Private placements are investments that have not been registered with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission. The lack of registration is either unlawful, or lawful due to an exemption from registration under the securities laws. Private placement investments are always high-risk investments that are complex, not transparent, and illiquid (cannot be readily sold) - despite the fact that they are often presented as having little or no risk, and are sometimes fraudulent.
Issuers of private placement investments often employ unregistered brokers and financial advisers to sell them to individual (or retail) investors. The sellers of private placements typically receive outsized commissions, and thus do very well indeed. On the other hand, many investors who could ill afford it have lost a substantial portion of their life savings by investing in private placements.
The SEC recently published an Investor Alert identifying 10 red flags that an unregistered offering (private placement) may be fraudulent. The red flags include such things as promises of high returns with little or no risk; involvement of unregistered sales people; high-pressure sales tactics; amateurish, sloppy or no documentation; absence of the "usual suspects" involved in "legitimate" private placements (lawyers, accountants, etc.); the old "mail drop as corporate address" trick; cold call solicitations; and phony backgrounds of managers or promoters.
While it is true, as the SEC indicates, that some private placements may be used by legitimate businesses to raise capital, it is also true that private placements may be fraudulent investment schemes. Even if a private placement is legitimate, it is always improper for an investment adviser or broker to recommend that an individual investor invest a substantial percentage of his or her liquid net worth in such investments due to the risk of losing everything you invest.
The laws requiring registration of securities offerings are designed to protect investors, though that protection may be illusory. Generally, unregistered securities can only be sold to so-called "accredited investors." For an individual to be considered an accredited investor, he or she must either have annual income of over $200,000 for the prior two years (or $300,000 jointly with a spouse), or have a total net worth of over $1 million above the value of the primary residence and any loans secured by it.
Now, it is still true that $1 million is a lot of money, but it is not nearly as much as it used to be back when these "accredited investor" rules were written. The "accredited investor" requirement is supposed to protect investors but, arguably, the income/net worth cut-off is too low. It is based on a false premise that anyone with $200,000 or $300,000 annual income or a net worth of $1 million is wealthy and, therefore, able to bear the loss of his or her entire investment, even if that investment is all or a substantial portion of that person's net worth.
The bottom line is that private placements (even if they are not outright frauds) are almost always unsuitably risky and illiquid for individual investors. They should not be recommended to most individual investors by brokers or investment advisers, and would not be recommended were it not for the high sales commissions. If such an investment is presented to you, the best response is to "just say no." If the opportunity was so great, venture capitalist investors would invest and the issuer would not need to be raising money from people like you and me. More appropriate, liquid, and less risky investment alternatives that do not pay the seller high fees or commissions are usually available.
If you are stuck in one of these investments, you may be able to get your money back by undoing the sale (a legal remedy called rescission). We would be glad to discuss your options with you, so feel free to give us a call.