OTC Markets Makes Several Regulatory Recommendations

On March 8, 2018, Cromwell Coulson, CEO of OTC Markets Group, made a presentation to the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee (“IAC”) as part of a panel on “Discussion of Regulatory Approaches to Combat Retail Investor Fraud.” During the meeting, Mr. Coulson discussed the most serious market risks and presented a list of 14 OTC Market’s regulatory recommendations to improve disclosure and combat these market risks.

A review of OTC Markets website on April 24, 2018 shows 10,469 traded securities, $1.1 billion volume, 7.2 billion share volume and 174,268 trades. In his remarks to the IAC, Mr. Coulson points out that 98% of the traded dollar volume of companies on OTC Markets make current information available. Echoing the SEC’s “Main Street investor” focus, he states that “[W]e have many stocks on our markets that are completely appropriate to be part of a diversified, long term, investment portfolio, of a main street investor; we also have speculative securities that are only appropriate for risk tolerant trader.”

However, certainly the trading in all equity securities, and especially small-cap securities, has risk. Mr. Coulson identifies what he believes are the three biggest risks to retain investors. In particular: (i) manipulative online promotion, including fraudulent and misleading information; (ii) share dilution, including through equity line financings, toxic convertible instruments and illegal share distributions; and (iii) bad actors, with a suggestion to allow for a speedy trading freeze to prevent ongoing frauds. I note that in its recent comment letters to FINRA related to the 15c2-11 process, OTC Markets suggested that it be given the power to institute short-term trading halts in response to improper activity and/or a lack of proper disclosure.

As part of OTC Markets’ recently adopted stock promotion policy and best practices guidelines to improve investor transparency, OTC Markets conducted an investigative initiative to track promotion activities. Coulson indicates that data reveals that 70% of dollar volume of securities impacted by promotional activities are listed and trade on national exchanges. Moreover, promoted securities usually have significant share dilution and are rarely suspended by the SEC. Although OTC Markets stock promotion policies are helpful, Mr. Coulson suggests that regulatory modernization is also needed to require increased disclosure of online paid stock promotion and the people behind such promotions.

Coulson also addressed the issue of short selling. Internet-based forums, especially anonymous forums that are used for stock manipulation, misinformation and fraudulent promotions, proclaim that short selling in small-cap securities is rampant and the cause of downward pricing pressure. The reality is that short selling in small-cap securities is generally minimal due to the high cost of borrow interest and coverage requirements. Most short selling is small companies is completed by market makers with a requirement to close out within 2 days. Coulson actually suggests that in addition to greater transparency and reporting of short selling activity, regulatory changes should be made to encourage heathy short selling and price stabilization efforts by market makers.

Another topic of concern and interest involves the illegal issuance of securities and affiliate trading. Coulson suggests transparency and information can help this issue.  In particular, Coulson advocates for increasing the role of transfer agents as record keepers. I note that he did not use the words “gate keepers” and it is unclear from the transcript if that implication was there. On December 22, 2015, the SEC issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking and concept release on proposed new requirements for transfer agents and requesting public comment. No further  action has been taken since that time, and rules related to transfer agents have been moved from the SEC short-term agenda to long-term actions.

Also to further transparency related to illegal issuances and affiliate trading, Coulson suggests ending anonymous Objecting Beneficial Owner (OBO) accounts for affiliates of issuers. Likewise, Coulson suggests adding a reporting requirement similar to Forms 3, 4 and 5 under Section 16 for non-SEC reporting companies.

To help combat fraud and provide a deterrent to bad actors, Coulson supports increased cooperation and communication between market operators, such as OTC Markets, and regulators. Using the analogy of real-time monitoring for credit card fraud, Coulson suggests real-time monitoring and responses by market operators to red flags and indicia of fraud. In order to make preventative responses feasible, there would have to be a system to allow for a relatively quick investigation and re-onboarding of trading for affected companies.

Coulson notes that much of the fraud in smaller public company trading emanates from unregulated intermediaries that have acquired shares in the private financing markets and are seeking to stimulate investor buying interest, so they can sell their shares. Although Coulson does not talk about regulating finders as a response to this problem, he does talk about stimulating financing options for smaller companies. I am a champion of a workable regulatory regime for finders and, as such, cannot pass this opportunity to raise the issue.

To stimulate financing options, Coulson suggests allowing SEC reporting companies to utilize Regulation A+ and increasing shelf registration options. I’ve written many times about my support for an amendment to Regulation A+ to allow SEC reporting companies to complete offerings.

Coulson completed his presentation by talking about another topic that has been oft debated and for which I have strong opinions, and that is venture exchanges. The OTC Markets has worked hard to position itself as a venture exchange, but unfortunately has not received legislative support.  In fact, OTC Markets does not always receive due regard at all from the SEC and Wall Street. Back in December 2016, the SEC issued a white paper on penny stocks in which it inaccurately, albeit implicitly, lumped all OTC Markets securitiestogether as penny stocks and as providing limited disclosure. To the contrary, one of the requirements to trade on the OTCQX tier of OTC Markets is that the security not be a penny stock. Both the OTCQB and OTCQX require fairly robust disclosure, including audited financial statements. OTC Markets also has a flag which appears on a company’s quote page to identify if a particular security is exempt from the definition of a penny stock.

Mr. Coulson points out that in 2017, 61 companies graduated from the OTC Markets to a national exchange, illustrating the venture function of OTC Markets.  Furthermore, realizing the need for legislation, Coulson states that any venture legislation should follow the European SME growth market model, be disclosure-driven, and include exchanges and ATS’s that already serve smaller companies (such as OTC Markets).

Coulson rightfully adds, “[E]xchange listing is not a clear solution to solving the problems at hand. We need a more holistic approach, focusing on better investor information, rather than the hard-and-fast assertion that every exchange-traded security is safe, while all other securities are risky.”