Economics

The Rise and Fall of A Scholarly Crowdfunding Article

Tim Joyce, Editor-in-Chief, MJLST Vol. 18

Print publication of science and tech articles is a weird thing. On the one hand, a savvy articles selection team will prioritize articles on the most pressing and innovative advancements in the field. On the other, though—and precisely because these articles are so current—a draft piece can be partially outdated even before the publisher’s pressing start rolling. So it is that a little piece on investment crowdfunding, conceived in September 2015, meticulously researched throughout the 2015–16 academic year, and selected in April 2016, for publication in January 2017, can transform from forward-looking thinkpiece to historically-dated comparison piece.

My recent article with MJLST, 1000 Days Late & $1 Million Short: The Rise and Rise of Intrastate Equity Crowdfunding, compares the newly-activated federal Regulation Crowdfunding to Minnesota’s intrastate investment crowdfunding model MNvest. When the piece was originally conceived both of these laws were not yet active; in fact, it was not yet clear that the SEC would ever release final rules for what would become Regulation Crowdfunding. When the issue was ultimately sent to the printers, each of the laws had been active for at least 6 months. Like I said, weird.

This post is intended to update the curious reader on current happenings with investment crowdfunding on both a federal and a state level.

On the federal level, Regulation Crowdfunding rules have been final since October 2015 and active since May 2016. Nearly 200 offerings later, analysts and scholars are already starting to crunch the numbers. [Full disclosure: I am one of those academics. Our paper (co-author Zach Robins of Winthrop & Weinstine) will be presented at the Mitchell-Hamline Law Review Symposium next month, if you’re interested.] Similar to rewards-based crowdfunding models like Indiegogo and Kickstarter, there appear to be some things a crowdfunding issuer can do to increase the likelihood of success of their offering. Here are some examples.

First, a clear business plan is essential to attracting investors. After all, the “crowd” is made of lots of folks without sophisticated investing experience; so you have to find a creative way to hook them without violating securities disclosure restrictions. This isn’t always as easy said than done, and some portal operators have already gotten in serious trouble for violating their obligations to ensure offering accuracy.

Second, and perhaps a bit counterintuitive, the most successful Regulation Crowdfunding issuers actually have slightly higher minimum investments than you would expect. There is no dollar floor to the investment under the rules of Reg CF, but a small minimum opens the door to a potentially unwieldy cap table. In addition, a high minimum investment decreases the number of available spots for investors in the targeted offering amount; there is a very real “exclusivity” effect. To illustrate: it takes 10,000 investors at $10/per to get to $100,000 offering, but you could raise the same $100,000 with only 100 investors at $1,000/per. Issuers get to choose which investors they take on in oversubscription situations, and it can’t hurt to create a little buzz as investors “compete” for limited spots in the offering.

Finally, communicating the business plan using a strong video is a must—industry analysts report that campaigns using any video at raised significantly more money that those without (on the order of 11:1 times more money!). If that video is of good enough quality, according to those same analysts, your offering does even better. Of course, video quality only matters if your network is sufficiently large to reach enough potential investors. For issuers hoping to raise $50,000, that generally means connecting with more than 3,000 people.

There are plenty more nuggets of wisdom to glean from the first 8 months of federal investment crowdfunding offerings, and this post only scratches the surface. For more, see our forthcoming paper in Mitchell-Hamline Law Review’s symposium issue later this year.

As for MNvest, unfortunately, while the law has been technically available for Minnesota crowdfunders since June 2016, it took until the end of the year for the Department of Commerce to approve any portals. So only a handful of issuers and portals are currently active in the space. True to form, for federal crowdfunding offerings at least, craft breweries are making a strong showing (read: in Minnesota, 4 of the first 4 MNvest issuers are breweries!). Hopefully we’ll see more of them as the vehicle becomes more well-known.

One thing that should further aid MNvest issuers is that the SEC recently released final rules that will make it easier and safer for intrastate issuers to use the internet to advertise. Before the rules update, issuers were bound by advertising and solicitation restrictions drafted in the 1970s (that is, before the interwebs). As crowdfunding, almost by definition, requires the use of the internet to reach a crowd, these updates should streamline and loosen up the fundraising process. The new final rules create a new exemption (Rule 147A); state legislatures that based their intrastate laws on old Rule 147 will need to update their laws accordingly first.

Investment crowdfunding laws of the intrastate and federal varieties hold promise for many issuers. And, while there is not yet a perfect model or a one-size-fits-all strategy for fundraising, it is clear that investors and issuers alike are excited by the promise this investment vehicle holds.

Who knows—perhaps in another 18 months the way we crowdfund will have experienced as much change again, to make this piece as quickly “historical” as my earlier article!


