When you open a brokerage account in the US, you fill out a form that requests information about your income, risk tolerances and investment knowledge. From what I can see, it gets only superficial scrutiny. But saying that you have some money and understand the risks of investing in various types of publicly traded securities does two things. It gets you a seat at the table and it protects your broker from customer lawsuits claiming they lost money because they didn’t understand what they were getting into. In a sense, passing this vetting process makes you accredited–but that’s not what the term “accredited” usually means.
Instead, it refers to the same kind of vetting process, but for private placements–purchases of securities not registered with the SEC and not sold through the traditional (expensive and time-consuming) IPO process carried out by the big brokerage houses.
For individuals, “accredited” means you have $1 million in assets, not including your principal residence, or you earn at least $200,000 a year. (There’s a different criterion for institutional investors who want to trade in non-registered–usually foreign–securities. To be accredited in that sense means having $100 million in investable funds under management.)
The bottom line: “accredited” means either you’re in the top 1% or pretty close.
not good enough for the 21st century
In the pre-internet, pre-JOBS Act, pre-Mary Jo White world, that was ok. Private placements were restricted to a very small number of individuals, whose main characteristic is that they can afford losses they might incur in buying risky securities. The wealth criterion also effectively preserved the near-monopoly on public issuance of securities of the big brokerage houses on Wall Street.
That’s all changing.
the new order
There are already special rules to allow crowdfunding sales of securities.
For the JOBS Act (which allows smaller, early stage companies to raise funds with only limited disclosure) to be truly effective as a capital raising vehicle for business startups, the pool of investors has got to be larger than just the usual “accredited” suspects.
Interestingly, at the same time as the newly active SEC is saying it sees some merit in things like bitcoin, the agency is also preparing to overhaul the definition of what an accredited investor is.
The new emphasis appears to be on accrediting people who have knowledge, training or experience that gives them insight into the risks and rewards of investing in a startup rather than just being able to take their lumps if an investment goes south.
I don’t know whether this is a good thing or not.
But Washington passed the JOBS Act last year to make it much easier for startups to raise money. And, contrary to Mary Shapiro’s foot dragging, Mary Jo White is certainly going to set rules of procedure to allow the Act to function. And that means opening this class of investments to more potential buyers.
I do think, however, that this will turn out to be another instance of a new internet-based business model undermining an older higher-cost pre-internet one. It will be interesting to see how–and if traditional brokerage/investment banking firms will adapt. I suspect that this change will have far greater ripple effects than anyone now expects–maybe even momentous ones.