The Senate Banking Committee’s Hearing On Cryptocurrencies

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.

The Technology

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.

Inquiries of a technical nature are always encouraged. Contact us now.

The CFTC And Cryptocurrencies

The SEC and U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) have been actively policing the crypto or virtual currency space. Both regulators have filed multiple enforcement actions against companies and individuals for improper activities including fraud. On January 25, 2018, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton and CFTC Chairman J. Christopher Giancarlo published a joint op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal on the topic.

Backing up a little, on October 17, 2017, the LabCFTC office of the CFTC published “A CFTC Primer on Virtual Currencies” in which it defines virtual currencies and outlines the uses and risks of virtual currencies and the role of the CFTC. The CFTC first found that Bitcoin and other virtual currencies are properly defined as commodities in 2015. Accordingly, 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. Beyond instances of fraud or manipulation, the CFTC generally does not oversee “spot” or cash market exchanges and transactions involving virtual currencies that do not utilize margin, leverage or financing. Rather, these “exchanges” are regulated as payment processors or money transmitters under state law.

The role of the CFTC is substantially similar to the SEC with a mission to “foster open, transparent, competitive and financially sound markets” and to “protect market users and their funds, consumers and the public from fraud, manipulation and abusive practices related to derivatives and other products subject to the Commodity Exchange Act (CEA).” The definition of a commodity under the CEA is as broad as the definition of a security under the Securities Act of 1933, including a physical commodity such as an agricultural product, a currency or interest rate or “all services, rights and interests in which the contracts for future delivery are presently or in the future dealt in” (i.e., futures, options and derivatives contracts).

Where the SEC regulates securities and securities markets, the CFTC does the same for commodities and commodity markets. At times the jurisdiction of the two regulators overlaps, such as related to swap transactions (see HERE). Furthermore, while there are no SEC licensed securities exchanges which trade virtual currencies or any tokens, there are several commodities exchanges that trade virtual currency products such as swaps and options, including the TeraExchange, North American Derivatives Exchange and LedgerX.

The Commodity Exchange Act would prohibit the trading of a virtual currency future, option or swap on a platform or facility not licensed by the CFTC. Moreover, the National Futures Association (NFA) is now requiring member commodity pool operators (CPO’s) and commodity trading advisors (CTA’s) to immediately notify the NFA if they operate a pool or manage an account that engaged in a transaction involving a virtual currency or virtual currency derivative.

The CFTC refers to the IRS’s definition of a “virtual currency” and in particular:

A virtual currency is a digital representation of value that functions as a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and/or a store of value. In some environments it operates like real currency but it does not have legal tender status in the U.S. Virtual currency that has an equivalent value in real currency, or that acts as a substitute for real currency, is referred to as a convertible virtual currency.  Bitcoin is one example of a convertible virtual currency.

I note that neither the CFTC’s definition of Bitcoin as a commodity, nor the IRS’s definition of a virtual currency, conflicts with the SEC’s position that most cryptocurrencies and initial cryptocurrency offerings today are securities requiring compliance with the federal securities laws. The SEC’s position is based on an analysis of the current market for ICO’s and the issuance of “coins” or “tokens” for capital raising transactions and as speculative investment contracts. In fact, a cryptocurrency which today may be an investment contract (security) can morph into a commodity (currency) or other type of digital asset. For example, an offering of XYZ token for the purpose of raising capital to build a software or blockchain platform or community where XYZ token can be used as a currency would rightfully be considered a securities offering that needs to comply with the federal securities laws. However, when the XYZ token is issued and can be used as a form of currency, it would become a commodity. Furthermore, the bundling of a token securities offering to include options or futures contracts may implicate both SEC and CFTC compliance requirements.

The CFTC primer gives a little background on Bitcoin, which was created in 2008 by a person or group using the pseudonym “Satoshi Nakamoto” as an electric payment system based on cryptographic proof allowing any two parties to transact directly without the need for a trusted third party, such as a bank or credit card company. Bitcoin is partially anonymous, with individuals being identified by an alphanumeric address. Bitcoin runs on a blockchain-decentralized network of computers and uses open-source software and “miners” to validate transactions through solving complex algorithmic mathematical equations.

A virtual currency can be used as a store of value; however, virtual currencies are not a yield asset in that they do not generate dividends or interest. Virtual currencies can generally be traded with resulting capital gains or losses. The CFTC, like all regulators, points out the significant speculation and volatility risk. The CFTC reiterates the large incidents of fraud involving crypto marketplaces. Furthermore, there is a significant cybersecurity risk. If a “wallet” holding cryptosecurities is hacked, they are likely gone without a chance of recovery.

Although many virtual currencies, including Bitcoin, market themselves as a payment method, the ability to utilize Bitcoin and other virtual currencies for everyday goods and services has not yet come to fruition. In fact, the trend toward Bitcoin being a regularly accepted payment has seemed to have gone the other way, with payment processor Stripe, tech giant Microsoft and gaming platform Steam discontinuing Bitcoin support due to lengthy transaction times and increased transaction failure rates.

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.

To read about the SEC and CFTC joint statements and the Wall Street Journal op-ed article, see HERE.

Inquiries of a technical nature are always encouraged. Contact us now.

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 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.

Inquiries of a technical nature are always encouraged. Contact us now.

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 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.

Inquiries of a technical nature are always encouraged. Contact us now.

State Distributed Ledger Technology and Blockchain Regulations

In a time of rapidly changing regulations and policies on all securities industry and corporate finance topics, and the development of distributed ledger technology (DLT or blockchain) and associated initial cryptocurrency offerings (ICO’s), I have never had so many topics in the queue to write about. With a once-a-week blog, I will just keep working through the list, reporting on all developments, some quicker than others.  In this blog, I am circling back to DLT with a synopsis of state law developments and the Uniform Law Commission’s (ULC) approved Uniform Regulation of Virtual Currency Business Act (Uniform VCBA).

Uniform Regulation of Virtual Currency Business Act (Uniform VCBA)

On July 19, 2017, the Uniform Law Commission (ULC) approved Uniform Regulation of Virtual Currency Business Act (Uniform VCBA) to be used as a model for states seeking to adopt such legislation. The VCBA is a money-transmitting or payment-processing-based legislation. The VCBA defines a money transmitter in an effort to provide clarity on what businesses are required to be licensed. The VCBA also provides an anti-money laundering (AML) framework that mirrors FinCEN requirements.

The VCBA focuses on control over the currency and transaction and requires licensing by any business that has the “power to execute unilaterally or prevent indefinitely a virtual currency transaction.” This definition is meant to distinguish virtual wallets that merely hold an individual’s virtual currency and process a transaction at the behest of such owner, without any additional powers.


The Delaware Blockchain Initiative is the state’s program to welcome and encourage blockchain businesses and to establish regulatory clarity for their operations and the use of blockchain technology overall, including DLT.

