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Information is the investor's best tool when it comes to investing wisely. But accurate information about "microcap stocks" -- low-priced stocks issued by the smallest of companies, often called "penny stocks" -- may be difficult to find. Many microcap companies do not file financial reports with the SEC, so it's hard for investors to get the facts about the company's management, products, services, and finances. When reliable information is scarce, wrongdoers can easily spread false information about microcap companies, making profits while creating losses for unsuspecting investors.
This Financial Guide gives you the basics about microcap or "penny" stocks, discusses how to find information on them, and points out what "red flags" to watch out for.
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The term "microcap stock" applies to companies with low or "micro" capitalizations -- meaning the total value of the company's stock. Microcap companies typically have limited assets. For example, in recent cases where the SEC suspended trading in microcap stocks, the average company had only $6 million in net tangible assets - and nearly half had less than $1.25 million. Microcap stocks tend to be low priced and trade in low volumes.
Many microcap stocks trade in the "over-the-counter" (OTC) market and are quoted on OTC systems, such as the OTC Bulletin Board (OTCBB) or the "Pink Sheets."
Microcap stocks differ from other stocks in a number of ways:
Lack of Public Information. The biggest difference between a microcap stock and other stocks is the amount of reliable, publicly available information about the company. Larger public companies file reports with the SEC that any investor can get for free from the SEC's website. Professional stock analysts regularly research and write about larger public companies, and it's easy to find larger companies' stock prices. In contrast, information about microcap companies can be extremely difficult to find, making them more vulnerable to investment fraud schemes.
No Minimum Listing Standards. Companies that trade their stocks on major exchanges and in the NASDAQ must meet minimum listing standards. For example, they must have certain minimums when it comes to net assets, and minimum numbers of shareholders. In contrast, companies on the OTCBB or the Pink Sheets do not have to meet any minimum standards.
Risk. While all investments involve risk, microcap stocks are among the most risky. Many microcap companies are new, with no track record. Some of these companies have no assets or operations. Others have products and services that are still in development or have yet to be tested in the market.
In general, the federal securities laws require all but the smallest of public companies to file reports with the SEC. A company can become "public" in one of two ways - by issuing securities in an offering or transaction that's registered with the SEC or by registering the company and its outstanding securities with the SEC. Both types of registration trigger ongoing reporting obligations, meaning the company must file periodic reports that disclose important information to investors about its business, financial condition, and management.
This information is a treasure trove for investors: it tells you whether a company is making money or losing money and why.
A company must file reports with the SEC if:
Currently, only about half of the 6,500 companies whose securities are quoted on the OTCBB file reports with the SEC.
With few exceptions, companies that file reports with the SEC must do so electronically using the SEC's EDGAR system. EDGAR stands for electronic data gathering and retrieval. The EDGAR database is available on the SEC's Web site at www.sec.gov. You'll find many corporate filings in the EDGAR database, including annual and quarterly reports and registration statements. Any investor can access and download this information for free from the SEC's Web site.
Smaller companies - those with less than $10 million in assets - generally do not have to file reports with the SEC. But some smaller companies, including microcap companies, may choose voluntarily to register their securities with the SEC. As described above, companies that register with the SEC must also file quarterly, annual, and other reports.
Any company that wants to offer or sell securities to the public must either register with the SEC or meet an exemption. Here are two of the most common exemptions that many microcap companies use:
Unless they otherwise file reports with the SEC, companies that are exempt from registration under Reg. A, Reg. D, or another offering exemption, do not have to file reports with the SEC.
Many of the microcap companies that don't file reports with the SEC are legitimate businesses with real products or services. But the lack of reliable, readily available information about some microcap companies can open the door to fraud. It's easier to manipulate a stock when there's little or no information available about the company.
Microcap fraud depends on spreading false information. Here's how some perpetrators carry out their scams:
Microcap fraud schemes can take a variety of forms. Here's a description of the two most common:
The Classic "Pump and Dump" Scheme. It's common to see messages posted on the Internet that urge readers to buy a stock quickly or to sell before the price goes down, or a telemarketer will call using the same sort of pitch. Often the promoters will claim to have "inside" information about an impending development or to use an "infallible" combination of economic and stock market data to pick stocks. In reality, they may be company insiders or paid promoters who stand to gain by selling their shares after the stock price is pumped up by the buying frenzy they create. Once these con artists sell their shares and stop hyping the stock, the price typically falls, and investors lose their money.
The Off-Shore Scam. Under a rule known as "Regulation S," companies do not have to register stock they sell outside the United States to foreign or "off-shore" investors. In the typical off-shore scam, an unscrupulous microcap company sells unregistered Reg. S stock at a deep discount to con artists posing as foreign investors. These con artists then sell the stock to U.S. investors at inflated prices, pocketing huge profits, which they share with the microcap company insiders. The flood of unregistered stock into the U.S. eventually causes the price to plummet, leaving unsuspecting U.S. investors with enormous losses.
If you're working with a broker or an investment adviser, you can ask your investment professional if the company files reports with the SEC and to get you written information about the company and its business, finances, and management. Be sure to carefully read the prospectus and the company's latest financial reports.
You can also get information on your own from these sources:
To invest wisely and avoid investment scams, research each investment opportunity thoroughly and ask questions. These simple steps can make the difference between profits and losses:
Also, watch out for these "red flags":