With D&O insurance premiums on the rise & more Section 11 suits being filed in plaintiff-friendly state courts, IPO companies and their directors & officers face an increasingly hostile environment. A Wilson Sonsini memo points out that for some companies, a direct listing may provide a practical solution for avoiding Section 11 liability by making it impossible to satisfy the statutory requirement to trace the shares purchased to those sold in the offering. This excerpt explains why:
In a direct listing, no shares are sold by the company and therefore no capital is raised. Rather, a company files a registration statement solely to provide certain of its existing shareholders, such as early stage investors and employees, the ability to resell their shares directly to the public.
The existing shareholders include both those whose shares are registered pursuant to the company’s registration statement and those whose shares are exempt from the registration requirements of the securities laws. The shareholders have complete discretion about whether to sell their shares and all are equally able to sell shares upon the company’s direct listing – i.e., starting from the moment of the opening bell.
There are no initial allocations: any prospective purchaser can place orders with their broker of choice. Because both registered and unregistered shares are available for sale upon the company’s direct listing and the sales are conducted through anonymizing brokerage transactions, it is not possible for any purchaser to trace the particular shares she bought back to the registration statement covering the direct listing. Accordingly, no purchasers have standing to assert an offering claim under the ’33 Act.
Before we all get too carried away, the memo also points out that this is a fix that only works for those few cash-rich unicorns that don’t need to raise capital in an IPO. But the memo says there’s another potential fix that could work for the rest of the pack – with a little cooperation from their underwriters. How? Just tweak the shareholder lockups to allow some shares to be sold into the market in exempt transactions simultaneously with the IPO. That would also make tracing of shares to the IPO impossible. Well, at least until Blockchain ruins things for everybody. . .
-John Jenkins, TheCorporateCounsel.net February 10, 2020
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