Two stories prominent in the financial media this week highlight the interesting policy challenges facing the nation’s lawmakers.
On Monday, the so-called equity crowdfunding rules went into effect. The rules, promulgated under Title III of the JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) Act, enable companies to raise up to $1 million in a 12-month period from non-accredited investors without prior approval from the Securities and Exchange Commission. Investors having a net worth or annual income of less than $100,000 can invest $2,000 or 5 percent of their annual income or net worth, whichever is less, into startups. Supporters of the new rules believe that they democratize the financial markets by enabling regular investors to access deals previously reserved for institutional and wealthy investors. Critics contend, however, that the high cost of complying with the new fundraising rules in relation to the amount of money that can be raised will discourage top startups from using this financing mechanism. Regular investors may only get unappetizing leftovers, the deals bypassed by more traditional institutional venture capitalists.
The JOBS Act was signed in 2012, but it has taken four years for the new equity crowdfunding rules to go into effect. The SEC had to wrestle with the competing goals of increasing capital formation opportunities for startups and investors, while simultaneously protecting investors from questionable entrepreneurs, charlatans and their own poor judgment. These difficult philosophical issues, however, take on a somewhat different tone in the context of real problems in the crowdfunding space.
Recently, Lending Club Corp., the market leader in the growing online peer-to-peer lending space, announced the resignation of its founder and CEO, Renaud Laplanche. That resignation seemingly came in response to a board investigation, which revealed internal control failures including the sale of more than $20 million in loans that did not conform to the requirements imposed by the acquiring investors. This, in turn, triggered a massive decline in Lending Club’s stock price and prompted questions about the viability of online lending platforms in general. Peer-to-peer lending initially was designed to connect individual lenders and borrowers, reducing the number of intermediaries involved in the capital raising process, and, as such, is fairly characterized as one type of crowdfunding.
This week, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump announced that his platform would include a plank calling for the dismantling of nearly all of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. The agencies and organizations responsible for overseeing the capital markets generally are somewhat removed from those responsible for consumer protection. Regardless of which party prevails in the November general election, however, lawmakers likely will continue to struggle with how government reconciles its often competing goals. Finding the proper balance between regulation necessary to ensure efficient, fair and equitable capital markets and prophylactic rules which may unduly preclude economic growth in the name of investor protection is becoming increasingly more difficult.