SEC Issues Report on Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs)
On July 25, 2017, the SEC issued a report on an investigation related to an initial coin offering (ICO) by the DAO and statements by the Divisions of Corporation Finance and Enforcement related to the investigative report (the “Report”). On the same day, the SEC issued an Investor Bulletin related to ICO’s. Offers and sales of digital coins, cryptocurrencies or tokens using distributed ledger technology (DLT) or blockchain have become widely known as ICO’s. For an introduction on DLT and blockchain, see HERE.
The basis of the report is that offers and sales of digital assets, including cryptocurrencies, are subject to the federal (and state) securities laws. From the highest level, the nature of a digital asset must be examined to determine if it meets the definition of a security using established principles (see HERE). In addition, all offers and sales of securities must either be registered with the SEC or there must be an available exemption from such registration. This statement applies to cryptocurrency securities in the same manner it applies to all other securities. In addition, participants in ICO’s are subject to federal securities laws to the same extent they are in other securities offerings, including broker-dealer registration requirements. Securities exchanges providing for trading must register unless an exemption applies.
Despite the SEC findings, it declined to pursue an enforcement action but rather used the opportunity to inform the public on its views and, in particular, that “the federal securities laws apply to those who offer and sell securities in the United States, regardless whether the issuing entity is a traditional company or a decentralized autonomous organization, regardless whether those securities are purchased using U.S. dollars or virtual currencies, and regardless whether they are distributed in certificated form or through distributed ledger technology.”
In the press release announcing the investigative findings, SEC Chair Jay Clayton stated, “[T]he SEC is studying the effects of distributed ledger and other innovative technologies and encourages market participants to engage with us. We seek to foster innovative and beneficial ways to raise capital, while ensuring – first and foremost – that investors and our markets are protected.”
This is not the first time the SEC has addressed registration and exemption requirements associated with cryptocurrencies. There have been several other cases. For example, in December 2014 the SEC settled charges against BTC Virtual Stock Exchange and LTC Global Virtual Stock Exchange related to violations of both the broker-dealer registration requirements and the securities offer and sale registration requirements. For more information on that case, see HERE.
This blog will summarize the SEC Report of Investigation, statements by the Divisions of Corporation Finance and Enforcement and the Investor Bulletin on Initial Coin Offerings.
SEC Report of Investigation on an ICO
On July 25, 2017, the SEC issued its Report on an investigation into an ICO and related activities by the DAO, an unincorporated entity, Slock.it UG (“Slock.it”), a German corporation, and various principals and participants. As mentioned earlier, although the report provides a platform for which the SEC can educate the marketplace, it did not pursue enforcement actions against the targets of the investigation.
The “DAO” stands for a decentralized autonomous organization, or a virtual network embodied in computer code on a on a DLT or blockchain. The DAO was created by Slock.it to sell tokens to investors, which proceeds would be used to fund for-profit projects. The token holders would share in the profits and, as such, had an expectation of a return on investment. The DAO tokens were also transferable and available for secondary trading on different web-based platforms. After the ICO, but before projects were funded, the DAO was hacked and approximately one-third of its assets stolen. Fortunately the DAO was able to come up with a plan that caused the return of ETGH raised from the DAO back to their original Ethereum address and thus return investments to the original investors.
The SEC opened an investigation as to whether the offer and sale of the DAO Tokens invoked federal securities laws, whether the DAO Tokens were securities and whether the platforms for the secondary trading of the Tokens required registration as a securities exchange. The answer to each of these questions, under the facts and circumstances presented, was in the affirmative. Since the DAO had not yet commenced operations, the SEC did not review whether the DAO was acting as an “investment company” under the Investment Company Act of 1940, but noted that had they begun operations, such an analysis would have been appropriate.
The Report begins with the conclusion. Whether or not a particular transaction involves the offer and sale of a security depends on an analysis of the facts and circumstances, regardless of terminology or technology used or employed. All persons or entities that use a Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO Entity), DLT or other blockchain-based technology as a means to raise capital in the U.S. are subject to the U.S. federal securities laws. All securities offered and sold in the U.S. must be registered or must qualify for an exemption from registration. Moreover, any entities or platforms that allow for the secondary trading of securities must either be registered as a national securities exchange or operate pursuant to a registration exemption. The automation of functions, computer code, smart contracts, and decentralization does not change the obligations under the federal securities laws.
Background and Facts
In a one-month period from April 30, 2016, through May 28, 2016, the DAO offered and sold 1.15 billion DAO Tokens in exchange for 12 million Ether (“ETH”) valued at approximately $150 million USD. ETH is a virtual currency. The Financial Action Task Force defines a “virtual currency” as:
a digital representation of value that can be digitally traded and functions as: (1) a medium of exchange; and/or (2) a unit of account; and/or (3) a store of value, but does not have legal tender status (i.e., when tendered to a creditor, is a valid and legal offer of payment) in any jurisdiction. It is not issued or guaranteed by any jurisdiction, and fulfils the above functions only by agreement within the community of users of the virtual currency. Virtual currency is distinguished from fiat currency (a.k.a. “real currency,” “real money,” or “national currency”), which is the coin and paper money of a country that is designated as its legal tender; circulates; and is customarily used and accepted as a medium of exchange in the issuing country. It is distinct from e-money, which is a digital representation of fiat currency used to electronically transfer value denominated in fiat currency.
