The Broker-Dealer’s Guide to Due Diligence process

In the realm of private capital markets, due diligence is not just a procedure but a pledge—a commitment to uphold integrity, trust, and compliance.  This guide serves as a beacon for Chief Compliance Officers (CCOs) and their compliance teams, guiding them through the complexities of due diligence process in private company capital raises. From leveraging technology to navigating an ever-evolving regulatory landscape, to understanding the nuanced roles of FINRA Broker-Dealers, we delve into how these crucial processes safeguard the private capital markets, ensuring a secure and transparent investment environment for all parties involved.

Due Diligence by Chief Compliance Officers

Imagine a world where investments flow seamlessly, underpinned by an unshakeable trust between investors and companies raising capital. This is the reality that CCOs strive to create through meticulous process of due diligence on companies and investors. Through their diligent efforts, such as scrutinizing a company’s financial health, operational strategies, and leadership integrity, CCOs not only protect investors from unforeseen risks but also build a foundation of trust that is paramount for successful capital raises.

Empowering CCOs with Technology

The digital age has revolutionized due diligence process, providing CCOs with tools to gather and analyze vast amounts of data efficiently. Technologies tailored to regulations like RegCF, RegD, and RegA+ enable CCOs to customize and have still best practices in due diligence processes. Therefore, ensuring that each investigation meets specific regulatory standards. This not only streamlines compliance but also allows CCOs to allocate their resources more effectively, focusing on strategic decision-making rather than getting lost in a sea of paperwork.  CCO’s are the backbone of the firm, and as such technology needs to be part of their overall strategy for the firm to be successful, tools such as Compliance Desk provide the necessary and regulatory requirements of making sure data is collected, tracked, and maintained for CCOs. 

Navigating Challenges of due diligence process in a Dynamic Regulatory Environment

The landscape for FINRA Broker-Dealers is fraught with challenges, from navigating a complex web of regulations to ensuring that compliance teams are equipped with the necessary tools. The advent of technologies like the Compliance Desk represents a significant leap forward, enabling CCOs to maintain organized records in a FINRA-approved facility to meet Rule 17a-4 requirements. This capability is crucial for broker-dealers to manage their compliance efficiently, allowing them to focus on expanding their business while maintaining strict regulatory adherence.

The Critical Role of FINRA Broker-Dealers

FINRA Broker-Dealers are the guardians of the private capital markets, and their role extends beyond initial best practices on the due diligence process; they help to ensure the safety and integrity of transactions for investors, companies, and intermediaries alike. Once an offering goes live, they are responsible for continuous oversight, including KYC, AML, suitability, and investor verification. This dual focus on company and investor due diligence is essential for preventing bad actors from entering the market, thereby protecting the investment ecosystem.

7 Steps for Effective Due Diligence on Private Companies

For those aiming to enhance their due diligence processes or embarking on the journey to become a FINRA Broker-Dealer,  consider the following steps:

  1. Comprehensive Regulatory Understanding: Gain a deep understanding of the relevant regulations (RegCF, RegD, RegA+) and their implications for your due diligence process.
  2. Robust Data Collection and Analysis: Leverage technology to efficiently collect and analyze company data, focusing on financials, management, and operational integrity.
  3. Risk Assessment: Develop a framework for assessing and categorizing potential risks, including financial, legal, and operational risks.
  4. Management and Operational Evaluation: Conduct thorough evaluations of the company’s management team and operational capabilities to ensure they have the necessary expertise and resources.  Always do bad actor checks on the company and the principles of the company.
  5. Legal Compliance Verification: Verify the company’s compliance with all applicable laws and regulations, including securities laws and industry-specific regulations.
  6. Continuous Monitoring: Establish processes for ongoing monitoring of the company’s performance and compliance post-investment.
  7. Record Keeping and Reporting: Implement systems for maintaining detailed records of your due diligence process, ensuring they meet FINRA’s Rule 17a-4 requirements for record-keeping.

Best practices on due diligence for broker-dealers

In the rapidly evolving landscape of private capital markets, the importance best practices on due diligence for broker-dealers cannot be overstated.

It is the bedrock upon which trust and compliance are built, safeguarding the interests of investors and ensuring the integrity of the market. For FINRA Broker-Dealers and their compliance teams, staying abreast of regulatory changes and leveraging technology are key to navigating this complex environment effectively.

So, by creating a comprehensive guide of due diligence best practices that align with current regulations and anticipate future shifts, firms can not only comply with today’s standards but also set a benchmark for excellence in compliance and investor protection. As we move forward, education and adaptability will remain crucial for all stakeholders in the private capital markets, ensuring that they can meet today’s challenges and seize tomorrow’s opportunities.

The Evolution of Reg A+

During the recent Dare to Dream KoreSummit, David Weild IV, the Father of the JOBS Act, spoke about companies going from public to private, access to capital Reg A+, the future of small businesses raising capital, and the future of the broker-dealer system. The following blog summarizes his keynote address and what Wield believes will be the future of raising capital for small businesses. 

 

Reg A+’s Creation

The JOBS Act, passed in 2012, helped address a significant decrease in America’s IPOs. “When I was vice-chairman of NASDAQ, I was very concerned with some of the market structure changes that went on with our public markets that dropped the bottom out of support for small-cap equities,” said Weild. “80% of all initial public offerings in the United States were sub $50 million in size. And in a very short period of time, we went from 80%, small IPOs to 20%, almost overnight.” The number of operating public companies decreased from about nine thousand to five thousand. The changes in the market significantly restricted smaller companies from growing, unable to go public because of prohibitive costs and other expenses. 

 

Effect on Small Business

After years of lobbying and the passage of the JOBS Act, only one of the seven titles went into effect instantaneously: RegA+. With this new option for raising capital, startups could raise $50 million in money without filing a public offering. The previous maximum was $5 million; this would eventually be increased to $75 million. It also expanded the number of shareholders a company can have before registering publicly, which is essential as companies can raise money from accredited and non-accredited investors through this regulation. RegA+ and the other rules have had a significant impact on the way startups do business. This has been a significant benefit for small businesses, as it has allowed them to raise more money without going through the hassle and expense of becoming a public company. 

 

Reg A+ into the Future

The capital raising process was digitized by taking the investment process and making it direct through crowdfunding, removing economic incentives for small broker-dealers who could not make their desired commission on transactions. This resulted in many of them consolidating out of business and leaving a gap in the private capital market ecosystem that supports corporate finance. Changes to the JOBS Act are beginning to reintroduce incentives for broker-dealers, which will continue to shape the future of private investments as it will continue to facilitate the growth of a secondary market. Wield’s thoughts on the future of capital raising marketing are that the market is not yet corrected, but it is on track. He said: “I would tell you that there’s a great appetite in Washington to do things that are going to improve capital formation.”

 

Getting more players like broker-dealers involved in the RegA+ ecosystem will do nothing but benefit the space. In his closing remarks, Wield said that this would provide for a “greater likelihood that we’re going to fund more earlier stage businesses, which in turn gives us the opportunity to create jobs and upward mobility. Hopefully, since much entrepreneurial activity is focused on social impact companies to solve great challenges of our time, whether it’s in life sciences, and medicine, or climate change, you know, I firmly believe that the solutions for climate change are apt to come from scientists and engineers who’ve cracked the code on cutting emissions or taking CO2 out of the atmosphere. And so from where I said, getting more entrepreneurs funded is going to be important to have a better chance of leaving a respectable environment for the next generation.”

KorePartner Spotlight: Paul Karrlsson-Willis, CEO of JUSTLY

With the recent launch of the KoreConX all-in-one platform, KoreConX is happy to feature the partners contributing to its ecosystem. 

 

Paul Karrlsson-Willis is the CEO of JUSTLY, a registered broker-dealer designed for companies to promote their ESG profiles as the demand for socially conscious businesses continues to skyrocket. Nearly a quarter of the $400 billion investments ESG-focused private capital between 2015 and 2020 was invested last year alone. Paul has over 30 years of experience in financial services businesses and has expertise in building out a company’s global footprint.

