Better access to equity capital at lower cost good for NZ Inc

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New Zealand Herald | Bradley Kidd, Josh Blackmore | January 16, 2014

Crowdfunding in new zealandStart-up and early stage businesses will have access to a larger menu of capital raising options from April 1 as the Financial Markets Conduct Act 2013 (FMCA) begins to come into effect.

The new levers are key to achieving the FMCA's purpose of promoting "innovation and flexibility" in the New Zealand economy and should encourage growth in the highly inventive but traditionally capital hungry software design and computer services industry.

The requirement in the Securities Act 1978, which the FMCA will replace - that share offers to the general public be via a full investment statement and prospectus - with all of the expense that entails, can put this option beyond the reach of the small or emerging business.

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The FMCA does provide some exceptions from this rule, but the provisions are complex, often require legal advice and have generally been interpreted narrowly by the courts.

The "habitual investor" exception, for example, has been construed as applying to professional investors rather than to persons who invest regularly.

A common challenge for young companies is to attract and retain talented staff through the lean early years when there is limited capacity to pay competitive salaries. A solution to this is to offer foundation employees equity in lieu of or as a supplement to their pay.

But the Securities Act makes this difficult also because the "close business associate" definition has been held by the courts to exclude "mere employees" with the result that off-market employee share offers have tended to be limited to senior management, where it is easier to establish that they qualify for other "bright line" exemptions.

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The FMCA by contrast explicitly provides for reduced disclosure in relation to employee share offers where the offers do not exceed 10 per cent of the company's total shareholding in any year and are made as part of an employee's remuneration arrangements (rather than for the primary purpose of raising money).

The pool of investors able to engage in "private offers" outside the full panoply of protections the legislation provides for the prudent but non-expert investor will also be expanded.

In particular:

• The "habitual investor" test is redrawn to include persons who meet an "investment activity" threshold.

• The "experienced person" exemption is available through self-certification, although the certificate must be confirmed by an authorised financial adviser, a lawyer or a chartered accountant.

More importantly, the FMCA will create new capital raising instruments for small offers outside the full disclosure regime.

A new "small offer" exclusion will apply to offers which do not seek to raise more than $2 million within any 12-month period and which are limited to 20 investors, each of whom is connected to the issuer either professionally or personally, through some previous association or where the investor has indicated they are interested in offers of that kind (such as through membership of an angel network).

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But the innovation which has so far captured the most attention is the accommodation the act provides for crowd funding and peer-to-peer lending. These internet-based services exist now but the Securities Act prevents their use to raise even a small loan or equity contribution without full offer documentation.

The FMCA removes this impediment by creating a new category of "licensed intermediary" for which website hosts and others can apply, and which will allow the licence holder to let people make equity or debt offers on their platforms without having to meet the normal disclosure requirements.

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