The DAO itself was created by the founders of Slock.it as a type of alternative corporation with all corporate functions and governance automated using blockchain and smart contracts. The DAO was the “first generation” of its kind. Participants sent in ETH in exchange for DAO Tokens. DAO Token holders could vote on projects to be used with the DAO assets (ETH, which could be exchanged for fiat currency and other physical or digital assets) and participate in rewards such as profit distributions and dividends. The entire DAO was intended to be autonomous such that project proposals were in the form of smart contracts and voting administered by computer code. The DAO code was launched on the Ethereum blockchain.
The DAO promoted itself through a website which described its purpose (“[T]o blaze a new path in business for the betterment of its members, existing simultaneously nowhere and everywhere and operating solely with the steadfast iron will of unstoppable code”), how it operated, its source code, and a link to buy the DAO Tokens. The DAO was also promoted through media attention and numerous social media channels.
Anyone was eligible to purchase DAO Tokens as long as they paid in ETH and there were no limitations on the number of DAO Tokens offered for sale or the number that could be purchased by any purchaser. There were no parameters set on the accreditation or sophistication level of a purchaser. Anyone with ETH and an ETH blockchain address could participate. All ETH from DAO Token sales were aggregated in the DAO’s Ethereum blockchain address.
Only DAO Token holders could submit proposed projects in which the DAO might participate, and each proposal would have to involve a smart contract and comply with the preset DAO Token holders voting code. Projects would be approved by a majority vote of DAO Token holders. Before being submitted for a vote, projects were to be reviewed by human curators. Although beyond the scope of this blog, there appeared to be many issues with the system, including the programming for voting.
The DAO Tokens were unrestricted and there were several platforms that allowed for the immediate secondary trading of the DAO Tokens. The secondary market trading platforms were registered with the Federal Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) as Money Services Businesses. For more on FinCEN, see HERE. The DAO Tokens were in fact actively traded on various platforms.
SEC Regulatory Analysis
Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933, as amended (“Securities Act”) requires the registration of all offers and sales of securities unless there is an available exemption. The registration provisions are based on “full and fair disclosure” of all material information for an investor to make an informed investment decision, including detailed information about the issuer’s financial condition, identity and background of management and the price and amount of securities to be offered.
Section 5 of the Securities Act, like many provisions in the securities laws, is written in the inclusive, such that all offers and sales are covered unless an exemption is available pursuant to statute or case law. Section 5 states that “unless a registration statement is in effect as to a security, it is unlawful for any person, directly or indirectly, to engage in the offer or sale of securities in interstate commerce.” A violation of Section 5 does not require intent.
The SEC begins its analysis of the DAO Tokens by reference to the definitions of a security found in both Section 2(a)(1) of the Securities Act and Section 3(a)(10) of the Securities Exchange Act. Both definitions include the term “investment contract,” which has been famously defined by the U.S. Supreme Court as an investment of money in a common enterprise with a reasonable expectation of profits to be derived from the entrepreneurial or managerial efforts of others. For an in-depth discussion on the definition of a security in SEC v. W. J. Howey Co., 328 U.S. 293 (1946) (the “Howey Test”), see HERE.
Under the Howey Test, whether an investment instrument is a security requires a substance-over-form analysis. The Howey Test defines an investment contract as follows:
“… an investment contract for purposes of the Securities Act means a contract, transaction or scheme whereby a person invests his money in a common enterprise and is led to expect profits solely from the efforts of the promoter or a third party…. Such a definition… permits the fulfillment of the statutory purpose of compelling full and fair disclosure relative to the issuance of the many types of instruments that in our commercial world fall within the ordinary concept of a security…. It embodies a flexible rather than a static principle, one that is capable of adaptation to meet the countless and variable schemes devised by those who seek the use of the money of others on the promise of profits.”
Applying the Howey Test, courts have interpreted a security to include such diverse items as citrus groves, warehouse receipts, chinchillas, minks, diamonds, bullion, pay phones, real estate and equipment, and condominium units, when they were offered or sold under circumstances involving the investment of money and an expectation of a return through the efforts of others.
Applying the Howey Test to the DAO Tokens, the SEC notes that “money” need not include cash, but rather can be anything of value. A contribution of ETH is an investment as considered by the Howey Test. Investors in the DAO were investing in a common enterprise with the expectation of profits, including dividends and increased value. The SEC also found that the profits were to be derived from the efforts of others, including Slock.it, its founders and the DAO curators.
In its analysis of whether the DAO was a security, the SEC spent the most discussion on the “from the efforts of others” factor. Presumably this is because the DAO was established as an autonomous organization with participants voting on all projects. However, the Slock.it team, through its curators, and management of the DAO website and participation in online forums, “led investors to believe that they could be relied on to provide the significant managerial efforts required to make the DAO a success.” Moreover, in fact, the curators and Slock.it team did exercise significant control over proposals and operations of the DAO and were responsible for stopping the hacking attack and coming up with a plan to rectify the situation.
