PRIVATE FUND OFFERINGS: With General Solicitation Relaxation Comes New Scrutiny

 

SearchingWhile under the JOBS Act the capital formation process in private offerings may have gotten easier, the regulatory scrutiny may have gotten harder.

In a speech before the PLI Hedge Fund Management Conference in New York, Norm Champ, the SEC’s Director of the Division of Investment Management, addressed the increased oversight advisers to hedge funds relying on private offering exemptions can expect.  Of concern is  the adopted amendments to rules under the Securities Act of 1933 permitting general solicitation and general advertising in private securities offerings relying on Rule 144A or Rule 506 under the Securities Act and the rule’s  disqualifying of so-called “bad actors” who rely on its safe harbor.

In short, as to advertising, Rule 506 eliminates the prohibition on general solicitation and general advertising for some private fund offerings, with exceptions noted in the rule.  Generally, to find potential accredited investors, once the removal of the ban goes effective in the next few weeks, hedge fund will be able to use certain other methods of  solicitating and advertising.  With this comes the requirement that issuers take reasonable steps, defined by an objective assessment standard, to verify “accredited investor” status, to ensure that all purchasers of the securities are accredited investors.  Champ also stressed the importance of  advisers maintaining, reviewing and updating their policies and procedures to ensure, among other things, they are reasonably designed to prevent the use of fraudulent or misleading advertisements.

Other issues hedge funds will need to concern themselves with, related to  general solicitation, and  included in SEC proposals and related request for industry comment, include the following:

  • requiring issuers to file the Form D before a general solicitation begins and when an offering is completed to evaluate how general solicitation impacts investors in the private placement market, and expanding the information that issuers must include on Form D.
  • requiring private fund issuers  to include a legend in any written general solicitation materials disclosing that the securities being offered are not subject to the protections of the Investment Company Act of 1940.
  • requiring general solicitation materials containing performance data, to have additional disclosure explaining the context and limitations on the usefulness of such data.
  • extending to private funds Rule 156 of the Securities Act of 1933 guidance on when information in sales literature could be fraudulent or misleading under federal securities laws currently applicable to registerd funds.
  •  manner and content restrictions on private fund solicitation materials that include performance advertising specific to certain types of performance advertising, such as model or hypothetical performance.
  • using  an inter-Divisional group within the SEC to assess practices and developments in the Rule 506(c) market place, by looking at accredited investor verification practices used by issuers and other participants in these offerings, and studying risk characteristics that might identify potentially fraudulent behavior.
  • reviewing the definition of accredited investor as it relates to natural persons.

The “Bad Actor” Disqualification

As for the “bad actor” rule, the second amendment to Rule 506 implementing
Section 926 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, Champ warned of  serious regulatory consequences should the SEC make a  bad actor finding.  To avoid the finding, hedge  fund advisers should conduct appropriate due diligence when they hire employees, third-party solicitors, and when they screen investors.  Champ also reminded hedge funds that while disqualification applies only for triggering events that occur after the effective date of the rule, matters that existed before the effective date of the rule that would otherwise be disqualifying must be disclosed to investors.

Generally, an issuer cannot rely on the Rule 506 exemption from registration if the issuer or any other person covered by the rule is disqualified by a “triggering event,” including certain criminal convictions, certain SEC cease-and-desist orders and court injunctions and restraining orders.  Hedge funds are not the only potential “bad actors. ”  Others, Champ reminded, could  include  “the hedge fund’s general partner or managing member, its investment adviser and principals, significant shareholders holding voting interests, affiliated issuers and any placement agent or other compensated solicitor.”

Finally, from a risk perspective, how will the SEC determine which hedge funds engaged in general solicitation to examine and/or investigate?

One way, he notes, is that registration and reporting reforms related to Dodd-Frank, over the past few years, including, the adoption of amendments to Form ADV and the creation of Form PF allows the SEC to cull more  information about individual hedge fund’s practices.  Another way, is the  Division of Investment Management establishment of a Risk and Examinations Office (“REO”) staffed with analysts with strong quantitative backgrounds, along with examiners, lawyers and accountants who will  conduct quantitative and qualitative financial analysis of the investment management industry, including private funds, advisers, types of funds, strategies and make up of a fund.

FINRA’s Targeted Examination Letter on Social Media Use

wallpapers-red-bull-s-eye-target-psdgraphics-x-1June 2013,  has seen FINRA publish another targeted examination letter — this time aimed at members and associated persons use of social media.  FINRA uses these letters, primarily, to educate member firms about how it uses targeted exams, known as sweeps, to gather insights on member regulatory responses on emerging issues, and carry out investigations.

Relying on FINRA Rule 2210(c)(6) which subjects member firms’  communications (including electronic)  to periodic spot-check procedures, FINRA’s Advertising Regulation Department is asking firms and their associated persons for information about how they use social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs).  Questions and information requests include:

  • how a firm’s social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs) platform is being used as part of its business purpose; 
  • URL information for all social media sites the firm uses; date of first use, and the identity of those who post or update content;
  • how a firm’s associated persons are using social media;
  • a firm’s written supervisory procedures covering the production, approval and distribution of social media communications;
  • what measures firms adopt to monitor compliance with social media policies (e.g., training meetings, annual certification, technology);
  • a list of a firm’s top 20 producing registered representatives (based on commissioned sales) who used social media for business purposes to interact with retail investors, including the type media they use, their name, CRD number, and dollar amount of sales made and commissions earned during a specific period.

FINRA says its  selection of firms for the targeted exam is based on a number of factors, including the “level and nature of business activity in a particular area, customer complaints and regulatory history, and prior examination findings.”

The letter demonstrates the attention broker-dealer’s should pay to both adopting policies and procedures and supervising interactive electronic communications to ensure that content requirements of FINRA’s communications rules are not violated.  In doing so, members should review FINRA’s Regulatory Notices 07-59, 10-06,  11-39 and FINRA Conduct Rules 2210 and 3010.