On January 31, the staff of the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued a no-action letter (“No-Action Letter”)  permitting an “M&A Broker”, under certain circumstances, to facilitate mergers, acquisitions, business sales, and business combinations (together, “M&A Transactions”) in connection with the transfer of ownership of a “privately-held company” (any company that does not have any class of securities registered, or required to be registered, with the SEC under Section 12 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and is not required to file periodic information, documents, or reports under Section 15(d) of the Exchange Act) without the M&A Broker registering as a broker-dealer under section 15(b) of the Exchange Act. The specific terms and conditions in the No-Action Letter are outlined below.
While the details of the definition of M&A Broker are complicated, the No-Action Letter has caught the securities industry by surprise. The No-Action Letter provides a potential exemption from SEC broker-dealer registration for many M&A industry consultants commonly referred to as “business brokers”, even if they are paid “finders” or “success” fees for securities-based M&A transactions between privately-held companies. In particular, the No-Action Letter permits an M&A Broker  to (i) advertise a privately-held company for sale with information such as the description of the business, general location, and price range, (ii) participate in the negotiations of the M&A Transaction, (iii) advise the parties to issue securities, or otherwise to effect the transfer of the business by means of securities, or assess the value of any securities sold, and (iv) receive transaction-based or other compensation, without registering as a broker-dealer with the SEC.
In particular, the SEC noted the following regarding M&A Brokers:
- M&A Brokers may not have the ability to bind a party to an M&A Transaction.
- M&A Brokers may not directly, or indirectly through any of its affiliates, provide financing for an M&A Transaction.
- M&A Brokers may not have custody, control, or possession of or otherwise handle funds or securities issued or exchanged in connection with an M&A Transaction or other securities transaction for the account of others.
- M&A Transactions may not involve a public offering, but instead must be conducted in compliance with an applicable exemption from registration under the Securities Act of 1933.
- No party to any M&A Transaction may be a “shell company”, other than a “business combination related shell company”.
- M&A Brokers representing both buyers and sellers must provide clear written disclosure as to the parties represented and obtain written consent from both parties to the joint representation. In addition, an M&A Broker facilitating an M&A Transaction with a group of buyers may do so only if the group is formed without the assistance of the M&A Broker.
- The buyer, or group of buyers, in any M&A Transaction must, upon completion of the M&A Transaction, control and actively operate the company or the business conducted with the assets of the business.
- No M&A Transaction may result in the transfer of interests to a passive buyer or group of passive buyers.
- Any securities received by the buyer or M&A Broker in an M&A Transaction will be restricted securities within the meaning of Rule 144(a)(3) under the Securities Act because the securities would have been issued in a transaction not involving a public offering.
- M&A Brokers and each officer, director or employee of an M&A Broker: (i) cannot have been barred from association with a brokerdealer by the SEC, any state or any self-regulatory organization; and (ii) may not be suspended from association with a broker-dealer.
The No-Action Letter is a welcome step towards clarifying the registration requirements for M&A Brokers; however, it remains to be seen what, if any, effect it will have on determinations under state securities laws and their varied definitions of “brokers”, “dealers” and “finders”. Although it is reasonable to assume that states that have adopted laws similar to federal law in this area may likewise adopt the interpretation presented in the No-Action Letter, only time will tell if this proves to be the case. We also recommend that individuals and companies looking to rely on the No-Action Letter to avoid SEC broker-dealer registration carefully consider the No-Action Letter’s requirements for transactions to fit under its parameters (namely, the requirements that qualifying transactions involve a buyer that will take voting control, assume executive officer or management positions or otherwise have the power to exert control over the seller after the transaction). Additionally, we note that the No-Action Letter does not address continuing issues regarding broker-dealer registration of private equity fund advisers that receive deal-based fees, who likely would not be able to comply with the M&A Broker definition. Nevertheless, the No-Action Letter’s stark departure from the SEC’s historical position that transaction-based compensation is the “hallmark of broker-dealer activity” is a positive step towards addressing, at the federal level, at least some of these issues.