fraud provisions of the securities laws still apply.

My real issue with the Med-X action was with the Crowdfunding portal that offered it, StartEngine. Med-X had failed to file financial information that it was required to file, meaning that investors were not getting information that they were required to get.  StartEngine is registered with FINRA as a Crowdfunding portal.  FINRA’s rules certainly impose a duty on its members to disclose all material information whenever they offer securities to the public.

I got an e-mail from the Compliance Director at StartEngine who told me that the SEC’s action against Med-X was about a missed filing date and the SEC did not mention the word “fraud” in its paperwork. Under the securities laws, fraud is defined as the omission of material facts. The failure to provide required financial information to investors fits that definition like a glove.

The Compliance Director told me that StartEngine was represented by competent counsel which I have no reason to doubt. Regulatory compliance in the securities industry is not something that they teach in law school. You are not likely to become well-versed in day to day compliance issues working for a law firm or regulator. You learn compliance the same way that a surgeon learns surgery; by doing it under the guidance of someone who knows what they are doing.

I was trained in compliance when I worked at two large brokerage firms. I offered to explain the problem that she apparently did not see to the Compliance Director or her counsel, without charge. I told her that I really hated to see someone step in it when this was such an easy problem to fix. She respectfully declined.

There are only about a dozen Crowdfunding portals that have registered with FINRA to conduct Regulation A+ offerings. I have corresponded or been on the telephone with the Compliance Directors of four of those portals. Three of the four had no experience with FINRA compliance.  The one who did have experience stood out like a rose in a garden of weeds.

One correspondent asked me why I brought up Elio Motors, another StartEngine offering in the article as well. Elio has become the poster child for the Regulation A+ offerings because it successfully raised about $17 million from investors. The marketing director from Elio recently spoke at one of the Crowdfunding conferences presumably to regale the attendees with Elio’s fundraising success.

I consider Elio Motors to be a nasty problem that will come back to bite the Crowdfunding industry on its butt. In my opinion Elio is a scam. I am not the only person who thinks so.

I base that opinion on the fact that Elio has been taking deposits and promising to deliver a vehicle to customers since at least 2014. Elio has no vehicles to deliver and is not actually building any. Taking deposits for and promising delivery of a product that you cannot hope to deliver is a deceptive business practice under state and federal laws.

In its Reg. A+ filing Elio disclosed that it was trying to get a loan from the Department of Energy to fund production. To qualify for the loan, Elio would have had to demonstrate that it had a strong balance sheet and that it could reasonably be expected to repay the loan.  Elio is insolvent.

Elio has taken deposits from approximately 65,000 people. I would not bet that these customers will receive delivery of their vehicle in 2017, if ever.

Rather, I would bet that a regulatory action (or a bankruptcy, or both) is going to occur in 2017.  Elio has raised a lot of money from the Reg. A+ offering and the deposits but does not seem have a lot of the cash on hand.  It still needs between $200-$500 million more to deliver on its promises.

Is it possible that a VC fund will make a substantial investment in Elio and bail them out? Yes, but I do not see it. Elio still has not demonstrated that even if developed its vehicle will be street legal.

To me Elio does not pass the smell test. I cannot imagine how a competent due diligence officer gave Elio’s offering a green light.

Another e-mail came from a person who suggested I should not be concerned with Med-X’ failure to make proper disclosures because “everybody” knows that most Crowdfunded businesses will fail and that investors treat Crowdfunding as if they were gambling in Las Vegas.  While I acknowledge that most Crowdfunded businesses will fail, the odds in Las Vegas are actually substantially better that the player will walk away with some of his money.

That person also told me that I do not appreciate that Crowdfunding is intended to “disrupt” the way in which capital is raised. I do appreciate that Crowdfunding is intended to allow companies that would not have access to that market to raise money from investors. I also appreciate that there is a correct, legal way accomplish this.

At the end of the day owning a Crowdfunding portal can be a lucrative business.  All I ever suggested was that every portal needs to play by the rules and offer good investments to investors.

In just one year the SEC has acted twice against issuers who broke those rules. In both cases the issuers were enabled by the Crowdfunding industry “professionals” who were not acting professionally.  If there is any take-away from this article it should be that I offered to set the Compliance Director at StartEngine on a straight path, without charge, and she declined.

There is a lot of promise in Crowdfunding that may be eclipsed by inappropriate behavior. Unless investors are willing to invest, and invest again because it worked for them, Crowdfunding will not fulfill this promise.