 

We took some time to speak with Paul to learn more about himself and his firm. Here’s what he had to say. 

 

Why did you become involved in this industry?  

 

When I left school there was major unemployment in the UK so the government came up with the “youth opportunity scheme” which was an intern program at various companies which the government-funded. I was fortunate to be accepted into this program by the London Stock Exchange who placed me with a broker-dealer, Capel-Cure Myers, and never looked back.

 

What services does your company provide for RegA+ offerings? 

 

We can offer everything from front to back for Reg A+, Reg CF, and Reg. D as a result of having great partners such as KoreConX. Our true value is in our ability to work with the issuers and understand their businesses and needs. Our parent company–Ideanomics (NASDAQ: IDEX)–started no different from the issuers we support and still invests in private equity companies. It’s in our DNA.  

 

What are your unique areas of expertise? 

 

Over my 30+ career, I have continually been given various businesses, products, and groups to build or rejuvenate, many have gone on to be leaders in their space. A good example was when Fidelity hired me in the UK to build a global trading product for their retail clients base, knowing I had no experience in foreign equities and this was after 3 previous attempts had failed. We were up and running in 3 months and when they asked me to come to the US to do the same, the UK business was profitable. At Fidelity Capital Markets (US) we went from being only able to do everything in USD, to being fully multi-currency, able to trade in over 47 countries in real-time. As a result, Fidelity retail was the first retail US broker-dealer to offer global trading in real-time. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked my way up through the business and therefore know how things get from A to Z and the issues you will come across.  I love to learn; I hate being the smartest person in the room, which is why I try to make sure I have a team that is knowledgeable and feels empowered. I’m very passionate and treat everything I build as part of me, as I believe it reflects on me personally.

 

What excites you about this industry? 

 

Up until now, not very much. It’s been a job I have always put more than 100% into to support my wonderful family. JUSTLY has given me the ability to build something that can genuinely make an impact and help others. Every day, I think about making a difference and not feeding the machine or massaging someone’s ego. Don’t get me wrong, my job is to generate revenue and make JUSTLY profitable, but by making that difference, we will as they go hand-in-hand.

 

How is a partnership with KoreConX the right fit for your company?  

 

KoreConX has the complete platform, amazing expertise and therefore enables JUSTLY to focus on making an IMPACT! True success is never achieved on your own; you need a team and great partners. There is no better partner in this space than KoreConX.

 

The 1% Broker-dealer & What you need to ask!

When working with FINRA Broker-dealer, it’s not enough that they simply have the required licenses that are necessary, so make sure to ask some questions:

  • Are you registered in all 50 states
  • Are you register for RegA+

It is also key to understand what they actually do when you are raising capital. These are some of the basic questions you need to ask of them:

  • Who contacts the investor if payment does not go through?
  • Who contacts the investor if there is a problem with KYC (Know Your Client information)?
  • Who contacts the investor for IRA payments?
  • Who contacts the joint investors?
  • Who contacts the investor if there are problems with sub agreement?
  • Who contacts the investor if there are problems during the investment process?

Bottom line:  

As a company, do you need to do anything once the investor clicks submit to make their investment?

Answers is:   NO

You should be focusing on raising capital and the FINRA Broker-dealer (who charges 1% for compliance services) is responsible for doing all of the above compliance and +.

 

Why do I need a FINRA Broker-Dealer?

Broker-dealers are an essential part of the fundraising process. These entities can be small, independent firms or part of a large investment bank. However, regardless of a broker-dealer’s size, they are in the business of buying or selling securities. In this sense, whenever a broker-dealer executes orders for clients, they act as a broker, while trading for its own account means they are acting as a dealer. 

 

In the United States, Congress has granted the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) authorization to protect American investors by ensuring that brokers operate fairly and honestly. The organization is non-governmental and non-profit, acting independently to ensure that the rules governing brokers are adhered to. The organization states: “Every investor in America relies on one thing: fair financial markets.” FINRA oversees over 624,000 brokers across the country, ensuring that their activities adhere to all necessary rules. 

 

As a company engaged in capital market activities, choosing a broker-dealer to work with is critical to your success. For example, under Regulation A+, some states require issuers to work with a broker-dealer to offer securities in that jurisdiction. This allows issuers to maintain compliance with the SEC and other regulatory entities. Additionally, working with a FINRA-registered broker-dealer will give potential investors more confidence in the compliance of your operations. FINRA registration ensures that your broker-dealer partner has:

 

  • Been tested, qualified, and licensed;
  • Every securities product is listed truthfully;
  • Securities are suitable for an investor;
  • And investors receive complete disclosure.

 

This information ensures that broker-dealers are operating in the best interests of the investors, ensuring that the issuer provides all necessary and required information to make good investment decisions. In addition, investors (and issuers) can verify a broker-dealer’s status through BrokerCheck, a service provided by FINRA. BrokerCheck gives information on a broker-dealer’s licensing status, whether they are registered to give investment advice or registered to sell securities. Additionally, the service allows people to see regulatory actions against brokers, complaints, and employment history. Through this information, investors can validate the status of a broker to ensure they are dealing with legitimate firms. 

 

As an issuer, a FINRA broker-dealer improves compliance measures. The broker-dealer will be required to perform regulatory checks on investors such as KYC, AML, and investor suitability to ensure investors are appropriate for the company. Additionally, they will perform due diligence on you so that they can be assured that your company is operating in a manner compliant with securities laws so that they do not present false information to investors. Failing to meet compliance standards can result in the issuer being left responsible for severe penalties, such as returning all money raised to investors. 

 

Working with a FINRA-registered broker-dealer ensures that, as a company, you are meeting all legal requirements when offering securities for sales. FINRA makes sure that broker-dealers, and the issuers they work with, act transparently and honestly to keep the private capital market fair for investors.

 

Nominee vs. Direct: How does this affect investors?

Today, there are many ways to buy and sell securities. For publicly traded companies, 75% of Americans are familiar with investing apps or online accounts. For private companies, many investors in companies invest with a broker-dealer and or maintain their own investments. In the first situation, an investor deals with a broker-dealer who holds the investors’ assets in a nominee account, while the second is a direct investing method controlled entirely by the investor. Both accomplish the same goal, buying or selling securities for profit or dividends, but the effect on an investor varies. 

 

A nominee is an account held by a broker-dealer, and securities owned by an investor are held as a means of separation between the broker’s business and the assets owned by the nominee account. This separation established a level of protection for the investor. In the event of the broker’s business failing, the securities held in the nominee account cannot be ascertained by any creditor claiming assets. The stocks will still be the asset of the investor, regardless of what happens to the broker. 

 

The issue that comes forth in this model is that, while regulators and exchanges review these accounts periodically, they do not get checked daily, which opens the door for a bad actor to commit fraud and move the assets without permission. For example, fraud could occur if the broker-dealer ‘borrows’ a client’s assets to keep them afloat, potentially. An even more extreme example would be if a broker was to take all of the money and run, though this is less likely. 

 

The main thing to consider is that while the investor is the beneficiary of the stock, the broker has the authority to move it and sell it on the investor’s behalf. This is why it is important to look into the investor compensation programs with a broker, and for further protection, separate your assets between multiple brokers. While this option comes with risks, the broker will ultimately handle the operations of the account. If you are working through direct investing, account operations are maintained by the investor. 

 

With direct investments, the trade-off for increased security is that an investor is responsible for buying and selling decisions. A direct stock plan can allow you to buy or sell stock in some companies directly through them without using a broker. However, according to Inverstor.gov, “Direct stock plans usually will not allow you to buy or sell shares at a specific market price or at a specific time. Instead, the company will buy or sell shares for the plan at set times — such as daily, weekly, or monthly — and at an average market price.” Both options have merit, but the choice is between complete security at the cost of time and energy. 

What is KYP?

Previously, we have talked about KYC or Know Your Client. KYC is a rule from the non-profit Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), created in the United States in 2007, in response to the growing fears of economic collapse that could come from underregulated securities firms. One part of the FINRA rule set created in 2012 is KYC (Rule 2090). Another is Rule 2111 (Suitability). It is important to mention both of these rules, as the topic for today, KYP, or Know Your Product, directly relates to them in their effort to protect investors. 

