Will securities fraud kill crowdfunding?

I have started to get a lot of e-mailed advertisements from crowdfunding platforms established under the JOBS Act. Many people see crowdfunding as a simple way for small companies to raise capital. Companies that are selling their securities can offer their shares or notes on a platform (website) for potential investors to consider.

Each of these offerings is still subject to the anti-fraud provisions of the federal securities laws and also the anti-fraud provisions of the states in which any investor lives. These provisions are not that hard to understand. Purchasers of securities are entitled to receive all of the facts that they would need to know in order to make an intelligent decision whether or not to make the investment. It is up to the people selling the securities to supply that information.

Liability for making a false statement or omitting a material fact falls on anyone who participates in the offering or sale of the securities. This generally includes the company issuing the shares or notes, its officers and directors and the lawyers and accountants who put the offering documents together. Liability will certainly adhere to the platforms that list the securities for sale without making certain that the proper disclosures are being made.

With this in mind, I looked at a number of different offerings on crowdfunding platforms. I was specifically looking for red flags, things that said to me that something might just not be right.

I limited my search to crowdfunding platforms that specialized in real estate offerings. I have seen more than a few fraudulent real estate private placements over the years. They frequently sound good until you look under the hood.

I came across one platform that caught my attention. It is aggressively advertising for investors under the new general solicitation rules for private placements. It is syndicating hard money loans to accredited investors. For reference, let us call the platform the HMLM Co. (Hard Money Loans to the Masses), not its real name.

What caught my attention was the sales pitch. The loans that HMLM is syndicating promise to pay investors double digit returns. The loans are secured by real estate that has been appraised. The loans are short term, usually for a one year term. There are often personal guaranties by at least one principal of the company that is borrowing the money. The website states that none of the people who have invested on the platform have ever lost money.

This is very similar to the sales pitch of a real estate fund that I called the Construction Investment Fund (CIF) in my book (Investment Schemes, Scams and Strategies Retirees Should Avoid ). Investors in that fund lost 80% of their investment ($400 million) in the last market cycle. I believe that people who invest on the HMLM platform are likely to experience a similar fate.

A hard money lender who is making loans at a 50% LTV has a lot of collateral and is usually not concerned where the real estate market might be 12 months down the road when the loan matures. As long as the lender is confident that the market price of the property will not come down by more than 50% they are still well collateralized.

Many of the loans on the HMLM platform were at 70% LTV which can be more of a problem. If you buy a property today, pay 15% interest on 70% of the purchase price for 12 months and then sell it with outgoing real estate commissions of 6% it is easy to see where the purchase price of property would need to appreciate by almost 20% just to break-even.

There are not that many markets in the US where real estate is likely to appreciate that much next year or the year after. If the people who are borrowing the money are likely to have difficulty selling the property down the road, why would any lender make the loan?

Logic suggests that a real estate investor with a string of successful projects, good credit, adequate collateral and a personal guarantee would not be interested in borrowing funds at 15% or more. It is one thing to tell investors that they might lose their money. It is quite another to advertise the security as a good investment when it clearly is not.

The platform describes its borrowers as “seasoned” real estate investors. To me “seasoned” would imply experience in real estate for at least a full 15 year market cycle. If you started in the real estate business in 2009 you might have some experience by now and you have probably been successful. If you started in 2000 and went through the 2009 bust then it is possible that you took some losses but at least you got “seasoned”.

I went to the webpage where the management of the platform disclosed its own business history. Not a lot of “seasoned” real estate people there, either. This platform does not sell toasters. It sells complex financial transactions which it has packaged as investments. Management really needs to understand its products. How else can they be certain that all of the material facts about these investments are being disclosed?

To clarify this point a little further, on some of the loans on this platform the names of the individuals who own the companies that are borrowing the money was redacted. If the platform does not believe that the names of people behind the companies who are borrowing your money is a “material fact” that investors would want to know, it certainly begs the question of what other information they are not disclosing.

No one questions that the platform is selling securities and that the securities are exceedingly speculative. Seniors and retirees are drawn to investments that claim to be secured and promise to pay double digit returns. Will this platform accept investments from seniors or allow people to invest their retirement funds? You bet.

Is the HMLM platform committing fraud when it sells these securities? I will leave that determination to the class action lawyers who will clean up the mess likely to result when the real estate markets inevitably turn down. There certainly are red flags that would warrant further investigation.

I singled out this platform because I found many of its shortcomings to be obvious. They would not be obvious to the average investor. There are many, many other platforms out there which I am certain are equally deficient. It is an issue that the crowdfunding industry and its regulators need to address and need to address quickly. If investors begin to realize that crowdfunding platforms cannot be trusted to tell them what they need toknow about any of their offerings, investors will take their money elsewhere.

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.


Why your stockbroker is not a fiduciary

In the Dodd-Frank Act, Congress mandated that the SEC consider raising the bar for all stockbrokers and registered investment advisers (“RIAs”). The Commission responded with a recommendation that all stockbrokers and RIAs be held to a fiduciary’s standard of care.

The uniform standard proposed by the SEC, states:

The standard of conduct for all brokers, dealers, and investment advisers, when providing personalized investment advice about securities to retail customers (and such other customers as the Commission may by rule provide), shall be to act in the best interest of the customer without regard to the financial or other interest of the broker, dealer, or investment adviser providing the advice.

RIAs have been held to this standard for a long time. In California and several other states stockbrokers are held to a fiduciary’s standard of care which imposes a duty on the broker to act in the highest good faith. The law in California is rooted in a case decided in 1968 and somehow the markets have continued to function.

Notwithstanding, many in the financial services industry strongly oppose any type of uniform standard that would hold a stockbroker to a fiduciary’s standard of care or require a stockbroker to exercise good faith as regards their public customers. Why?

If you are older like I am and practiced law in New York back in the day, you might remember when lawyers who were acting as trustees of their client’s money were likewise held to a fiduciary’s standard of care. At the time there was a “legal list” of investments that were appropriate for a fiduciary’s consideration. This list was very restrictive and strategies like using margin were prohibited.

The standard was modernized to the “prudent man rule” and later the “prudent investor rule” which were more ambiguous than the legal list and gave trustees and other fiduciaries a little wiggle-room. Prudence would still not find a fiduciary investor in the commodities markets or purchasing purely speculative investments.

A fiduciary would have a difficult time justifying the recommendation of speculative  investments in any event. Fiduciaries are expected to protect and to preserve the assets that are being entrusted to them.

Speculative investments frequently offer stockbrokers much higher commissions than investments that are less risky. Under a fiduciary standard, stockbrokers would certainly have difficulty arguing that they were putting their clients’ interests first when they were recommending a speculative investment that paid them an 8% or higher commission.

Perhaps that is the point that the SEC was trying to make when it said: “without regard to the financial or other interest of the broker, dealer, or investment adviser providing the advice.”  A stockbroker who recommends speculative investments to an average customer just to earn a little more commission would fit squarely within this rule.

A stockbroker necessarily implies to the customer that every investment they recommend is in the customers’ best interest. By refusing to adopt the standard, the industry is saying that it reserves the right to recommend investments that are not in the customers’ best interest just because the industry can make a little more money.

Whether the final rule will continue to allow stockbrokers to put their own interests before their customers’ interests remains to be seen. Perhaps the Commission will opt for full disclosure and require stockbrokers to disclose that one of the factors supporting any recommendation of a speculative investment is the fact that the investment pays higher commission.

Probably not.