Crowdfunding or Crowdphishing?

NEW HAVEN – If one were seeking a perfect example of why it’s so hard to make financial markets work well, one would not have to look further than the difficulties and controversies surrounding crowdfunding in the United States. After deliberating for more than three years, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) last month issued a final rule that will allow true crowdfunding; and yet the new regulatory framework still falls far short of what’s needed to boost crowdfunding worldwide.

True crowdfunding, or equity crowdfunding, refers to the activities of online platforms that sell shares of startup companies directly to large numbers of small investors, bypassing traditional venture capital or investment banking. The concept is analogous to that of online auctions. But, unlike allowing individuals to offer their furniture to the whole world, crowdfunding is supposed to raise money fast, from those in the know, for businesses that bankers might not understand. It certainly sounds exciting.

Regulators outside the US have often been more accommodating, and some crowdfunding platforms are already operating. For example, Symbid in the Netherlands and Crowdcube in the United Kingdom were both founded in 2011. But crowdfunding is still not a major factor in world markets. And that will not change without adequate – and innovative – financial regulation.

There is a conceptual barrier to understanding the problems that officials might face in regulating crowdfunding, owing to the failure of prevailing economic models to account for the manipulative and devious aspects of human behavior. Economists typically describe people’s rational, honest side, but ignore their duplicity. As a result, they underestimate the downside risks of crowdsourcing.