The SEC’s Enforcement Division is clearly looking for scam artists who are raising funds in the Crowdfunding market and for legitimate companies that fail to follow often complex rules.  It will keep finding them until the Crowdfunding industry gets serious about its business and makes an effort to protect the investors it cannot survive without.

 

 

 

 

The SEC Halts a Crowdfunded Cannabis Offering

In the year I have been blogging I have written several articles about the problem that the Crowdfunding industry does not want to address, fraud.  My thesis is simple: if the investors get screwed enough times they will take their money elsewhere.

As stories of Crowdfunding scams begin to proliferate, the industry’s reputation is likely to go down the toilet.  If the investors leave, people will be sitting around in bars saying: “I used to work for a Crowdfunding platform” the same way that people sat around in bars in 2009 saying “I used to be a mortgage broker”.

Back in February when Regulation A+ offerings were just getting underway, I wrote several articles raising some questions about specific offerings. The Crowdfunding industry was very gung-ho about Reg. A+ because these offerings could be sold to smaller investors. The bulk of Crowdfunded offerings are still private placements which can be sold to wealthier accredited investors only.

I wrote a blog article specifically about Med-X, Inc. which was attempting to raise $15 million under Reg. A+ to “research and develop, through state of the art compound identification and extraction techniques,  market and sell medically beneficial supplements made from the oils synthesized from the cannabis plant.”

I questioned the offering, in part, because cannabis is still illegal at the federal level.  But that was not the only reason.

Med-X had acquired an exclusive license from another related company, Pacific Shores Holdings to market NatureCide® herbicide and pesticide products to the cannabis industry in exchange for 10,000,000 shares of Med-X stock. As I noted at the time, an exclusive license can be valuable. In this case, because the products are readily available on Amazon.com the value of the “exclusive” license was questionable.  Both Med-X and Pacific Shore holdings were controlled by the same person, Mathew Mills.

To me, Pacific Shores Holdings looked like a classic penny stock. Mr. Mills had been sanctioned, twice, first in Pennsylvania in 2011 and later in California in 2013 for selling shares in Pacific Shores Holdings to investors to whom he had no business selling shares. The structure employed here, with one penny stock company acquiring a large block of stock in another pursuant to a licensing agreement is also a classic penny stock tactic.

Last week, September 16 to be exact, the SEC issued a temporary halt to Med-X Reg. A+ offering. The company was required to file an annual report on Form 1-K for the fiscal year 2015. Med-X operates on a fiscal year ending December 31. As such, Med-X was required to file its annual report by April 30, 2016. On September 16, Med-X had still not filed the annual report, so the SEC put a halt to the offering.

The clear message here is that information that investors were entitled to receive, as a matter of law, was not provided to them between May 1 and September 16. Failing to provide material information to investors is the textbook definition of securities fraud.

Med-X did file its Form 1-K within days of the SEC order halting its offering. What that filing discloses about what Med-X is doing with the money it has raised so far validates my earlier suspicions.

Back in February, Med-X reported that it had received $3.6 million in reservations from over 1100 prospective investors for their Reg. A+ campaign on StartEngine, a Crowdfunding portal.  Those reservations were apparently meaningless.

As of June 17, 2016 the Company had sold 1,124,038 common shares. The Company received net proceeds of $430,430 from this offering. Med-X has committed to spend $150,000 of that money with a company based in London to develop a mobile platform for its marijuana media site among other things.  How it will pay for the research it promised is anyone’s guess.

Next month the SEC will conduct a hearing to determine whether or not it will allow Med-X to resume its offering.  Since the Form 1-K has now been filed, they may let it proceed. If the SEC has other concerns about the company, it may keep the halt in place while it investigates further.

The SEC has a long history of leveraging its budget for enforcement actions by going after small companies like Med-X where the facts are clear-cut, where it is not likely to find a high-powered law firm defending and where it can make big headlines. With this action, it is likely to make bigger headlines in the cannabis industry than with the Crowdfunders.

An enforcement action against Med-X would send a message to the cannabis industry which should want to seek Crowdfunded financing as banks are generally closed to them as a source of capital.  Despite what you may think about cannabis as a legal industry, the federal government’s policy is to wipe it out.

I have spoken with several people involved with the cannabis industry who report that the Crowdfunding industry, at least in the US, is already skittish.  Given the publicity surrounding cannabis and its thirst for capital, you would expect to see many cannabis related businesses raising funds on Crowdfunding sites but you don’t.

The SEC specifically cautioned brokers, dealers, shareholders and prospective purchasers that they should carefully consider Med-X’s failure to file its annual report on a timely basis along with all other currently available information and any information subsequently issued by the company. Let me translate.