 

The KYC rule dictates that in the event of opening or maintaining an account for an investor, a broker-dealer is required to verify the investor’s identity by matching the provided material from the investor to government records. This aids the government in fighting money laundering and other financial crimes, as a broker-dealer must also review their finances for evidence of these types of crime. It also allows potential customers to evaluate broker-dealers as FINRA tracks the brokers in good standing with their organization. Finally, with suitability, a broker-dealer must use reasonable effort to understand the risk tolerance and facts about a potential customer’s financial position. This means understanding the types of products and plans an investor is comfortable making, as people of different ages and levels of wealth have different plans for their money. For instance, younger adults typically have a higher risk tolerance as they have a longer-term time horizon to work with their money. On the other end, older adults have lower risk tolerance. There is no one type of investing that works for every person, as each person has a different set of circumstances dependent on their life experiences. 

 

Where KYP comes in is a further step past just KYC and suitability. You may know the client their investment preferences, but if you do not understand the product you are investing in for your client, that information is essentially useless. Under KYP, a broker-dealer, “must understand the structure and features of each investment product they recommend. This includes costs, risks, and eligibility requirements. The KYP requirement applies to both the firm and the individual.

 

KYP expands on the suitability requirement from FINRA by requiring a full understanding of each investment so that it fits an investor and their specific risk tolerance more effectively. This involves:

 

  • The risk level of the investment, meaning its liquidity, “price volatility, default risk, and exposure to counterparty risk” 
  • Any costs associated with fees or embedded costs
  • The financial history and reputation of the issuer or parties involved
  • Any legal and regulatory framework that applies

 

Just as it is important to know your client and understand what types of investments are suitable for regulatory and business purposes, it is important to understand the products you recommend. 

What is the Difference Between Fiduciary Responsibility and Regulatory Requirement?

By definition, a fiduciary is a person or an organization who holds a legal or ethical relationship of trust with another person or organization. Typically, this has to do with the responsibility or duty in a financial sense. As an adjective, it gets defined by the Oxford dictionary as “involving trust, especially with regard to the relationship between a trustee and a beneficiary.” The word gets most commonly used when stating that a company has a fiduciary duty to its shareholders. In practice, this means that the company has an ethical and legal responsibility to act in the best interest of its investors. For example, the company and its executives need to protect a shareholder’s financial investment in that company and is an example of a duty of loyalty. Included also is a duty of care, which indicates that a fiduciary will not back away from their responsibility.

 

Fiduciary duties do not just relate to the financial sector. For example, a lawyer has a fiduciary duty to their client to act in their best interest, but we will focus on the financial sector. Fiduciary responsibility in finance is a relationship between two non-governmental entities. In contrast, a regulatory requirement is a rule that a government or government-related organization imposes and enforces onto an organization.

 

Many governmental organizations impose regulations on the financial sector, like the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency or the Federal Reserve Board. The governmental-related organizations are the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). We have previously discussed the regulations passed by both FINRA and the SEC in preceding blogs, which detail those processes well.

 

Both fiduciary responsibility and regulatory requirements can result in legal action if there is a breach in conduct, but the actors and stage are different. With fiduciary responsibility, the beneficiary of the fiduciary duty would file suit against the trustee in civil court who knowingly or unknowingly failed in their duty. This is a relationship between non-governmental actors, so in this case, a person litigating against an organization or vice versa.

 

On the other side, regulatory requirement gets dictated by a government entity like the SEC or OCC suing a company or individual for failing to comply with the law. This suit would land in criminal court, with punitive fines, damage to their reputation, and sanctioning. For example, in California, you need to be a registered broker-dealer for a Regulation A+ offering. If you decide as a company to ignore this law, the state regulator can, and will, require you to return all money raised, and you can get barred from raising money in the state. You will get labeled as a bad actor, which will damage the reputation of your business.

 

While fiduciary duty and regulatory requirements are different in terms of the responsibilities, actors, and negative consequences involved when failing to comply, they are critical to follow and maintain.

Why are Background Checks Important?

Money laundering is a global issue, with the United Nations estimating that between $800 billion and $2 Trillion are laundered each year, with 90% of this estimation remaining undetected. Money laundering is the act of taking money obtained through illegal activities and then introducing it into the system to legitimize or clean it and then make use of it. Originally, and most often, this was applied to the actions of organized crime but has expanded to included tax evasion or false accounting. 

 

The United States has multiple laws to prevent this type of activity and reclaim the illegitimate assets from criminals aiming to circumvent the system. Many of these laws directly affect the financial institutions of the nation. American banking and investment businesses need to follow compliance regulations that help in the effort to combat money laundering, including FINRA’s (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) Rule 2090 (KYC or Know Your Client). The Know Your Client rule was introduced by FINRA to require broker-dealers to use reasonable effort to verify the identity of customers (or any other account owners) and assess their risk level. Part of this goal is to add transparency to the financial institutions in America, especially following the 2007-2008 financial crisis, and incorporate Anti-Money Laundering (or AML) compliance into the structure of our institutions.

 

AML and KYC are extensions of the Bank Secrecy Act and the CDD (Customer Due Diligence) Rule. The act, created in 1970, aims, as the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network states, “to improve financial transparency and prevent criminals and terrorists from misusing companies to disguise their illicit activities and launder their ill-gotten gains.” So, through the Know Your Client rule, broker-dealers must evaluate the information provided by a potential customer and verify their identity against government documents and assess the risk level they pose towards financial crime. 

 

This activity is a check for any indication of money laundering or terrorism financing. Part of this is a background check or a customer screening, checks beyond their identity. Using the customer’s identity, financial institutes check against various lists, like sanction lists, watch lists, and PEP lists to evaluate if the customer may be engaging in illegal activities. 

 

Background checks get followed by continuous monitoring, allowing broker-dealers to better spot irregularities in the transactions. For instance, in the event of large cash transactions, those typically over $10,000. Amount exceeding this amount must be reported and monitored. All to say that many governments and non-government institutions require compliance to defend against this issue that gets taken very seriously. Throughout 2020, there were several institutions fined for violating AML related compliance. Kyckr compiled these together and found that: 

 

  • Twenty-eight financial institutions were issued fines for AML-related violations.
  • Regulators from 14 countries issued AML-related fines.
  • Fines totaled roughly $3.2 billion USD.

 

Failing to follow the laws and maintain compliance can have serious consequences for financial institutions. Ensuring that you do the proper level of due diligence, follow the Know Your Client rule, and perform a background check can protect your business. 

 

What is a RegA+ Annual Shareholder Meeting?

With Regulation A+ allowing companies to raise up to $75M USD, the regulation enables many great investors to support an issuer’s journey. From the everyday person to accredited investors, people can claim their stake in companies they foresee to be long-term successes. However, with shareholders come significant responsibilities issuers must uphold to maintain compliance with securities regulations. One such requirement is holding an AGM.

 

An Annual General Meeting, or simply AGM, is a meeting of shareholders that companies are required to hold once per year. The purpose is to provide shareholders with an update on the company and what plans lie ahead. During these meetings, the company’s directors will present annual reports to shareholders that are indicative of its performance. AGMs are a critical component of upholding the rights of shareholders, ensuring that they are provided all necessary information to make the right decisions regarding their investments. Typically, these meetings should be held after the end of the company’s fiscal year, giving shareholders adequate notice to attend or attend by proxy.

 

A company’s articles of incorporation and bylaws will outline the rules for an AGM, however, they typically include a review of the minutes from the previous AGM, financial statements, approval of the board of directors’ previous year actions, and election of directors. AGMs held by private companies do not require any regulatory filings but require them to check or change their bylaws to ensure that the meeting can be held online and information can be distributed digitally.

