On September 11, 2017, the SEC Chief Accountant, Wesley R. Bricker, gave a speech before the AICPA National Conference on Banks & Savings Institutions. The bulk of the speech was similar to Mr. Bricker’s June 2017 speech before the 36th Annual SEC and Financial Reporting Institute Conference, summarized HERE. However, one topic that was new, and interesting enough to spark this blog, was related to initial coin offerings (ICO’s). Note that offers and sales of digital coins, cryptocurrencies or tokens using distributed ledger technology (DLT) or blockchain have become widely known as ICO’s.
As the capital markets become more and more focused on all things blockchain, including ICO’s, secondary token trading, and disruptive changes made possible by distributed ledger technology (DLT), which is inevitably transforming capital market processes, the SEC is fronting a wave of questions and concerns on the subject. On July 25, 2017, the SEC issued a report on an investigation related to an ICO by the DAO and statements by the Divisions of Corporation Finance and Enforcement related to the investigative report. On the same day, the SEC issued an Investor Bulletin related to ICO’s. (See summary of the report, statement and investor bulletin HERE).
Almost all divisions and committees of the SEC are and will be impacted by DLT and ICO’s and are working diligently to address the technology and the public markets’ wave of interest. In August 2017 the SEC suspended the trading in a slew of bitcoin-based companies questioning the accuracy of publicly reported information and press releases. On September 20, 2017, the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee announced the agenda for its next meeting to be held on October 12, the first item on which is blockchain and other distributed ledger technology and its implications for securities markets.
FINRA is likewise as attentive to DLT and its far-reaching implications. On July 13, 2017, FINRA held a Blockchain Symposium including participation by the Office of the Comptroller of Currency, the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), the Federal Reserve Board and the SEC. Earlier in the year, FINRA published a report on the technology and its potential impacts on broker-dealers and the markets in general. See HERE for a summary.
Although outside of my practice area, the Internal Revenue Service is stepping up efforts to make sure taxes are reported and paid for trading profits and other taxable income related to cryptocurrencies. In that regard, the IRS has contracted with a company that provides software that analyzes and tracks bitcoin transactions.
Mr. Bricker’s Remarks on ICO’s
Mr. Bricker begins by talking about the SEC report on the DAO investigation, stating that “[T]he report makes clear that the federal securities laws apply to those who offer and sell securities in the U.S., regardless of whether the issuing entity is a traditional company or a decentralized autonomous organization, whether those securities are purchased using U.S. dollars or virtual currencies, or whether they are distributed in certificated form or through distributed ledger technology.”
All offers and sales of securities in the U.S. must either be registered with the SEC or must qualify for an exemption. The SEC’s registration requirements include the filing of audited financial statements. In addition, I note that many exemptions likewise require the disclosure of either audited or unaudited financial statements. Furthermore, the basic antifraud principles encompassed in Rule 10b-5 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933, require full and fair disclosure, which includes financial information about the issuer.
Mr. Bricker confirms the basics that U.S. accounting principles apply to ICO’s as they do with any other offerings. Issuing companies should review guidance related to the presentation and disclosure of financial statements, consolidation, translation, assets, liabilities, revenue, expenses and ownership.
Mr. Bricker lists questions that both issuers and holders should consider:
What are the necessary financial statement filing requirements?
Are there liabilities requiring recognition or disclosure?
Are there previously recognized assets that require de-recognition?
Are there revenues or expenses requiring recognition or deferral?
Is there a transaction with owners, resulting in debt or equity classification and possibly compensation expense?
Are there implications for the provision for income taxes?
Does specialized accounting guidance (such as for investment companies) apply to the holder’s financial statement presentation?
What are the characteristics of the coin or token in considering whether, how, and at what value the transaction should affect the holder’s financial statements?
What is the nature of the holder’s involvement in considering whether the issuer’s activities should be consolidated or accounted for under the equity method?
A new wave of ICO’s
Since the SEC issued its report on the DAO, my office has been actively involved with clients and potential clients interested in structuring ICO’s which comply with the federal (and state) securities laws. Although I have yet to see a registered ICO, several are now utilizing 506(b) or 506(c) to complete their offerings. For instance, the recent $285 million Filecoin ICO was completed in reliance on Rule 506(c) and included such institutional investors as Sequoia Capital, Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures. Other similar offerings have been and continue to be launched on platforms such as CoinList (which is partnered with AngelList) and now more traditional securities offering platforms such as Start Engine. I am certain the number of securities ICO’s relying on traditional securities offering registration or exemption rules and regulations will continue to increase dramatically.