Sunday, April 13, 2014

In Loco Parentis

Kids: can’t live with ’em, can’t sell ’em for theater tickets.
“You know, Mrs. Buckman, you need a license to buy a dog, or… drive a car. Hell, you need a license to catch a fish. But they’ll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father.”


One of the advantages of being a sole pseudonymous proprietor of an obscure online opinion emporium—insulated from the interference of officious editors, hypersensitive advertisers, and unhinged commenters still seething over the unflattering piece I posted about their dipsomaniac uncle six years ago—is the freedom to write whatever I will. Periodically then, this freedom licenses me to post explanatory articles which illuminate often obscure features or issues about my chosen profession which, to be perfectly honest, will be of little interest to most of you Charming Visitors.1 So unless you would like to learn a little bit more about the current regulatory environment surrounding mergers & acquisitions, I suggest you skip over this entry and revisit the latest internet outrage du jour on Gawker or Slate, instead. Or better yet, read a book.2

The impetus for this post is the release, this January, of what is known in the trade as a “No-Action” letter by the SEC in response to a formal inquiry by a gaggle of M&A lawyers. Now in layman’s terms, a no-action letter is simply a formal statement by the SEC that, under a certain limited set of circumstances as laid out in exhaustive detail by the petitioners, it will choose not to enforce existing securities laws. In the particular instance under consideration, the no-action letter effectively eliminates the existing requirement for advisors who participate in mergers and acquisitions involving private companies to be registered as broker dealers with the SEC.

Now Charming Visitors like you, I am sure, can just imagine how this news was received among certain shouty quarters of the internet and associated environs:
“Wall Street Banksters Celebrate
SEC Trashcanning of Investor Protections
Over Lavish Meal of Roast Baby Seal,
Fricasséed Retirees’ Dreams”

Fortunately—or unfortunately, perhaps, if you are one who prefers to keep her mental map of the financial system conveniently colored in morally unambiguous shades of black and white—I am here to reassure you that baby seals and investor dreams face no greater threat than they did before, and this particular instance of deregulation running, as it were, against the tide of increasing regulation in the brave new world of Dodd Frank makes eminent and prudent regulatory sense.

* * *

It will help me make my case if you understand the historical background of the existing regulation which the SEC has decided to waive enforcement of. Historically, as you might expect from an organization entitled the “Securities and Exchange Commission,” the SEC has been particularly concerned with the regulation of anything and everything to do with securities. Simplifying greatly for the non-lawyers in my audience, the SEC has traditionally said that any financial intermediary who participates in the origination, solicitation, negotiation, marketing, or general fricaséeing of a security and gets paid a fee for doing so (i.e., all of us) is required by law to register as a broker-dealer. In other words, if you make money assisting the transfer of securities from one party to another–whether by making a market in secondary shares, underwriting a new bond issue, or selling companies—you need a license. What may not have occurred to you is that the securities of private, non-publicly-traded companies count as securities under the SEC’s purview, too. And M&A transactions, which usually involve the purchase, transfer, or exchange of securities for cash and/or other securities, definitely count.

Given the SEC’s mandate to protect investors, this makes eminent sense when M&A involves companies with publicly-traded securities. After all, if there are public securities involved, somewhere or other a widow or an orphan is likely to get caught up in the deal, and nobody—least of all the SEC—wants nefarious unregulated doings clouding the pale and fevered brows of said Ws and Os. At least not publicly. Of course pure M&A advisors almost never handle customer funds or securities—a big hot button for the widow and orphan protection unit—and they rarely provide financing for the transaction, unless they are one of the monster integrated investment banks intent on sucking more fees out of their clients’ wallets by lending their own balance sheet to the equation. But the overarching presence of public securities is as probably as good a reason as one can muster for the licensing of M&A advisors who participate in transactions involving public companies, even if it might be considered, for various reasons, a bit of overkill.

But the inclusion of M&A deals involving purely private companies under this licensing requirement has never made much sense. I will allow the helpful lawyers at Morrison & Foerster to explain:

The application of the broker-dealer regulatory framework to private company M&A advisers has always been somewhat awkward. Much of that framework is designed to protect customers against abusive sales or trading practices and to ensure that customer funds and securities are safeguarded. However, in the typical private company M&A transaction, the terms of the deal are negotiated directly by the principals with assistance from their financial and legal advisers. Unlike the customer who buys or sells stock based on a brief conversation with his broker, the owners of a private business are generally very involved in the negotiation process, which may take place over a period of weeks or months. Moreover, the financial intermediary never touches the customer’s funds or securities. The “broker” in private company M&A transactions functions essentially as an adviser to its client and its role bears little resemblance to more traditional broker-dealers.