 

Before any AGM, shareholders will receive a proxy statement, which outlines the topics to be discussed at the meeting. The statement will include information on voting procedures for shareholders with voting rights, board candidates, executive compensation, and other matters that are important to a shareholder. The company will typically send shareholders a package containing this information by mail or over the internet if that is their preference. For shareholders that have invested directly in the company and their name is in the company’s official records, they are entitled to attend the meeting in person. For shareholders that have purchased shares through a broker-dealer or investment bank, they can request information on how to attend the meeting and cast their votes. Shareholders with the option to eVote can satisfy SEC requirements. Since 2007, “notice to access” rules enable companies to send a one-page notice to inform shareholders that materials are available online rather than being mailed a full copy of all reports.

 

AGMs are essential for the success of any private company, ensuring that shareholders are well-informed about company decisions and can exercise their voting rights. KoreConX offers our clients an all-in-one AGM planner as part of the REgA+ end-to-end solution. Our solution helps our clients maintain full compliance with securities laws, manage AGMs end-to-end, distribute circular materials, allow shareholders to securely vote online, and enable everyone to participate. We recognize that your shareholders are an important part of your company and strive to simplify the process of managing your relationships with them.

 

Annual shareholder meetings for RegA+ offerings are an essential part of compliance. Issuers are required to hold this meeting annually, empowering their shareholders to be active participants. Contact KoreConX to learn more about our AGM planning solution.

 

What is Due Diligence?

When it comes to investments of any kind, due diligence is essential for both issuers and investors alike. Do so what exactly is due diligence?

 

Due diligence is ensuring that a potential investment comes with the accurate disclosure of all offering details. The Securities Act of 1933, a result of the stock market crash years earlier, introduced due diligence as a common practice. The purpose of the act was to create transparency into the financial statements of companies and protect investors from fraud. While the SEC requires the information provided to be accurate, it does not make any guarantees to its accuracy. However, the Securities Act of 1933 for the first time allowed investors to make informed decisions regarding their investments. 

 

In the process of investing, investors should review all information available to them. Investors should ask questions such as:

 

  • Company Business Plans: What are the issuer’s current and future plans? Do their projections seem reasonable given their current financial reports?
  • Company Management: Who are the company’s officers, founders, and board members? What is their previous experience in business and have they had success? Does the management team pass a Bad Actors check?
  • Products/Services: What does the company offer? Is it something that you would use or does there seem to be a wide appeal for the product or service in the market? 
  • Documentation: Is the company’s bylines, articles of incorporation, meeting minutes, and other related documents available to review?
  • Revenue: What does the company’s revenue look like? Does it make sense considering the demand for their products? What do revenue projections look like?
  • Debt: Does the company have debt? Is it comparable to other companies in the industry?
  • Competition: What does the company’s competition look like and how do they plan to deal with it? Has the company properly protected intellectual property through trademarks, patents, copyrights, etc.?
  • Funding: Why is the company raising funding and what are the plans for the money raised?

 

While these are important questions to ask, there are other factors that investors should think about. Investors should consider whether they are financially able to take on the risk of investment. While investing in private companies can lead to a huge return, success is not guaranteed. Investors should ask themselves if they would be able to afford to lose their investment or not immediately being able to make a profit. They should also ensure that they are qualified to invest. If they are a non-accredited investor, have they already made investments that could alter the amount they can invest?

 

Issuers should make sure that all information investors need to make an educated decision to invest is adequately provided. They do not want to risk potential lawsuits down the road for failing to disclose certain information. Issuers can ensure that they are meeting all due diligence requirements by using a broker-dealer as an intermediary for their investment.

How a Member of the Crowd Made Crowdfunding Easier

A while back, one of our favorite start-up clients called me and asked me to speak to a potential investor. Paul Efron, a resident of Arizona, wanted to invest in the company’s Regulation A offering. However, when he went onto the company’s website to invest, his subscription was rejected. The company was accepting subscriptions from investors in every state but Arizona and Nebraska.

Why Arizona and Nebraska, asked Paul?

The reason was that while federal law and most states’ laws say that a company selling its own securities is exempt from broker-dealer registration, that’s not the case in a handful of states. These states say that if a company isn’t using a registered broker-dealer to sell in their state, the company has to register itself as an “issuer-dealer.” Depending on the state, that can involve letters to the regulators showing that the company and its officers are familiar with securities regulations, fingerprints, and, in the case of Arizona, a requirement that the company comply with “net capital” requirements as if they were an actual broker. Start-ups, of course, very rarely have any excess capital sitting around. So our client decided just not to sell in Arizona. (There were similar issues in Nebraska, which has since changed its rules.)

Paul could have done several things at this point. He could have pretended he lived somewhere else. He could have given up and invested in something else. But, being an entrepreneur himself, he decided the law needed to be changed, and set about changing it.

He reviewed the Arizona legislature website and saw that every legislator gets an email address on the website.  The way the website email system is setup, doing a mass email campaign with individual emails was possible.  Paul sent out an email to every one of the 30 Senators and 60 Representatives which took about an hour of click, click, cut and paste.  He found the autofill function very helpful.  Republican Senator Tyler Pace and Democratic Representative Aaron Lieberman replied to the email.  Having a member of both parties from both houses was perfect for this nonpartisan bill.  He brought me in to explain the issue to the legislators, their staff and the relevant committee staff. They listened, understood, and drafted. The first attempt at getting the legislation through was derailed because of COVID.  Paul contacted the legislators again.  The bill was reintroduced, passed this session, and the Governor signed it into law last week.

Start-ups (and Arizona investors) owe Paul. Not just for getting this roadblock removed, but for setting an example of what can happen when a citizen looks at a regulation and says “Well that doesn’t make any sense; how do I fix that?”

Click “RESET”

In the future, 5 or 10 years from now, we will see an evolution in business and a paradigm shift occurring all due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us have been advocating that the business world has been operating ineffectively, but not until now has everyone been able to see it and experience it first hand. There are many examples where the chain is broken.

American Stimulus Checks (Banking)

Before the first round of stimulus checks issued to the American people, the US President told everyone that their checks would be deposited within 48 hours. However, a few hours later, the IRS issued a contradictory news release that only about 50% of Americans would receive the aid within 48 hours. For the rest of the population, without direct deposit set up, the process would take months and lacked the potential for setting up direct deposit only. Plus, since the pandemic began to close businesses and eliminate jobs, there has been no additional aid to the American people besides a smaller sum approved by Congress in December.

Opening Commercial Business Accounts (Banking)

Anyone with a business account has experienced the process of setting up a commercial bank account. Applicants need to bring their books, ID, etc., and set up an appointment with the bank to open a business account.  The banker collects all the information and begins the onboarding process. However, this process is often variable and inefficient depending on the financial institution. 

Broker-Dealer Transacting

Broker-dealers in the alternative investment sector, such as those who work with investors for private companies, are accustomed to meeting investors face-to-face to bring them opportunities and perform regulatory compliance. This often makes it more than just a service—it is a personal relationship built between investors and their broker-dealers. However, with face-to-face appointments becoming a way of the past in favor of virtual meetings, the process needs to be improved to support this fundamental change.

Post COVID-19 RESET

The last time we had a reset of any significant magnitude in business was at 11:59 PM on 31 December 1999.  For those who remember the 12 months before this date and time, everyone knew that the future was going to be different, and we saw the next phase of the computer and software introduction to business.

 

Despite this, since 11:59 PM on 31 December 1999, all we have seen is more development but no “reset” and small uptake to really make a difference.  These businesses on which we rely for our financial services have been noticing the signs that change is coming.  Most of them would say, nothing to worry about because my business is very personal with my clients.  Some have attributed that the only way you can offer a personal touch to your business is by not adopting technology to operate your business efficiently.

 

For those who understand and are already seeing this as an opportunity to lead the business world, this “RESET” will create new leaders in many areas as we move to end-to-end processes that have no broken links in these areas:

    • Banking
      • Banks that will be fully online, including onboarding customers and transacting. No more PDF’s but fully integrated with your corporate activities
      • End-to-End integrated with companies  
    • Broker-Dealers
      • The personal touch extended to all clients to pursue opportunities and able to invest by simply updating their profile and from the comfort of their home, office, vacation.
      • End-to-End integrated with investors, compliance, companies, banking
    • Companies
      • Managing all corporate records for C-level onward to be connected to their shareholders, access to capital, banking, insurance, and M&A, regardless of the size of a company
      • End-to-End integration with Broker-dealers, Banking, Secondary Market, and all stakeholders (management, board directors, shareholders, investors, legal, auditors)

 

Why Them?

