Snap Inc., which debuted on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on March 2nd, was the largest tech IPO since Alibaba went public in 2014.  Initially priced at $17 per share, the share price jumped to more than $24 by the end of the first trading day, raising $3.4 billion and beating market expectations.

Beyond the magnitude of the offering and its implications for the broader deal pipeline, Snap’s IPO has raised interesting governance issues around its non-voting shares, which the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee (IAC)[1] tackled on March 9th at its quarterly meeting.  The IAC’s discussion centered on Snap’s three-tiered capital structure: Class C shares with 10 votes per share for founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, Class B shares with one vote per share for pre-IPO VC investors and other insiders, and Class A shares with no voting rights for public investors. Companies like Facebook and Google have employed similar structures in the past; in fact, a recent study by Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) noted that dual- and multi-class capital configurations are common, especially in the technology sector.[2]  However, the notion of affording no voting rights whatsoever to public investors is unprecedented.

SNAP RAISES CONCERNS FROM INVESTOR GROUPS AROUND GOVERNANCE CONTROLS

Some have expressed concern that the issuance of no-vote shares weakens corporate governance controls. The same ISS study referenced above found that “controlled companies” – those with multi-class or unequal voting rights like Snap – tend to underperform relative to their non-controlled peers in several key areas of assessment including shareholder returns, revenue growth, and return on equity.  The most critical investors’ rights advocates argue that Snap’s no-vote share class will be disastrous for the company’s shareholders who will be left without a say while Snap is given the go-ahead to operate as a public company without being subject to traditional public company voting and disclosure requirements.[3]

Others who were not on the IAC’s meeting agenda are less fatalistic in their assessment of Snap’s potential impact on shareholder rights. Looking at industry trends, some of the most successful public technology companies have concentrated voting power among the company’s founders, and shareholders appear to have benefitted (or at least not to have been disadvantaged) as a result.[4]  Facebook and Alphabet are prime examples.  Others maintain that Snap is an anomaly – as a tech “unicorn” (one of a select group of private ventures valued at more than $1 billion), Snap is able by virtue of its rarefied status to issue no-vote shares whereas smaller-cap or less prestigious companies likely could not.  As long as Snap continues to prosper, so will its Class A holders, even without a direct say in the company’s decision making.

SNAP’S DISCLOSURE OBLIGATIONS TO CLASS A HOLDERS

Beyond the general governance concerns, Snap’s IPO has also generated discussion around the company’s disclosure obligations. Are Snap’s no-vote shares entitled to the same degree of disclosure as voting shares?  Technically no, though Snap has indicated in its SEC filings that it intends to afford Class A holders the same degree of transparency as those with voting rights.[5]  According to Snap’s prospectus, the company plans to invite the Class A holders to attend the annual meeting and to submit questions to the management team.  Snap simultaneously acknowledges that its Class A shares are its only class of stock registered under Section 12 of the Exchange Act, and therefore Snap is not required to file a proxy statement unless a vote of Class A holders is required by applicable law.  The company promises, “[W]e will provide holders of our Class A common stock … any information that we provide generally to the holders of our Class B common stock and Class C common stock, including proxy statements, information statements, annual reports, and other information and reports.”[6]

Snap caveats that promise in several important ways. First, if the company doesn’t deliver proxy statements or information statements to Class B holders, then it will not do so to Class A holders – that goes without saying.  Second, Snap will be still obligated to comply with the ongoing periodic and current disclosure requirements of the Exchange Act, including Form 8-K, which may be filed up to four business days after a material event and which, by its nature, is less detailed and more open ended in terms of content requirements than a proxy statement.  This means that Snap’s disclosures on executive compensation and related matters may include less information than would otherwise be required by a proxy statement.  Lastly, because Snap is not bound by the proxy filing requirements, any filing the company does make may not contain all the information that would otherwise be required of a public company with voting shares.  Class A holders will essentially be reliant on the company’s annual, quarterly and current reports, without the ability to refer to proxy statements for information on, for example, its compliance with proxy access rules.  As a side note, Snap will not be required to comply with the Dodd-Frank Act’s “say-on-pay” and “say-on-frequency” rules, by virtue of its status – for now – as an emerging growth company under the JOBS Act.[7]

OBLIGATIONS OF NYSE AND OTHER NATIONAL EXCHANGES

Testifying before the IAC, Ken Bertsch of the Council of Institutional Investors (CII) questioned what Snap’s IPO means for institutional asset owners, which hold the majority of publicly traded securities in the U.S.[8]  He criticized the NYSE for being “asleep at the wheel” by allowing Snap to list a non-voting class of securities on the exchange, which he argued were more akin to preferred stock or derivatives.  Aside from Snap’s ability to trade on the NYSE, Bertsch asserted that the company should not be permitted to participate in public company stock indices.  Under his theory, an investment in an index fund pegged to the S&P or any other index carries with it certain expectations regarding the underlying disclosures of listed companies, and Snap’s no-vote shares run afoul of those expectations by adding a layer of complexity that will not be adequately reflected in the price.