Court’s Remain Unclear About Bitcoin’s Status

Paul Gaus, MJLST Staffer

Bitcoin touts itself as an “innovative payment network and a new kind of money.” Also known as “cryptocurrency,” Bitcoin was hatched out of a paper posted online by a mysterious gentleman named Satoshi Nakamoto (he has never been identified). The Bitcoin economy is quite complex, but it is generally based on the principle that Bitcoins are released into networks at a steady pace determined by algorithms.

Although once shrouded in ambiguity, Bitcoins threatened to upend (or “disrupt” in Silicon Valley speak) the payment industry. At their core, Bitcoins are just unique strings of information that users mine and typically store on their desktops. The list of companies that accept Bitcoins is growing and includes cable companies, professional sports teams, and even a fringe American political party. According to its proponents, Bitcoins offer lower transaction costs and increased privacy without inflation that affects fiat currency.

Technologies like Bitcoins do not come without interesting legal implications. One of the oft-cited downsides of Bitcoins is that they can facilitate criminal enterprises. In such cases, courts must address what status Bitcoins have in the current economy. The Southern District of New York recently held that Bitcoins were unequivocally a form of currency for purposes of criminal prosecution. In United States v. Murgio et al., Judge Alison Nathan determined Bitcoins are money because “Bitcoins can be accepted as payment for goods and services or bought directly from an exchange with a bank account . . . and are used as a medium of exchange and a means of payment.” By contrast, the IRS classifies virtual currency as property.
Bitcoins are uncertain, volatile, and complex, but they continue to be accepted as currency and show no signs of fading away. Going forward, the judiciary will need to streamline its treatment of Bitcoins.


Policy Proposals for High Frequency Trading

Steven Graziano, MJLST Staffer

In his article, The Law and Ethics of High Frequency Trading, which was published in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science, and Technology Issue 17, Volume 1, Steven McNamara examines the ethics of high frequency trading. High frequency trading is the use of high-speed algorithms to take advantage of minor inefficiencies in trading technologies, and in doing so gain large market returns. McNamara looks into ethical, economic, and legal aspects of high frequency trading. In the course of his discussion McNamara determines that: high frequency trading is a term that actually describes an assortment of different practices; the amount of dollars involved in high frequency trading is declining, but is still a concern for certain types of investors and regulators; a proper analysis of high frequency trading requires use of expectation-based, deontological moral theory; and that modern technology may call into question the use of the Regulation National Market System regime. McNamara concludes that even though high frequency trading may lower costs to most investors, many practices associated with high frequency trading support the position that high frequency trading is not fair.

Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Jo White has recently commented on the legality, and potential ways to approach, high frequency trading. White, while testifying before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, informed the Congressional Committee that “You don’t paint with the broad brush all high-frequency traders — they have very different strategies.” This sentiment mirrors McNamara’s assertion that the term high-frequency trading actually involves various practices. However, White is seemingly defending some practices, while McNamara has a more negative view.

Differing still from these two views are the results of a study done by United Kingdom’s Financial Conduct Authority. That study concluded with the conclusion that high-frequency trade technologies are not rapidly predicting marketable orders and then trading those orders. However, the study examined practices in Europe, which has less market participants and a slower moving market than the United States.

In conclusion, Steven McNamara offers a very insightful, encompassing look at high frequency trading. His analysis resonates through both White’s testimony, and in the results of the study from the Financial Conduct Authority. Although all three perspectives seemingly stand for somewhat different propositions, what is clear from all three sources is that the practice of high-frequency trading is extremely complex and requires in-depth analysis before making any conclusive policy decisions.


Drug Shortages: A Mask for Reprehensible Activity?

Ethan Mobley, MJLST Articles Editor

Access to life-saving prescription medication grabbed headlines after Turing Pharmaceuticals raised the price of its HIV drug, Daraprim, by about 5,000% overnight. While the Daraprim price hike initially appears to be driven by pure greed, it’s at least conceivable that basic economic principles of supply and demand may have played a minor role. Indeed, many other drugs have undergone serious price hikes arising from innocent supply constraints. While the defensibility of Daraprim price hikes remains uncertain, the story does bring to focus an issue affecting accessibility of hundreds of other life-saving prescription medications—drug supply shortages.

Drug shortages naturally restrict many patients’ ability to obtain life-saving medication, which can have disastrous effects. The Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology addressed the issue in 2013 with a note written by Eric Friske. Friske found that drug shortages are often caused by a “combination of perturbed supply, manufacturing capacity, and utilization.” Friske then analyzed the efficacy of proposed (and now failed) legislation meant to reduce these supply shortages by requiring manufacturers to notify the FDA of impending shortages; the legislation would have also allowed the FDA to collaborate with manufacturers in order to streamline production. However, Friske determined these tools were insufficient to properly combat the shortage problem and proposed his own solution. In addition to notification requirements, Friske pushed for affirmatively incentivizing manufacturers to produce certain drugs and streamlining the drug manufacturing approval process.