The August 1, 2017 amendments to the Delaware General Corporation Law (DGCL) Section 219, 224 and 232 will allow Delaware private companies to use DLT to maintain shareholder records, including authorized, issued, transferred, and redeemed shares, on a DLT system. As of now, the amendments to the DGCL are limited to private companies; however, the state of Delaware is in talks with the SEC related to implementing the technology for public companies.

DGCL Sections 219 and 224 have been amended to permit corporations to rely on a DLT as a stock ledger itself, potentially eliminating a separate transfer agent for private companies. Section 219(c) defines a “stock ledger” to include “one or more records administered by or on behalf of the corporation.” Section 224 provides that any records “administered by or on behalf of the corporation” could include “one or more distributed electronic networks for databases.”

A ledger must also: (i) be convertible into clearly legible paper form within a reasonable time; (ii) be able to be used to prepare the list of stockholders specified in Sections 219 and 220 (related to stockholder demands to inspect corporate books and records); (iii) must be able to record information and maintain records for various statute sections related to shareholdings, including those related to consideration for partly paid shares, the transfer of shares for collateral, pledged shares and voting trusts; and (iv) be able to records transfers of shares in compliance with the Delaware Uniform Commercial Code.

Delaware is currently working in collaboration with a private company, Symbiont, to put together “smart securities,” which are allegedly impossible to counterfeit. The ledger could be maintained by either a closed or open group of participants.  The ledger and any transfers would be updated instantaneously, effectively allowing for T+0 settlement of trades.


Preceding Delaware by a month, on June 5, 2017, Nevada’s governor signed Senate Bill 398 into law, confirming that blockchain records have legally binding status. Unlike Delaware, Nevada’s regulations do not amend its corporate statutes (i.e., Chapter 78, Nevada’s Private Corporation Law), but rather, similar to Arizona, amends Chapter 719, Nevada’s Uniform Electronic Transactions Act.

Nevada’s statute defines blockchain as an electronic record of transactions or other data which is: (i) uniformly ordered; (ii) redundantly maintained or processed by one or more computers or machines to guarantee the consistency or nonrepudiation of the recorded transactions or other data; and (iii) validated by the use of cryptography.

The Nevada statute prohibits local governments from imposing taxes or fees on the use of a blockchain; requiring a certificate, license or permit to use a blockchain; or imposing any other requirement related to the use of blockchain. Moreover, the Nevada statute provides “written” status to blockchain records.  In particular, “if a law requires a record to be in writing, submission of a blockchain which electronically contains the record satisfies the law.”


Prior to both Nevada and Delaware, in March 2017 Arizona passed House Bill 2417 into law, confirming the legal status of blockchain records. Like Nevada, Arizona gives smart contracts and blockchain signatureslegal binding status. In addition, the Arizona statute confirms that a smart contract has legally binding status, as would any other legal form of contract. Also like Nevada, Arizona’s provision is an amendment to its electronic transactions statute and not its corporate governance provisions.

Arizona defines “blockchain technology” as “distributed ledger technology that uses a distributed decentralized, shared and replicated ledger, which may be public or private, permissioned or permissionless, or driven by tokenized crypto economics or tokenless. The data on the ledger is protected with cryptography, is immutable and auditable and provides an uncensored truth.”

Arizona defines a “smart contract” as “an event driven program, with state, that runs on a distributed decentralized, shared and replicated ledger and that can take custody over and instruct transfer of assets on that ledger.”


Vermont defines “blockchain technology” as “a mathematically secured, chronological and decentralized consensus ledger or database, whether maintained via Internet interaction, peer-to-peer network, or otherwise.” The Vermont statute confirms that blockchain records will be considered regular business records and makes blockchain records admissible as evidence under the Vermont rules of evidence.

Miscellaneous Virtual Currency Provisions

Multiple states, including Connecticut, New York, Oregon and Tennessee, have enacted legislations defining virtual currency and requiring money transmitters or payment processors which exchange virtual currency for U.S. dollars, to be licensed. The New York statute (the BitLicense Regulation) has received a lot of pushback, with many claiming it is vague or overly difficult to comply with, causing many in the business to avoid New York jurisdiction.

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 summary on a report on an investigation related to the DAO’s ICO, 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.

Inquiries of a technical nature are always encouraged. Contact us now.

SEC Statements On Cybersecurity; An EDGAR Hacking

On September 20, 2017, SEC Chair Jay Clayton issued a statement on cybersecurity that included the astonishing revelation that the SEC Edgar system had been hacked in 2016. Since the original statement, the SEC has confirmed that personal information on at least two individuals was obtained in the incident. Following Jay Clayton’s initial statement, on September 25, 2017, the SEC announced two new cyber-based enforcement initiatives targeting the protection of retail investors, including protection related to distributed ledger technology (DLT) and initial coin or cryptocurrency offerings (ICO’s).

The issue of cybersecurity is at the forefront for the SEC, and Jay Clayton is asking the House Committee on Financial Services to increase the SEC’s budget by $100 million to enhance the SEC’s cybersecurity efforts.

This is the first in a two-part blog series summarizing Jay Clayton’s statement, the SEC EDGAR hacking and the new initiatives. My prior blog outlining SEC guidance on the disclosure of cybersecurity matters can be read HERE.

Chair Clayton’s Statement on Cybersecurity and the EDGAR Hacking

Upon taking office in May, 2017, Chair Clayton formed a senior-level cybersecurity working group to coordinate the sharing of information, risk monitoring and incident response efforts. Chair Clayton’s September 20, 2017 statement was part of the SEC’s ongoing initiatives and necessary to inform the public of the SEC’s own hacking incident. In addition to the revelation regarding the EDGAR hacking, Chair Jay Clayton’s statement emphasized the importance of cybersecurity to not only the SEC, but all market participants.

All market participants engage in data collection, storage, analysis, availability and protection to some extent, all of which are open to cybersecurity risks. Cyber attacks can be perpetrated by identity thieves, unscrupulous contractors and vendors, malicious employees, business competitors, prospective insider traders and market manipulators, hackers, terrorists, state-sponsored actors and others.  Furthermore, the effects of attacks can be significant, including loss or exposure of consumer data, theft or exposure of intellectual property, investor losses resulting from the theft of funds, market value declines in companies’ subject to cyber attacks, and regulatory, reputational and litigation risks.

Cybersecurity efforts must include, in addition to assessment, prevention and mitigation, resilience and recovery. Chair Clayton’s statement provides detail on the SEC’s approach to cybersecurity, including: (i) the types of data they collect, hold and make publicly available; (ii) how the SEC manages cybersecurity risks and responds to cyber events; (iii) how the SEC incorporates cybersecurity considerations in their risk-based supervision of entities they regulate; (iv) how the SEC coordinates with other regulators to identify and mitigate cybersecurity risks; and (v) how the SEC uses its oversight and enforcement authorities, including to pursue cyber threats.

