SEC Issues White Paper On Penny Stock Risks
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On December 16, 2016, the SEC announced several new settled enforcement proceedings against market participants including issuers, attorneys and a transfer agent, related to penny stock fraud. On the same day the SEC issued a new white paper detailing the risks associated with investing in penny stocks. This blog summarizes the SEC white paper.
As I have written about on numerous occasions, the prevention of micro-cap fraud is and will always be a primary focus of the SEC and other securities regulators. In fact, the SEC will go to great lengths to investigate and ultimately prosecute micro-cap fraud. See my blog HERE regarding the recent somewhat scandalous case involving Guy Gentile.
The SEC Division of Economic and Risk Analysis published a white paper on the risks and consequences of investing in stocks quoted in the micro-cap markets versus those listed on a national securities exchange. The paper reviewed 1.8 million trades by more than 200,000 investors and concludes that returns on investment in the micro-cap markets tend to be negative with the returns and risk worsening for less transparent companies or those involved in improper promotional campaigns.
The white paper notes that the incidence of and amount of negative returns, as well as alleged market manipulation increase with the fewer disclosure-related requirements associated with the company. The white paper, on the whole, is very negative towards OTC Markets securities. However, off the top, I think the white paper is skewed unfairly against OTC Markets securities when it should target those lower-tier securities that do not provide disclosures to the public.
This blog will summarize the white paper, including many of its facts and figures, but will find issue with its framework. The white paper does not give fair distinction to the higher OTCQX tier of OTC Markets. In fact, “OTCQX” only appears twice in the entire white paper, both in a footnote that purports to list the OTCQX requirements, but fails to mention the quantitative requirements, including that the security not be a penny stock as defined by the federal securities laws. The shortened “QX” does appear 13 times in the white paper, providing some factual and statistical information such as market size and trading patterns, but again, ignores the meaningful distinction related to the penny stock definition. For a review of the OTCQX tier of OTC Markets and its listing requirements, see my blog HERE.
It is axiomatic that the vast majority of new jobs are created by small and emerging companies and that these companies are critical to the economic well being of the United States. See, for example, my blog on the SEC report on the definition of accredited investor HERE and its study on private placements HERE.
According to both Bloomberg and Forbes, 8 out of 10 new businesses fail within 18 months and that number jumps to 96% in the first 10 years. However, despite that failure rate, it is indisputable that we need entrepreneurs to continue forming new businesses and access supportive capital, to have a healthy economy.
Likewise, it is axiomatic to all micro-cap market participants that those companies that fail to provide meaningful disclosure to the public, are more likely to result in investment losses. Those companies are also more likely to engage in market manipulation and other securities law violations. However, those companies that do provide meaningful disclosure to the public, whether through SEC reporting or alternatively to the OTC Markets, and especially those companies that trade on the OTCQX, are the very small and emerging companies that are necessary and vital to our healthy economy. They may be the 8 out of 10 or the 96%, but some will also be the 2 out of 10 and 4% – and all are necessary.
Also, the fact is that bank financing is not readily available for these companies, and they have no choice but to try to access capital through the public. That public wants an exit strategy and that exit strategy tends to be the public markets. Where the companies are small and immature in their business life cycle, the OTC Markets provide that secondary trading market. In discussing this aspect of the economies of these small public companies, they are more positively referred to by the SEC as “venture” companies and the trading market as a “venture exchange” (see my blog HERE).
Many times when a company ceases to provide disclosure or information to the public and remains dark for a period of time, its business operations have failed, it has gone private, or otherwise has been abandoned. These companies continue to trade, and sometimes with high volume with no public information. The SEC makes an effort to eliminate these companies through its Operation Shell-Expel (see HERE), but unfortunately many remain and new ones are added all the time as the 8-out-of-10 cycle continues.
Although all penny stocks are risky, and are undeniably the highest-risk investments, grouping all OTC Markets into the white paper, in the fashion that the SEC has done, strikes me as fundamentally unfair. Throughout my summary of the SEC White Paper, I provide thoughts and commentary.
