On February 6, 2018, the United States Senate Committee on Banking Housing and Urban Affairs (“Banking Committee”) held a hearing on “Virtual Currencies: The Oversight Role of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission.” Both SEC Chairman Jay Clayton and CFTC Chairman J. Christopher Giancarlo testified and provided written testimony. The marketplace as a whole had a positive reaction to the testimony, with Bitcoin prices immediately jumping up by over $1600. This blog reviews the testimony and provides my usual commentary.
The SEC and CFTC Share Joint Regulatory Oversight
The Banking Committee hearing follows SEC and CFTC joint statements on January 19, 2018 and a joint op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal published on January 25, 2018 (see HERE). As with other areas in capital markets, such as swaps, the SEC and CFTC have joint regulatory oversight over cryptocurrencies. Where the SEC regulates securities and securities markets, the CFTC does the same for commodities and commodity markets.
Bitcoin has been determined to be a commodity and as such, the CFTC has regulatory oversight over futures, options, and derivatives contracts on virtual currencies and has oversight to pursue claims of fraud or manipulation involving a virtual currency traded in interstate commerce. Nevertheless, the CFTC does NOT have regulatory jurisdiction over markets or platforms conducting cash or “spot” transactions in virtual currencies or other commodities or over participants on such platforms. These spot virtual currency or cash markets often self-certify or are subject to state regulatory oversight. However, the CFTC does have enforcement jurisdiction to investigate fraud and manipulation in virtual currency derivatives markets and in underlying virtual currency spot markets.
The SEC does not have jurisdiction over currencies, including true virtual currencies. However, many, if not all, token offerings have been for the purpose of raising capital and have involved speculative investment contracts, thus implicating the jurisdiction of the SEC, in the offering and secondary trading markets.
Chair Clayton repeated that “every ICO I’ve seen is a security,” and added, “[T]hose who engage in semantic gymnastics or elaborate re-structuring exercises in an effort to avoid having a coin be a security are squarely in the crosshairs of our enforcement division.” Chair Clayton is very concerned that Main Street investors are getting caught up in the hype and investing money they cannot afford to lose, without proper (if any) disclosure, and without understanding the risks. He also reiterates previous messaging that to date no ICO has been registered with the SEC and that ICO’s are international in nature such that the SEC may not be able to recover lost funds or effectively pursue bad actors. Cybersecurity is also a big risk associated with ICO investments and the cryptocurrency market as a whole. Chair Clayton cites a study that more than 10% of total ICO proceeds, estimated at over $400 million, has been lost to hackers and cyberattacks.
It is becoming increasingly certain that the U.S. will impose a new regulatory regime over those tokens that are not a true cryptocurrency, which would likely include all tokens issued on the Ethereum blockchain for capital raising purposes. Clayton made the distinction between Bitcoin, which is decentralized, on a public Blockchain and mined or produced by the public and other “securities tokens” which are the cryptocurrencies that developed by an organization and created and issued primarily for capital formation and secondary trading.
Many tokens are being fashioned that outright and purposefully resemble equity in an enterprise as a new way to represent equity and capital ownership. Clearly this falls directly within the SEC jurisdiction, and state corporate regulatory oversight as well. Furthermore, there are instances where a token is issued in a capital-raising securities offering and later becomes a commodity, or instances where a token securities offering is bundled to include options or futures contracts, implicating both SEC and CFTC compliance requirements.
In the Banking Committee testimony, the SEC and CFTC presented a united front, confirming that they are cooperating and working together to ensure effective oversight. Both agencies have established virtual currency task forces and their respective enforcement divisions are cooperating and sharing information. Also, both agencies have launched efforts to educate the public on virtual currencies, with the CFTC publishing numerous articles and creating a dedicated “Bitcoin” webpage.
In addition to cooperating with each other, they are also cooperating and communicating with the NASAA, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, FinCen, the IRS, state regulators and others.
Consistent with all statements by the regulators, both the SEC and CFTC agree that that blockchain technology is disruptive and has the potential to, and likely will, change the capital markets. Moreover, both agencies consistently reiterate their support of these changes and desire to foster innovation. In fact, the new technology has the potential to help regulators better monitor transactions, holdings and obligations and other market activities.
Chair Giancarlo’s testimony states that “DLT is likely to have a broad and lasting impact on global financial markets in payments, banking, securities settlement, title recording, cyber security and trade reporting and analysis. When tied to virtual currencies, this technology aims to serve as a new store of value, facilitate secure payments, enable asset transfers, and power new applications.” In addition, smart contracts have the ability to value themselves in real time and report information to data repositories.
However, regulation and oversight need to be fashioned that properly address the new technology and business operations. Both agencies are engaging in discussions with industry participants at all levels. A few of the key issues that will need to be resolved include custody, liquidation, valuation, cybersecurity at all levels, governance, clearing and settlement, and anti-money laundering and know-your-customer matters.