Given the SEC’s regulatory power over national securities exchanges like the NYSE, a number of related questions emerge: How does allowing Snap to list on NYSE impact exchanges outside the U.S. where listing requirements are generally less onerous? Should the SEC be concerned about a potential race-to-the-bottom amongst non-U.S. exchanges?[9]  How should the SEC balance investor protection directives against the desire to entice private companies to go public?

None of these questions were answered on March 9th.  At most, the testimony amounted to a call by investor groups to revisit the rules surroundings multi-class common structures listed on U.S.-domestic exchanges in light of Snap and the potential for other companies to replicate its offering structure.  Those who are skeptical of CII’s argument with respect to index funds will note that Snap is still subject to ‘34 Act reporting requirements, which generally puts it on par with other companies listed in the index (proxy rules excepted).  Certainly, fewer or limited disclosures are of concern to any investor who wants to ensure the share price accurately reflects the totality of information available.  Those concerns may be better directed at deregulatory efforts generally, rather than at Snap, which continues – at least as of this writing – to trade above its initial IPO price.

CONCLUSION

It’s unclear whether the Commission will address the topic of no-vote shares again in the near term, especially given its change in leadership and priorities. All parties would benefit to wait and see how Snap performs over time and whether the company endeavors in good faith to provide its Class A holders with a degree of transparency that resembles that of more traditional shareholders.

[1] The IAC is a mandate under Dodd-Frank, set up to advise the SEC on various regulations affecting investors. Here’s a link to the agenda, as posted on the IAC’s website: https://www.sec.gov/spotlight/investor-advisory-committee-2012/iac030917-agenda.htm.

[2] See Rob Kalb and Rob Yates, Snap Inc. Reportedly to IPO with Unprecedented Non-Voting Shares for Public, Harvard L. Sch. Forum on Corp. Governance and Financial Regulation (Feb. 7, 2017), https://corpgov.law.harvard.edu/2017/02/07/snap-inc-reportedly-to-ipo-with-unprecedented-non-voting-shares-for-public/ (looking at post-IPO companies holding their first annual meetings, finding several instances of 10-to-1 voting structures between insiders and outsiders).

[3] See generally Testimony of Ken Bertsch before the IAC (Mar. 9, 2017), available at https://www.sec.gov/spotlight/investor-advisory-committee-2012/bertsch-remarks-iac-030917.pdf.

[4] See, e.g., Kurt Wagner, One way Shapchat’s IPO will be unique: The shares won’t come with voting rights, Recode (Feb. 21, 2017), http://www.recode.net/2017/2/21/14670314/snap-ipo-stock-voting-structure.

[5] See, e.g., Preliminary Prospectus, filed with the SEC: https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1564408/000119312517056992/d270216ds1a.htm.

[6] Id. at 5.

[7] See Eleanor Bloxham, Snap Shouldn’t Have Been Allowed to Go Public Without Voting Rights, Fortune (Mar. 3, 2017), http://fortune.com/2017/03/03/snap-ipo-non-voting-stock/.

[8] See supra note 3.

[9] See generally SEC Should Bar No-Vote Share Structures, Committee Told, Law360 (Mar. 10, 2017), https://www.law360.com/capitalmarkets/articles/900042?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=section.

Public companies will soon be required to include an active hyperlink to each exhibit to all registration statements filed under the Securities Act of 1933, as amended, and all periodic and current reports filed under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended, filed on or after September 1, 2017.

Under Regulation S-K Item 601, public companies are required to file their material agreements, certificates of incorporation, bylaws and other specified documents as exhibits to their SEC filings. Exhibits that are identified in the exhibit index to the filing may be attached to the filing or, in the case of previously-filed exhibits, may be incorporated by reference from the previous filing to the extent permitted by the SEC’s rules and forms. Currently, an investor seeking access to an exhibit that is incorporated by reference into a filing must first determine where the exhibit is located by reviewing the exhibit index and then search for and locate the filing which contains the exhibit, which can be time-consuming and cumbersome. The exhibit hyperlink rule, therefore, is intended to facilitate easier access to these exhibits for investors and other users of the information.

