Raising capital in today’s uncertain economic environment requires public companies to look beyond the methods used in the past. Private investment in public equity (PIPE) transactions or fully underwritten offerings can be expensive and time consuming in the best of times.
Because shares placed in a PIPE transaction are not registered, a resale registration statement must be filed with the SEC and declared effective for the shares to be freely tradable in open market transactions. Investors in PIPE transactions typically request a heavy discount to the issuer’s current share price and possibly warrant coverage to compensate for the risks related to this illiquidity. Additionally, the terms of the PIPE transaction may include penalties or liquidated damages provisions in the event the issuer fails to obtain an effective registration statement within a prescribed timeframe.
An underwritten or secondary offering of shares can be time consuming and expensive, given the need to file a registration statement and accompanying prospectus with the SEC and the associated legal and underwriting fees. The shares cannot be priced or placed until the SEC declares the registration statement effective which, depending on the SEC review process and any related follow on comments that need to be addressed, can take time, a commodity that many smaller public companies cannot afford.
A registered direct offering provides an alternative to public companies seeking capital and provides a number of benefits to the above alternatives; however, an RDO is not without its downsides.
What is a Registered Direct Offering?
A registered direct offering (RDO) is similar to a PIPE transaction, in that both are marketed and sold to a limited number of accredited and institutional investors; however, unlike a PIPE, shares sold in an RDO are registered and therefore, liquid, and can be sold to anyone. To complete an RDO, an issuer must be eligible to use Form S-3 and should have an effective shelf registration statement on file with the SEC. If an issuer is Form S-3 eligible, but doesn’t have an effective shelf registration statement on file, the issuer must file either a single purpose registration statement (i.e. “bullet”) covering the shares to be issued in the RDO, or a shelf registration statement.
RDO transactions are governed by a placement agency agreement, rather than an underwriting agreement. With a placement agency agreement, the offering is sold on a ‘best efforts’ basis, so there is no firm commitment for the placement of a specific number of shares, and the placement agent never takes possession of any securities. The placement agency agreement will typically include issuer representations and warranties concerning itself and its business, certain covenants applicable to the issuer, a promise to indemnify the placement agent for any Securities Act liabilities arising from the transaction, as well as closing conditions, such as legal opinions, comfort letter requirements, delivery of certificates, etc.
To complete the RDO pursuant to an effective registration statement, the issuer will ultimately prepare and file a preliminary or final prospectus supplement that describes the offering, depending upon how the shares are marketed and sold.
What are the advantages of an RDO?
An RDO has multiple advantages over a PIPE or traditional secondary offering.
1. Pricing – The shares sold in an RDO are freely tradable and therefore, there is no liquidity discount that would normally apply in a PIPE transaction. Additionally, the warrant coverage, if any, is typically lower in an RDO than would otherwise be the case in a PIPE.
2. Timeliness – With an effective shelf registration statement on file, an issuer can offer registered shares when market conditions permit, rather than be subject to the regulatory timeline that is typical in secondary offerings and that can cause an issuer to miss a market window. Investors in a PIPE transaction negotiate and execute individual purchase agreements, which can delay the closing of the transaction, whereas investors in an RDO are not required to sign or complete any such documentation.
3. Confidentiality – Because an RDO is marketed similarly to a PIPE, an issuer and the placement agent can market the transaction confidentially, enabling the parties to assess the market for the issuer’s securities without creating downward selling pressure on the stock that would typically accompany a public announcement of a proposed share offering. An RDO transaction is typically publicized just prior to or at pricing.
4. Lower legal and administrative expenses – Investors in an RDO are not required to negotiate and sign individual purchase agreements as they would otherwise be required to do in a PIPE transaction. Additionally, the shares in an RDO are typically offered under a shelf registration statement and therefore, are marketed based upon the issuer’s existing public disclosures, which eliminates the complexities of crafting a preliminary prospectus supplement as a selling document. RDO transactions also avoid the ‘give and take’ with the SEC typically associated with registration statements filed in connection with secondary offerings.
5. Exchange Rules – Certain securities exchanges require that any offering of securities that is determined not to be a ‘public offering,’ such as a PIPE, and which is greater than 20% of an issuer’s outstanding capital stock, must be presented to shareholders for approval. The determination of whether an RDO qualifies as a public offering is typically on a case by case basis; however, an RDO can be structured to allow the issuer to sidestep the 20% rule and avoid the need for shareholder approval of the proposed transaction.
What are the disadvantages of an RDO?
RDO’s are not a financing cure-all and there are some disadvantages to RDO’s over other methods of financing.
1. Distribution – Because an RDO is marketed to a select number of investors, shares are not as widely distributed as would typically be the case in a secondary offering. As a consequence, the issuer’s shareholder base is not necessarily broadened as a result of an RDO transaction.
2. Exchange Rules – If an RDO cannot be structured to meet an exchange’s definition of a public offering, and the proposed transaction is greater than 20% of the issuer’s outstanding capital stock, shareholder approval may be required, which would erode the advantages of timeliness and cost effectiveness of an RDO transaction.
3. Form S-3 – An issuer must be Form S-3 eligible to complete an RDO. While Form S-3 eligibility requirements have been relaxed, not all issuers will qualify.
4. Best efforts basis – A ‘best efforts’ basis means no firm commitment to the issuer regarding the number of shares to be sold. If the market fails to materialize for the issuer’s securities, the placement agent has no obligation to purchase any shares.
How do I start the process?
If an issuer does not already have an effective shelf registration statement on file, the first step in the process is to determine, together with legal counsel, the issuer’s Form S-3 eligibility. The next step is to assess any exchange rules that might apply regarding the determination of whether a proposed RDO is a ‘public offering.’ If the issuer is eligible for an RDO transaction, identification of the appropriate placement agent is the next critical hurdle. For a successful RDO, the placement agent should have longstanding relationships with a number of institutional investors who prefer to invest in the issuer’s industry or niche.
The Bottom Line
RDO’s are quicker to close than either a PIPE transaction or a secondary offering, which allows the issuer to quickly take advantage of favorable capital market conditions. The securities offered in an RDO are priced similar to a secondary offering, but without the related hurdles, and an RDO transaction can be marketed confidentially, which will reduce selling pressure on the issuer’s stock prior to completion of the transaction. Additionally, RDO transactions are typically cheaper to complete, in terms of discount, fees and related warrant coverage.
With the loosening of Form S-3 eligibility requirements in 2008, RDOs are an effective alternative for smaller public companies to raise capital in today’s capital market environment.