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On JOBS Act, Ask a Con Man

I’m not suggesting that convicted con men should perpetually give testimony in Congressional hearings. But on something like the JOBS Act, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Because they could tell you in a matter of minutes why you wouldn’t want to relax restrictions on capital formation to this degree.

Mark L. Morze knows a good investment opportunity when he sees one, but he hasn’t pursued his fortunes quite the way the rest of us have. Morze, 61, hung his hat for 4 1/2 years at federal prisons in Lompoc and Boron, California, after pleading guilty to two counts of fraud for cooking the books at the infamous carpet-cleaning company ZZZZ Best (ZBSTQ) in the 1980s.

He says he’s baffled that President Barack Obama plans to sign a law today that amounts to an open invitation for fraud. “I wish legislators would consult with people like me before they write something like this,” he says, sounding dead serious about the offer. “I could tell them, ‘I know what your intent was with this wording, but we can get around it so easily, it cracks me up.”’

The two features in particular that Morze says will lead to a run-up in fraud are the part that allows “emerging” companies to hide information about themselves in their initial public offering, and the part that allows for capital fundraising over the Internet. That part, known as “crowdfunding,” is designed to act like Kickstarter does for small projects, and it comes with some investor protections put in an amendment from Jeff Merkley and Michael Bennet. But scaling up to capital formation, and the ability to raise $1 million a year online, just invites scams that prey on unsophisticated individuals. This brings the boiler room into the digital age. Even those with income under $100,000 a year can invest up to $2,000 annually online, and those with higher net worths can invest as much as 10% of their annual income, up to $100,000 a year.

Even before JOBS came along, we were at little risk of running out of financial scams to worry about. At the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, Unit Chief for Financial Crimes Aaron Seres says investors continue to get fleeced by boiler-room operators who hype shares of microcap companies, and that’s without the viral fraud possibilities that Internet IPOs would add. His fear is that unsophisticated investors will be lured into online scams and learn too late, as Seres puts it, that “Lo and behold, there’s no business in the first place.”

It will take months for the SEC to get those new rules in place, but Morze figures that the sleaze set is already doing prep work to line up refuse to sell on the new crowdfunding sites, which are known as portals.

“My guess is they’re setting up dummy companies,” he says, speculating that crowdfunding will appeal to “small investors who are a little intimidated by bigger marketplaces.”

If there was an intent with this law to create jobs, it wouldn’t cancel out the increase in fraud that is sure to come, but maybe that would be something. But even the promoters of the legislation, at least the more honest ones, downplay the job-creation aspect. What’s more, it’s completely unclear that this will make it cheaper for companies to raise money, which is the whole bankshot that leads to more jobs. So you get all of the fraud and none of the benefits. It’s just a deregulation bill, pure and simple.

This is why the “bipartisanship” label that gets slapped onto everything is so corrosive. In this reading, “bipartisan” is seen as good and desirable. The label, in fact, overshadows the policy itself.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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