Since Friske’s proposal, we’ve seen new legislation and regulation that aims to reduce the number of drug shortages. What’s more, the legislation and regulations contain notification requirements, manufacturer incentives, and streamlined approval processes—just like Friske proposed. While it’s obvious the drug shortage problem has not been solved, it is equally clear drug shortages have decreased over the past few years. Hopefully the trend continues so that life-saving drugs remain accessible to everyone, and drug companies will no longer be able to use supply shortages as justification for obscene price hikes.


Marijuana Industry Continues to Search for Banking Solution

Neal Rasmussen, MJLST Managing Editor

While the legal marijuana industry continues to rapidly expand in the United States, a major question still looms: Where should the millions of dollars generated by the industry be placed? Up to this point the nation’s banks have refused to take money for fear of federal repercussions. The lack of banking is one of the biggest problems the industry currently has and creates a dangerous all cash environment. While it continues to be an industry dominated by cash vaults and armed guards, change could soon be on the way.

While the provisions of the unlicensed money remitter statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1960, the money laundering statutes, 18 U.S.C. §§ 1956, 1957, and the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) still remain in effect with respect to marijuana-related business, the marijuana industry had hoped to take advantage of the new rules issued by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2014 which “clarifie[d] how financial institutions can provide services to marijuana-related businesses consistent with their BSA obligations, and aligns the information provided by financial institutions in BSA reports with federal and state law enforcement priorities.” In addition to the new rules, the Justice Department produced a memorandum calling for relaxed enforcement of the relevant federal banking laws so long as they followed the new rules. However, the most recent attempt by a Colorado state-chartered credit union, The Fourth Corner Credit Union, to take advantage of the new rules and memorandum has faced major opposition from the Federal Reserve Bank, who must provide clearance before the credit union can open.

The Federal Reserve Bank refused to grant the permission need to access the national banking system and The Fourth Corner Credit Union has sued in Federal Court demanding equal access to the federal system. While it remains unclear whether the presiding judge, R. Brooke Jackson, will hear the complaint, most view The Fourth Corner Credit Union as fighting a losing battle. Most believe that entering the federal banking system will be nearly impossible until marijuana becomes legal at the federal level. For now it will remain unclear as to where the industry should place its money.


The TPP – Commercial or Foreign Policy Victory?

Jing Han, MJLST Staffer

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a proposed trade among twelve Pacific Rim countries, which are Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, United States, Singapore and Vietnam, concerning a variety of matters of economic policy, about which agreement was reached on October 5, 2015 after 5 years of negotiations. The 12 countries including the United States of America have agreed to build a new cooperation structure through this agreement. TPP’s 30 chapters have set binding rules on everything from service-sector regulation, investment, patents and copyrights, government procurement, financial regulation, and labor and environmental standards, as well as trade in industrial goods and agriculture. The combined Gross Domestic Product-GDP of the world’s largest pact of these 12 countries is nearly 28 trillion dollars. Those dozen states account for roughly forty percent of global gross domestic product, thirty percent of global exports and twenty-five percent of global imports.

Some people believe that one of the reasons for the recent push for new trade initiatives is a feeling that the WTO system is not working. This view is probably not an uncommon one. But is it correct? It is worth looking at just what the WTO does, and how it compares to the TPP as a possible alternative trade agreement and organization.

First, all 159 WTO members have made promises not to charge tariffs above rates that are set out in legally binding schedules. The TPP does have the potential to go further than the WTO in terms of tariff reductions and services liberalization. Of course, such commitments would be preferential, only given to a handful of trading partners, and thus would not be truly free trade. There are significant economic benefits to having free trade cover as many countries as possible, including the avoidance of complex and trade-restricting rules of origin.

Second, WTO rules also discipline special tariffs imposed against dumping and subsidies. Through the WTO, these tariffs are subject to detailed rules to prevent them from being abused, which they frequently have been over the years. The TPP will not address anti-dumping/countervailing duties or subsidies at all. And the WTO’s rules on regulatory protectionism are already working quite well, so it is difficult to imagine what the TPP would do in this regard.

Third, WTO rules govern customs procedures, including valuation and classification issues, to prevent these procedures from being used as a disguised means of protection. Furthermore, WTO rules include general prohibitions on using domestic regulations and taxes for protectionist purposes. The WTO’s jurisprudence on these issues is widely respected, and WTO rulings have addressed a range of regulatory protectionism. The TPP would also go beyond the WTO in areas such as intellectual property protection, foreign investment protection, and environmental and labor regulation. But further is not necessarily better. These items have been added to the trade agenda to drum up new support. However, they have also stirred up a good deal of new opposition, and made trade negotiations more complex and difficult.

