NYSE, Nasdaq And OTC Markets Offer Relief For Listed Companies Due To COVID-19

by Laura Anthony, Esq. on April 24, 2020 in Uncategorized

In addition to the SEC, the various trading markets, including the Nasdaq, NYSE and OTC Markets are providing relief to trading companies that are facing unprecedented challenges as a result of the worldwide COVID-19 crisis.

NYSE

The NYSE has taken a more formal approach to relief for listed companies.  On March 20, 2020 and again on April 6, 2020 the NYSE filed a notice and immediate effectiveness of proposed rule changes to provide relief from the continued listing market cap requirements and certain shareholder approval requirements.

Recognizing the extremely high level of market volatility as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, the NYSE has temporarily suspended until June 30, 2020 its continued listing requirement that companies must maintain an average global market capitalization over a consecutive 30-trading-day period of at least $15 million.  Likewise, the NYSE is suspending the requirement that a listed company maintain a minimum trading price of $1.00 or more over a consecutive 30-trading-day period, through June 30, 2020.

The NYSE intends to waive certain shareholder approval requirements for continued listing on the NYSE through June 30, 2020.  In particular, in light of the fact that many listed companies will have urgent liquidity needs in the coming months due to lost revenues and maturing debt obligations, the NYSE is proposing to ease shareholder approval requirements to allow capital raises.  The big board amendments align the requirements more closely with the NYSE American requirements.

The NYSE big board rules prohibit issuances to related parties if the number of shares of common stock to be issued, or if the number of shares of common stock into which the securities may be convertible or exercisable, exceeds either 1% of the number of shares of common stock or 1% of the voting power outstanding before the issuance subject to a limited exception if the issuances are above a minimum price and no more than 5% of the outstanding common stock.  For a review of the NYSE American rule for affiliate issuances, see HERE.  The NYSE also requires shareholder approval for private issuances below the minimum price for any transactions relating to 20% or more the outstanding common stock or voting power.  For a review of the 20% rule for the NYSE American, see HERE.

Realizing that existing large shareholders and affiliates are often the only willing providers of capital when a company is undergoing difficult times, the rule change allows for the issuance of securities to affiliates that exceed the 1% or 5% limits if completed prior to June 30, 3030 where the securities are sold for cash that meets the minimum price and if the transaction is reviewed and approved by the company’s audit committee or a comparable committee comprised solely of independent directors.  The waiver cannot be relied upon if the proceeds would be used for an acquisition of stock or assets of another company in which the affiliate has a direct or indirect interest.  Furthermore, the waiver does not extend to shareholder approval requirements triggered by the transaction under other rules such as the equity compensation rule or change of control rule. The substantially similar NYSE American rules can be reviewed HERE – equity compensation, and HERE – change of control.

The NYSE has also waived the 20% rule for private placements completed through and including June 30, 2020 where a bona fide financing is made to a single purchaser for cash meeting the minimum price requirement.  Again, the waiver does not extend to shareholder approval requirements triggered by the transaction under other rules such as the equity compensation rule or change of control rule.

Nasdaq

The Nasdaq has taken a less formal approach on some of its requirements and a formal rule amendment on others.  Although Nasdaq has not suspended its listing requirements, it will give due weight to the realities surrounding the worldwide crisis in both considering listing standards compliance and requests for financial viability waivers, such as under Rule 5635.

Generally, companies newly deficient with the bid price, market value of listed securities, or market value of public float requirements have at least 180 days to regain compliance and may be eligible for additional time. Nasdaq has enacted a temporary rule change such that companies that fall out of compliance with these listing standards related to price through and including June 30, 2020 will have additional time to regain compliance.  That is, the non-compliance period will be tolled through June 30, 2020 and not counted in the 180 day period.  Companies will still receive notification of non-compliance and will still need to file the appropriate Form 8-K.  Companies that no longer satisfy the applicable equity requirement can submit a plan to Nasdaq Listing Qualifications describing how they intend to regain compliance and, under the Listing Rules, Listing Qualifications’ staff can allow them up to six months plus the tolling period, to come back into compliance with the requirement.

The information memorandum confirms that listed companies that avail themselves of the 45-day extension for Exchange Act filings (see HERE) will not be considered deficient under Nasdaq Rule 5250(c) which requires all listed companies to timely file all required SEC periodic financial reports.  Companies that are unable to file a periodic report by the relevant due date, but that are not eligible for the relief granted by the SEC, can submit a plan to Nasdaq Listing Qualifications describing how they intend to regain compliance and, under the Listing Rules, Listing Qualifications’ staff can allow them up to six months to file.

As discussed in my blog related to SEC COVID-19 relief (see HERE), the SEC has granted relief where a company is required to comply with Exchange Act Sections 14(a) or 14(c) requiring the furnishing of proxy or information statements to shareholders, and mail delivery is not possible due to the coronavirus and the company has made a good-faith effort to deliver such materials.  Nasdaq likewise will not consider a company in non-compliance with Rule 5250(d) requiring companies to make available their annual, quarterly and interim reports to shareholders or Rule 5620(b) requiring companies to solicit proxies and provide proxy statements for all meetings of shareholders when relying on the SEC relief. Nasdaq confirms that it permits virtual shareholder meetings as long as it is permissible under the relevant state law and shareholders have the opportunity to ask questions of management.

The Nasdaq shareholder approval rules generally require companies to obtain approval from shareholders prior to issuing securities in connection with: (i) certain acquisitions of the stock or assets of another company (see HERE); (ii) equity-based compensation of officers, directors, employees or consultants (see HERE); (iii) a change of control (see HERE); and (iv) certain private placements at a price less than the minimum price as defined in Listing Rule 5635(d) (see HERE.

An exception is available for companies in financial distress where the delay in securing stockholder approval would seriously jeopardize the financial viability of the company. To request a financial viability exception, the company must complete a written request including a letter addressing how a delay resulting from seeking shareholder approval would seriously jeopardize its financial viability and how the proposed transaction would benefit the company. The standard is usually difficult to meet; however, Nasdaq has indicated that it will consider the consider the impact of disruptions caused by COVID-19 in its review of any pending or new requests for a financial viability exception.  In addition, reliance by the company on a financial viability exception must expressly be approved by the company’s audit committee and the company must obtain Nasdaq’s approval to rely upon the financial viability exception prior to proceeding with the transaction. Under the rule, companies must also provide notice to shareholders at least ten days prior to issuing securities in the exempted transaction.

OTC Markets

OTC Markets Group has provided blanket relief for OTCQB and OTCQX companies with certain deficiencies until June 30, 2020.  Until that date, no new compliance deficiency notices will be sent related to bid price, market cap, or market value of public float. Also, any OTCQX or OTCQB company that has already received a compliance notice related to bid price, market cap, or market value of public float with a cure period expiring between March and June will automatically receive an extension until June 30, 2020 to cure their deficiency.

OTC Markets has also extended the implementation date for compliance with the OTCQB rules requiring at least 50 beneficial shareholders and minimum float of 10% or $2 million in market value of public float, respectively, until June 30, 2020.  The extension applies only to companies already traded on OTCQB