The SEC also noted that the DAO Token holders voting rights were limited. The DAO Token holders could only vote within the rules (code) established by the Slock.it management team. The SEC points to case law related to multi-level marketing schemes which were securities despite the labor put forth by the investors because the promoter dictated the terms and controlled the scheme itself. The SEC stated that “[T]he voting rights afforded DAO Token holders did not provide them with meaningful control over the enterprise, because (1) DAO Token holders’ ability to vote for contracts was a largely perfunctory one; and (2) DAO Token holders were widely dispersed and limited in their ability to communicate with one another.” Furthermore, the SEC questioned the level of disclosure on projects, believing that such disclosure was not “full and fair” such as to allow an informed investment decision.
Upon concluding that the DAO Tokens were securities, the SEC also concluded that the DAO needed to register their issuance, or satisfy a registration exemption, regardless of whether the DAO was incorporated or an unincorporated organization. Issuers, like securities, are broadly defined to include any sponsor or organization that is primarily responsible for the success or failure of the venture. Participants in an offering are also subject to Section 5 obligations and liability. Accordingly, this included the Slock.it founders and principals.
The secondary trading platforms also required registration, or the availability of an exemption, under the federal securities laws. Section 5 of the Exchange Act makes it unlawful for any broker, dealer or exchange to directly or indirectly affect any transaction in a security or report such transaction unless the exchange is registered as a national exchange or exempted from such registration. Section 3(a)(1) of the Exchange Act defines an “exchange” as “any organization, association, or group of persons, whether incorporated or unincorporated, which constitutes, maintains, or provides a market place or facilities for bringing together purchasers and sellers of securities or for otherwise performing with respect to securities the functions commonly performed by a stock exchange as that term is generally understood …”
The functions of a stock exchange generally include: (i) bringing together orders for securities of multiple buyers and sellers; and (ii) using established, non-discretionary methods under which such orders interact with each other, and the buyers and sellers entering such orders agree to the terms of the trade. A frequent exemption to the definition of an exchange is an Alternative Trading System (ATS) that complies with Regulation ATS. Regulation ATS requires, among others, registration as a broker-dealer. The OTC Markets is an ATS, as is t0 Technologies. The platforms that traded the DAO Tokens fit within the definition of an exchange and did not satisfy any available registration exemptions.
Statement by the Divisions of Corporation Finance and Enforcement on the Report of Investigation on the DAO
On the same day that the SEC issued its investigative Report, the Divisions of Corporation Finance and Enforcement issued a statement on the Report. Off the top I notice that the SEC, under Chair Jay Clayton, Commissioner Michael Piwowar and the numerous new executive members, has a decidedly more positive attitude towards business and capital raising overall, than the prior regime. I also notice, through review of enforcement proceedings, that the new regime has not been deterred at all from its mission to detect and prosecute fraud, including micro-cap and penny-stock-related schemes.
To begin its statement, the Divisions noted that DLT, blockchain and other emerging technologies have the potential to influence and improve capital markets and the financial services industry. The Divisions “welcome and encourage the appropriate use of technology to facilitate capital formation and provide investors with new investment opportunities,” and are “hopeful that innovation in this area will facilitate fair and efficient capital raisings for small businesses.” However, new technologies also offer new opportunities for misconduct and abuse.
The Divisions reiterate the SEC Report’s assertion that an offer and sale of securities must comply with the federal securities laws and that determining whether a particular investment opportunity involves a security involves a facts and circumstances analysis, including economic realities and underlying structure, regardless of the terminology or technology used.
Noting that the SEC Report had found that the DAO Tokens were securities, the Divisions caution sponsors and other participants in offerings of digital or other novel forms of value to consider whether they involve a security and thus their obligations under the federal securities laws, including registration or meeting the qualifications for a registration exemption. Market participants that operate a web or other platform that facilitates transactions in securities must also consider whether they need to be registered as a broker-dealer or an exchange, or if there is an available exemption.
Although the Divisions statement does not mention it, keeping in line with the fundamental view that basic securities laws apply, a web platform that meets the criteria set out in Section 4(b) of the Securities Act, as created by the JOBS Act, should qualify for a broker-dealer exemption when hosting digital coin or token offerings. See HERE for details on this exemption.
Furthermore, the Divisions caution that sponsors and other market participants should consider whether their business model results in an entity that needs to be registered as an investment company and whether anyone providing advice about an investment in the security could be an investment advisor.
The Divisions also caution against bad actors and fraud, again using the same principles and tenets that have always applied to economies. Investors should watch for red flags, including deals that sound too good to be true, promises of high returns with little or no risk, high-pressure sales tactics, and working with unregistered or unlicensed persons.