EDGAR Hacking

Before summarizing the other components of Chair Clayton’s statement, I will jump right to the topic that has gained national attention: EDGAR was hacked!  Sometime in 2016, a software vulnerability in the test filing component of the EDGAR system was hacked. The opening was patched once discovered, but the hackers were able to obtain information through test filings that was used to make illicit trading gains. The hackers also obtained personal information, including names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers of at least two individuals. Chair Clayton was not informed of the hacking until August 2017.

The test filing system of EDGAR allows a company to make a non-public test filing of a registration statement or report (or any document that can be filed through the EDGAR system) to be sure the actual filing will be processed correctly. The test filing is usually made hours before the actual filing, but it can be made a day in advance. By having access to material information in filings prior to the marketplace, the hackers could trade on such information and make illegal profits.

When the SEC first announced the hacking on September 20, 2017, it stated that no personal information had been compromised but in a second press release issued on October 2, 2017, the SEC confirmed that forensic data analysis uncovered further depths to the intrusion.  In the October 2 press release, Chair Clayton outlined efforts to review and remediate the 2016 hacking, including:

  • A review of the 2016 EDGAR intrusion by the Office of Inspector General;
  • An investigation by the Division of Enforcement in the potential illicit trading resulting from the 2016 EDGAR intrusion (which seems to indicate that the perpetrator has been uncovered). Chair Clayton was first informed of the hacking in connection with this enforcement investigation;
  • A focused review and appropriate uplift of the EDGAR system with a concentration on cybersecurity matters, including its security systems, processes and controls. This review will include assessing the types of data that run through the EDGAR system and whether EDGAR is the appropriate mechanism to funnel such data;
  • A focused review and appropriate uplift of all systems that include the identification of sensitive data or personally identifiable information. This review will include assessing the types of data the SEC keeps and the related security systems, processes and control; and
  • The SEC’s internal review of the 2016 EDGAR hacking to determine, among other things, the procedures followed in response to the intrusion. This review is being overseen by the Office of the General Counsel and includes an interdisciplinary investigative team including outside technology consultants.  Related to this, the SEC will enhance protocols for cybersecurity incidents.

In furtherance of this review and plan, Chair Clayton authorized the immediate hiring of additional staff and outside technology consultants to protect the security of the SEC’s network, systems and data.

Based on the SEC’s statements and testimony on the matter, there still remains a lot of secrecy surrounding the incident. For instance, the date or dates of the hacking have not been made public. The hacking was reported to the Department of Homeland Security, but the SEC commissioners were not notified. Moreover, the SEC has not revealed the type of information that was accessed nor which companies were affected.

Collection and Use of Data by the SEC

The SEC collects, stores and transmits data in three broad categories, including: (i) public facing data through the EDGAR system; (ii) non-public information including personally identifiable information related to supervisory and enforcement functions; and (iii) non-public information including personally identifiable information related to the SEC’s internal operations.

The first category involves data provided to the SEC by companies (such as public reports under the Exchange Act, and notices of private offerings on Form D) and investors (such as Section 13 and Section 16 filings). The second category includes data on companies, broker-dealers, investment advisors, investment companies, self-regulatory organizations (including FINRA), alternative trading systems, clearing agencies, credit rating agencies, municipal advisors and other market participants. The third category of data includes personnel records, internal investigations and data related to risk management and internal control processes.

Management of Internal Cybersecurity Risks

Notably, Chair Clayton begins this part of his statement by disclosing that the SEC is “the subject of frequent attempts by unauthorized actors to disrupt access to our public-facing systems, access our data, or otherwise cause damage to our technology infrastructure, including through the use of phishing, malware and other attack vectors.” As did occur with the EDGAR hacking, attackers stand to profit from information through trading activities, identity theft and a myriad of other improper uses of the illegally obtained information.

In addition to outside attacks, the SEC monitors for unauthorized actions by personnel.  In 2014, an internal review uncovered that certain laptops with sensitive information could not be located. There have also been instances where SEC personnel have used non-secure personal email accounts to transmit nonpublic information. The SEC mitigates the internal risk by requiring all personnel to complete privacy and security training.

To protect against all of its cyber-related threats, the SEC employs an agency-wide cybersecurity detection, protection and prevention program. The program includes cybersecurity protocols and controls, network protections, system monitoring and detection processes, vendor risk management processes, and regular cybersecurity and privacy training for employees. However, in light of current and changing technological advancements, the SEC intends to step up its efforts overall. As mentioned earlier, in that regard, the SEC is seeking an increase in its annual budget, and a lift on its current hiring limitations.

Just as the SEC expects public companies to maintain internal controls, including from the top down, on cybersecurity matters, so the SEC has internal policies and procedures requiring senior management to maintain policies, and to coordinate with other offices and divisions with respect to cybersecurity efforts, including risk reporting and testing.

Although all offices have responsibilities, the SEC Office of Information Technology has overall management and responsibility for the agency’s cybersecurity. The SEC’s cybersecurity program is subject to review from internal and external independent auditors, including to ensure compliance with the Federal Information Security Modernization Act of 2014 (“FISMA”).

The SEC also must report cybersecurity matters to outside agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Homeland Security, and has established information-sharing relationships with the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center (“NCCIC”), the Financial and Banking Information Infrastructure Committee (“FBIIC”), and the Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center (“FS-ISAC”).

Incorporation of Cybersecurity Considerations in the SEC’s Disclosure-Based and Supervisory Efforts

The SEC incorporates cybersecurity considerations in its disclosure and supervisory programs, including in the context of the Commission’s review of public company disclosures, its oversight of critical market technology infrastructure, and its oversight of other regulated entities, including broker-dealers, investment advisors and investment companies. Related to public company disclosures, Chair Clayton referred to the SEC guidance summarized HERE.

Related to the SEC’s oversight of market infrastructure, including regulation of exchanges and clearing agencies, the SEC adopted Regulation Systems Compliance and Integrity in 2014. Regulation SCI was proposed and adopted to require key market participants to have comprehensive written policies and procedures to ensure the security and resilience of their technological systems, to ensure systems operate in compliance with federal securities laws, to provide for review and testing of such systems and to provide for notices and reports to the SEC. Key market participants generally include national securities exchanges and associations, significant alternative trading systems (such as OTC Markets, which has confirmed it is in compliance with the Regulation), clearing agencies, and plan processors. For a review of Regulation SCI, see HERE.

