As OTC Markets Group continues to position itself as a respected venture trading platform, it has adopted a new stock promotion policy and best practices guidelines to improve investor transparency and address concerns over fraudulent or improper stock promotion campaigns. The stock promotion policy and best practices guidelines are designed to assist companies with responsible investor relations and to address problematic issues. Recognizing that fraudulent stock promotion is a systemic problem requiring an all-fronts effort by industry participants and regulators, the new policy focuses on transparency and disclosure of current information, and the correction of false statements or materially misleading information issued by third parties.
For several years, OTC Markets Group has been delineating companies with a skull-and-crossbones sign where they have raised concerns such as improper or misleading disclosures, spam campaigns, questionable stock promotion, investigation of fraudulent or other criminal activity, regulatory suspensions or disruptive corporate actions. While labeled with a skull and crossbones, a company that does not have current information or is not on the OTCQB or OTCQX will have its quote blocked on the OTC Markets website.
The new policy addresses: (i) publicly identifying securities being promoted; (ii) identifying fraudulent promotional campaigns; (iii) responsibilities of companies with promoted securities; (iv) the impact on OTCQXor OTCQB designations; (v) caveat emptor policy and stock promotion; and (vi) regulatory referrals. This blog summarizes both the new stock promotion policy and best practices guidelines.
OTC Markets Group Policy on Stock Promotion
The basic premise behind OTC Markets Group policy on stock promotion is the timely disclosure of material information, which includes the duty to dispel unfounded rumors, misinformation or false statements. Technology has increased the ability for companies, insiders and third parties to engage in improper and manipulative activities, including through spam campaigns, and anonymous social networks and message groups.
A company that is the subject of an active campaign or has a history of stock promotion may be denied an application for trading on the OTCQB or OTCQX. A company may be removed from the OTCQB or OTCQX, upon the sole discretion of OTC Markets Group, if it is involved in an active campaign involving misleading information or manipulative promotion. Furthermore, promotional activity of a shell company will result in the immediate removal from OTCQB (shells are not permitted on OTCQX). OTC Markets Group will continue to use the caveat emptor skull-and-crossbones designations as well. Where appropriate, OTC Markets Group will refer a company to the SEC, FINRA or other regulatory agency for investigation.
Paid promotions are often associated with pump-and-dump activities where a third party is attempting to pump the stock price to liquidate at inflated prices, following which the stock will inevitably go down. Improper and misleading promotional materials, which can often be in the form of e-mails, newsletters, social media outlets (such as message boards), press releases, videos, telephone calls, or direct mail, generally share the following common characteristics:
- Failure to identify the sponsor of the promotion or if the promotion is paid for an anonymous third party;
- Information focuses on a company’s stock rather that its business;
- Speculative language, including but not limited to grandiose claims and numbers related to the company’s business, industry, financial results or business developments;
- Touting of performance or profit potential from trading in a company’s stock with unsupported or exaggerated statements, including related to stock price;
- Making unreasonable claims related to a company’s performance;
- Directly or indirectly promising specific future performance;
- Providing little or no factual information about the company;
- Urging immediate action to avoid missing out;
- Failing to provide disclosures related to risks of an investment.
Although not included in OTC Markets’ list of common characteristics, another red flag is when there is a comparison between the company being promoted and a well-known successful or respected company.
OTC Markets Group monitors for paid promotional activity and reviews for anonymous promotions, connections to bad actors, and impacts on trading. Beginning in first quarter 2018, stocks associated with such promotional activity will be identified with a “risk flag” next to its symbol on the OTC Markets website.
OTC Markets Group may also request that a company that is subject to promotional activity issue a press release to: (i) identify promotional activity; (ii) confirm information in the promotion or identify misinformation; (iii) and/or disclose recent securities transactions by insiders and affiliates. Furthermore, OTC Markets group may request information from a company and/or its transfer agent related to transactions and request additional disclosures from the company related to share issuances, financing agreements and the identity of people or advisors associated with the transactions.
OTC Markets Group Best Practices Guidelines for Stock Promotion
As in its separate stock promotion policy, the OTC Markets Group best practices on stock promotion guidelines reiterate the core principle that the timely disclosure of material information is key, which includes the duty to dispel unfounded rumors, misinformation or false statements.
