Limited Finders Exemption
Posted by Attorney Laura Anthony on August 21, 2017
The SEC generally prohibits the payments of commissions or other transaction-based compensation to individuals or entities that assist in effecting transactions in securities, including a capital raise, unless that entity is a licensed broker-dealer. The SEC considers the registration of broker-dealers as vital to protecting prospective purchasers of securities and the marketplace as a whole and actively pursues and prosecutes unlicensed activity. The registration process is arduous, including, for example, background checks, fingerprinting of personnel, minimum financial requirements, membership to a self regulatory organizations or SRO (i.e. FINRA), and ongoing regulatory and compliance requirements.
However, despite the regulators efforts a whole cottage industry of unlicensed finders has developed, simply overshadowing efforts by regulators.
Over the years, a small “finder’s” exemption has been fleshed out, mainly through SEC no-action letters and some court opinions. Bottom line: an individual or entity can collect compensation for acting as a finder as long as the finder’s role is limited to making an introduction. The mere providing of names or an introduction without more has consistently been upheld as falling outside of the registration requirements. The less contact with the potential investor, the more likely the finder is not required to be licensed.
The finder may not participate in negotiations, structuring, document preparation or execution. Moreover, if such finder is “engaged in the business of effecting transactions in securities,” they must be licensed. In most instances, a person that acts as a finder on multiple occasions will be deemed to be engaged in the business of effecting securities transactions, and need to be licensed.
The SEC will also consider the compensation arrangement with transaction or success-based compensation weighing in favor of requiring registration. The compensation arrangement is often argued as the gating or deciding factor, with many commentators expressing that any success-based compensation requires registration. The reasoning is that transaction-based compensation encourages high-pressure sales tactics and other problematic behavior. However, the SEC itself has issued no-action letters supporting a finder where the fee was based on a percentage of the amount invested by the referred people (see Moana/Kauai Corp., SEC No-Action Letter, 1974).
More recently, the U.S. District court for the Middle District of Florida in SEC vs. Kramer found that compensation is just one of the many factual considerations and should not be given any “particular heavy emphasis” nor in itself result in a “significant indication of a person being engaged in the business of a broker.”
Where a person acts as a “consultant” providing such services as advising on offering structure, market and financial analysis, holding meetings with broker-dealers, preparing or supervising the preparation of business plans or offering documents, the SEC has consistently taken the position that registration is required if such consultant’s compensation is commission-, success- or transaction-based.
As pertains to finders that act on behalf of investors and investor groups, there is a lack of meaningful guidance. On a few occasions, the SEC has either denied no-action relief or concluded that registration was required. However, the same basic principles apply.
The federal laws related to broker-dealer registration do not pre-empt state law. Accordingly, a broker-dealer must be licensed by both the SEC and each state in which they conduct business. Likewise, an unlicensed individual relying on an exemption from broker-dealer registration, such as a finder, must assure themselves of the availability of both a federal and state exemption for their activities. Interestingly a few state’s such as California and Texas have statutory finder’s exemptions, however, the finder would still need to comply with federal law.