Rule 144 : How Officers, Directors and Large Shareholders Can Navigate Affiliate Sale Requirements

Introduction

The resolution of tension between two desires of a subset of powerful investors—to sell, and to govern well—is the impetus behind the affiliate sale provisions as drafted in the amended Rule 144.

Rule 144 is the main avenue open to affiliates to sell un-registered securities in the public market. An “affiliate” of an issuer is defined as a “person” who directly or indirectly controls the issuer, generally any executive officer, director or shareholder beneficially-owning 10% or more of the issued and outstanding shares.[1] Volume limitations, reporting obligations and manner of sale provisions, as well as a definition of “person” that responds to the concept of “indirect control,” are among the measures incorporated into Rule 144, in view of the SEC’s understanding that, absent limitations, those in control of a company could be liable for significant abuses in sales of un-registered securities.[2]

Affiliates should know who they are, and what their obligations under the rule are in order to plan efficient sales with reduced liability potential. Additional benefits may be gained at the point of negotiating director or officer compensation. Negotiators may better gauge the value of un-registered compensation shares if they understand the workings of the Rule 144 affiliate sale process.

[1] An affiliate of the issuer is a person that directly, or indirectly through one or more intermediaries, controls, or is controlled by, or is under common control with, such issuer. See 17 CFR 230.144(a)(1). Factors the SEC has indicated as relevant to the determination of “control” include an individual’s status as a director, officer, or 10% shareholder. See American Standard, October 11, 1972.
[1] 2007 Proposal, p. 20.

Affiliate Sale Rules

Part I: Who is an “Affiliate”?

The navigation of affiliate sale requirements begins with a substantive analysis: Is a given security-holder an “affiliate” for the purpose of Rule 144? The answer is complicated by the broad definition of “person,” which responds to the possibility of “indirect control” of an issuer.

As stated above, an affiliate is defined as a person who directly or indirectly controls the issuer. “Indirect control” is determined in courts through a facts and circumstances analysis—it is a “know-it-when-we-see-it” idea. A director’s wife, for example, may exert indirect control on a company through influence, though she holds no formal position and may not own many shares. When does an ordinary filial relationship become a control relationship with the issuer? The question becomes more involved when determining when percentage-ownership, perhaps by an otherwise ordinary public investor, translates to having “control” of a company. Courts consider 10% beneficial ownership indicative of a control relationship, but not dispositive.

Rule 144 gets in front of these questions by counting a range of people, entities and donees related to an individual security-holder as one “person.” Individuals or entities that constitute one affiliated “person” are individually subject to the affiliate sale rules, and their sales will be considered cumulatively as if they were one seller. An analysis of affiliate status can be done on a case-by-case basis where circumstances are vague or there are countervailing factors weighing against otherwise suspicious relationships. For this reason, determining whether one is an affiliate can be a rigorous point of investigation, and it must be done before sales can be planned.

Part II: Affiliate Sale Requirements

Rule 144 permits sales where an affiliate did not acquire shares with the intent to profit by distributing them, possibly at the expense of the issuer or the investing public. Volume limitations, manner of sale provisions and an obligation to report sales of a certain size, are factors the SEC believes demonstrate an affiliate assumed the economic risk of investment. Assumption of economic risk cleanses an affiliate’s intent in the eyes of the authorities.[3]

Volume limitations control the rate at which securities may be sold. Quarterly sales of shares in an exchange-listed issuer are limited to the greater of 1% of the issued and outstanding shares of the same class being sold, or the average weekly trading volume during the preceding four weeks. An affiliate in a non-exchange listed issuer (such as an OTC Bulletin Board or OTC Markets company) must use the 1% measurement. Volume limitations present a significant, though straightforward, control on affiliate sales, and affiliates should consider them when planning sales on a timeline.

Manner of sale provisions prescribe the appropriate relationship between an affiliate and a broker. They prevent sales from taking on the semblance of distributions, through commission structures or otherwise. Affiliates must sell equity securities in unsolicited broker’s transactions directly with a market maker, or in riskless principal transactions. A broker must do no more than execute an order to sell the securities as agent for the affiliate, and may receive no more than customary commission. Solicitation for buy orders is generally inappropriate. The SEC has cited the “gatekeeper” role of the broker to ensure compliance with Rule 144. By turn, affiliates should select brokers with care and construct healthy sale relationships with them in view of the manner of sale provisions.

Finally, the SEC requests to be made aware of significant public securities transfers by affiliates. Affiliates must file Form 144 with the SEC in advance of sales of more than 5,000 shares or $50,000 aggregate dollar value. The sale must take place within three months of filing the form.

Conclusion

Officers, directors or large shareholders of an issuer should have a firm grasp of the affiliate sale rules under Rule 144, so they may plan sales efficiently, effectively and properly. This begins with knowing whether one is an affiliate, and how to count shares using the definition of “person” described above. Once affiliate status is determined, the obligation runs to sell in compliance with volume limitations, manner of sale provisions and Form 144 reporting. At the time of sale, this insulates affiliates from liability, and allows them to cultivate reputations as responsible controlling investors. At the time of employment contract negotiation, knowledge of the affiliate sale process can help an officer or director better gauge the value of compensation shares. Most importantly, being in compliance with Rule 144 enables an affiliate perform its duties to the issuer and the investing public, while participating actively in the market.

[1] An affiliate of the issuer is a person that directly, or indirectly through one or more intermediaries, controls, or is controlled by, or is under common control with, such issuer. See 17 CFR 230.144(a)(1). Factors the SEC has indicated as relevant to the determination of “control” include an individual’s status as a director, officer, or 10% shareholder. See American Standard, October 11, 1972.
[2] 2007 Proposal, p. 20.
[3] Barring other proof of a scheme to evade securities laws.

 

The information in this blog post is for general, educational purposes only and should not be taken as specific legal advice.


Written by Jennifer R. Rodriguez, Esq.

JenniferRodriguez

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