Fourth, Congress recognized “the growing significance of the Internet as a trading platform in international commerce” and instructed President Obama to achieve objectives concerning digital trade in goods and services and cross-border data flows. The Obama administration wants “digital trade rules-of-the-road” in the TPP agreement. These rules could mark a turning point in the global governance of digital commerce. The importance of digital technologies to trade has grown without multilateral rules keeping pace. The WTO is the main source of multilateral trade agreements, but it was established before the Internet transformed how companies produce, sell, and deliver products and services. In a declaration of 1998, WTO members agreed not to impose customs duties on electronic transactions and recognized the need to address e-commerce directly. However, the WTO’s e-commerce work program has not progressed much because WTO members disagree on various issues.

Fifth, beyond the commercial implications, many experts regard the TPP as a key part of American foreign policy. Amid the rise of China and its increasing exercise of political and military power in East Asia, the Obama administration has said it would turn its attention more to the East, the so-called pivot to Asia, in an effort to strengthen U.S influence in that region. The challenge for China, should it wish to join the TPP, is undertaking the reforms that the agreement would require. For instance, joining TPP will require opening markets in areas such as services and investment and agreeing to new rules in sensitive areas such as the role of state-owned enterprises and access to the Internet. That said, many of the reforms that becoming a TPP party would require are consistent with the internal reforms that China has already identified as being necessary, including reform of its financial sector, strengthening the role of services in the Chinese economy, and encouraging innovation.

In sum, The WTO is an excellent system. Its great strength is its multilateral framework, incorporating most of the world’s nations. However, with the advent of the 21st century, the limits of the WTO’s functions have become increasingly apparent. The Doha Round, marked by conflict between the opinions of developed and emerging nations and the subsequent stalling of negotiations, stands as a symbol of these limits. With more nations participating and more comprehensive liberalization being pursued, it is unavoidable that negotiations will face difficulties. In relation to the TPP, a former senior U.S. official is said to have commented that the U.S. sought to demonstrate its level of commitment to the Asia-Pacific region through its active involvement in the agreement negotiations. The Asia-Pacific region is becoming increasingly important to the U.S., and this fact is manifested in the nation’s initiatives in relation to the TPP. In this respect, the TPP has more political implications compared with its commercial considerations.


Bitcoin Regulation: Lifeline or Kiss of Death?

Ethan Mobley, MJLST Articles Editor

Bitcoin’s ever-increasing popularity has sparked fierce debate over the extent to which the alternative currency should be regulated, if at all. Bitcoin, a “cryptocurrency,” is the leading digital currency used today. The cryptocurrency can be used to buy and sell goods online or in traditional brick-and-mortar stores but is also used for speculative currency trading. As Bitcoin is adopted by more and more users, numerous businesses have sprouted geared toward facilitating Bitcoin transactions. One such company is Coinbase, which serves as a currency exchange allowing users to buy and sell Bitcoin (XBT) for USD and other currencies. Coinbase also acts as a “wallet” for Bitcoin, allowing users purchase Bitcoin at the market exchange rate, store that Bitcoin on their phone, and then pay for items using their phone’s “wallet.”

Bitcoin proponents claim the cryptocurrency is superior to traditional fiat for several reasons: 1) Bitcoin supply is self-regulating, and hence not susceptible to changes in government policy; 2) Bitcoin eliminates transaction costs between the buyer and seller of goods, which is especially helpful for small merchants; and 3) buyers using Bitcoin are not vulnerable to identity theft if the merchant incurs a security breach. Bitcoin opponents argue the cryptocurrency is problematic because it can be used for illicit purposes (e.g. transactions on Silk Road) while protecting its users due to relative transaction anonymity. Whatever the advantages and disadvantages, Bitcoin’s success is ultimately dependent upon wide-spread use by buyers and sellers and government regulation that permits free-use of the currency.

Recently, California legislators introduced a bill to regulate digital currencies. California isn’t the first state to consider such legislation, but it is arguably the most important considering California is home to more Bitcoin users than any other US state. Specifically, California AB-1326 would establish a regulatory framework for entities engaged in the “virtual currency business,” which would impose licensure and fee requirements on those entities. As defined, a “virtual currency business” is one that maintains “full custody or control of virtual currency in this state on behalf of others.” Specifically excluded from the bill are entities primarily engaged in buying and selling goods or services. Thus AB-1236 would not impose any burden on retailers–only quasi-banking entities like Coinbase would be subject to the regulation. Such regulation would ideally reduce Bitcoin market risk and volatility, thereby making the cryptocurrency a more viable alternative to traditional fiat. Nevertheless, Bitcoin advocacy groups disagree over whether the bill will ultimately encourage or inhibit widespread adoption of Bitcoin. After all, Bitcoin’s government-independence is one of its most beloved features. Agree or disagree with policies advanced by AB-1236, but one thing is clear—Bitcoin’s ubiquitous influence makes widespread regulation inevitable, and early legislation such as AB-1236 will serve as a model for other states to follow.