Furthermore, certain SEC rules and regulations governing broker-dealers, investment advisors and investment companies directly implicate information security practices. For example, Regulation S-P requires registered broker-dealers, investment companies and investment advisors to adopt written policies and procedures governing safeguards for the protection of customer information and records. Regulation S-ID requires these firms, to the extent they maintain certain types of covered accounts, to establish programs addressing how to identify, detect and respond to potential identity theft red flags.

Coordination with Other Governmental Entities

Effective cybersecurity programs require cooperation among government agencies. The SEC shares oversight responsibility on some matters with other agencies, including the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Furthermore, the SEC often coordinates with other agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The SEC coordinates cybersecurity efforts with each of these agencies, and more.

Enforcement of the Federal Securities Laws

The SEC is committed to enforcing compliance with the cybersecurity disclosure obligations of reporting companies, and in enforcement proceedings against those that purse cyber threats. Part of these efforts include using advanced technology to monitor suspicious trading activity across companies, traders and geographic regions.

Chair Clayton sets out examples of enforcement actions, such as a case in 2016 against three traders for allegedly participating in a scheme to hack into two prominent New York-based law firms to steal information pertaining to clients that were considering mergers or acquisitions, which the hackers then used to trade. In another case, defendants allegedly hacked into newswire services to obtain non-public information about corporate earnings announcements. These are just two examples among dozens of cases.

Inquiries of a technical nature are always encouraged. Contact us now.

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 coinscryptocurrencies 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.

Inquiries of a technical nature are always encouraged. Contact us now.

SEC Issues Report On Accredited Investor Definition

On December 18, 2015, the SEC issued a 118-page report on the definition of “Accredited Investor” (the “Report”). The report follows the March 2015 SEC Advisory Committee on Small and Emerging Companies (the “Advisory Committee”) recommendations related to the definition. The SEC is reviewing the definition of “accredited investor” as directed by the Dodd-Frank Act, which requires that the SEC review the definition as relates to “natural persons” every four years to determine if it should be modified or adjusted.

The definition of “accredited investor” has not been comprehensively re-examined by regulators since its adoption in 1982; however, in 2011 the Dodd-Frank Act amended the definition to exclude a person’s primary residence from the net worth test of accreditation.

Although the Report contains detailed discussions on the various aspects of the definition of an accredited investor, the history of the different aspects of the definition, a discussion of different approaches taken in other U.S. regulations and in foreign jurisdictions and an in-depth discussion on the reasoning behind its recommendations, the actual recommendations are only conceptual and broad-based and do not contain specifics. Accordingly, we will need to wait for a future proposed rule release to see what, if any, of the recommendations will be implemented and to what degree. This blog provides a broad summary of the Report.


All offers and sales of securities must either be registered with the SEC under the Securities Act of 1933 (the “Securities Act”) or be subject to an available exemption to registration. The ultimate purpose of registration is to provide investors and potential investors with full and fair disclosure to make an informed investment decision. The SEC does not pass on the merits of a particular deal or business model, only its disclosure. In setting up the registration and exemption requirements, Congress and the SEC recognize that not all investors need public registration protection and not all situations have a practical need for registration – thus the registration exemptions in Sections 3 and 4 of the Securities Act and the rules promulgated thereunder. Exempted offerings carry additional risks in that the level of required investor disclosure is much less than in a registered offering, the SEC does not review the offering documents, and there are no federal ongoing disclosure or reporting requirements.

Regulation D provides the most commonly used transactional exemptions to registration. The SEC notes in its Report that $1.3 trillion was raised under Regulation D in 2014 alone. The definition of “accredited investor” provides the backbone to the Regulation D exemptions and is “intended to encompass those persons whose financial sophistication and ability to sustain the risk of loss of investment or ability to fend for themselves render the protections of the Securities Act’s registration process unnecessary.”

In addition to investor protection, the SEC also has a mandate to assist businesses with capital formation and the definition of “accredited investor” must walk the line between these goals. An overly restrictive definition will damage the ability of businesses to access private capital, and an overly broad definition would be contrary to the SEC’s investor protection goals.

Qualifying as an accredited investor makes the difference between being able to participate in an exempt offering or not, and the ability for an issuer to rely on an exemption or not, and accordingly is a very important component of the securities regulations. For example, some exemptions like Rule 506(c) are limited to accredited investors only. Rules 505 and 506(b) limit offers and sales to no more than 35 unaccredited investors. Many state law exemptions limit offers and sales of securities based on the status of an investor as accredited or not.

An issuer’s required disclosure is also tied into whether investors and potential investors are accredited. For example, under Rules 505 and 506(b) issuers must provide certain delineated financial and non-financial disclosures if an offering will be made to any non-accredited investors.

The Current Definition of “Accredited Investor”

An “Accredited investor” is defined as any person who comes within any of the following categories:

  1. Any bank as defined in section 3(a)(2) of the Act, or any savings and loan association or other institution as defined in section 3(a)(5)(A) of the Act, whether acting in its individual or fiduciary capacity; any broker or dealer registered pursuant to section 15 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934; any insurance company as defined in section 2(a)(13) of the Act; any investment company registered under the Investment Company Act of 1940 or a business development company as defined in section 2(a)(48) of that Act; any Small Business Investment Company licensed by the U.S. Small Business Administration under section 301(c) or (d) of the Small Business Investment Act of 1958; any plan established and maintained by a state, its political subdivisions, or any agency or instrumentality of a state or its political subdivisions, for the benefit of its employees, if such plan has total assets in excess of $5,000,000; any employee benefit plan within the meaning of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 if the investment decision is made by a plan fiduciary, as defined in section 3(21) of such act, which is either a bank, savings and loan association, insurance company, or registered investment adviser, or if the employee benefit plan has total assets in excess of $5,000,000 or, if a self-directed plan, with investment decisions made solely by persons that are accredited investors;
  2. Any private business development company as defined in section 202(a)(22) of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940;
  3. Any organization described in section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, corporation, Massachusetts or similar business trust, or partnership, not formed for the specific purpose of acquiring the securities offered, with total assets in excess of $5,000,000;
  4. Any director, executive officer, or general partner of the issuer of the securities being offered or sold, or any director, executive officer, or general partner of a general partner of that issuer;
  5. Any natural person whose individual net worth, or joint net worth with that person’s spouse, at the time of his or her purchase exceeds $1,000,000, not including their principal residence;
  6. Any natural person who had an individual income in excess of $200,000 in each of the two most recent years or joint income with that person’s spouse in excess of $300,000 in each of those years and has a reasonable expectation of reaching the same income level in the current year;
  7. Any trust, with total assets in excess of $5,000,000, not formed for the specific purpose of acquiring the securities offered, whose purchase is directed by a sophisticated person as described in Rule 506(b)(2)(ii); and
  8. Any entity in which all of the equity owners are accredited investors.