Key points to note about the exhibit hyperlink rule:

  • An active hyperlink will be required for each exhibit identified in the exhibit index of the filing, including exhibits that are incorporated by reference from a prior filing and exhibits that are attached to the new filing. The hyperlink rule, however, does not require the hyperlinking of any XBRL exhibits or exhibits filed with Form ABS-EE. The SEC also decided not to require companies to refile electronically any exhibits previously filed only in paper.
  • The requirement to include exhibit hyperlinks applies to Securities Act registration statements, including all pre-effective amendments; Exchange Act periodic and current reports; registration statements on Form F-10 and annual reports on Form 20-F; and does not apply to other forms under the multi-jurisdictional disclosure system used by certain Canadian issuers or to Form 6-K.
  • The exhibit hyperlink rule is effective for filings submitted on or after September 1, 2017. Smaller reporting companies or non-accelerated filers that submit filings in ASCII format will be required to file their registration statements and periodic reports that are subject to exhibit filing requirements in HTML format and to comply with the exhibit hyperlink rule for filings submitted on or after September 1, 2018. The hyperlink rule does not apply to exhibits filed in paper pursuant to a temporary or continuing hardship exemption under Rules 201 or 202 of Regulation S-T or pursuant to Rule 311 of Regulation S-T.
  • If a filing contains an inaccurate exhibit hyperlink, the inaccurate hyperlink alone would not render the filing materially deficient nor affect the company’s eligibility to use Form S-3. However, the company must correct a nonfunctioning or inaccurate hyperlink, in the case of a registration statement that is not yet effective, by filing a pre-effective amendment to the registration statement or, in the case of a registration statement that is effective or an Exchange Act report, by correcting the hyperlink in the next Exchange Act periodic report that requires or includes an exhibit pursuant to Item 601 of Regulation S-K (or, in the case of a foreign private issuer, pursuant to Form 20-F or Form F-10).

The IPO market in 2016 was abysmal, especially for the life sciences sector. Annual IPO proceeds fell to the lowest level since 2003. The IPO market forecast for 2017 is uncertain. Some life sciences companies that went public during the last IPO wave ending in 2015 still have plenty of cash yet they have “hit the wall” clinically, making them “fallen angels”. In this environment, the “fallen angel” reverse merger has emerged as an attractive way for many promising life sciences companies to raise capital and to go public.

In response to these trends, my colleague Matt Gardella and I have assembled a stellar panel of experts for a discussion about fallen angel reverse mergers as an alternative to the traditional IPO. Please join us at Mintz Levin on Monday, March 6th starting at 3:00 PM to learn whether this important approach to going public might be right for your company. Our panel will provide the perspectives of the deal lawyer, the private company, the fallen angel, the investor, the investment banker, and the Nasdaq listing consultant. You will gain insights into the key issues involved in evaluating a fallen angel reverse merger strategy, negotiating a deal, smoothly completing a transaction, and being ready for life as a public company.

Please note: This panel is an in-person event at our Boston offices with a networking period afterwards.

Click here for information and registration.

SEC Acting Chairman Michael S. Piwowar issued a public statement on February 6, 2017 requesting input on any unexpected challenges that companies have experienced as they prepare for compliance with the CEO pay ratio rule, which will become required disclosure in public company 2018 proxy statements. Piwowar also directed SEC staff to “reconsider the implementation of the rule” based on comments submitted.

This public statement and request for comments is a first step in considering changes to the rule, as part of the Republican Party’s effort to modify or roll back certain provisions of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd Frank). Any SEC modifications to the CEO pay ratio rule would take time to implement and may be challenged. The easiest route to prevent its implementation would be for Congress to repeal this provision of Dodd Frank.

A recent First Circuit decision raises the pleading bar for plaintiffs asserting violations of Section 11 of the Securities Act. Only would-be plaintiffs who acquired a security that is the direct subject of a prospectus and registration statement are entitled to sue under Section 11. That right to sue is limited to plaintiffs who either purchased their shares directly in the offering, or who otherwise can trace their shares back to the relevant offering. This has been referred to as the “traceability” requirement. Until now, Section 11 plaintiffs have generally sought to establish standing by pleading a simple statement to the effect that they “purchased shares of stock pursuant and/or traceable to the offering.” For companies whose stock is all traceable to a single offering, this pleading burden presents little burden, as all shares self-evidently derive from the offering. But when stock has been issued in multiple offerings, a plaintiff has to plead that his or her shares were issued under the allegedly false or misleading registration statement, and not some other registration statement.

