The total number of Financial Industry Regulatory Authority member retail brokerages has been on the decline for the last five years.
But one sliver of the universe is showing new signs of life: A new crop of broker/dealers and online funding portals are joining FINRA to capitalize on new opportunities made possible by the JOBS Act of 2012. The legislation prompted the SEC to make it easier to market and solicit investments, and opened the door for small businesses to engage in so-called “equity crowdfunding.”
About 15 to 20 of these new firms have signed on since 2013, according to Fishbowl Strategies, with another three to six launching soon, in anticipation of a wave of issuers and investors entering the market. Whether there is a crowd for equity crowdfunding remains to be seen.
While online portals for non-registered securities, like private equity or hedge funds, existed long before the JOBS Act, the issuers were not allowed to directly solicit investors.That changed in September 2013, when rules allowed issuers to market to accredited investors directly. At the time, there was much handwringing about hedge funds sponsoring Superbowl halftime shows and mom-and-pop millionaires lining up on Main Street to pour money into private equity or venture capital funds. “Obama’s Hedge Fund Free For All,” warned Forbes. The rule was “the most significant change to capital markets since the 1930s” said business website Quartz.
It has not happened, so far. Investments in non-registered securities has risen dramatically—in 2014, there were 33,429 offers raising a total of $1.3 trillion, up from 18,295 raising $595 billion in 2009. But only about 2 percent of the 2014 offers were solicited under the new JOBS Act rules, the 506(c) exemption, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
“People thought that things would pick up more than they have,” says Steve Fernando, a member of the executive committee of The Crowdfund Intermediary Regulatory Advocates (CFIRA), a non-profit advocacy group established following the signing of the JOBS Act in 2012. “It’s still progressing slowly as an industry.”
But Paul Boyd, managing partner at ClearPath Capital Partners, a wealth management firm for tech entrepreneurs, says there
is plenty of pent-up demand and a backlog of Reg D deals that are moving forward.
Boyd also expects the next phase of the JOBS Act, Title III, will bring a lot more attention to capital raises online. Set to go into effect in May, those rules let any investor, accredited or not, invest in unregistered securities online (with limits on the amounts that can both be invested, and raised, in a year). The tech-fueled vision of bypassing stuffy financial intermediaries in favor of a new-class of SEC-registered and FINRA member “crowdfunding portals” has inspired a flotilla of startups to enter the space.