A fundamental message that I always try to deliver is that anyone engaging in any activity that could invoke the securities laws, should consult with competent securities counsel. The Divisions statement relays the same message, and in particular, that “market participants who are employing new technologies to form investment vehicles or distribute investment opportunities to consult with securities counsel to aid in their analysis of these issues.” The SEC staff also encourages direct communication with the SEC and has set up an email address for communications related to these matters.
Investor Bulletin on Initial Coin Offerings
In addition to its Report and statement of the Divisions of Corporation Finance and Enforcement, on July 25, 2017, the SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy issued an Investor Bulletin on Initial Coin Offerings (ICO’s). The Investor Bulletin is written in a simple format and helps to inform the public on the basics of ICO’s.
As noted throughout this blog, virtual coins or tokens are created using DLT or blockchain and can be sold in exchange for other virtual coins (such as Bitcoin or Ethereum) or for fiat currency such as U.S. dollars. Generally tokens sold entitle the purchaser to some return on investment or participation in a project and also may be resold or traded on secondary markets, such as virtual currency exchanges. The Investor Bulletin informs the public that these virtual coin or token offerings can invoke the federal securities laws.
The Investor Bulletin provides some basic information on blockchain and virtual currencies. In particular, taken from the Investor Bulletin:
What is a blockchain?
A blockchain is an electronic distributed ledger or list of entries – much like a stock ledger – that is maintained by various participants in a network of computers. Blockchains use cryptography to process and verify transactions on the ledger, providing comfort to users and potential users of the blockchain that entries are secure. Some examples of blockchain are the Bitcoin and Ethereum blockchains, which are used to create and track transactions in Bitcoin and Ether, respectively.
What is a virtual currency or virtual token or coin?
A virtual currency is a digital representation of value that can be digitally traded and functions as a medium of exchange, unit of account, or store of value. Virtual tokens or coins may represent other rights, as well. Accordingly, in certain cases, the tokens or coins will be securities and may not be lawfully sold without registration with the SEC or pursuant to an exemption from registration.
What is a virtual currency exchange?
A virtual currency exchange is a person or entity that exchanges virtual currency for fiat currency, funds, or other forms of virtual currency. Virtual currency exchanges typically charge fees for these services. Secondary market trading of virtual tokens or coins may also occur on an exchange. These exchanges may not be registered securities exchanges or alternative trading systems regulated under the federal securities laws. Accordingly, in purchasing and selling virtual coins and tokens, you may not have the same protections that would apply in the case of stocks listed on an exchange.
Who issues virtual tokens or coins?
Virtual tokens or coins may be issued by a virtual organization or other capital-raising entity. A virtual organization is an organization embodied in computer code and executed on a distributed ledger or blockchain. The code, often called a “smart contract,” serves to automate certain functions of the organization, which may include the issuance of certain virtual coins or tokens. The DAO, which was a decentralized autonomous organization, is an example of a virtual organization.
The Investor Bulletin continues with warnings to potential investors, including to be aware that the federal securities laws require either registration or an exemption from registration for an offer and sale of securities. The Investor Bulletin points potential investors to the EDGAR database to find registration statements, and reminds investors that exemptions usually are limited to accredited investors.
Further, the Investor Bulletin discusses disclosure obligations and sets forth key information that an investor should be informed of, such as use of proceeds, management and business plans.
The Investor Bulletin points out that even if there has been a fraud or theft, their rights may be limited do to the nature of ICO’s in general, including that they can be autonomous, the inability to trace money, the international scope of offerings, that there is no central controlling authority and that there is no method to freeze or secure virtual currency. Finally, the Investor Bulletin points to the usual red flags, including “guaranteed” high returns or low risk, unsolicited offers, sounds too good to be true, buying pressure, no net worth or other investor requirements and unlicensed sellers.
SEC Chief Accountant Speaks On Initial Coin Offerings (ICO’s)
On September 11, 2017, the SEC Chief Accountant, Wesley R. Bricker, gave a speech before the AICPA National Conference on Banks & Savings Institutions. The bulk of the speech was similar to Mr. Bricker’s June 2017 speech before the 36th Annual SEC and Financial Reporting Institute Conference, summarized HERE. However, one topic that was new, and interesting enough to spark this blog, was related to initial coin offerings (ICO’s). Note that offers and sales of digital coins, cryptocurrencies or tokens using distributed ledger technology (DLT) or blockchain have become widely known as ICO’s.
As the capital markets become more and more focused on all things blockchain, including ICO’s, secondary token trading, and disruptive changes made possible by distributed ledger technology (DLT), which is inevitably transforming capital market processes, the SEC is fronting a wave of questions and concerns on the subject. On July 25, 2017, the SEC issued a report on an investigation related to an ICO by the DAO and statements by the Divisions of Corporation Finance and Enforcement related to the investigative report. On the same day, the SEC issued an Investor Bulletin related to ICO’s. (See summary of the report, statement and investor bulletin HERE).