We rely on them (Banking, Broker-Dealers) to transact to keep our businesses operational. If they are no longer changing the way a service is delivered or integrated or a company or stakeholders are onboarded, companies will pivot to make rapid, fundamental changes to keep their business operational. 

 

There will be holdouts as we saw on 31 December 1999. In the end, they will be the ones complaining that it was Covid-19 that destroyed their businesses, but in reality, their businesses were adversely affected by not pivoting when all indicators pointed to the need for change.  

Real-Time Success

We are seeing clear indicators already that we must pivot our way of doing business.  Companies are raising capital online from registered funding portals or via their website, and the data is showing strong growth in online investing. This is one clear sign that those who have pivoted are getting rewarded versus those waiting and hoping for the good old days to come back.

 

11:59 PM 31 December 2020

RESET

 

Why is a Broker-Dealer Important for Private Company Offerings?

If you’re looking to raise money for your private company, chances are that you’ve at least heard the term “broker-dealer.” However, if you’re new to the process, you might not be too familiar with what they do and why they are a key component of the fundraising process. 

 

Simply put, a broker-dealer is an agent that assists you in raising capital for your private company.  Broker-dealers can be small, independently working firms or ones that operate as part of large banks and investment firms. Both are subject to registration with the SEC and must join a “self-regulatory organization” such as FINRA. If a broker-dealer is not registered they can face penalties enforced by the SEC.  You can check a broker-dealer’s registration here: https://brokercheck.finra.org/

 

For private companies looking to raise money, working with a broker-dealer will be a key part of their capital raising activities. Certain states require issuers to work with a broker-dealer to offer securities, so working with a broker-dealer allows issuers to maintain compliance with the SEC and other regulatory entities. Ensuring that issuers are compliant with all regulations is essential to a successful round of capital raising and good business practices. If issuers are not compliant, they can face penalties from the SEC including returning the money raised.

 

Broker-dealers are intermediaries in a fundraise transaction between the private company and the investors.  As such, they are mandated to perform a variety of compliance activities.  If you retain a broker-dealer, they will first be responsible for performing due diligence on your private company. This is important so that there are no false representations to investors.  Investor protection is one of the main responsibilities of the SEC, so the broker-dealers must ensure they are performing appropriate steps to ensure the information presented to investors is accurate, appropriate, and not misleading.

 

Once the broker-dealer has completed the due diligence, they work with private companies to prepare appropriate information to share with investors and set timelines.  This can involve liaising with your legal counsel to ensure the offering documents are complete and to ensure what type of investors they can approach with your offering.  Each country has its own regulations around how you can approach investors, which is why it is important to have a good broker-dealer and legal counsel in each region you intend to offer your securities. 

 

There are different types of investors that can be approached depending on jurisdiction and securities regulations. They include Venture Capital, Private Equity firms, Institutional investors, or individuals. While most of these are professional investors, the individual investor group is further broken down into accredited/sophisticated investors and the general public.  Accredited investors have to meet income or wealth criteria to invest in accredited investor offerings (Regulation D type of offerings in the USA).  The popular mechanisms in the USA to present your offering to the non-accredited or general population (over 18 years) are Regulation CF and Regulation A+.

 

As the broker-dealers reach out to investors and find interested participants, there are steps that they have to perform to ensure that the investor is appropriate for the company.  Typical checks that broker-dealers have to conduct on investors can include performing identification verification, anti-money laundering checks, assessing the suitability of the investment to the investor, and doing accreditation checks. 

 

With the help of a broker-dealer, companies can raise the funding their company needs while being confident that they are maintaining compliance with the regulations that are in place. With over 3,700 registered broker-dealers in the United States alone, every issuer looking to raise capital can be confident of finding at least one well-suited broker-dealer that meets their needs.

The SEC proposes expanding the “accredited investor” definition

The SEC has proposed amending the definition of “accredited investors.” Accredited investors are currently defined as (huge generalization here) people who have net worth of $1 million (excluding principal residence) or income of $200,000 ($300,000 with spouse) or entities that have assets of $5 million. Here’s the full definition.

The whole point of the accreditation definition was that it was it was supposed to be a way to determine whether someone was able to “fend for themself” in making investment decisions, such that they didn’t need the protection that SEC registration provides. Those people may invest in private placements. The thinking at the time the definition was adopted was that a financial standard served as a proxy for determining whether an investor could hire a professional adviser. Financial standards have never been a particularly good proxy for investment sophistication, though, and some people who are clearly sophisticated but not rich yet have been excluded from being able to invest in the private markets.

The proposal would:

  • Extend the definition of accredited investor to natural persons (humans) who hold certain certifications or licenses, such as the FINRA Series 7 or 65 or who are “knowledgeable employees” of hedge funds;
  • Extend the definition of accredited investors to entities that are registered investment advisers, rural business investment companies, LLCs (who honestly we all assumed were already included), family offices, and other entities meeting an investments-owned test;
  • Do some “housekeeping” to allow “spousal equivalents” to be treated as spouses and tweak some other definitions; and
  • Create a process whereby other people or entities could be added to the definition by means of a clear process without additional rulemaking.

We are generally in favor of these proposals. However, we worry that the more attractive the SEC makes the private markets, the more that people of modest means will be excluded from the wealth engine that is the American economy. We also believe that the concerns raised about the integrity of the private markets by the two dissenting Commissioners, here and here, should be taken seriously. The real solution to all of this is to make the SEC registration process more attractive, and better-scaled to early-stage companies.

In the meantime, read the proposals and the comments, and make up your own minds. The comment period ends 60 days after publication in the Federal Register, which hasn’t happened yet.

FINRA BD Requirements for RegA+ & Digital Securities

FINRA BD Requirements for RegA+ & Digital Securities

The private markets are receiving a much updated revamp by the SEC which is having a major impact on registered FINRA Broker-dealer firms.  Here are two (2) of the most common activities for which FINRA Broker-dealers (BD) are approached by companies.  Most BD’s are not aware that in order to help companies raise capital utilizing these regulations, there is a registration they must first do with FINRA.

We went to the source that has been helping many FINRA Broker-dealers and put the responses in a simple way.  Ken Norensberg, Managing Director, Luxor Financial provides the answers to which all BDs need to pay extra attention to make sure you are fully compliant.

RegA+ (Regulation A)

Broker-dealers today have the ability to help companies that are using either Regulation D (RegD) or regulation A(RegA+).  Now what they are not aware of is that in order to allow them to help companies with RegA+ they do need to be registered with FINRA. If that registration isn’t done, they are not allowed to proceed in offering those services. This process can take anywhere from 60 to 90 days or it could happen sooner.  Most firms are not aware that when they take on a RegA+ client, they must apply to FINRA to represent them in the offering. This is done at the same time the company is filing their Form 1A with the SEC for their RegA+ offering.

Digital Securities

Digital Securities are now becoming main street language and most Broker-dealers want to offer this to investors. Unfortunately, if they do not have FINRA approval for digital securities, it’s not a product they can represent or offer to investors.  Digital Securities require registration. The process is like putting a full new member application, and it will take anywhere up to four (4) months.  Your firm must file with FINRA for each of the exemptions you want to use for Digital Securities (RegD and or RegA+.  Here is what your firm will be required to answer to FINRA in its application.

