Keyword: Securities, Derivatives and Financial Institutions

In or Out? – The CFTC Explains When Virtual Currencies Come Within Its Jurisdiction

On March 24, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) issued final interpretive guidance (the Guidance) regarding retail commodity transactions involving virtual currency. In short, this Guidance clarifies when “actual delivery” of virtual currency (such as bitcoin and ether) occurs under the test determining whether a leveraged arrangement is exempt from regulation by the CFTC as, effectively, a futures contract. This important Guidance demonstrates the proactive and leading role that the CFTC has taken in connection with understanding and addressing developments in the fintech sector. In the Guidance, the CFTC explains the exemption clearly and places it in the context of the CFTC’s regulatory mandate, its somewhat tortured history in obtaining jurisdiction over leveraged retail transactions in commodities, and its interest in preventing abusive practices. As part of its commitment to assisting the industry in adjusting to the evolving interpretations, the CFTC also announced that it would impose a 90-day moratorium on initiating enforcement actions that address aspects of the Guidance that, according to Chairman Tarbert’s accompanying statement, “were not plainly evident from prior CFTC guidance, enforcement actions, and case law.”

The Guidance in effect enables those transacting in leveraged virtual currency (often referred to as “cryptocurrency”) to understand whether they are subject to CFTC jurisdiction. As noted in the release, the CFTC has exclusive jurisdiction over commodity futures, options and swaps – which encompasses a broad range of derivatives – and has broad anti-fraud and anti-manipulation authority over any contract of sale of any commodity in interstate commerce, as well as swaps and futures. This jurisdiction includes certain speculative commodity transactions involving leverage or margin, which are also treated by the CFTC as futures. The CFTC’s jurisdiction over leveraged retail transactions remained uncertain until passage of the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010.

Before the Dodd-Frank Act, it was possible that a retail transaction in a commodity entered on a leveraged or margined basis, or financed by the counterparty, could avoid regulation by the CFTC even though it was economically indistinguishable from a futures contract. In his statement, Chairman Tarbert offers this example: suppose that someone decides to purchase a commodity with some money down, with delivery and final payment to be made at some future date, but is also able to trade out of the position at any time to lock in any gains or losses incurred to date; “that starts to look an awful lot like a futures contract—with identical economics but without any regulation.” The Dodd-Frank Act addressed this regulatory gap, with a particular application to abusive sales practices involving foreign currency and precious metals, and now the Guidance provides interpretation to apply the same principles to virtual currency.

The important exception to the CFTC’s jurisdiction over leveraged retail commodity transactions is for a contract of sale that “results in actual delivery within 28 days…” The determinative factor as to whether a transaction in virtual currency is subject to CFTC jurisdiction is whether actual delivery occurs within 28 days of trade execution. (Note that, for retail foreign currency transactions, the delivery period is only two days.) In its 2015 Coinflip Order, the CFTC clarified that virtual currency constitutes a “commodity” under the Commodity Exchange Act. Although virtual currency is an intangible commodity, the CFTC has jurisdiction over other types of intangible commodities, including rate indices and renewable energy credits. Multiple federal courts have also held that virtual currencies are commodities under the Commodity Exchange Act. The CFTC broadly defines virtual currencies as follows:

a digital asset that encompasses any digital representation of value or unit of account that is or can be used as a form of currency (i.e., transferred from one party to another as a medium of exchange); may be manifested through units, tokens, or coins, among other things; and may be distributed by way of digital “smart contracts,” among other structures.

In the Guidance, the Commission interprets “actual delivery” in the context of virtual currency as taking place when (a) a customer (i) secures possession and control of the entire quantity of the commodity – whether it was purchased on margin, or using leverage, or any other financing arrangement – and (ii) has ability to use the entire quantity of the commodity freely in commerce, no later than 28 days from the date of the transaction; and (b) the offeror and counterparty seller do not retain any interest in, legal right, or control over any of the purchased commodity after 28 days from the date of the transaction. While this interpretation is carefully drafted to avoid permitting any “sham delivery” to qualify, the Guidance states that the simplest definition of actual delivery is the ability of a purchaser to use the virtual currency immediately as a unit of exchange. And while the 28-day period is provided as the outside time limit to constitute actual delivery, as a practical matter, it typically takes much fewer than 28 days for a virtual currency transfer to complete. To determine whether the seller no longer retains any interest in the virtual currency, the CFTC may look to whether the seller retains any ability to access or withdraw any quantity of the virtual currency from the purchaser’s account or virtual wallet. The Guidance essentially reaffirms guidance that the CFTC provided in 2013, in a non-virtual currency context, as to the “functional approach” that the CFTC would apply in determining whether actual delivery had occurred.