This is the second enforcement action that SEC has brought against a Crowdfunded offering. The first action, SEC v. Ascenergy, was based on the fact that the company was raising money to drill for oil on land where it did not have the rights to drill.  The SEC called out the four Crowdfunding platforms on which offerings took place by name but did not sanction them in any way.

I wrote a blog article about SEC v. Ascenergy which was reprinted on several Crowdfunding media sites. What I wrote was that this was the SEC’s way of telling the Crowdfunding industry to get its ducks in order. I believed and I still believe that sooner or later the SEC will sanction a Crowdfunding platform or portal that lists a fraudulent offering. For the most part the industry looked at the Ascenergy case with a yawn and declared it to be an isolated instance of fraud.

StartEngine has gone to the trouble to become registered with FINRA specifically to be able to offer Reg. A+ offerings to mom and pop investors. They are required to follow FINRA’s rules when listing offerings and that includes the requirement for a significant amount of due diligence. In my mind the Med-X offering raised a number of red flags, not the least of which was the NatureCide® licensing agreement.

More directly, FINRA and the SEC have every reason to expect StartEngine or any other registered Crowdfunding portal to have known that regulations required Med-X to have filed its annual report by April 30 and that it was late. The SEC may justifiably ask StartEngine why it did not close the Med-X offering down instead of forcing the SEC to use taxpayer funds to do it.

It is not always possible to determine what a government agency will do next. In the SEC’s mind the matter may simply be over or they may take action only against Med-X and Mr. Mills. He has, after all, already been sanctioned by two state regulators and has apparently not learned his lesson.

The SEC may give StartEngine a pass or it may not. It may leave the matter to FINRA which also has a history of going after smaller firms while its largest members often get away with fraudulent offerings that impact thousands of people for large amounts of money.

One thing is clear; the standard for the SEC would be to plead that StartEngine “knew, should have known or was reckless in not knowing” that Med-X did not file its annual report in a timely manner.  I do not see that StartEngine has a cognizable defense.

StartEngine did list another offering, Elio Motors which I also questioned in another blog post. My issue with Elio was that it was taking deposits from and promising delivery to consumers for a product that did not exist and which it could not hope to deliver with the funds it had on hand or which it was likely to raise. I am pretty certain that taking deposits and promising delivery of a product that does not exist and is not very likely to exist violates some regulation under the Federal Trade Commission Act or a similar statute.

The Crowdfunding industry has hailed Elio as a success because it raised $17 million from investors.  The people who helped raise the funds speak at various industry conferences to an audience of Crowdfunding participants who want to know how it is done.  (Spoiler alert: In Elio’s case it was done by making promises that they were not likely to keep but that is not what you will hear at the conferences.)

No one invites me to speak at any of the ever present Crowdfunding conferences because the Crowdfunding industry does not want to hear what I have to say.  If I were thin skinned, I would be concerned that the Crowdfunding industry really does not like me.  I’m not.

In all fairness to the Crowdfunding industry, I was solicited a few weeks back by one of the larger platforms. They wanted me to write a series of articles and an occasional white paper for them. When I spoke with the Director of Marketing, the firm’s Compliance Director was on the call. He knew that he would have final approval of anything that I wrote.  I was not surprised to learn that he had learned compliance at a mainstream brokerage firm.  It is not that difficult to stay complaint with the rules if you know what you are doing.

If the SEC or FINRA come calling to any Crowdfunding portal or platform, including P2P lenders, the first thing they will ask for is the firm’s written procedure manual.  There should be written standards and procedures for listing companies. There should be standards and procedures for reviewing the videos and marketing materials that accompany many of the offerings. Far too many of those videos are not compliant with the rules for anyone to think that the industry is serious about the business in which it is engaged; selling securities.

What is likely to happen at the hands of regulators is the industry’s own doing. They are too busy telling themselves that they are being “disruptive” to actually take notice that investors are being ripped-off.  Fraudulent offerings are not going to stop until the industry takes steps to make them stop. The SEC is not going to wait forever.

SEC v. Ascenergy; Crowdfunding’s First Black Eye

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has brought its first fraud enforcement action that occurred on a Crowdfunding portal  http://Ascenergy LLC et al. (Release No. LR-23394; October 28, 2015).  The Commission alleges that a Texas oil company called Ascenergy raised $5 million from 90 investors on at least four Crowdfunding portals including crowdfunding.com, equitynet.com, fundable.com and angel.com.

Ascenergy claimed to be raising funds to drill oil wells on leases that it had evaluated and secured. The investors were defrauded because Ascenergy had not secured any leases. The person whom the company claimed had evaluated the leases had not done so, did not work for the company and had not agreed to allow his name or resume to be used by Ascenergy to raise money.