The SEC Report contains an interesting table comparing the regulatory approach to determining the status of investors that are not in need of certain investor protections. I’m reproducing the entire table as appears in the Report:

Standard Financial Threshold for Natural Persons Regulatory Purpose
Accredited Investor(Securities Act Rule 501(a)) $200,000 in income$300,000 in joint income

$1 million in net worth, excluding the value of a primary residence

Exemption from Securities Act registration for offers and sales to accredited investors
Qualified Client(Advisers Act Rule 205-3) $1 million in assets under management with an investment adviser$2 million in net worth, excluding the value of a primary residence

Subject to inflation adjustment every 5 years

Exemption from Advisers Act’s prohibition on charging performance fees to clients
Qualified Purchaser(Investment Company Act Section 2(a)(51)(A)) $5 million in investments Exemption from Investment Company Act registration for sales to qualified purchasers
Qualified Investor(Exchange Act Section 3(a)(54)) $10 million in asset-backed securities and loan participations$25 million in other investments Exemption from broker-dealer registration for banks that sell certain securities to qualified investors
Eligible Contract Participant(Commodity Exchange Act Section 1a(18)) $10 million in investments$5 million in investments if hedging Eligible contract participants are able to engage in certain derivatives and swaps transactions

The SEC Report discusses the different approaches and their respective histories. The Report also considers the approach taken by different countries including Australia, Canada, the EU, Israel, Singapore and the United Kingdom. The SEC considered these different approaches in making its recommendations. Although a synopsis of these discussions is beyond the scope of this blog, it does provide for interesting reading and insight into the regulatory regime.

SEC Recommendations Related to the Accredited Investor Definition

The Report considered numerous different approaches and potential changes and contains discussion supporting each element in determining an accredited investor and the recommended changes. The Report discusses the numerous different proposals considered, the input of commenters, the challenges that will be associated with each of its recommendations and the reasoning behind such recommendations. However, notably absent from the Report are specific recommendations associated with the broad concepts.

The SEC staff recommends a complete revision to the definition of accredited investor and in particular makes the following recommendations:

  • Leave the current income and net worth thresholds in place, subject to investment limitations;
  • Create new, additional inflation-adjusted income and net worth thresholds that are not subject to investment limitations;
  • Index all financial thresholds for inflation on a going-forward basis;
  • Permit spousal equivalents to pool their finances for purposes of qualifying as accredited investors;
  • Add a new qualification for individuals based on measures of sophistication including parameters considering the person’s (i) amount of investments; (ii) professional credentials; (iii) experience investing in exempt offerings; and (iv) status as a knowledgeable employee of a private fund for investments in the employer’s fund. In addition, the SEC recommends permitting individuals who pass an accredited investor examination to qualify as an accredited investor.
  • Revise the definition as it applies to entities by replacing the $5 million assets test with a $5 million investments test and including all entities rather than the specifically enumerated types of entities; and
  • Grandfather issuers’ existing investors that are accredited investors under the current definition with respect to future offerings of their securities.

I agree with each of the proposed conceptual changes and in particular the addition of the sophistication qualifications; however, until actual proposals are made that include specifics, such as the specific investment limitations, specific criteria to establish sophistication and specific proposed adjustments, I remain as unspecific in my opinion as the SEC is in its recommendations!

Leaving a strict bright line financial test, without the additional sophistication test, is too restrictive to meet the goal of assisting businesses in accessing capital. According to the SEC Report, in 2013, only 10.1% of U.S. households qualified as accredited investors and adjusting the financial tests for inflation will drop that percent to 3.6%.

The SEC staff points out that there is currently no definition of the term “income” and very limited guidance on the matter. The recommendations do not offer further guidance or suggest any changes. From a practitioner’s perspective, we generally go by the individual’s tax return.

The SEC Report also discussed the net worth calculation. The only asset excluded from the calculation is the person’s primary residence. Many commenters have suggested changes such as the exclusion of retirement assets. The SEC rightfully points out the numerous problems with this approach including, but certainly not limited to, the obvious impact of discouraging retirement investments or encouraging the withdrawal of retirement funds to participate in private investments. Moreover, the Advisory Committee previously pointed out, and the SEC Report acknowledges, that “retirement assets” refer to a tax treatment and not a class of assets, and can be anything from an IRA to racehorses, to bitcoins, to real estate and anything in between. Retirement assets are not classified based on risk and are not somehow risk-protected. Many of the most experienced, wealthiest investors have the majority of their portfolio in assets that receive “retirement assets” tax treatment, and there is no justification for excluding tax-protected accounts from the accredited definition.

I also like the reasoning behind adding investment limitations at certain thresholds and removing them at higher thresholds. Currently the income and net worth tests are absolute. An investor with a $999,999 net worth cannot invest and an investor with a $1,000,000 can invest an unlimited amount. Permitting all individuals that with a level of financial sophistication to be deemed accredited and invest in private offering subject to caps based on net worth or income, will greatly expand the pool of potential investors and be consistent with the need to protect investors.

The SEC Reports suggests a few methods of implementing investment limitations but does not make a specific, precise proposal. The SEC Report suggests examples of limitations such as: (i) an even percentage application across all investors (this approach is rejected); (ii) a gradual increase in investment limitation which limitation is eventually eliminated based on net worth and/or income; and (iii) either separately or in conjunction with other limitations, adding a per issuer limitation.

The SEC Staff recommendations in the Report are consistent with the Advisory Committee’s recommendations made to the SEC in March 2015. In particular, the Advisory Committee made four recommendations related to the definition of “accredited investor”:

(1) That if any change is made to the definition of “accredited investor,” such change should “have the effect of expanding, not contracting, the pool of accredited investors.” For example, they recommended that the definition include investors that satisfy a sophistication test that is not tied to income or net worth. In addition, the Advisory Committee recommended that that tax treatment of assets be excluded from any net worth calculation.

(2) That the SEC take into account the effect of inflation and adjust the accredited investor thresholds in accordance with the consumer price index.

(3) “Rather than attempting to protect investors by raising the accredited investor thresholds or excluding certain asset classes from the calculation to determine accredited investor… the Commission should focus on enhanced enforcement efforts and increased investor education” and

(4) The SEC should continue to gather data on the subject.

Additional History and Further Background

The vast majority of the SEC’s 118-page report provides a history of the Securities Act registration and exemption provisions and the role of the accredited investor definition. The SEC provides the background of the Section 4(a)(2) exemption and a summary of SEC vs. Ralston Purina Co., the leading Supreme Court case interpreting the provision. I’ve previously covered some of this history in my blogs HERE and HERE (written prior to renumbering 4(2) to 4(a)(2)). The following blog HERE on obstacles in depositing penny stocks also provides insight into the exemptions and investor qualifications and as such is beneficial ancillary reading with this blog.

