November 8, 2019

Dual-Class: Maybe the Market Worked in WeWork?

Rick Fleming, the SEC’s Investor Advocate, recently lambasted companies with dual-class capital structures, referring them to as a “festering wound” that, if left unchecked, could “metastasize” and threaten the “entire system of our public markets.” C’mon Rick, we won’t get anywhere if you keep pulling your punches – let people know how you really feel. . .

Notwithstanding his rhetorical flourishes, Mr. Fleming deserves credit for being willing to acknowledge that investors are a big part of the problem:

We need to acknowledge that investors themselves have engaged in their own race to the bottom when it comes to corporate accountability to shareholders. Investors, and particularly late-stage venture capital investors with deep pockets, have been willing to pay astronomical sums while ceding astonishing amounts of control to founders. This means that other investors, in order to deploy their own capital, must agree to terms that were once unthinkable, including low-vote or no-vote shares. The end result is a wave of companies with weak corporate governance.

But after making this acknowledgment, he immediately retreated to the customary fallback position – we need government intervention on dual-class stock because there’s an insurmountable collective action problem here: “Investors, acting in their own self-interest (or according to their investment mandates), may be inclined to invest in companies with weak corporate governance even though they know that these companies will ultimately harm the broader capital formation ecosystem.”

Are late round & IPO investors just too greedy & short-sighted to be trusted to get this right? Could be. I mean, they’re sure greedy. But on the other hand, it’s possible that their indifference reflects the fact that many institutional investors don’t think dual-class structures pose the kind of existential threat to the market that people like Mr. Fleming do. Who knows? Some may even believe that the jury’s still out on whether dual-class structures are a problem at all.

Oddly enough, the WeWork fiasco may undermine the argument for outside intervention in IPO capital structures. WeWork indicates that there is a point when governance problems are egregious enough to provoke IPO investors to collectively say “no thanks” – no matter how much sizzle the deal supposedly has.  The fallout from the busted deal also suggests that even VC enablers are capable of learning their lesson when it comes to ceding so much control to founders.

I don’t want to push this too far – WeWork turned out to be such a mess that nobody really deserves to be patted on the back for having the sense to walk away. But if the argument for intervention on dual class structures is based on the premise that investors won’t act collectively to draw the line on governance problems, WeWork suggests that isn’t the case, and that the reasons why they don’t normally take collective action on this issue may have to do with things other than greed & short-sightedness.

Testing the Waters: Managing & Disclosing Indications of Interest

The post-JOBS Act ability to “test the waters” prior to filing a registration statement has made soliciting non-binding indications of interest from institutional investors a fairly common practice for IPO issuers. But while companies may obtain those indications of interest, this Olshan blog points out that there are still many issues that companies need to consider when it comes to planning the solicitation process & disclosing indications of interest.

In particular, this excerpt points out that offering participants still need to navigate the statutory restrictions on “offers” & “sales” under the Securities Act:

In view of these restrictions on premature “offers” and “sales,” the SEC has periodically requested issuers, through staff comment letters, to explain how and when they received the indications of interest, especially from new unaffiliated investors, and disclose any written communications or agreements that accept the investments or indications of interest. The SEC has also asked issuers to disclose the number of potential indicated investors the issuer communicated with on the topic.

As a result, issuers should note that any pre-IPO meetings or oral communications with potential new investors—where an investor indicates an interest in purchasing shares—must be conducted in the context of “testing-the-waters” activities pursuant to Section 5(d) of the Securities Act. An underwriter should generally be able to seek non-binding indications of interest from prospective investors (including the number of shares they may seek to purchase at various price ranges) as long as the underwriters do not solicit actual orders and an investor is not otherwise asked to commit to purchase any particular securities.

Similarly, when the issuer or underwriter engages a potential investor in any written communications (as defined in Rule 405 under the Securities Act), they may also need to provide them to SEC staff, who will verify whether the issuer violated Section 5.

Oops! Canadian Fund Overlooks $2.5 Billion in Securities in 13F Filing

I’ve always thought that 13F filings were far and away the most useless documents required to be filed with the SEC. But they’re even more useless if the filer neglects to include 20% of its reportable holdings. This is from The Financial Post:

One of Canada’s largest pension funds “inadvertently omitted” all of its Canadian holdings from a recent disclosure it made to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, failing to include about US$2.46 billion in investments.

British Columbia Investment Management Corporation made the omission in February, when it submitted its disclosures for the three months ending on Dec. 31, 2018. The pension fund, which has $145.6 billion in assets under management, failed to disclose holdings in 98 companies, primarily across Canada’s energy, banking and mining sectors. The Canadian holdings accounted for more than 20 per cent of its total disclosed investments.

Apparently, this isn’t the first time that BCI has messed up its 13F filings. The Post article says that in October 2015, it filed 16 amendments to 13F filings dating back to 2010.

John Jenkins