SEC White Paper
The SEC White Paper begins with an introduction on some high-level differences between an exchange traded security and one on the OTC Markets. One of the biggest distinctions is that the majority of ownership and trading of an exchange listed security is by institutional investors, whereas the majority of ownership and trading on the OTC Markets is by individuals. The SEC points out that institutions tend to be more proactive in research and shareholder activism, creating a check on corporate governance. As an aside, these institutions are also more sophisticated and able to assert greater influence and power over a company than an individual small shareholder.
The SEC quickly highlights the negative literature on OTC Markets securities, including that they have poor liquidity, generate negative and volatile returns and are often subject to market manipulation, including by the dissemination of false and misleading information. Although OTC securities offer the opportunity to invest in early-stage companies that may grow to be larger successful ones, the number that do exceed is small (such as the 2 out of 10 in my summary above).
One portion of the white paper’s information I find interesting is that despite the risks, OTC Markets continue to grow and investor demands for these stocks continues to rise. The SEC offers two hypotheses for this. The first is that OTC investors are simply gambling for the big return, just as they do with the lottery. The second is that OTC Markets investors simply make bad investment decisions. However, the report does admit that little is known about the characteristics of OTC investors and that this is likely the first comprehensive study trying to determine those demographics. Personally, I also think that many OTC Markets investors are day traders and that although a particular stock may go down over time, those day traders are taking advantage of the small intraday price changes to make a profit.
The SEC reviewed 1.8 million trades by more than 200,000 investors and concludes that returns on investment in the micro-cap markets tend to be negative, with the returns and risk worsening for less transparent companies or those involved in improper promotional campaigns, and are also worse for elderly and retired investors and those with lower levels of income and education. The SEC white paper purports to be the first study of its kind that examines investor outcomes around stock promotions and level of disclosure.
I would suggest that the exact same results (i.e., lower returns on less transparent investments and those engaged in improper promotional campaigns and lower returns for the elderly and lower income and education demographic) would be found for any investments in any studied market and are not unique to OTC Markets securities. To be clear, I don’t think the correlation is necessarily improper activity, though that could be the case especially when looking at some stock promotions. Companies that provide less disclosure may have less capital and financial resources to further their business plan and, as such, are far riskier investments. Also, companies that provide less disclosure may be less interested in furthering the public aspect of their business. Even if the underlying business is sound, if they are not providing public disclosure, the stock price and liquidity are unlikely to reflect the underlying business, which could result in poor investor returns.
The SEC white paper continues with a three-part discussion: (i) OTC Market structure and size; (ii) review of academic literature; and (iii) analysis of OTC investor demographics and outcomes.
OTC Market Structure and Size
The SEC white paper describes the basic makeup of OTC Markets including its three tiers of OTC Pink, OTCQB and OTCQX. I’ve written about these market tiers many times. For a review of the three tiers, see my blog HERE, though I note that both the OTCQB and OTCQX have updated their listing standards since that blog was written. The OTC Pink remains unchanged. For the most current listing standards on the OTCQX see HERE and for the OTCQB see HERE.
The SEC white paper also references the OTCBB, which technically still exists, but has fewer than 400 listed securities and does not have a readily accessible quote page.
The SEC white paper has a lot of information on the market size and its growth over the years. Without getting into a lot of facts and figures, I note that the OTC Markets grew by 47% from 2012 through 2015, with $238 billion of trading in 2015. There are approximately 10,000 securities quoted on OTC Markets, as compared to approximately 2,700 on NASDAQ, of which only approximately 675 are micro-cap companies.
The OTC Markets monthly newsletter gives a complete review and breakdown of the size of OTC Markets. For the one month of December 31, 2016, the following is the number of traded securities and volume:
The SEC white paper continues with a summary of recent academic research and analysis including on OTC Markets securities’ liquidity, returns, market manipulation, transition to an exchange and investor participation.
Liquidity refers to the ability of shareholders to quickly buy and sell securities near the market price without substantial price impact. Where there is a lack of liquidity, it is difficult to sell. Also, low-volume stocks tend to have wider price fluctuations and bid-ask spreads, and are more expensive for dealers to hold in inventory. OTC Markets securities are less liquid than those listed on a national exchange such as the NYSE MKT or NASDAQ. Research also shows that there tends to be lower liquidity with less transparency and disclosure. None of this is surprising, though many of us that work in the OTC Markets space have seen the anomaly of a company with no information, and likely no underlying business or management, trading on heavy volume.