Ascenergy used false and misleading facts and omissions to create a false legitimacy which the portals and the public readily accepted. The Commission noted that Ascenergy’s website contained false claims of partnerships or associations with several legitimate companies whose logos appeared on Ascenergy’s website, also without permission.

Investors were told that investing in Ascenergy was “low risk” and that its shares were “liquid” when they were neither. The vast bulk of the money raised was spent on what the SEC calls ”personal expenses” of the person who thought up this scam and who might have gotten away with it.

Scams like this are common in the mainstream Regulation D private placement market. It is more likely that the due diligence process at a Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) member firm would not have passed Ascenergy along to investors. No FINRA firm would likely have allowed Ascenergy to call its offering “low risk” or “liquid”.

The SEC’s complaint charges Ascenergy with fraud under the same sections of the federal securities laws that the SEC has been citing for decades. The SEC has made it clear that it expects Crowdfunding portals to actively seek to keep scams off their websites. The SEC has been just as clear that the anti-fraud provisions of the securities laws absolutely apply to Crowdfunding transactions.

The final Crowdfunding rules encourage and almost mandate portals to become members of FINRA. FINRA has established guidelines for due diligence investigations for private placement offerings. The FINRA due diligence standards seem reasonable to adequately keep scam artists away from public investors.

As scams go Ascenergy was not particularly novel or complex. FINRA firms have conducted thousands of due diligence investigations of oil drilling programs over the years. No due diligence investigation properly done by a FINRA member firm would have let Ascenergy claim to have secured leases without verification.

The portals generally do not conduct anything close to this type of due diligence investigation. The investigations can be costly and most portals elect not to spend the money. Very few of the Crowdfunding portals even attempt to conduct a substantive investigation sufficient to catch the “bad actors” let alone the “bad” deals. But do the portals assume the risk?

If you were one of the 90 investors who purchased Ascenergy on one of the four portals listed above, send the portal an e-mail and ask for your money back. Tell them that you have been defrauded because the portal failed to do its homework. Please copy me on the correspondence. I am curious to see how much denial the Crowdfunding industry is in.

Let me predict the future. The next SEC enforcement action will not mention the Crowdfunding portals in passing. The next SEC enforcement action (or the one after that) will find the portals being named as defendants and subjected to significant fines. The SEC has no real budget for Crowdfunding enforcement. In my opinion the SEC’s Enforcement Division is more likely than not to make an example out of an offending portal to send a clear message to the Crowdfunding industry that they must actively attempt to keep fraudulent offerings off their websites. That is, if the industry did not get the message the Enforcement Division delivered in its complaint against Ascenergy.

If any of the portals or their advisers disagrees I would like to hear from them as well. The literature surrounding Crowdfunding is rife with experts who have little or no experience actually preparing securities offerings or raising money from investors. I have seen many articles by “good” lawyers suggesting that a due diligence investigation is an unnecessary cost or that a superficial investigation is sufficient for a small Crowdfunded offering.

The problems that the SEC found with the Ascenergy offerings should not have occurred. Investors should not have had their $5 million stolen. The four portals that facilitated Ascenergy’s fraud owe at least an apology to the investors who got scammed.

Some people in the Crowdfunding industry have already suggested that Ascenergy is an isolated case. As I have written elsewhere, there are a great many portals that are currently offering securities for companies that are obviously not telling investors the whole story. Perhaps it is a little easier for me to spot an investment scam because I have seen so many, but that is exactly the expertise that the portals need and lack.

The Crowdfunding industry projects $40 billion in Crowdfunded offerings next year. The bulk of these offerings will be executed by buyers, sellers and portals that are mostly novices in an uncharted and unregulated market. If you wanted to commit securities fraud, what better opportunity could you find?

The Crowdfunding industry is justifiably jubilant about its prospects for success. Small companies have good reason to cheer this large infusion of new capital. But are the investors jubilant? Certainly not the 90 people who put up $5 million for the securities sold by Ascenergy.

I would advise crowdfunding.com, equitynet.com, fundable.com and angel.com to carefully consider their position should any defrauded customer correspond or a member of the financial press come knocking. A public pronouncement that due diligence is unnecessary or that a cursory investigation is sufficient will likely be used against you in a court of law.

The crowdfunding industry has very few investors who are loyal to one portal over another. It should be obvious to the industry that exposing investors to scams like this will not build loyalty, but will send investors back to their stockbrokers at mainstream brokerage firms.

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.