The Advisory Committee Letter to the SEC in March 2015 contained a list of practical facts and realities related to small business and emerging company capital formation in support of its recommendations that I found informative and so am re-publishing. In particular:

  • Smaller and emerging companies are “critical to the economic well-being of the United States,” generating the majority of net new jobs in the last five years and continuing to add more jobs;
  • Rule 506 of Regulation D is the most widely used private offering exemption, resulting in $1 trillion of raised capital in 2013;
  • Most early-stage, venture capital and angel investments are made in reliance on Rule 506;
  • Other than Rule 506(b), which allows up to 35 unaccredited investors (when certain disclosures and financial information are provided), all investors in Rule 506 offerings must be accredited;
  • The Dodd-Frank Act requires the SEC to review the accredited investor definition to determine whether it “should be adjusted or modified for the protection of investors, in the public interest, and in light of the economy”;
  • There are groups and commentators that advocate increasing the thresholds in the accredited investor definition to prevent fraud against investors. However, the SEC is not of “any substantial evidence suggesting that the current definition of accredited investor has contributed to the ability of fraudsters to commit fraud or has resulted in greater exposure for potential victims.” In addition, “the connection between fraud and the current accredited investor thresholds seems tenuous at best”;
  • Some groups and commentators advocate excluding “retirement assets” from the calculation of net worth. The Advisory Committee rightfully and logically points out that “retirement assets” refer to a tax treatment and not a class of assets, and can be anything from an IRA to racehorses, to bitcoins, to real estate and anything in between. Retirement assets are not classified based on risk and are not somehow risk-protected. Many of the most experienced, wealthiest investors have the majority of their portfolio in assets that receive “retirement assets” tax treatment, and there is no justification for excluding tax-protected accounts from the accredited definition; and
  • There is little or no evidence to suggest that the existing definition of accredited investor has led to widespread fraud or other harm to investors; rather, there is substantial evidence that the current definition works.

The Advisory Committee concluded that if the income and net worth thresholds are increased, it “will materially decrease the pool of capital available for smaller businesses.” It continued by stating that such a change “would have a disparate impact on those areas having a lower cost of living, which areas often coincide with regions of lower venture capital activity.”

SEC Issues Investor Alert Warning That Fantasy Stock Trading Websites May Violate Securities Laws

At the end of June, the SEC Office of Investor Education and Advocacy issued an Investor Alert and reminded us all that the net of federal securities laws is far-reaching.  The Investor Alert warns investors that fantasy stock trading and similar websites violate federal securities laws and, in particular, the “security-based swap” regulations enacted by the Dodd-Frank Act.

The SEC Investor Alert warns against websites that claim to offer a chance to make money from publicly traded or privately held companies without actually buying stock.  Generally the sites are set up as a “fantasy” trading game or competition and involve a small entry fee with the chance to win a larger payment if you win the fantasy competition.  The SEC has taken the position that these fantasy stock trading programs could potentially involve security-based swaps and implicate both the federal securities and commodities laws.  The SEC has and is continuing to investigate the matter.  The investigation has progressed enough that the SEC found it prudent to issue the Investor Alert.

Security-based Swaps

Like the definition of a security itself, a “security-based swap” is broadly defined.  A “swap” is a financial contract in which two or more counterparties agree to exchange or “swap” payments with each other as a result of such things as changes in stock price, interest rate or commodity price.  In other words, a swap includes any agreement, contract, or transaction whose value is based upon the value or performance of some other financial product, event or characteristic.

Generally, practitioners and the marketplace consider a security-based swap to be a derivative or other complicated financial instrument that only the most sophisticated institutional investors and brokerage houses participate in.  For the most part, that is entirely true and correct.  The national exchanges do not provide a trading platform for security-based swaps.  Rather, a whole trading regime and marketplace has been established around the multi-trillion-dollar swaps market, including security-based swap execution facilities, security-based swap data repositories, security-based swap clearing agencies and a swap-based over-the-counter market.  This is not to be confused with the OTC Marketplace for equity securities, which is a distinct and separate marketplace for the trading of unlisted securities (i.e., OTC Pink, OTCQB and OTCQX).

Historically, security-based swaps were not addressed in federal regulations.  In 2000, Congress actually specifically removed security-based swaps from the SEC’s jurisdiction.  In particular, in 2000, Congress passed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act (CFMA) to provide legal certainty for swap agreements. The CFMA explicitly prohibited the SEC and CFTC from regulating the over-the-counter swaps markets, but provided the SEC with antifraud authority over “security-based swap agreements,” such as credit default swaps.  By preventing specific anti-fraud regulation but allowing anti-fraud jurisdictional authority, the CFMA tied the SEC’s hands and created an unworkable regulatory framework.

The Dodd-Frank Act addressed the gap and provided a broad, comprehensive regulatory framework for the OTC swaps market.  The Dodd-Frank Act divided regulatory authority over swap agreements between the SEC and CFTC as well as other regulators such as the Federal Reserve Board related to banking swap entities.  The SEC’s authority is over “security-based swaps.”  Security-based swaps are included within the definition of “security” under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and the Securities Act of 1933.  The CFTC has primary authority over commodity-based swaps, and the SEC and CFTC share authority over mixed swaps.

Implementation of the Dodd-Frank Act related to swaps has required numerous rules and a prolific volume of complicated rule releases.  The CFTC and SEC are required to act jointly to define key terms relating to jurisdiction (such as swap, security-based swap, and security-based swap agreement) and market intermediaries (such as swap and security-based swap dealers and major swap and security-based swap participants), as well as adopt joint regulations regarding mixed swaps and prescribe trade repository recordkeeping requirements, and books and records requirements for swap entities related to security-based swap agreements. The SEC is required to consult with the CFTC and the Federal Reserve Board on non-joint rulemakings and with the other prudential regulators on capital and margin rules. The CFTC, SEC and U.S. regulators also consult with non-U.S. regulatory authorities on the establishment of consistent international standards for the international swaps market.

My practice and clientele usually do not require me to delve into the rules, regulations and practical operations of swaps in general or even the more defined security-based swaps.  However, this new Investor Alert directed towards the same average investor that trades in the OTC Marketplace and national securities exchanges caught my attention and is worth a discussion.

Fantasy Stock Trading

The SEC anti-fraud provisions apply to all transactions in security-based swaps regardless of the sophistication or wealth of the investors.  Initially it is helpful to know a few terms.  First, an investor or participant in the swaps market is called a “counterparty” or “counterparties.”  Second, an “eligible contract participant” or “ECP” is specifically defined in the securities laws (much like an “accredited investor”) and includes, for example, people who have more than $10 million invested on a discretionary basis.  The federal securities laws contain many provisions related to the offer or sale of security-based swaps to persons who are not eligible contract participants.  A registration statement must be filed and effective prior to offering a swap to a non-ECP, and the swap contracts must be sold on a national exchange.