  • You will need a detail business plan
  • What entities are the holders of the “private keys” in the DLT network that would be required to gain access to the digital securities, cash-backed digital securities holdings or digital currency? 
  • Are multiple keys needed to gain access or is a single key sufficient?
  • Who controls or has access to the DLT network where the assets are held?
  • What happens in the event of a loss or destruction of assets (either due to fraud or technological malfunction) on the network?
  • If the broker-dealer was to fail and is liquidated in a proceeding under the Securities Investor Protection Act of 1970, as amended, how would customers’ securities and funds be treated, and how would customers access their assets?
  • In instances where firms have established partnerships with other firms to serve as their back-ups and to carry out critical functions in the event of emergencies, what type of access would those back-up firms have to the private keys?
  • How will customers or the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC) trustee access the customers’ assets in the event of a defaulted broker-dealer? What parties will be involved, and what are their roles and responsibilities?
  • How does the use or application of the DLT network affect the market risk, liquidity or other characteristics of the asset?
  • What information is maintained using the DLT network?
  • What will be deemed as the physical location of the firm’s records maintained on a node of a DLT network that may extend over multiple countries?
  • What parties have control or access to the firm’s records? What are their rights, obligations and responsibilities related to those records, and how are they governed?
  • What is the firm’s (and other participants’) level of access to the data, and in what format would it be able to view the data?
  • How does the DLT network interact with the firm’s own systems for recordkeeping purposes?
  • How would the records be made available to regulators?
  • How will the firm’s traditional exception reporting, used to supervise transactions, be generated from a DLT network?
  • How will the firm protect any required records from tampering, loss or damage?
  • Clearance & Settlement?
  • Anti-Money Laundering (AML) Procedures & Know Your Customer (KYC) Rules?
  • Customer Data and Privacy?
  • Trade & Order Reporting Requirements?
  • Supervision & Surveillance of Transactions?
  • Fees & Commissions?
  • Customer Confirmations & Account Statements?
  • Anticipated Customer Base?
  • Facilities, Hosting?
  • Licensed & Qualified Staff

As the market is evolving to provide more alternatives to companies and investors, FINRA Broker-dealers need to also make sure their licenses are up to date to be able to offer these updated alternatives.  It’s not enough that you are registered with FINRA.

Thank you to Ken Norensberg, Managing Director of Luxor Financial, who provided this valuable information to assist Broker-dealers to stay compliant.  Ken has been helping FINRA Broker-dealers manage these new registration requirements. 

About Ken Norensberg & Luxor

Luxor Financial Group, Inc. a NY based Broker-Dealer Consulting Firm that specializes in setting up Independent Broker-Dealers. We are experts in New Member Applications, Continuing Membership Applications, Expansion Filings, FINRA and SEC Audits, Anti Money Laundering Reviews, Business Development and general compliance and business development services. www.luxorbd.com

Ken is a former Member of the FINRA Board of Governors. FINRA oversees the regulatory activities and business practices of over 4,500 Broker-Dealers, 163,000 Branch offices, 630,000 registered representatives and 3,500 employees and consultants with annualized revenues and a budget of approximately $800,000,000 (Eight hundred million dollars.)

The Board contends with many complex issues that affect large organizations from generating revenues, managing expenses, personnel, legal, regulatory, political and operational issues.

Additionally, Ken was a Member of the following committees and subcommittees:

  • Regulatory Policy Committee
  • Emerging Regulatory Issues (Subcommittee)
  • Financial, Operations & Technology Committee
  • Pricing (Subcommittee)
  • Ex-Officio of the Small Firms Advisory Board (SFAB)

Wake up call, do you have the right chain for securities?

Polymath is the latest of the Ethereum fan club that has woken up to the fact that Ethereum isn’t the right blockchain platform for financial securities. The reasons include the permissionless and unverified participants, gas fees, unpredictable settlement, poor performance, and lack of scalability.

Vitalik himself was the first to point this out way back on May 9, 2016 (3.5 years ago—a lifetime in crypto-space) in a blog post on Settlement Finality: “This concept of finality is particularly important in the financial industry, where institutions need to maximally quickly have certainty over whether or not the certain assets are, in a legal sense, “theirs”, and if their assets are deemed to be theirs, then it should not be possible for a random blockchain glitch to suddenly decide that the operation that made those assets theirs is now reverted and so their ownership claim over those assets is lost.”

Independently, we (KoreConX) too came to the same conclusion when we first started looking for a good platform for our digital securities and our all-in-one applications that serve the market. This does not detract from the engineering prowess of the Ethereum team, who have taken on a monumental task in trying to create an open blockchain platform that is everything to everyone.

The real problem in the financial markets is that of investor safety. No amount of cryptography can guarantee the validity of participants and of transactions precisely because verification and validity is not in the technical domain. Rather, it’s in the social, economic, and regulatory domain. Blockchain will immutably commit all data regardless of its business validity, as long as it’s cryptographically valid. It is up to the blockchain applications and smart contracts to ensure business validity. This too is not a technical issue but a legal issue. Securities contracts should be authored by securities attorneys, not programmers. Indeed, smart contracts as conceived in Bitcoin and Ethereum are neither smart nor contracts. The word ‘contract’ is an obfuscation of ‘interface specification’ that is commonly referred to as a ‘contract’ between two applications in the software world. Unfortunately, 

To their credit, the thought-leaders of Ethereum were under no illusions about the supposed prowess of smart contracts, as defined within Ethereum. Vitalik Buterin, for example, tweeted back on October 13, 2018, “To be clear, at this point I quite regret adopting the term ‘smart contracts’. I should have called them something more boring and technical, perhaps something like ‘persistent scripts’.” Another Ethereum, Vlad Zamfir, preferred the term ‘stored procedures’.

The most important thing that the open blockchain community missed is that except for currency, financial securities are not bearer instruments. Creating fraudulent securities through shell companies is ridiculously easy with bearer instruments, which is why they are banned in responsible economies.

Besides the fact that securities are not bearer instruments, the public blockchain advocates seem to be coming to the realization that when securities are exchanged between two parties, independent and unverified miners have no business validating the transaction. Parties who have no fiduciary responsibilities, no regulatory mandate, or any skin in the game cannot perform business validation. Would you ask a stranger in New Zealand to approve the transfer of your shares in a private company to your friend when you, your friend, and the private company are all in the USA? As Polymath’s Dossa observers, “How ethereum settles transactions through mining also came into consideration for Polymath, Dossa said. Since miners, who process and sign-off on transactions for a fee, can operate anywhere in the world, institutions could face government scrutiny if fees are traced back to a sanctioned country.” More to the point, securities law does not recognize approvals from parties who are not associated with securities transactions.

Even as the public blockchain community tried to disintermediate regulators, when their assets were stolen from their wallets and exchanges, or the companies vanished outright, investors turned to those same regulators for recourse and recovery.

The other problematic aspect of Ethereum was the nature of finality, which in Ethereum, is statistical. This will not do in legal agreements. As we pointed out early last year in one of our KoreBriefings when evaluating Ethereum, “Finality [in Ethereum] if probabilistic and not guaranteed.” Would you sign an employment agreement where the fine print says there’s a one-in-ten chance that you would not be paid every two weeks. As Adam Dossa, Polymath’s head of blockchain, rightly observed, “At the center of contention is ethereum’s consensus mechanism, proof-of-work (PoW), which only offers a statistical guarantee of transaction finality.”

Incentives often have unintended consequences. We see this happen often with children and pets. Public blockchains are all about decentralization, but in fact miners’ incentives have all but centralized the blockchains. In contrast, consider that within KoreChain we have not left the question of decentralization to the vagaries of unknown miners. Instead, the KoreChain is engineered for decentralization. It is an implementation of the Infrastructure of Trust that currently runs in production in twenty-three countries; in barebones minimal cruising mode, it is capable of handling approximately 10 billion transactions per year (~318 tps) with consensus on business validity. KoreChain’s architecture also makes it massively scalable with very little effect on performance. However, as Vitalik rightly points out, finality can never be 100% even if the technology can achieve absolute finality, since the ultimate arbiter of finality is the legal system. For this reason, KoreChain includes KoreNodes independently are owned and operated independently by regulated entities and regulators worldwide..

