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Accredited Investors: Fixing the Dumb Money Problem

We’re now days away from the potential passage of significant financial reform, and a particular issue in the bill caught my eye.  This excerpt is from Businessweek:

Currently, a person must have a net worth of $1 million or an annual income of $200,000 if single or $300,000 if married (and filing jointly) to be an accredited investor. The senator’s proposed bill doesn’t say what inflation adjustment will be used to convert these numbers, established in 1982, to today’s dollars. But if we use the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator to adjust these figures on the basis of the consumer price index, then the annual income requirements for accredited investor status would become $449,000 if the investor were single and $674,000 if the investor were married, while the net worth requirement would become $2.25 million.

This is exceptionally bad news, if it passes, on multiple fronts.  To explain why, let’s review some of the basics.

What is an accredited investor?

Investing in public securities, like stocks and bonds, is heavily regulated.  There is a long standing legal concept, dating back to the 1930s, that individual investors need to be protected from nefarious money raising capitalists.  However, a special exception was carved out for the rich, under the auspice that sufficiently wealthy investors have enough education and resources to protect their own interests.  Thus, for private companies that wish to raise capital from private investors outside these large regulated facilities, there is a concept of an “accredited investor”.

Accredited investor qualifications have changed over the years.  Currently, there are two ways to qualify as an individual:

  • You are single and make $200K/year, or you are married and make $300K/year as a household
  • You have over $1M in liquid assets

When do you need to be an accredited investor?

You need to be an accredited investor to invest money in angel investments, hedge funds, certain private partnerships, and other high risk / unregulated investments.  For example, if Mark Zuckerberg came to you in 2005 and offered to let you put $25,000 into thefacebook.com, you’d need to be an accredited investor to do so.   (BTW If you can go back in time and do this, I highly recommend it).

Who is this going to hurt?

This is really going to hurt two groups – entrepreneurs and individual investors.

Entrepreneurs are going to be hurt by the severe limitation of who they can potentially raise money from at the angel stage.  As the Business week article points out:

Updating Reynolds’ estimate of the share of the adult population who are accredited investors to the 2008 adult population as reported in the Statistical Abstract of the United States, there were 5 million to 7.2 million American adults who were accredited investors in 2008…

Adjusting the income and net worth requirements for accredited investing to those proposed in the Dodd bill would reduce the number of accredited informal investors to 121,000 to 174,000 people.

So if this passes, we are talking about a massive decline in the number of potential angel investors in a new business.  Potentially a 98% decline, if the numbers above are accurate.  Outside of web 2.0 companies in Silicon Valley, raising angel funding is not trivial as it is.  Reducing the pool of investors here is massively disadvantageous to most entrepreneurs.

Individuals are also hurt here – that same 98%.  These are people who make a lot of money – $200K/year individually or $300K/year if married.  Imagine yourself as the founder of a cool web company, which sells to Google for $10M.  Your cut is about $1M after taxes.  Your friend is starting a new company, and you want to make a $50K investment.  You can’t because… the government says you aren’t rich enough?  Really? (I guess you are rich enough for a top tax bracket, just not rich enough to make investment decisions.)

Why do they think this is a good idea?

The amounts to qualify as an accredited investor haven’t been changed in a very long time.  Originally, these amounts were incredibly large, but they were never indexed for inflation.  I don’t think anyone ever envisioned millions of Americans qualifying.

Given the recent scandals around hedge funds and related ponzi schemes, these changes are an attempt to “protect” the public from people who would trick them into investing into shady schemes and poor investments.  The assumption is the same as the original one in 1933 – that in order to be sophisticated about investments, you need to be rich.

Alternatively, you could argue that we just don’t care that much if “rich” people lose their money, but that normal people, even those earning $300K/year, need to be protected from charlatans and rogues who would trick them into unregulated investments.

A better solution: make accredited status earned by knowledge, not income or assets.

We are learning the wrong lessons from the recent financial crisis and scandals.  If anything, recent events have demonstrated that dumb money is bad in large amounts, whether it is aggregated from a bunch of small investors, or funded by large rich investors.

We know from clear evidence that lottery winners, professional athletes, movie stars, and other wealthy people can still be incredibly financially ignorant.  Just because a retiree has accumulated $2M over a lifetime does not mean that they have significant financial education, or that they understand how to evaluate a hedge fund for legitimacy.  We also know that there is significant danger in this money being lost, stolen, or even worse, leveraged and invested in ways that can exacerbate bubbles.

My thesis is as follows:

  • Just because someone has a high income and/or significant wealth, does not mean that they have significant financial education, or will appoint/hire people who have significant financial education.
  • Depriving entrepreneurs and individuals from the opportunity to fund new businesses is completely unfair, and likely counter-productive to goals of encouraging new business formation and entrepreneurship.

My proposal would be as follows:

  • We introduce a new form of license / test that gives you “accredited investor” status for a fixed number of years (3-5 years).
  • We do increase the accredited investor limits – in fact, we eliminate them over time.

Look, we force people to repeatedly take a test to prove that it’s safe for them to drive.  It’s not a big stretch to insist that people who believe they are capable of making unregulated investments have the proper education.

The advantages of this program are clear:

  • Meritocracy.  This allows for anyone with the will to research and learn the ability to become an accredited investor.
  • Education.  This allows the government to ensure that all accredited investors, regardless of wealth, are aware of relevant financial and legal issues around investments.  This would help prevent charlatans from taking advantage of people.  For example, the test could ensure people are aware of their rights, of recent financial returns, of warnings signs, and of recourse for reporting fraud.
  • Self-funding. The government could charge a fee to take this test to help fund the license and potential even some enforcement resources.  It could also charge a licensing fee for institutions that want to offer classes around the license.
  • Centralized verification.  This would ensure that every accredited investor is easily verifiable.

As always, very interested in thoughts and feedback from those familiar with the issue.

Update: Good news.  It looks like some amendments have made it through on the Senate bill that restore much of the status quo.  That means the primary damage will be avoided.  Maybe now there is an opportunity over the next four years to take a different approach to qualifying accredited investors.

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