In the Guidance, the CFTC emphasizes the importance of virtual currencies and their underlying blockchain technologies, and highlights its efforts to take a “deliberative and measured approach” in this area, to avoid stifling technological innovation. The CFTC points to its efforts in this area, including the LabCFTC initiative, which seeks to promote market-enhancing innovation. It also notes that several derivatives contracts based on virtual currency are listed on CFTC registered entities. The Guidance also reports that the CFTC continues to follow the evolution of the cash market for virtual currencies, since cash markets affect related derivatives markets. It is because the technology, market structures and law are evolving so quickly that, as discussed by several Commissioners in their accompanying statements, issuing interpretive guidance is more appropriate than rulemaking at this time. We encourage readers to refer to the CFTC’s full Guidance, which is clearly written with helpful examples.

Orrick Hosts Fireside Chat with SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce

On March 2, Orrick had the pleasure of hosting SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce for a fireside chat discussion at our San Francisco office on the state of blockchain and cryptocurrency, the emerging regulatory landscape and her safe harbor proposal. Commissioner Peirce was joined by Orrick partner Ken Herzinger and CipherTrace CEO David Jevans, and moderated by Mark Friedler.[1] To view a recording of the full discussion, please click here. Read on for key takeaways from the panel discussion.

Providing Clarity to the Crypto Community

Commissioner Peirce sees signs of progress at the SEC and believes that her colleagues have the best intentions. She’s hopeful and optimistic that the SEC can continue to make progress and both protect investors and allow innovation to move forward.

Commissioner Peirce believes that regulators have provided more clarity regarding blockchain and cryptocurrency regulation, but there’s a long way to go. Regulators struggle because there’s great variation across digital assets, so it’s hard to lump them together and produce a regulatory framework that works for everything. Furthermore, she acknowledged the fact that often the clarity that comes from the SEC is provided in the format of a facts-and-circumstances discussion, which can be frustrating for people who want to be given straightforward bright line rules. However, she says, U.S. securities laws just typically don’t work that way.

While she is hopeful that the SEC can provide more clarity, she does not know if we will ever get to a point where people feel there are no questions that they need to hire lawyers to help them figure out.

Insights into Commissioner Peirce’s Token Safe Harbor Proposal

Commissioner Peirce said her February 6, 2020 Token Safe Harbor Proposal is solely her own, and her colleagues at the SEC need to be convinced to put it forward as a formal proposed SEC rule pursuant to the SEC’s normal rulemaking process. The theory behind the safe harbor is that the regulatory framework, as currently applied, serves as an obstacle to launching token networks and giving them the time to mature into decentralized networks. Token project creators are afraid that if they launch their network it will be treated as a securities offering. The purpose of the safe harbor proposal is to find a way for people to feel comfortable releasing tokens under an exemption that works for tokens specifically.

Commissioner Peirce explained that one reason you would want securities laws to cover token offerings would be so that the people who are purchasing tokens are receiving the information they need to make good purchasing decisions, so the disclosure requirement was tailored to meet the needs of token purchasers.

Commissioner Peirce published the proposal because she wants to solicit feedback to refine it, and encourages people to contact her with thoughts and ideas to improve upon it.

Section (f) and the Application of the Safe Harbor to Tokens that Have Already Been Distributed

Section (f) of the Safe Harbor provides for how the safe harbor would apply to digital assets previously sold pursuant to an exemption. Commissioner Peirce said those who have already launched and distributed tokens have to think about whether the token sales were done pursuant to an exemption – i.e., tokens sold pursuant to an exemption could rely on the safe harbor to then do a future token distribution. Projects would have to consider on a case-by-case basis if they could take advantage of the safe harbor and if it would be meaningful. For example, if a promoter used the Reg A exemption (which applies to public offerings that do not exceed $50 million in any one-year period), the safe harbor may still be useful for having a wider distribution and allowing the tokens to trade more freely.

Tokens Wrapped in Investment Contracts

Commissioner Peirce highlighted the unique problem that arises with certain token launches, where tokens wrapped in investment contracts are sold, thus creating what looks like a traditional offering, but then when the tokens start being used in the network they no longer look like securities. At that point, it is a stretch to argue the securities laws should still apply.