This, I can tell you from long and painful experience, is absolutely true. The principals in a private company transaction are either other companies or financial sponsors, all of whom tend to be very experienced in doing M&A themselves and/or are protected by the advice and counsel of armies of very experienced lawyers, accountants, and professional M&A advisors like me. We take oceans of time for due diligence and negotiate the everloving crap out of every possible term of these deals six ways from Sunday. The notion that an average billion dollar corporation or financial sponsor with a three billion dollar fund needs the indirect, implicit investor protection that a broker-dealer license from the SEC purportedly conveys to its M&A advisor when it purchases a $25 million dollar business is patently ludicrous.

But historically the SEC has been a big fan of one-size-fits-all legislation: what’s good for Aunt Millie is good for Steve Schwarzman. I have complained in the past that the conflation of retail and wholesale finance under one legislative rubric structurally designed to protect the widows and orphans of 1933 and 1934 from boiler room operations is just silly. Financial transactions among professionally advised, intimately involved, professional principals like corporations and financial sponsors just should not be treated in the same way as Aunt Millie’s purchase of a mutual fund from her stockbroker Chuck. And M&A deals, both public and private, definitely count as the former.

* * *

The prior restrictions were not without negative effects, by the way. In order to satisfy the rules, M&A brokers who wanted to actively advise their clients often had to twist the transaction structure into an asset sale, thereby avoiding the requirements triggered by the involvement of securities, whether that was the most financially efficient structure or not. Or they simply ignored the law, in the hopes that the SEC would look the other way. In the latter case, their clients usually shrugged indifferently, since they knew they were fully protected by intensively negotiated legal engagement contracts and fully applicable anti-fraud provisions under the law anyway. Most aficionados of jurisprudence will tell you a law which only encourages scofflaws or evasion is bad legislation.

Lastly, the prior regime enforced a very inefficient structure in the market for private company M&A. In order to comply with the law, many individual advisors or small boutiques which could do M&A either had to associate with an existing licensed broker-dealer or apply for a license and maintain ongoing registration themselves. This, for smaller outfits, was not trivial, costing potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars up front and entailing substantial ongoing reporting obligations, dedicated compliance and administrative personnel, and non-trivial financial expense. It likely substantially curtailed the establishment of small independent advisors who otherwise wanted to and could provide professional advisory services to privately held companies. The outcome of this regulatory barrier to entry, of course, has probably been higher prices for customers who want to do M&A.

So I congratulate the SEC for finally seeing the light of intelligent market regulation in the M&A world. No true investor protections have been lost, and barriers to entry in a high cost service industry have been lowered at a stroke. Who knows, maybe this is the start of a new era of intelligent regulation of financial markets, not more regulation.


Related reading:
United States Securities and Exchange Commission, No-Action Letter Dated January 31, 2014
Morrison & Foerster LLP, Private Company M&A Brokers Don’t Need to Register With the SEC as Broker-Dealers (February 6, 2014)
You’re Doing It Wrong (October 22, 2011)

1 This, of course, incorporates the perhaps heroic assumption on my part that anything I write here is of interest to more than zero of you. But, since this is my website, I can damn well assume as much such nonsense as I choose. So take it as given.
2 I hear some mid-range Princeton author has an inflammatory new book out about Wall Street traders who like to expose themselves in public that’s getting a lot of press. Flasher Boys, or something like that.
3 In the isn’t-it-interesting-what-a-coincidence department, the SEC no-action letter comes at a time when legislation is currently wending its way through Congress that would enshrine the exemption of M&A advisors from broker-dealer registration requirements in actual law. The original bill, H.R. 2274/S. 1923, and the omnibus bill which incorporates it, H.R. 4304, incorporate virtually the same exemptions from registration as are included in the no-action letter, with the slight addition of size limits for transactions. Note that neither the no-action letter nor the proposed legislation lets M&A brokers off the hook from registration if they do public company M&A or normal securities financing work, like private placements. Any investment bank which aspires to the full range of agency services, even if they do not have capital markets trading activities, will still have to register. Relax, Aunt Millie: the dogs of war are not completely off the chain.

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