If you hold fast to the idea that your powerful car is the only way to cross the ocean, you will be in for a continual hack of trying to make your car float on water. It is much better to recognize that a good ship is the right vehicle for the ocean. Many of the challenges of building a compliant securities application on Ethereum are actually unnecessary. Securities regulation in any one country is complicated enough. Multi-jurisdictional capital markets transactions compound that complexity by several orders of magnitude. Application designers should not be distracted by trying to create their own chains; instead, the real achievement lies in making securities transactions fully compliant in all jurisdictions, promoting innovation in financial markets, enabling flexibility, minimizing process costs, and providing an Infrastructure of Trust to which all regulated entities are welcome. 

The world’s capital markets are too dispersed, complex, and huge for any one participant to dominate. Revolutionizing the capital markets is only possible through collaboration. 

www.InfrastructureofTrust.com

Finality, Settlement, and Validation: The Place to Start

One of the most important concepts in capital market transactions is settlement and finality. Even though the payment infrastructure gets the majority of airtime, settlement finality is just as, if not even more, important in the securities markets. In the public markets, the structure of securities and the clearance and settlement process is quite standardized. In the private markets, a segment that is three orders of magnitude larger than the public markets, standardization does not exist. Rather than an issue, this is the strength of the private markets, since both private companies and their investors need flexibility in securities contracts. Regardless of all this, settlement finality is equally important in both markets.

The issue of settlement finality actually applies to all legal contracts in the sense that terms and conditions cannot be stated in probabilistic terms. Would you sign an employment agreement where the fine print says there is a one-in-ten chance that you would not be paid every two weeks?

In justifying Polymath’s latest move to abandon Ethereum as their platform of choice for security tokens, Adam Dossa, Polymath’s head of blockchain, rightly observed, “At the center of contention is ethereum’s consensus mechanism, proof-of-work (PoW), which only offers a statistical guarantee of transaction finality.” As we pointed out early last year in one of our KoreBriefings where we evaluated Ethereum, “Finality [in Ethereum] is probabilistic and not guaranteed.” Probabilistic or even statistical finality in legal agreements just will not do.

In “Principles of Market Infrastructure,” a publication of the Bank of International Settlements, Principle 8 (Settlement Finality) requires that “An FMI [Financial Markets Infrastructure] should provide clear and certain final settlement, at a minimum by the end of the value date. Where necessary or preferable, an FMI should provide  final settlement intraday or in real-time.”

Note the definitive language of “clear and certain final settlement.” This excludes probabilistic or statistical finality. Melvin Eisenberg, Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, says, “The classical law approach to the certainty principle reflects the binary nature of classical contract law. Indeed, this approach is often referred to as the all-or-nothing rule.”1  Prof. Eisenberg goes on to provide examples of the “rejection of a probabilistic analysis.” While much of that treatment is related to damages due to non-performance of contracts, the concept of certain finality is quite relevant for securities transactions. This is a serious issue that has lately garnered a lot of attention.

Settlement finality is a statutory, regulatory, and contractual construct.2  Settlement is actually a two-step process: first is the operational settlement, which consists of all the steps using technology or otherwise to complete the process of trade, transfer, or corporate action. The second step is the legal settlement that happens when the regulatory framework provides the final approval, at which point a transaction is deemed to be fully settled. The problems due to the uncertain nature of operational settlement in Ethereum are well-known, even if generally ignored. The concept of legal settlement, on the other hand, simply does not even exist in the security token protocols based on Ethereum.

Blockchain technology must first achieve operational finality before the regulatory framework can certify legal finality. Public blockchains can only specify probabilistic and statistical finality. Smart contracts have to also provide for legal settlement. A permissioned blockchain such as Hyperledger Fabric is designed for guaranteed finality. The KoreProtocol of KoreChain, a blockchain application built on Fabric for managing the entire lifecycle of private securities, is designed to ensure legal finality also. One example of legal finality is that directors’ approval of private securities trades under certain conditions, as set forth in the shareholder agreement, is necessary before such trades are deemed to be final. The KoreProtocol is designed to capture this requirement and the KoreChain is designed to implement it.

While Polymath is the latest of the Ethereum advocates that has woken up to the fact that Ethereum isn’t the right blockchain platform for financial securities, they have not been the first. Several private companies, their securities attorneys, broker-dealers, and many other participants have noticed this deficiency and chosen to go with permissioned chains such as the KoreChain.

More significantly, Vitalik himself was the first to point this out way back in May of 2016 (over three years ago—a lifetime in crypto-space) in a blog post on Settlement Finality: “This concept of finality is particularly important in the financial industry, where institutions need to maximally quickly have certainty over whether or not the certain assets are, in a legal sense, “theirs”, and if their assets are deemed to be theirs, then it should not be possible for a random blockchain glitch to suddenly decide that the operation that made those assets theirs is now reverted and so their ownership claim over those assets is lost.”

Advocates of public blockchain also seem to be coming to the realization that when financial securities are exchanged between two parties, independent and unverified miners have no legal authority for validating the transaction. Parties who have no fiduciary responsibilities, no regulatory mandate, or any skin in the game cannot perform business validations. Would you ask a stranger in New Zealand to approve the transfer of your shares in a private company to your friend when you, your friend, and the private company are all domiciled in the USA? As Polymath’s Dossa observers, “How ethereum settles transactions through mining also came into consideration for Polymath. Since miners, who process and sign-off on transactions for a fee, can operate anywhere in the world, institutions could face government scrutiny if fees are traced back to a sanctioned country.” More to the point, securities law does not recognize approvals of securities transactions from parties who are not associated with or have any fiduciary responsibility for securities transactions.

Principles of settlement finality and authoritative validation of transactions remain some of the most important cornerstones of establishing trust in the financial markets infrastructure. It is up to the blockchain application designers to understand the spirit and intent of these principles and select technologies that facilitate the implementation of such principles rather than hinder them. It is up to the business participants (company management, securities attorneys, and broker-dealers) to recognize the importance of these principles and the limitations of some blockchain platforms.

Incentives often have unintended consequences. We see this happen often with children and pets. Public blockchains are all about decentralization, but in fact miners’ incentives have all but centralized the blockchains. In contrast, consider that within KoreChain we have not left the question of decentralization to the vagaries of unknown miners. Instead, the KoreChain is engineered for decentralization. It is an implementation of the Infrastructure of Trust that currently runs in production in twenty-three countries; in barebones minimal cruising mode, it is capable of handling approximately 10 billion transactions per year (~318 tps) with consensus on business validity. KoreChain’s architecture also makes it massively scalable with very little effect on performance. However, as Vitalik rightly points out, finality can never be 100% even if the technology can achieve absolute finality since the ultimate arbiter of finality is the legal system. For this reason, KoreChain includes KoreNodes that are owned and operated independently by regulated entities and regulators worldwide.

If you hold fast to the idea that your powerful car is the only way to cross the ocean, you will be in for a continual hack of trying to make your car float on water. It is much better to recognize that a good ship is the right vehicle for the ocean. Many of the challenges of building a compliant securities application on Ethereum are actually unnecessary. Securities regulation in any one country is complicated enough. Multi-jurisdictional capital markets transactions compound that complexity by several orders of magnitude. Application designers should not be distracted by trying to create their own chains; instead, the real achievement lies in making securities transactions fully compliant in all jurisdictions, promoting innovation in financial markets, enabling flexibility, minimizing process costs, and providing an Infrastructure of Trust to which all regulated entities are welcome. 

1 Foundational Principles of Contract Law, Melvin A. Eisenberg
2 http://yalejreg.com/nc/on-settlement-finality-and-distributed-ledger-technology-by-nancy-liao/

The world’s capital markets are too dispersed, complex, and huge for any one participant to dominate. Revolutionizing the capital markets is only possible through collaboration. 

www.InfrastructureofTrust.com

Understanding Digital Assets

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about crypto, tokens, blockchain, ICOs, STOs, Digital Securities, etc.  What does it all mean and why should you care?  In order to navigate the new financial digital world, it is important to first understand the terminology.  Below, I have broken down the typical terms being used in this current digital environment.   In certain sections, I have provided the example of the USA, and its primary regulator, but this is globally applicable.