OTC Markets Group suggests that companies perform due diligence on investor relations firms and their principals prior to engaging services. This is advice I am constantly giving to my clients. Basic due diligence includes reviewing other represented clients and doing basic searches for regulatory issues or negative news. Companies should also be very clear on what services an investor relations firm will perform and what compensation will be paid for those services.
Very vague service descriptions often indicate an improper promotional campaign. OTC Markets Group also warns of red flags, including a request that payment be split among various individuals or groups.
A company that hires or sponsors investor relations is responsible for the content of communications made by that company and must ensure that all information is materially current and accurate. In addition, a company should retain editorial control and review all information before it is disseminated. Investor relations materials should not use language that makes assumptions, is speculative or misleading, or brazenly hypes the stock. Communications should not cover new material information that has not been previously disclosed, and should not extend beyond providing factual information to investors and shareholders.
The disclosures required by Section 17(b) must always be properly made, and OTC Markets Group specifically requires that any relationship between the investor relations individuals and entities and the company be fully disclosed.
Since third parties often engage in stock promotional activities without the knowledge or consent of a company, it is important for a company to know its investors, including the people behind any entities or investor groups. Investors that desire anonymity or utilize offshore entities raise a red flag. Furthermore, companies should be wary of shareholders that own significant control or investor groups that will qualify to remove restrictive legends on stock. Investor groups often change the name of their investment vehicle entity and, as such, due diligence should include prior entities.
OTC Markets Group warns against toxic or death spiral financing. Toxic or death spiral financing generally involves an investment in the form of a convertible promissory note or preferred stock that converts into common stock at a discount to market with no floor on the conversion price. As I have written about many times, there are quality investors and others that are not quality in the microcap space. The use of convertible instruments as a method to invest in public companies is perfectly legal and acceptable. However, like any other aspect of the securities marketplace, it can be abused. Further examples of abusive or improper activity could include: (i) backdating of notes or failure to provide the funding associated with the note; (ii) improper undisclosed affiliations between investors and the company or its officers and directors; (iii) manipulative trading practices; (iv) improper stock promotion; or (v) trading on insider information. Again, in choosing a transaction it is incumbent upon the company to conduct due diligence on the investor, including their reputation in the industry and trading history associated with other investments and conversions.
OTC Markets Group also warns of anonymous third-party promotions, noting that these promotions are a significant source of misleading and manipulative information. Any company-sponsored stock promotion must be disclosed, whether the company is involved directly or indirectly. The identity of a company’s investor relations firm must be disclosed on the company’s profile page on otcmarkets.com.
OTC Markets Group recommends that a company make a public announcement with the following information in the event it learns it is the subject of misleading or manipulative stock promotion:
- A summary of the company’s understanding of the stock promotion, including how and when the company became aware of the campaign and a description of the promotion’s effect on the company’s trading activity;
- Whether the content of the promotion is accurate or contains untrue or misleading information;
- Conduct an inquiry of company management, officers and directors, to ascertain whether they are involved in the stock promotion and/or of have purchased or sold securities before, during or after the promotion;
- Provide an up-to-date list of service providers who perform investor relations or similar services;
- Disclose the issuance of convertible securities with variable rate or discount to market conversion rates. This disclosure should include details on the convertible instruments, including date, number of shares issued or issuable, price, conversion terms, and parties involved.
OTC Markets also suggests that all companies have insider trading policies, a policy which I support and suggest to my clients.
Section 17(b) of the Securities Act of 1933
The federal securities laws also govern stock promotion activity. Section 17(b) of the Securities Act of 1933 is an antifraud provision which requires that any communications which “publish, give publicity to, or circulate any notice, circular, advertisement, newspaper, article, letter, investment service or communication” which describes a security, must disclose any consideration received or to be received either in the past, present or future, whether directly or indirectly by the issuer of such communication. Generally the disclosure must include: (i) the amount of consideration; (ii) from whom it is received, such as the company, a third-party shareholder or an underwriter and the individual persons behind any corporate entity involved; (iii) the nature of the consideration (for example, cash or stock, and if stock, whether restricted or unrestricted); and (iv) if consideration is paid by a third party other than the company whose securities are being promoted, the relationship between the company and the third party. Moreover, I recommend that companies ensure such communications include a disclosure as to whether the issuer of such communications owns stock which may be sold in any upmarket created by the communication.
The disclosure required by Section 17(b) must be included in each and every published document, including emails, message board postings and all other communications.