The SEC notes that there are many different ways that virtual games references securities involve a security-based swap.  For example, the SEC believes a security based-swap would encompass a website could charge an entry fee to play a game involving the “purchase” or “sale” of securities and the ability to win a prize for such efforts.  As with other fantasy games, no actual particular company’s securities would be purchased or sold.  Each site and fact scenario requires a review and analysis as to whether it involves a security-based swap, has invoked the federal securities laws, and has complied with such laws.

Taking the position that a fantasy stock trading website could be a security-based swap, the operation of the site and offer to the public to participate requires an analysis as to whether the persons receiving the offer are eligible contract participants and if they are not, ensuring the proper disclosures and rules related to offers to non-eligible contract participants are complied with.  I am certain that none of the operators of these sites have made such an analysis or complied with the applicable federal securities laws.

The SEC recently filed and settled an action In the Matter of Sand Hill Exchange. Garrit Hall and Elaine Ou, in which the SEC issued a cease-and-desist order against a website operator and its principals.  The particular site claimed to offer anyone an opportunity to realize profits based on the performance of private pre-IPO companies.  The website offered to sell “contracts” referencing the pre-IPO company.  If the pre-IPO company had a liquidity event, such as an IPO, merger or acquisition, the contract buyer would receive payment on the contract based on a value calculation.  The SEC found that the contracts were firmly within the definition of a security-based swap and shut down the site.

Other Warnings

The SEC Investor Alert also reminds the public that the federal securities laws are in addition to and separate from other federal laws, such as the federal gambling laws.  A website may be operating in compliance with the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 and still be violating federal securities laws.

Moreover, the SEC stresses that consideration or payment can be in any form, not just cash.  The payment to a website or third party in bitcoins, virtual currency, traded goods or services, or anything of value, invokes the securities laws to the exact same extent as the payment in cash.


The purpose of the SEC Investor Alert is to warn the general public against these websites and really any website that requires payment to “play” or participate in a game or other “investment” that may not appear to be a security on its face.  From my perspective, the Investor Alert is a reminder to all entrepreneurs that the federal securities laws are all-encompassing and must be considered in any and all business models.  For additional information regarding the definition of a security, please see my blog HERE.


SEC Sanctions BITCOIN Exchange Operator-A Case Study In Basic Registration And Exemption Requirements

On December 8, 2014, the SEC settled charges against a creative, but ill informed, entrepreneur for acting as an unlicensed broker-dealer and for violations of Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933, as amended.  Ethan Burnside and his company, BTC Trading Corp., operated two online enterprises, BTC Virtual Stock Exchange and LTC-Global Virtual Stock Exchange, that traded securities using virtual currencies, bitcoin or litecoin.  Neither of these exchanges were registered as broker-dealers or stock exchanges.  In addition, Burnside and his company conducted separate transactions in which he offered investors the opportunity to use virtual currencies to buy or sell shares in the LTC-Global exchange itself and a separate litecoin mining venture he owned and operated.  These offerings were not registered with the SEC as required under the federal securities laws.

According to the SEC release on the matter, “the exchanges provided account holders the ability to use bitcoin or litecoin to buy, sell, and trade securities of businesses (primarily virtual currency-related entities) listed on the exchanges’ websites.  The venues weren’t registered as broker-dealers despite soliciting the public to open accounts and trade securities.  The venues weren’t registered as stock exchanges despite enlisting issuers to offer securities for the public to buy and sell.” The exchanges charged and collected transaction-based compensation for each executed trade on the platforms.

“Burnside operated two online enterprises that weren’t properly registered to engage in the securities business they were conducting,” said Andrew M. Calamari, Director of the SEC’s New York Regional Office.  “The registration rules are vitally important investor protection provisions, and no exemption applies simply because an entity is operating on the Internet or using a virtual currency in securities transactions.”

Because Burnside cooperated with the SEC, he was able to settle the charges for only $68,000 and a bar from acting in the securities industry with the right to re-apply after two years.  The SEC release notes that “the penalty amount reflects prompt remedial acts taken by Burnside as he cooperated with the SEC’s investigation.”

The SEC did not make any allegations related to fraud.  The SEC’s news release did not contain any negative inflammatory language against Burnside or his entities, and his penalty was extremely light for today’s regulatory environment.  Burnside has the ability to apply to re-enter the securities business after two years.  Clearly Burnside tried to create and operate a valid business, and more than that, he did a good job of it.

Burnside, however, failed to comply with and (obviously) seek the advice of experienced securities counsel.  On the highest level, Burnside failed to follow the most basic premises of securities transactions: (i) registration or exemption as a broker-dealer; (ii) registration or exemption of an exchange; (iii) registration or exemption for the sale of DTC and LTC securities; and (iv) ensuring either registration or exemption for the sale of listed issuer’s securities.  Admittedly, the process for each of these items can be complicated, expensive and time-consuming, but every entrepreneur that is considering engaging in a business that involves securities on any level needs to consider these basic high-level issues before proceeding.

How BTC and LTC Worked

Both BTC and LTC operated as online bitcoin- and litecoin-denominated stock exchanges.  Using bitcoins or litecoins as the currency, users bought, sold and traded securities in both initial and secondary offerings of businesses listed on the website.  Although the sites were open to anyone, they became popular with virtual currency enthusiasts, and most of the issuers on the site were currency-related businesses, including virtual currency mining operations.  According to the SEC release, a virtual currency “miner” is “an individual or entity that participates in a decentralized virtual currency network by running special software to solve complex algorithms in a distributed proof-of-work or other distributed proof system used to validate transactions in the virtual currency system. Certain virtual currencies (e.g., bitcoin and litecoin), self-generate units of the currency by rewarding miners with newly created coins.”

There were no restrictions on who could open an account, which account opening was completed using a simple online registration form.  The only information required was an e-mail address, and accordingly, account holders could be anonymous.  There were no restrictions or even information requests related to accreditation or sophistication.  Once registered, users could view their account history and balance online.  Deposits of bitcoins and litecoins were made using software, and such deposits were maintained by BTC and LTC and commingled in a single virtual wallet.  Users could withdraw their currency at any time.  The sites strictly operated in bitcoins and litecoins and did not offer any method to convert the virtual currency to USD or other currencies.

Users could place trades in the securities of the listed issuers, including straight purchases and sales and option trades.  Users would enter a bid or ask through an online order book.  Trades were matched using a software system and all trades, quotes and dividends were publicly displayed on the site.  The site also reported such information as trading volume for issuers.  The trading on the sites was completely self-contained; that is, no trades were routed to outside venues or sources. BTC and LTC charged transaction-based compensation for executing trades

In order for an issuer to offer and sell securities, it would submit an online application and an investment contract for the purchase of its securities.  The issuer’s application included a description of its business and the investment being offered.  LTC and BTC charged a flat fee for listing.  The issuers also agreed to a “terms of service” that included various representations and warranties by the issuer, including that its business was “legal in the United States.”  BTC and LTC shareholders approved all issuers through an online voting process.