Almost all divisions and committees of the SEC are and will be impacted by DLT and ICO’s and are working diligently to address the technology and the public markets’ wave of interest. In August 2017 the SEC suspended the trading in a slew of bitcoin-based companies questioning the accuracy of publicly reported information and press releases. On September 20, 2017, the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee announced the agenda for its next meeting to be held on October 12, the first item on which is blockchain and other distributed ledger technology and its implications for securities markets.
FINRA is likewise as attentive to DLT and its far-reaching implications. On July 13, 2017, FINRA held a Blockchain Symposium including participation by the Office of the Comptroller of Currency, the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), the Federal Reserve Board and the SEC. Earlier in the year, FINRA published a report on the technology and its potential impacts on broker-dealers and the markets in general. See HERE for a summary.
Although outside of my practice area, the Internal Revenue Service is stepping up efforts to make sure taxes are reported and paid for trading profits and other taxable income related to cryptocurrencies. In that regard, the IRS has contracted with a company that provides software that analyzes and tracks bitcoin transactions.
Mr. Bricker’s Remarks on ICO’s
Mr. Bricker begins by talking about the SEC report on the DAO investigation, stating that “[T]he report makes clear that the federal securities laws apply to those who offer and sell securities in the U.S., regardless of whether the issuing entity is a traditional company or a decentralized autonomous organization, whether those securities are purchased using U.S. dollars or virtual currencies, or whether they are distributed in certificated form or through distributed ledger technology.”
All offers and sales of securities in the U.S. must either be registered with the SEC or must qualify for an exemption. The SEC’s registration requirements include the filing of audited financial statements. In addition, I note that many exemptions likewise require the disclosure of either audited or unaudited financial statements. Furthermore, the basic antifraud principles encompassed in Rule 10b-5 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933, require full and fair disclosure, which includes financial information about the issuer.
Mr. Bricker confirms the basics that U.S. accounting principles apply to ICO’s as they do with any other offerings. Issuing companies should review guidance related to the presentation and disclosure of financial statements, consolidation, translation, assets, liabilities, revenue, expenses and ownership.
Mr. Bricker lists questions that both issuers and holders should consider:
What are the necessary financial statement filing requirements?
Are there liabilities requiring recognition or disclosure?
Are there previously recognized assets that require de-recognition?
Are there revenues or expenses requiring recognition or deferral?
Is there a transaction with owners, resulting in debt or equity classification and possibly compensation expense?
Are there implications for the provision for income taxes?
Does specialized accounting guidance (such as for investment companies) apply to the holder’s financial statement presentation?
What are the characteristics of the coin or token in considering whether, how, and at what value the transaction should affect the holder’s financial statements?
What is the nature of the holder’s involvement in considering whether the issuer’s activities should be consolidated or accounted for under the equity method?
A new wave of ICO’s
Since the SEC issued its report on the DAO, my office has been actively involved with clients and potential clients interested in structuring ICO’s which comply with the federal (and state) securities laws. Although I have yet to see a registered ICO, several are now utilizing 506(b) or 506(c) to complete their offerings. For instance, the recent $285 million Filecoin ICO was completed in reliance on Rule 506(c) and included such institutional investors as Sequoia Capital, Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures. Other similar offerings have been and continue to be launched on platforms such as CoinList (which is partnered with AngelList) and now more traditional securities offering platforms such as Start Engine. I am certain the number of securities ICO’s relying on traditional securities offering registration or exemption rules and regulations will continue to increase dramatically.
SEC and NASAA Statements on ICOs and More Enforcement Proceedings
The message from the SEC is very clear: participants in initial coin offerings (ICO’s) and cryptocurrencies in general need to comply with the federal securities laws or they will be the subject of enforcement proceedings. This message spreads beyond companies and entities issuing cryptocurrencies, also including securities lawyers, accountants, consultants and secondary trading platforms. Moreover, the SEC is not the only watchdog. State securities regulators and the plaintiffs’ bar are both taking aim at the crypto marketplace. Several class actions have been filed recently against companies that have completed ICO’s.
After a period of silence, on July 25, 2017, the SEC issued a Section 21(a) Report on an investigation and related activities by the DAO, with concurrent statements by both the Divisions of Corporation Finance and Enforcement. On the same day, the SEC issued an Investor Bulletin related to ICO’s. For more on the Section 21(a) Report, statements and investor bulletin, see HERE. Since that time, the SEC has engaged in a steady flow of enforcement proceedings and statements on the subject.
The DAO report centered on a traditional analysis to determine whether a token is a security and thus whether an ICO is a securities offering. In particular, the nature of a digital asset (“coin” or “token”) must be examined to determine if it meets the definition of a security using established principles, including the Howey Test. See HERE for a discussion on the Howey Test. The report also pointed out that participants in ICO’s are subject to federal securities laws to the same extent they are in other securities offerings, including broker-dealer registration requirements, and that securities exchanges providing for trading must register unless an exemption applies.
On November 1, 2017, the SEC issued a warning to the public about the improper marketing of certain ICO’s, token offerings and investments, including promotions and endorsements by celebrities. Celebrities, like any other promoter, are subject to the provisions of Section 17(b) of the Securities Act, including the requirement to disclose the nature, scope, and amount of compensation received in exchange for the promotion. For more on Section 17(b) and securities promotion in general, see HERE.