Interestingly, in the SEC v. Telegraph case currently pending before Judge Kevin Castel in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the SEC Enforcement Staff is arguing that the Judge should conflate the investment contract and proposed token launch and view the sale of an investment contract and subsequent token distribution as “one transaction.” Enforcement and Commissioner Peirce do not appear to be on the same page regarding this issue.

“Network Maturity” and the Meaning of “Decentralized” and “Functional”

Commissioner Peirce acknowledged that she needed to do more work defining what it means to be “decentralized.” She thinks it will be easier to tell if a network meets that definition after having been in existence for three years.

She also noted that the functionality test is there because the safe harbor is also trying to protect networks that are intended to remain centralized. There are companies that have created token-based economies that exist on centralized networks. She pointed to the “no action” letters issued to Pocketful of Quarters and TurnKey Jet. In her view, issuing no action letters about things that are clearly not securities is not helpful, because the letters contain conditions, thereby placing constraints on the ability of the companies to run their networks in certain ways.

Section (a)(4) and the Liquidity Requirement

Commissioner Peirce noted that some had suggested that it may be premature to assume that a secondary market would enable trading of a nascent token, and that, initially, the liquidity may need to be found elsewhere. She indicated that some liquidity could be found through non-U.S. decentralized exchanges which could also play a role in creating liquidity in the beginning stages of a token network. Only, later would the token be traded on an exchange with an intermediary that could then conduct the AML/KYC requirements. The issuer could also find ways to create liquidity in the beginning, which is something she has seen centralized projects do. That said, there are clearly unanswered mechanical questions about how a token promoter would generate liquidity.

Section (b)(6) Disclosures Regarding the Initial Development Team and Certain Token Holders

Commissioner Peirce indicated that the type of person covered in Section (b)(6) of the safe harbor is similar to those individuals who fall under Section 16 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. Project teams should ask themselves, when they talk about their project, who do they say is working on the project? The people that are being advertised are likely to be the ones who should be disclosed. She wants to be sure that project teams are not intentionally hiding a team member who has been previously arrested for securities fraud, for example.

Stablecoins

Commissioner Peirce said stablecoins are a unique category of tokens, but there is enough variation among them that they may not all fall into a single previously established category. Each one should be judged on its own facts, and there are potential implications for the securities laws depending on how they are set up. They could function like securities or they could function like money market funds. Commissioner Peirce encouraged people interested in launching a stablecoin to think through the implications and reach out to the SEC and other regulators.

Educating Lawmakers and Regulators

Commissioner Peirce said lawmakers and regulators are extremely busy and they have to deal with a wide variety of different issues. The crypto community should try to educate regulators and help them understand the basics of the technology; creating familiarity amongst regulators will generate better regulation. Technologists should not expect regulators to know as much as them, but they can help regulators get to a place of understanding, where the technology does not seem as scary as it might otherwise.

Changing the Accredited Investor Regime

Commissioner Peirce noted that the SEC has issued proposed amendments to expand the definition of “accredited investor” in Rule 501(a) of Regulation D and soliciting comments on whether the accredited investor regime should change. [The formal rule proposal amending Regulation D was published on March 4 which followed the publication of the Commission’s concept release in June]. While the amendments propose modest changes, they raise questions about broader changes that would open up accredited investor status to a wider range of individuals. Personally, she agrees that the correlation currently in use today – i.e., the use of wealth and income as a rough proxy for sophistication – is not perfect. There are also liberty concerns with the regime: people work very hard to earn their money and then the government places constraints on how they can spend it; however, she recognized that issue runs throughout our securities laws. Improving upon the accredited investor regime will help the problem, but Commissioner Peirce is doubtful we will see a radical shift in the accredited investor regulations.


[1] Commissioner Peirce prefaced her remarks by stating that the views she expressed were her own and do not necessarily represent those of the Securities and Exchange Commission or her fellow Commissioners.

Power of the Peirce: SEC Commissioner Spends Some of Her Influence on Trying to Help Crypto Network Developers

SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce continues to be one of the most vocal persons in leadership positions at federal regulators who are promoting innovation in digital currency and the blockchain. On February 6th, she unveiled Proposed Securities Act Rule 195 – Time-limited Exemption for Tokens, a rule proposal for a safe harbor that would provide regulatory relief under the federal securities laws for developers attempting to build functioning token networks. Her proposal is a step in the right direction to address one of the greatest challenges token network projects face.