Distinguishing the types of secondary markets or exchanges where you can trade digital or traditional assets also seems to be confusing.  I have created the following chart to try to distinguish these.

Now, why should you care?  What does this mean to you?  Despite what some people say in the press, blockchain is here to stay.  So understanding the types of digital assets that it hosts is going to be important in making business and investment decisions.

As a co-founder of a company that is focused on revolutionizing the private capital markets, I am not going to get into cryptocurrencies as this is not my area of expertise.  This is for currency experts to discuss.  Similarly, while I know the public listed markets well and how they operate, there are plenty of people who know these markets far better than I.

My background is geared towards the issues faced by private companies. Thus, I will elaborate on the fragmented ecosystem of the private capital markets that sorely need solutions.

Since the SEC and other government regulators around the world started stepping in to ban ICO’s, other alternatives have evolved.  The security token offering or STO is one such term that got some wings in 2018. However, the institutional and traditional investment communities were still leary of the idea of a token or blockchain solution being provided by people without an appropriate understanding of the entire market they are trying to disrupt. Many people from the ICO space were just changing the name and using STO as a new hype to sell the same ideas.

Many of the players (intentional choice of word) in the ICO space were trying to circumvent securities regulations saying they know better how the ecosystem should work.  After decades of scams, the securities regulators know that the current system has built-in checks and balances for a reason.  We all understand there are issues and inefficiencies in the private capital markets, but in order to change securities rules you better have a big budget and strong case for it. As an example, the JOBS Act took well over five and likely closer to ten years to come into place.  The use of blockchain has valuable applications that can certainly provide more efficient and cost-effective solutions to current private capital markets, as long as you work within the existing securities regulations.

There is a lot of exciting stuff being built with blockchain technology. I believe that if you are looking at this as a solution to the private capital markets, you need to consider a few things if you are looking at public chains as a potential solution:

  1. Use of private wallets for sole custody of financial instruments will not work. Securities law requires the use of transfer agents in many situations and transfer agents need to have custody of assets in order to manage them. If the digital securities are being held by individuals in their own wallet, there is no way the transfer agents can have custody of them. Think of public markets: you do not hold the securities (share certificates) yourself, they are digitally represented in your brokerage account and held by transfer agents.
  2. Mining of securities: It is generally not acceptable for unknown miners to verify transactions; even known miners must be eligible to perform business validation of a transaction either because they are parties to the transaction, have fiduciary responsibility, or certified subject matter credentials or otherwise registered and regulated entities.

Gas prices are not acceptable when it comes to securities.  In order for a token to move on some blockchains, a gas price needs to be paid to miners. Transaction fees must be contractually fixed in advance and cannot be uncertain or subject to an auction style of payment (which leads to a form of ad-hoc discrimination). For individual investors, transaction prices need to be certain  and follow execution guarantees.

Many Rights Make the KoreProtocol Right

Over the last few weeks, we have seen the highly entertaining farce of Craig Wright claiming to be Satoshi Nakamoto by registering a copyright to the original bitcoin whitepaper and code. He may very well be Satoshi. However, registering a copyright does not confer an official recognition of identity. Wei Lu, CEO of Coinsumer, proved it. Reacting to the press releases and social media statements made by Craig Wright and his supporters, the US Copyright office took the extraordinary step of publicly refuting the claim that a copyright registration is the same as official & proven recognition. This prompted the subject line of Coindesk’s May 23rd Blockchain Bites email: “Wright is wrong.”

The public blockchains provide an endless source of fun. Whatever their faults, one can’t blame them for being boring. The responsible, permissioned chains are, in contrast, boring. KoreChain in particular is relatively dull to thrill-seeking outsiders, while extremely exciting to those who truly understand private capital markets and how the KoreProtocol is spearheading innovation for private issuers and investors.

The KoreProtocol defines many types of shareholder rights in private digital securities. These rights, some mandatory and some discretionary, are well-established in securities law and corporate law. The innovation and complexity of shareholders rights is only limited by the willingness and imagination of the participants. In the absence of automation and a single source of immutable truth, the implementation of rights can become a bureaucratic nightmare. This, more than anything, becomes a limiting factor for innovative contracts. By defining shareholder rights rigorously in the KoreProtocol and implementing the full workflows in KoreChain for their exercise, the KoreProtocol and the KoreChain take away the pain and effort of managing these rights. This opens up private capital markets to very flexible and complex shareholder agreements to suit the needs of the participants.

The KoreProtocol and the implementation within KoreChain include rights such as (to give a few of the more prominent examples):

  1. Voting/non-voting
  2. Financial participation in the form of dividends or revenue
  3. Distribution of revenue or dividends as cash, reinvested securities, or other forms of payment
  4. First right of refusal
  5. Tag-along rights
  6. Drag-along rights
  7. Pre-emptive rights

Each of these rights and their numerous variations have implications and consequences in secondary market trading and in corporate actions. The KoreProtocol provides a structured way to define these rights and their impact on securities transactions. The KoreProtocol implements complete end-to-end management of financial transaction processes, some of which may be very long-running.

The definition of protocol functions to handle all the complex scenarios in securities transactions is not a trivial undertaking. However, it is much easier than the actual implementation of the protocol since that requires handling long-running processes and making tradeoffs between manual and automated processes, data sharing mechanisms, and choice of endorsers. Every step of the process must be fully compliant with securities laws, corporate laws, and the provisions of the underlying contracts.

Trying to shoehorn securities transactions into inadequately defined protocols and delegating the implementations to someone else is to do the worldwide financial community a huge disservice. Implementing the rights of issuers and investors is a very complicated undertaking. For example, ERC-1404, in the words of its creators, “…solves for the compliance challenges that are part of the issuance process and beyond.”

How does ERC-1404 solve the problem of whether senders can send tokens to a receiver and whether receivers can receive tokens from a sender? By defining two functions: CanSend() and CanReceive(). The github code itself shows one function:

detectTransferRestriction(fromAddress, toAddress, numTokens) //I made it a bit readable.

With no trace of irony, the authors of this protocol point out that: “The specific logic covering who can send and receive can be configured outside the token contract itself.”

It is easy enough to write protocols as long as we leave the messy details of implementation to someone else!

In reality, the transfer of digital securities in a fully-compliant way is quite complicated. It is not just a matter of “who can send and receive”, but also a question of the circumstances under which securities can be transferred or not. There are complex workflows and numerous checks that need to be followed before any transfers, whether P2P, beneficial, or trade-related, can occur. The checks relate to the jurisdictions and exemptions under which the securities are issued, domicile of the participants, securities laws that govern all subsequent inter- and intra-jurisdictional securities transactions, corporate laws, the rights spelled out in the shareholders’ agreements, and the presence or absence of various types of events such as corporate actions, regulatory actions, and economic events.

To be fair, the creators of simplistic protocols may very well be aware of these complexities; however, the fact remains that they come nowhere near expressing the richness and complexity of global private capital markets. Also, they offer no guidelines for implementation or even a hint of the treacherous complexities.

At KoreConX and in KoreChain, knowing the business as we do by being an SEC-registered transfer agent, we chose to not only develop a comprehensive protocol but also implement it in all its complexity. Tapping into our worldwide partner network of securities lawyers, secondary market operators, broker-dealers, academics, and other thought-leaders, we tackled the problem by creating a legal base that incorporates much of the complexity of securities law and corporate law worldwide. This includes inter-jurisdictional transactions, Blue Sky laws in the US, Canadian provincial laws, etc.

Private capital markets provide enormous flexibility for creating complex shareholders’ agreements. We have so far not seen two offerings or agreements that are similar. The public markets are relatively standardized, which can be a strength in terms of offering liquidity at the expense of flexibility of contracts. Private companies and their investors want more control and flexibility.

By incorporating the various types of rights (some mandatory, some optional, and some that are negotiated) into the KoreProtocol and implementing through the KoreChain, our mission is to create the right infrastructure to preserve and foster innovation in global private capital markets while also furthering the cause of efficient liquidity.

www.koreconx.com

www.KoreConX.io