On December 11, 2017, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton issued a statement on cryptocurrencies and initial coin offerings. In that statement, Clayton drilled down on the sudden rise of “non-security” ICO’s, now being referred to as “utility tokens,” clearly conveying the message that if a token has attributes of a security, it will be governed as a security. To make the message even clearer, also on December 11, 2017, the SEC halted the ICO by Munchee, Inc., disagreeing with Munchee’s statements and conclusions that its token was a “utility token” and not a security.
This was not the first ICO halt. On December 4, 2017, the SEC halted the ICO by PlexCorps, including outright fraud with the claims of an unregistered offering. The SEC has also taken aim at companies that are in the crypto space in general, having halting the trading of The Crypto Company on December 19, 2017 after a 2,700% stock price increase. This was not the first trading halt, either. Others include American Security Resources Corp, halted on August 24, 2017; First Bitcoin Capital, halted on August 23, 2017; CIAO Group, halted on August 9, 2017; and Sunshine Capital on June 7, 2017.
More recently, on January 5, 2018, the SEC halted the trading of UBI Blockchain Internet, Ltd. citing questions regarding the accuracy of information in SEC filings and concerns about market activity, which was the epitome of an unexplained stock surge.
On August 28, 2017, the SEC issued an investor alert warning about public companies making ICO-related claims. The alert specifically mentioned the trading suspensions and warned that ICO claims could be a sign of a pump-and-dump scheme.
On January 4, 2018, Chair Clayton issued another statement, this time joined by Commissioners Kara Stein and Michael Piwowar, commenting on the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) statement made the same day. The NASAA is a group comprised of state securities regulators, which, among other functions, acts as a communication arm for the individual state regulators on important marketplace topics.
Jay Clayton’s December 11, 2017 Statement
Jay Clayton begins his December 11, 2017 statement with an acknowledgement of the “tales of fortunes made and dreamed to be made,” which is a perfect description of ICO mania. Keeping with the SEC theme under Clayton, he then addresses ICO considerations for Main Street investors. In addition to warning of fraud and misrepresentations, ICO’s and cryptocurrency trading is a national marketplace; invested funds may quickly move overseas. Furthermore, the SEC may not be able to gain jurisdiction or pursue bad actors or lost funds in other countries.
The fact is that as of today, no cryptocurrency offerings have been registered with the SEC. Although Jay Clayton doesn’t talk about what registration will really mean for an ICO, I note that, since registration is the process of ferreting out disclosures, it will force an entity issuing an ICO to be clear about the usefulness of its token, if any, and the risk factors not only associated with its token, but the marketplace as a whole. My firm is currently working on registration statements as well as private offering documents for ICO’s and blockchain technology entities and the complexity of this new industry and technology, and uncertainty associated with legalities (including not only securities matters, but the implication of swap and commodity transactions, tax ramifications, intellectual property matters, etc.) is confounding to even the best and brightest.
The importance of the involvement and efforts by market professionals is not lost on the SEC. In the beginning, many ICO’s, believing that this new investment vehicle was somehow not a security and therefore outside the parameters of the securities laws and SEC jurisdiction, forewent the advice of legal counsel and other professionals. Now that this belief has been rectified, in his statement, Jay Clayton reminds market professionals of their gatekeeping duties. Chair Clayton states, “[I] urge market professionals, including securities lawyers, accountants and consultants, to read closely the investigative report we released earlier this year (the “21(a) Report”) and review our subsequent enforcement actions.”
He continues: “[F]ollowing the issuance of the 21(a) Report, certain market professionals have attempted to highlight utility characteristics of their proposed initial coin offerings in an effort to claim that their proposed tokens or coins are not securities. Many of these assertions appear to elevate form over substance. Merely calling a token a ‘utility’ token or structuring it to provide some utility does not prevent the token from being a security….. On this and other points where the application of expertise and judgment is expected, I believe that gatekeepers and others, including securities lawyers, accountants and consultants, need to focus on their responsibilities. I urge you to be guided by the principal motivation for our registration, offering process and disclosure requirements: investor protection and, in particular, the protection of our Main Street investors.” The bold emphasis was from the SEC, not added by me. The message could not be clearer.
Attorneys and other professionals are not the only groups that the SEC is taxing with gatekeeper responsibilities. Jay Clayton adds: “[I] also caution market participants against promoting or touting the offer and sale of coins without first determining whether the securities laws apply to those actions. Selling securities generally requires a license, and experience shows that excessive touting in thinly traded and volatile markets can be an indicator of ‘scalping,’ ‘pump and dump’ and other manipulations and frauds. Similarly, I also caution those who operate systems and platforms that effect or facilitate transactions in these products that they may be operating unregistered exchanges or broker-dealers that are in violation of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.” Again, the bold emphasis is not mine. Although Jay Clayton does not indicate so, I am unaware of any properly licensed secondary market or exchange for the trading of cryptocurrencies at this time. TZero is properly licensed, but not up and functioning as of the date of this blog.