As explained by the Commissioner, in the course of building a functioning network, developers must get tokens into the hands of other persons. These efforts run the risk of violating the U.S. securities laws regulating offers and sales, and the trading of, investment contract securities under the Howey test. Thus, she stated, the SEC has created a “regulatory Catch 22.” The Proposed Rule addresses this issue head-on by providing a three-year period during which an Initial Development Team can build their network and distribute tokens to persons who will use the network without concern that these efforts will be deemed by the SEC to violate the securities laws.

Of course, the Proposed Rule, as conceded by Commissioner Peirce and as discussed below, is a work in progress, and a great deal of work is necessary to address outstanding issues. One overarching issue is the degree to which the Proposed Rule should be prescriptive and thereby decrease the need for development teams to seek no-action relief. However, if overly prescriptive, the Proposed Rule would not be flexible enough to accommodate evolving technological developments and the complex facts that will arise in each case.

The Proposed Rule Would Provide Subjective and Prescriptive Requirements

The Proposed Rule provides Initial Development Teams with a three-year safe harbor from the application of the securities laws, with the exception of its anti-fraud provisions. In order to be covered by the safe harbor, five conditions would have to be met:

  1. The Initial Development Team must intend for the network to reach “Network Maturity,” defined as either decentralization or token functionality – within three years of the first offer and sale of tokens and undertake good faith and reasonable efforts to achieve that goal;
  2. Detailed disclosures pertaining to the token project and the Initial Development Team must be made to the public;
  3. The token must be offered or sold for the purpose of facilitating access to, participation on, or the development of the network;
  4. The Initial Development Team must intend to and undertake good faith and reasonable efforts to create liquidity for users; and
  5. The Initial Development Team must file a Notice of Reliance with the SEC.

The safe harbor conditions incorporate elements that are both subjective and prescriptive. The first and third conditions are principle-based and highly subjective, and without further regulatory guidance or authoritative precedent, it is unclear how the SEC would determine if they are being complied with. Additional guidance regarding the definition of “Network Maturity,” particularly in the form of hypotheticals and Q&A’s, would help provide clarity. Thus far, there are few concrete examples, beyond Bitcoin and Ethereum – which appear to have passed the SEC’s muster – to which developers can refer to understand the considerations relied upon by the SEC in determining whether a token is not deemed to be a security.

The second and fifth requirements are prescriptive. The disclosure requirements are intended to address information asymmetries between token issuers and purchasers. However, given that the anti-fraud provisions of the securities laws remain in place, it is not self-evident that an overlay of specific disclosure requirements is necessary.

As proposed, the notice requirement presents potential challenges to Initial Development Teams, particularly in the case of its applicability to tokens previously sold in compliance with the securities laws. It is uncertain as to the remedial actions that would be required, and what fines or penalties might be imposed, if the requirements of the Proposed Rule are not satisfied in whole or in part. Also, what would happen at the end of the three-year period if a network has not reached Network Maturity, e.g., the Proposed Rule does not provide a mechanism whereby the development team can request an extension of the safe harbor period and how such a request would be processed.

Until it is Enacted, the Rule Will Not Provide Industry Relief

Since the Proposed Rule is not binding on the Commission, SEC enforcement actions can and will continue to be prosecuted without regard to the Proposed Rule; attempted compliance with the Proposed Rule will not serve as a defense to an enforcement action. At the same time, the elements of the Proposed Rule can and should inform discussions between the Staff and development teams. In this regard, the specific disclosure requirements of the second condition may, in the short term, have the greatest impact, as they might serve as a ready checklist for statements by development teams and counterparties in connection with the development of their networks.

As positive a development as is the Proposed Rule Proposal, it is only the preliminary proposal of one Commissioner and the adoption of a proposal such as this one is subject to a rigorous vetting process by the SEC. Therefore, its future is uncertain.

SEC Settles with BCOT on Alleged Violations of the Securities Act

On December 18, 2019, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced settled charges against blockchain technology company Blockchain of Things Inc. (BCOT) for conducting an unregistered initial coin offering (ICO) of digital tokens. BCOT raised nearly $13 million to develop and implement its business plans, including developing its blockchain-based technology and platform, referred to as the “Catenis Enterprise” or “Catenis Services” (collectively, “Catenis”).

BCOT conducted the ICO from December 2017 through July 2018 (the “Offering Period”), after the SEC had warned in its DAO Report of Investigation that ICOs can be securities offerings. The settlement alleged that the BCOT Tokens were securities and that they were offered and sold in violation of Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933 because BCOT did not register its ICO thereunder, nor did it qualify for an exemption from its registration requirements.