Once approved, the issuer could list and sell securities.  No certificates were issued for sold securities, but rather ownership of shares was recorded in line account statements that were updated and provided to shareholders every 12 hours.  The issuers were able to upload and post business plans and other marketing materials, post updates and new releases and otherwise communicate with their shareholder base and prospective investors.  BTC and LTC acted as limited moderators over the postings.  Burnside also regularly posted on his own sites and others soliciting users for the sites.

BTC and LTC also listed and sold its own securities on the sites.  Each of the issuers, including BTC and LTC, engaged in general solicitation in the sale of securities.  Upon being contacted by the SEC, Burnside promptly completed an orderly wind-down of both sites.

None of the issuers registered their securities or the offerings with the SEC.  None of the issuers took steps to ensure an exemption from registration was available, such as limiting the offerings to accredited investors only, verifying accredited status when using general solicitation, providing specified disclosure documents, or complying with state blue sky laws.

Registration or exemption as a broker-dealer

Subject to limited exemption, the Exchange Act makes it unlawful for any broker or dealer to “effect any transaction in, or to induce or attempt to induce the purchase or sale, of any security…unless such broker or dealer is registered.”  The Exchange Act defines a “broker” as “a person, including a company, engaged in the business of effecting transaction in securities for the account of others.”  Case law indicates that a person is engaged in the business of effecting securities transactions if he or she “regularly participates in securities transactions at key point in the chain of distribution.”

In addition, in accordance with the SEC Guide to Broker-Dealer Registration, providing any of the following services may require the individual or entity to be registered as a broker-dealer:

  • “finders,” “business brokers,” and other individuals or entities that engage in the following activities:investment advisers and financial consultants;
    • Finding investors or customers for, making referrals to, or splitting commissions with registered broker-dealers, investment companies (or mutual funds, including hedge funds) or other securities intermediaries;
    • Finding investment banking clients for registered broker-dealers;
    • Finding investors for “issuers” (entities issuing securities), even in a “consultant” capacity;
    • Engaging in, or finding investors for, venture capital or “angel” financings, including private placements;
    • Finding buyers and sellers of businesses (i.e., activities relating to mergers and acquisitions where securities are involved);
  • persons that market real estate investment interests, such as tenancy-in-common interests, that are securities;
  • persons that act as “placement agents” for private placements of securities;
  • persons that effect securities transactions for the accounts of others for a fee, even when those other people are friends or family members;
  • persons that provide support services to registered broker-dealers; and
  • persons that act as “independent contractors” but are not “associated persons” of a broker-dealer

There are several exemptions from broker-dealer registration.

Title II of the JOBS Act created a limited exemption to the broker-dealer registration requirements for certain intermediaries that facilitate Rule 506 offerings.  In particular, Section 4(b) of the Securities Act of 1933 (“Securities Act”) added an exemption to the broker-dealer registration requirements such that an individual or entity will not be deemed a broker-dealer as a result of the following:

(A)  That person maintains a platform or mechanism that permits the offer, sale, purchase, or negotiation of or with respect to securities, or permits general solicitations, general advertisements, or similar or related activities by issuers of such securities, whether online, in person, or through any other means;

(B)  That person, or any person associated with that person, co-invests in such securities; or

(C)  That person, or any person associated with that person, provides ancillary services with respect to such securities.

Ancillary services are defined as (i) the provision of due diligence services in connection with the offer, sale, purchase, or negotiation of such security, so long as such services do not include, for separate compensation, investment advice or recommendations to issuers or investors; and (ii) the provision of standardized documents to the issuers and investors, so long as such person or entity does not negotiate the terms of the issuance for and on behalf of third parties and issuers are not required to use the standardized documents as a condition of using the service.

The exemption from registration as a broker or dealer also requires that such person and each person associated with such person (i) does not receive any compensation in connection with the purchase or sale of the security; (ii) does not have possession of customer funds or securities in connection with the purchase or sale; and (iii) is not subject to statutory disqualification pursuant to Section 3(a)(39) of the Exchange Act (i.e., bad boy provisions).

Burnside could potentially have operated a Title II exempt website geared towards bitcoin and litcoin investments.  For a discussion as to how this could be structured, see my blog HERE.

Registration or exemption of an exchange

Section 5 of the Exchange Act of 1934, as amended, makes it unlawful for any broker, dealer, or exchange, directly or indirectly, to effect any transaction in a security, or to report any such transaction, in interstate commerce, unless the exchange is registered as a national securities exchange or is 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….”  Exchange Act Rule 3b-16 further defines an exchange to mean “an organization, association, or group of persons that: (1) brings together the orders for securities of multiple buyers and sellers; and (2) uses established, non-discretionary methods (whether by providing a trading facility or by setting rules) under which such orders interact with each other, and the buyers and sellers entering such orders agree to the terms of the trade.” The Commission has also stated that “an exchange or contract market would be required to register under Section 5 of the Exchange Act if it provides direct electronic access to persons located in the U.S.”

Clearly LTC and BTC operated as an exchange, without registration or an exemption.  Under almost any analysis, LTC and BTC would have been required to register as an exchange to operate as it did.

Registration or exemption for the sale of securities

Burnside offered and sold securities of BTC, LTC and his virtual currency mining business without either an effective registration statement or available exemption.  In addition, each of the issuers on the BTC and LTC websites offered and sold securities without either an effective registration statement or available exemption.  All issuers engaged in general solicitation in relation to the sale of securities.

Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933 makes it is unlawful for any person to directly or indirectly “offer” or “sell” securities without a valid effective registration statement unless an exemption is available.  Companies desiring to offer and sell securities to the public with the intention of creating a public market or going public must file a registration statement containing all material information concerning the company and the securities offered with the SEC and provide that filed registration statement to prospective investors.  The registration statement is filed using a form S-1.  None of the issuers in this case filed a registration statement with the SEC.

In lieu of registration, each issuer would need to satisfy an exemption from registration.  Although other exemptions may have been available, the most obvious potential exemption for the issuers in this case would be 506(c).  Rule 506(c) permits the use of general solicitation and advertising to offer and sell securities under Rule 506, provided that the following conditions are met:

1.the issuer takes reasonable steps to verify that the purchasers are accredited;
2.all purchasers of securities must be accredited investors, either because they fit within one of the categories in the definition of accredited investor, or the issuer reasonably believes that they do, at the time of the sale; and

3.all terms and conditions of Rule 501 and Rules 502(a) and (d) must be satisfied.

For an in-depth discussion on Rule 506(c), see my blog HERE.

Inquiries of a technical nature are always encouraged. Contact us now.