Jay Clayton’s statement is not all negative. He recognizes that ICO’s can be an effective method to raise capital and fund projects. He also recognizes that not all cryptocurrencies are securities. A specific example would be an in-app game with token purchases that can only be used to reach another level. However, Clayton points out that “[B]y and large, the structures of initial coin offerings that I have seen promoted involve the offer and sale of securities and directly implicate the securities registration requirements and other investor protection provisions of our federal securities laws.”
The Division of Enforcement has been instructed to vigorously police the ICO marketplace. Finally, the SEC encourages investors to conduct thorough due diligence before making an ICO investment. In that regard, he provides a list of basic questions that should be asked and considered before making any investment.
January 4, 2018 Statements by Chair Clayton and Commissioners Kara Stein and Michael Piwowar
On January 4, 2018, Chair Clayton, Commissioners Kara Stein and Michael Piwowar issued a statement commending the North American Securities Administrators Association’s (NASAA) own statement made the same day addressing concerns with ICO’s and cryptocurrencies. The NASAA is a group comprised of state securities regulators.
The SEC’s top brass specifically point out that cryptocurrencies are not, in fact, currencies in that they are not backed or regulated by sovereign governments and seem to be focused on a method of capital raising as opposed to mediums of exchange. Reiterating its other messaging, the SEC reminds the public that offerings and their participants must comply with the state and federal securities.
NASAA Statement on Cryptocurrencies and ICO’s
NASAA begins its statement with a consistent theme to the SEC, warning Main Street investors to be cautious about investments involving cryptocurrencies. NASAA, also like the SEC, encourages potential investors to conduct due diligence and ask questions before making an ICO (or any) investment.
NASAA includes a laundry list of risks and issues with ICO’s and crypto-related investments. NASAA points out that unlike FIAT or traditional currencies, cryptocurrencies have no physical form and typically are not backed by tangible assets (though I note that this is a void that is quickly being addressed by new tokens backed by physical assets and commodities).
Furthermore, cryptocurrencies are not insured, not controlled by a central bank or other governmental authority, are subject to very little if any regulation, and cannot be easily exchanged for other commodities. Cryptocurrencies are susceptible to breaches, hacking and other cybersecurity risks, including on both the ICO issuer side and the investor side through direct breaches into a wallet or other digital storage. ICO’s are a global investment vehicle and, as such, US regulators may have no ability to recover lost funds or pursue bad actors. Likewise, private civil proceedings could prove futile.
Moreover, the high volatility and high risk of cryptocurrency investments make them unsuitable for most investors. In both its statement and a very simple investor-directed animated video on the subject, NASAA clearly states that investors could lose all of their money in a crypto-related investment.
Regulators almost unanimously believe that cryptocurrencies involve a high risk of fraud. NASAA includes a list of obvious red flags, including guaranteed high returns, unsolicited offers, sounds too good to be true, pressure to buy immediately, and unlicensed sellers.
NASAA now lists ICO’s and cryptocurrency-related investment products as an emerging investor threat for 2018.
Further Reading on DLT/Blockchain and ICO’s
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.
The SEC And CFTC Joint Statements On Cryptocurrencies; Global Regulators Join In
On January 19, 2018 and again on January 25, 2018, the SEC and CFTC divisions of enforcement issued joint statements regarding cryptocurrencies. The January 19 statement was short and to the point, reading in total:
“When market participants engage in fraud under the guise of offering digital instruments – whether characterized as virtual currencies, coins, tokens, or the like – the SEC and the CFTC will look beyond form, examine the substance of the activity and prosecute violations of the federal securities and commodities laws. The Divisions of Enforcement for the SEC and CFTC will continue to address violations and bring actions to stop and prevent fraud in the offer and sale of digital instruments.”
The January 25, 2018 statement was issued by SEC Chairman Jay Clayton and CFTC Chairman J. Christopher Giancarlo and was published as an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. In summarizing the statements, I add my usual commentary and facts and information on this fast-moving marketplace.
Distributed ledger technology, or DLT, is the advancement that underpins an array of new financial products, including cryptocurrencies and digital payment services. Clearly the regulators understand the technological disruption, pointing out that “[S]ome have even compared it [DLT] to productivity-driving innovations such as the steam engine and personal computer.”
The regulators are careful not to discourage the technological advancement or investments themselves but rather are concerned that only those that are sophisticated and can afford a loss, participate. Likewise, unfortunately with every boom comes fraudsters, and investors have to ask the right questions and perform the right due diligence.
Like the dot-com era, of the hundreds (or thousands) of companies popping up in this space, few will survive and investments in those that do not, will be lost. The message from the regulators remains consistent, cautioning investors about the high risks with investments in this new space and stating that “[T]he CFTC and SEC, along with other federal and state regulators and criminal authorities, will continue to work together to bring transparency and integrity to these markets and, importantly, to deter and prosecute fraud and abuse.”
