Prior to 1985, the SEC did not consider the sale of a business structured as a stock sale to be a sale of securities under the securities laws. This was known as the Sale of Business Doctrine. As a result, the penalties and rules that apply to securities sales did not apply to the sale of a business, and business brokers and merger and acquisition brokers were able to receive commissions in connections with those sales without being registered as a broker dealer. This changed in 1985 when the Supreme Court of the United States took the position that the sale of a business structured as a stock sale was indeed the sale of securities. As a result, business brokers and merger and acquisition brokers were prohibited from earning commissions in connection with those sales unless they were registered as a broker dealer. This created substantial implications for business brokers and mergers and acquisition brokers, especially where a transaction started out structured as a sale of assets and then during the course of negotiations, the transaction was restructured to be a sale of stock. In that case, business brokers and merger and acquisition brokers that were not registered as broker dealers were theoretically prohibited from earning a commission, simply because the structure of the transaction had changed. This result was often thought of as unfair in the industry Business Brokers
The ABA task force on private placement broker dealers noted in its year 2000 final report that the broker dealer registration process involved significant costs as well as a regulatory model that is not the right size to accommodate the particular role played by business brokers in connection with the sale of a business. The requirement to register as a broker dealer is a lengthy process and there are substantial costs and fees, together with start up and first year expenses, including legal, accounting, and operating costs that can equal several hundred thousand dollars. Persons effecting one or several transactions a year simply cannot bear this financial burden. These firms do not hold customer funds or securities and generally they merely introduce the parties to one another and transmit documents between the parties. They do not participate in structuring or negotiating these transactions or otherwise advise the parties. Both buyers and sellers in this type of transaction are typically represented by legal counsel who can assist with due diligence, draft the transactional documents and advise their clients on structure, tax considerations and contractual provisions and there are remedies, both contractual and by operation of law, that are available to the parties in these types of transactions.
On January 31, 2014, the SEC changed its mind about these matters and issued a long awaited no action letter permitting certain merger and acquisition brokers to receive commissions in connection with the sale of a business even where the sale is structured as a stock sale.
Under the new interpretation, merger and acquisition brokers are permitted to facilitate acquisitions, mergers, business sales, and business combinations on behalf of buyers and sellers of privately-held companies and receive commissions in connection with the transaction. Moreover, the letter does not limit the amount or type of compensation that a merger and acquisition broker may receive, and it does not limit the size of the privately-held company. The letter also permits merger and acquisition brokers to advertise the sale of a privately-held company and include in such advertisements a description, general location and price range of the business.
For purposes of this letter ruling, a privately-held company is one that does not have any class of securities registered or required to be registered with the SEC under Section 12 of The Exchange Act or to which it is required to file periodic reports under Section 15(d) of The Exchange Act. Also the company must be a going concern and not a shell company.
As is so often the case in these matters, there is a catch. In this case, the catch is that the relief available under this no action letter is only available if the transaction satisfies ten (10) very specific conditions.