The returns on OTC Markets securities are also very different than exchange traded securities. Returns on OTC Markets are often negative, volatile and skewed (the lottery factor). Where the majority of trades have negative returns, there is the incidence of extremely high, lottery-like returns on some of the securities. This, again, is not surprising. OTC Markets-traded companies tend to be smaller companies and thus would naturally have a smaller market capitalization and smaller returns as well as the potential for larger upside.
Again, returns on companies that provide less transparency and public information tend to be lower. Interestingly, another hypothesis as to why returns are lower is the short-sale constraints on OTC Market securities. Many OTC Market securities are ineligible for margin (and thus short sales), and locating shares for borrow can be challenging. Those that are margin-eligible usually have a very high carry interest and per-share transaction cost for short sales. The argument is that short sales create an equilibrium and thus help reflect a truer stock price such that the stock will be less vulnerable to negative price adjustments. However, unfortunately, sophisticated traders can open offshore accounts that will allow for short selling of OTC Market securities, opening those same securities up to manipulation by those investors.
OTC Markets securities are relatively often the target of market manipulation, including outright fraudulent disclosures and pump-and-dump schemes. Generally these schemes are conducted in the trading of those companies that are less transparent in disclosures. A market manipulation scheme can involve the dissemination of false information followed by taking advantage of the price changes that result. The scheme can be perpetrated by the company and its insiders, or by unaffiliated investors. Examples include spam and email campaigns, rumors and false information in Internet chat rooms or forums, and false “analyst reports.” Research shows these schemes are effective – that is, the price increases while the stock is being touted and falls when the campaign is over.
Obviously not all increases in stock prices are a result of improper behavior. OTC Markets stocks react to legitimate news and growth as well. In fact, the majority of extreme increases in trading price and volume are the result of changes in company fundamentals and not market manipulation. Moreover, not investor relations and stock promotion is perfectly legal and can be completely legitimate. It is when false or misleading information is being disseminated, or targeted marketing aimed at vulnerable investor groups is used, that it is problematic. The key is recognizing the difference, which generally involves transparency from companies that provide steady, consistent disclosure with apparent credible information.
Many OTC investors are hoping to “bet” on the company that will grow and move to an exchange where it is likely the stock price will increase substantially, as will liquidity. The SEC white paper gives dismal statistics on the rates of graduation. However, it does note that the rate of movement to an exchange is much higher for OTCQX or OTCQB (9%) than OTC Pink companies (less than 1%). The SEC white paper also suggests that companies that graduate to an exchange from the OTC Markets underperform those companies that go public onto an exchange in the first instance.
The last area that the SEC white paper discusses in this section is investor participation and, in particular, why that investor participation continues to grow year over year. The SEC white paper gives two hypotheses, the first being that investors are drawn by the opportunity for lottery-like payoff and the second is that investors are “duped about the stock return probabilities.” Although this sounds harsh, the white paper is not actually referring to market manipulation, but rather suggests that all OTC investors, including the most sophisticated, make poor estimates on return probabilities. No reason for this is offered.
Studies show that although investors frequently lose small investments in OTC stocks, they also occasionally receive an extremely large return. As such, the SEC white paper suggests that these investors are really just gamblers. I’m sure that oftentimes is correct.
Data Analysis and Investor Demographics
The Division of Economic and Risk Analysis studied a sampling of trades for specific securities and time periods which included information on the issuer, trade and investor. The purpose of the review was to determine a relationship between investor returns on the one hand and stock promotions, company transparency and investor demographics on the other hand. However, the information used for the analysis is admittedly biased in that such information was taken from the SEC enforcement files for the year 2014. Since one or more parties to the trades were the subject of enforcement proceedings, this information would not be indicative of the usual OTC company.
The SEC white paper comes to the conclusion that there is a positive correlation between losses and market manipulation and lack of transparency. As discussed above, this is not surprising and is actually quite logical. The white paper also found a positive correlation between losses and elderly, lower-income and poorly educated investors.
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