While the initial cryptocurrencies, like bitcoin and ether, were likened to a payment alternative to fiat currencies like the dollar and euro, these alternative currencies are very different. None are backed by a sovereign government, and they lack governance standards, accountability and oversight, reliable reporting of trading, or consistent reporting of price and other financial metrics.
Of course, this is an exciting era of development and Chairs Clayton and Giancarlo know that, stating:
“This is not a statement against investments in innovation. The willingness to pursue the commercialization of innovation is one of America’s great strengths. Together Americans embrace new technology and contribute resources to developing it. Through great human effort and competition, strong companies emerge. Some of the dot-com survivors are the among the world’s leading companies today. This longstanding, uniquely American characteristic is the envy of the world. Our regulatory efforts should embrace it.”
The SEC and CFTC are considering whether the historic approach to the regulation of currency transactions is appropriate for the cryptocurrency markets. 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. For example, Coinbase has money transmitting licenses from the majority of states. Gemini is a licensed trust company with the New York State of Financial Services. Furthermore, the Bank Secrecy Act and its anti-money laundering (AML) requirements apply to those in the business of accepting and transmitting, selling or storing cryptocurrencies.
Not a single cyptocurrency trading platform is currently registered by the SEC or CFTC. However, two CFTC regulated exchanges have now listed bitcoin futures products and, in doing so, engaged in lengthy conversations with the CFTC, ultimately agreeing to implement risk mitigation and oversight measures, heightened margin requirements, and added information sharing agreements with the underlying bitcoin trading platforms. In my next blog I will drill down on the CFTC’s regulatory role and position on cryptocurrencies including a discussion of its October 17, 2017 published article, “A CFTC Primer on Virtual Currencies.”
The SEC does not have jurisdiction over transactions involving currencies or commodities; however, where an offering of a cryptocurrency has characteristics of a securities offering, the SEC and state securities regulators have, and have exercised, jurisdiction. In addition to the many SEC enforcement proceedings I have written about, state regulators have likewise been very active in the enforcement arena against those offering cryptocurrency- or blockchain-related investments. The SEC is carefully monitoring the entire marketplace including issuers, broker-dealers, investment advisors and trading platforms. On January 18, 2018, the SEC issued a no-action letter prohibiting the registration under the Investment Company Act of 1940 of U.S. investment funds that desire to invest substantially in cryptocurrency and related products. I will provide further details on this letter in an upcoming blog.
As the boom has continued, many cryptocurrencies are simply being marketed for their potential increase in value on secondary trading platforms, again none of which are licensed by the SEC or CFTC. The utility side of the tokens (if any) has taken a back seat to the craze. Although a few trading platforms are licensed by state regulators as payment processors, many overseas are not licensed by any regulator whatsoever.
As the SEC has been repeating, the op-ed piece again clearly states that “federal securities laws apply regardless of whether the offered security—a purposefully broad and flexible term—is labeled a ‘coin’ or ‘utility token’ rather than a stock, bond or investment contract. Market participants, including lawyers, trading venues and financial services firms, should be aware that we are disturbed by many examples of form being elevated over substance, with form-based arguments depriving investors of mandatory protections.”
While attending the North American Bitcoin Conference in Miami a few weeks ago, I was amazed at the thousands of attendees and companies. I go to a lot of financial conferences and had never seen anything like this. I understand the concerns of the regulators and the need to issue constant warnings. While I met some extremely smart people and learned about great companies that could have hugely successful futures, many others were obviously trying to ride a boom, with nothing to offer. They lacked a strong management team, technological know-how, engineers and programmers, a real business, a real plan, or anything to support lasting value of the token issued in their ICO, or being touted for a future issuance. The sole opportunity for an investor was a potential increase in secondary trading value, which was being propped up with hundreds of thousands of dollars (raised in the ICO) of marketing, including crews of people paid to talk about the token on chat boards such as Telegram.
Like many practitioners, I am fascinated with the technology and disruption it will bring to many aspects of our lives including the arenas of corporate finance and trading markets, and have even invested.
International Organization of Securities Commissions Issues Warning on ICO’s
On January 18, 2018, the Board of the International Organization of Securities Commissions (“IOSCO”) issued a warning on ICO’s including the high risk associated with these speculative investments and concerns about fraud. The IOSCO is the leading international policy forum for securities regulators and is a recognized standard setter for securities regulation. The group’s members regulate more than 95% of the world’s securities markets in more than 115 jurisdictions.
The statement from IOSCO points out that ICO’s are not standardized and their legal and regulatory status depends on a facts and circumstances analysis. ICO’s are highly speculative and there is a chance that an entire investment will be lost. The warning continues: “[W]hile some operators are providing legitimate investment opportunities to fund projects or businesses, the increased targeting of ICOs to retail investors through online distribution channels by parties often located outside an investor’s home jurisdiction — which may not be subject to regulation or may be operating illegally in violation of existing laws — raises investor protection concerns.”
The IOSCO has provided its members with information on approaches to ICO’s and related due diligence. The IOSCO has also established an ICO Consultation Network with its members to continue the discussion.
Further Reading on DLT/Blockchain and ICO’s
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.