With respect to the status of the BCOT Tokens as “securities” under the federal securities laws, the SEC brushed aside the fact that purchasers of the BCOT Tokens were required to represent that “they were not purchasing BCOT Tokens for ‘future appreciation’ or ‘investment or speculative purpose[s].’” Rather, the SEC focused on statements in the offering documents that it found nevertheless would lead purchasers to “reasonably have expected that BCOT and its agents would expend significant efforts to develop [its] platform . . . increasing the value of their BCOT Tokens.”

Factors the SEC found also weighed in favor of BCOT Tokens being securities include:

(i)   the BCOT platform was not fully functional during the Offering Period, i.e., during the Offering Period Catenis was functioning only in a beta mode;

(ii)   BCOT reserved the right to adjust the price of Catenis Services in its discretion, “based upon its operating costs and market forces”; and

(iii)  the BTOC Tokens “were designed to be freely transferrable upon issuance and delivery, with no restrictions on transfer.”

The remedies agreed to in the BCOT settlement include: (i) the payment of a monetary penalty of $250,000; (ii) the registration by BTOC of the BCOT Tokens as a class of securities under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and compliance with the reporting requirements thereunder; and (iii) implementation of a protocol under which (x) purchasers of the BTOC Tokens during the Offering Period are notified of their potential claims under the Securities Act “to recover the consideration paid for such securities with interest thereon, less the amount of any income received thereon,” and (y) all payments that BTOC deems to be due and adequately substantiated are made.

The BCOT settlement is similar to the enforcement actions settled by the SEC with Gladius Network LLC on February 20, 2019, and CarrierEQ, Inc. (d/b/a Airfox) and Paragon Coin, Inc., each on November 16, 2018. As in the case of the Gladius settlement, the BTOC settlement provides explicitly for the possibility that BTOC might in the future renew its argument that the BCOT Tokens are not securities under the Exchange Act and, therefore, BTOC should not be required to maintain the registration of its Tokens thereunder. None of these enforcement actions included allegations of fraud. However, the Gladius settlement is distinguishable in that the company self-reported its violations and was not required to pay a monetary penalty.

It is also noteworthy that, in conjunction with the BTOC settlement, the SEC issued an order to BTOC under Rule 506(d)(2)(ii) of the Securities Act granting a waiver of the Rule 506(d)(1)(v)(B) disqualification provision thereunder. We are not aware of similar relief having been requested or granted to Gladius, AirFox or Paragon, though it was granted in conjunction with the BlockOne/EOS settlement that was entered on September 30, 2019.

The BTOC settlement clearly shows that the SEC is still applying a strict view with regard to violations of Section 5 of the Securities Act while at the same time showing slightly more flexibility in its remedies to those Section 5 violations.

Fraud is Fraud – Sales of Unregistered Digital Securities Resemble Classic Microcap Fraud

A Complaint filed by the SEC in the Southern District of New York last week reminds us that in the area of securities law violations there is not much new under the sun. Even though the action against Eran Eyal and UnitedData, Inc. d/b/a “Shopin” involves the sale of digital assets, and the business of the issuer of those digital assets purportedly involves a blockchain application, the alleged wrongful conduct bears the hallmarks of a traditional securities offering scheme; one can substitute “unregistered securities” for the tokens offered, “private placement” for the token pre-sale, and a speculative venture – such as the “self-cooling can” that was the subject of an SEC offering fraud case years ago – for the blockchain applications touted by the issuer, and the Complaint is one that could have been drafted thirty years ago. To the extent that certain recent cases involving offerings of cryptocurrencies have presented novel applications of the securities laws and the Howey test of whether a digital currency is a security, this case isn’t one of them.

A description of the alleged misconduct makes the parallels clear. The SEC alleges that the issuer, Shopin, and its CEO, Mr. Eyal, conducted a fraudulent and unregistered offering of digital securities. The company’s business plan involved the creation of personal online shopping profiles that would track customers’ purchase histories across numerous online retailers, and link those profiles to the blockchain. However, Shopin allegedly never had a functioning product. The company’s pivot to the blockchain and rebranding resulted from its struggles to stay in business as a non-blockchain business.

The company apparently commenced its digital securities offering with a “pre-sale” of tokens through an unregistered offering, not unlike the private placement of securities that is often alleged as the first step in an offering fraud. Shopin’s initial sales of investment interests were made pursuant to a SAFT – a simple agreement for future tokens – in which initial investors paid bitcoin or ether in exchange for an interest in tokens at a discount that would be delivered once Shopin created the tokens at the completion of the public ICO. The proceeds of this pre-sale purportedly would be used to develop, launch and market the Shopin network, similar to the types of promises made in microcap or blind pool offerings. Unsold tokens in the pre-sale would go to insiders at Shopin and its advisors. The SEC determined that the Shopin tokes were investment contracts under the Howey test, because the purchasers invested money in the form of digital currency, the investors’ funds would be pooled in a common enterprise, and the defendants led the token purchasers to expect profits from their purchases because of the defendants’ efforts.