Overall, Chair Giancarlo seemed more positive and excited about blockchain and Bitcoin, pointing out current uses including a recent transaction where 66 million tons of American soybeans were handled in a blockchain transaction to China. Chair Clayton, while likely also very enthusiastic about the technology, is currently more focused on the fraud and misuse that has consumed this space recently.
Current Regulations and Needed Change
While the agencies investigate and review needed changes to the regulatory environment, both maintain that current regulations can be relied upon to address the current state of the market. On the SEC side, Chair Clayton walked the Banking Committee through previous SEC statements and the DAO Section 21(a) report issued in July 2017. He again confirmed that the Howey Test remains the appropriate standard for determining whether a particular token involves an investment contract and the application of the federal securities laws. The current registration and exemption requirements are also appropriate for ICO offerings. An issuer can either register an offering, or rely on exemptions such as Regulation D for any capital-raising transaction, including those involving tokens.
Conversely, the current regulatory framework related to exchange traded fund products (ETF’s) needs some work before a virtual currency product could be approved. Issues remain surrounding liquidity, valuation, custody of holdings, creation, redemption and arbitrage. In that regard, in a coming blog, I will review an SEC letter dated January 18, 2018 entitled “Engaging on Fund Innovation and Cryptocurrency-related Holdings” outlining why a crypto-related ETF would not be approved at this time. Senator Mark Warner was quick to point out that there seems to be a regulatory disconnect where an SEC governed ETF is not approved, but a CFTC-governed Bitcoin future is allowed.
The current federal broker-dealer registration requirements remain the best test to determine if an exchange or other offering participant is required to be registered and a member of FINRA. Chair Clayton repeats his warning shot to gatekeepers such as attorneys and accountants that are involved in ICO’s and the crypto marketplace as a whole. Chair Clayton expresses concern that crypto markets often look similar to regulated securities markets and even are called “exchanges”; however, “investors transacting on these trading platforms do not receive many of the market protections that they would when transacting through broker-dealers on registered exchanges or alternative trading systems (ATSs), such as best execution, prohibitions on front running, short sale restrictions, and custody and capital requirements.”
CFTC Chair Giancarlo reiterated that current regulations related to futures, options, and derivatives contracts, and the registration (or lack thereof through self-certification) of spot currency exchanges are being utilized in the virtual currency market. However, the part of the regulatory system that completely defers to state law may need change. In particular, check cashing, payment processing and money transmission services are primarily state regulated. Many of the Internet-based cryptocurrency trading platforms have registered as payment services and are not subject to direct oversight by the SEC or the CFTC, and both agencies expressed concern about this jurisdictional gap.
Giancarlo was especially critical of this state-by-state approach and suggested new federal legislation, including legislation related to data reporting, capital requirements, cybersecurity standards, measures to prevent fraud, price manipulation, anti-money laundering, and “know your customer” protections. “To be clear, the CFTC does not regulate the dozens of virtual currency trading platforms here and abroad,” Giancarlo said, clarifying that the CFTC can’t require cyber-protections, platform safeguards and other things that consumers might expect from traditional marketplaces.
Chair Clayton expressed the same concerns, especially the lack of protections for Main Street investors. Chair Clayton stated, “I think our Main Street investors look at these virtual currency platforms and assume they are regulated in the same way that a stock is regulated and, as I said, it’s far from that and I think we should address that.”
I am always an advocate of federal oversight of capital markets matters that cross state lines. A state-by-state approach is always inconsistent, expensive, and inefficient for market participants.
Both agencies are clear that regardless of the technology and nomenclature, they are and will continue to actively pursue cases of fraud and misconduct. Current regulations or questions related to needed changes do not affect this role. However, Chair Clayton did impress upon the Banking Committee that the current hiring freeze and budgetary restraints are an impediment. The SEC specifically needs more attorneys in their enforcement and trading and markets divisions.
Further Reading on DLT/Blockchain and ICO’s
For an introduction on distributed ledger technology, including a summary of FINRA’s Report on Distributed Ledger Technology and Implication of Blockchain for the Securities Industry, see HERE.
For a discussion on the Section 21(a) Report on the DAO investigation, statements by the Divisions of Corporation Finance and Enforcement related to the investigative report and the SEC’s Investor Bulletin on ICO’s, see HERE.
For a summary of SEC Chief Accountant Wesley R. Bricker’s statements on ICO’s and accounting implications, see HERE.
For an update on state distributed ledger technology and blockchain regulations, see HERE.
For a summary of the SEC and NASAA statements on ICO’s and updates on enforcement proceedings as of January 2018, see HERE.
For a summary of the SEC and CFTC joint statements on cryptocurrencies, including The Wall Street Journalop-ed article and information on the International Organization of Securities Commissions statement and warning on ICO’s, see HERE.
For a review of the CFTC role and position on cryptocurrencies, see HERE.