Continue Reading First Circuit Strengthens “Traceability” Pleading Requirement for Section 11 Claims

By Sarita Malakar and Megan Gates

The Securities and Exchange Commission recently issued proposed amendments to increase the financial thresholds in the definition of a “smaller reporting company” that, if adopted, will increase the number of issuers that qualify as smaller reporting companies and thereby would benefit from the scaled disclosure requirements. The proposed amendments are intended to promote capital formation and reduce compliance costs for smaller issuers, while maintaining investor protections.

This advisory summarizes the proposed amendments issued by the SEC.

Read the full advisory >>

On July 13, 2016, the SEC announced its adoption of several amendments that update the SEC’s rules of practice governing its administrative proceedings.  The final amended rules are available here.

As SEC Chair Mary Jo White stated in the SEC’s announcement, “[t]he amendments to [the SEC’s] rules of practice provide parties with additional opportunities to conduct depositions and add flexibility to the timelines of [the SEC’s] administrative proceedings, while continuing to promote the fair and timely resolution of the proceedings.”  For example, under amended Rule 360, orders instituting proceedings would designate the time period for preparation of the initial decision as 30, 75, or 120 days from completion of post-hearing or dispositive motions.  Further, amended Rule 360 extends the length of the pre-hearing period from four months to a maximum of 10 months for cases designated as 120-day proceedings, a maximum of six months for 75-day cases, and a maximum of four months for 30-day cases.

Continue Reading SEC Adopts Amendments Updating its Rules of Practice for Administrative Proceedings

Every year at around this time, the Mintz Levin securities lawyers are busy collaborating with our December fiscal year-end clients to prepare for the annual year-end reporting season, involving a flurry of 10-Ks, proxy statements, governance review and upkeep, and related matters. Pam Greene and I have worked together for several years now (more than we would care to admit!) on what we fondly refer to as the “year-end kickoff memo,” which you can find here. Each year, we focus on a combination of new developments, reminders of things to keep in mind, and anticipated “hot topics” from the perspective of regulators, shareholders and companies themselves. We are pleased this year to have some terrific contributions to the memo from our partner Bret Leone-Quick, who focuses on securities litigation and related governance issues. We welcome your questions on the memo and look forward to working with all of you on this important annual process.

By Chip Phinney and Geoff Friedman

As we have discussed before, the SEC’s increased use of in-house administrative proceedings in enforcement actions involving allegations of fraud has been a subject of considerable debate. Commentators have questioned the fairness of proceedings where the SEC gains an automatic home field advantage by bringing claims before its own administrative law judges (ALJs), with appeals being heard by the SEC’s own commissioners. But a determined defense can still defeat the SEC by ensuring that it plays by the rules, as demonstrated by a decision issued last week by the U.S. Court of Appeals for First Circuit in a case where Mintz Levin attorneys Jack Sylvia, Andy Nathanson, Jess Sergi, McKenzie Webster, and Geoff Friedman represented one of the petitioners.

The First Circuit vindicated two former employees of State Street Global Advisors (SSgA) who had been targeted by the SEC for alleged securities violations during the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis. Despite applying the highly deferential “substantial evidence” standard of review for agency factfinding, the First Circuit concluded that the SEC abused its discretion in holding Mintz Levin’s client, former SSgA Vice President James Hopkins, liable under Section 17(a)(1) of the Securities Act, Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act, and Exchange Act Rule 10b-5. The First Circuit also vacated the Commission’s order holding Mr. Hopkins’ co-defendant, SSgA CIO John Flannery, liable under Section 17(a)(3) of the Securities Act.
Continue Reading First Circuit Overturns SEC Commissioners’ Sanctions Order

Our Venture Capital & Emerging Companies practice group analyzed the SEC’s recently released equity crowdfunding rules (referred to by the SEC as “Regulation Crowdfunding”) in a concise and easy-to-digest article authored by Sam Effron and Kristin Gerber.

The article does a great job of highlighting some of the regulation’s shortcomings, such as the limits it places on amounts that can be raised (at both the company and investor level); the requirement that companies complete and file a new Form C; and certain ongoing reporting obligations for companies.  In all, the added costs, burdens, and risks associated with complying with this regulation means that in most cases there are better alternatives (such as raises under Rule 506) for start-up companies looking to access the capital markets.