In its complaint, the SEC treated the token sale – which, again, was not registered under the securities laws – as a private placement subject to Regulation D, and alleged that the defendants failed to ensure that the purchasers of the tokens were accredited investors. Indeed, the SEC alleged that certain investors tried to satisfy the minimum investment requirements by pooling their investments in syndicates. This is a variant of the artifices employed by microcap issuers to artificially achieve a minimum offering level by making nominee purchases. The defendants also, in another resemblance to a microcap scheme, allegedly told investors they intended to have the Shopin tokens listed on digital-asset trading platforms – analogous to a promise to list penny stocks on an exchange – which purportedly would enable investors to realize profits on their positions by selling the tokens at a premium.

Having established that the ICO had the elements of a securities offering, the SEC described the material misrepresentations that the defendants made to investors: that the company had participated in successful pilot programs with prominent retailers; that the defendants had partnerships with numerous retailers; and that it was advised by a prominent individual in the digital asset field, who in fact had asked the company to remove his name as an advisor. Finally, and most serious, the SEC alleged that the defendants had misused portions of the offering proceeds, including for personal expenses, such as an individual’s rent, shopping and entertainment and – the type of salacious detail the SEC likes to include – to pay for a dating service.

Securities schemes tend to fall into certain patterns that involve the use of unregistered securities and misrepresentations to separate investors from their money, and schemes involving digital currency that resembles a security often fall into the same patterns. Perhaps recognizing that those patterns are recognizable to triers of fact and the public, the SEC alleges violations involving digital currency in similar terms. SEC Chairman Jay Clayton has repeatedly emphasized that the regulator will use its traditional tools and standards in treating sales of digital assets that conform to the definition of a security: for example, as he stated last year, “A token, a digital asset, where I give you my money and you go off and make a venture, and in return for giving you my money I say ‘you can get a return’ that is a security and we regulate that. We [the SEC] regulate the offering of that security and regulate the trading of that security.” Legitimate sales and offerings of digital currency might use a different vocabulary and analysis but, as the allegations in the case discussed here show, fraud is fraud.

SEC Division of Enforcement 2019 Annual Report Shows Cryptocurrency Is Still Under the Microscope

The SEC Division of Enforcement’s 2019 Annual Report, released earlier this month, shows a continuing focus on activities involving blockchain and cryptocurrency, and its website shows an increase in cases since last fiscal year. The Annual Report provides an overview of the SEC’s enforcement activities during FY 2019, highlighting enforcement priorities and trends, noteworthy actions, and enforcement challenges. The SEC’s attention to enforcing the securities laws in the blockchain and cryptocurrency space features prominently in the Annual Report, securing special attention both in the introductory message from Division Co-Directors Stephanie Avakian and Steven Peikin, and as one of two “initiatives and areas of focus in Fiscal Year 2019” (alongside the SEC’s traditional focus on protecting retail investors).

But while Co-Directors Avakian and Peikin state that the Division’s “activities in the digital asset space matured and expanded” in 2019, the nature of its enforcement priorities as detailed in the 2019 Annual Report is not markedly different from the previous year. To be sure, the 2019 Annual Report highlights some of the more high-profile enforcement actions in the industry, such as the SEC’s ongoing case against Kik Interactive for allegedly conducted an illegal $100 million securities offering in 2017. And, as reported on the SEC website, the number of enforcement actions the SEC designates as relating to “Digital Assets/Initial Coin Offerings” has seen an uptick since last year (with 13 filed in FY 2018, and 21 in FY 2019).

One thing that the 2019 Annual Report more clearly highlights about the SEC’s activities this year is the Division of Enforcement’s attention to non-fraud violations related to cryptocurrencies. For example, the SEC charged the founder of a digital asset trading platform for operating as an unregistered national securities exchange, and charged an “ICO Incubator” and its founder for acting as an unregistered broker-dealer and selling unregistered digital asset securities. And for the first time, the SEC filed charges for the unlawful promotion of ICOs (against boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. and music producer DJ Khaled).

With cryptocurrencies being one of the SEC’s “initiatives and areas of focus” and the fact that the Division’s Cyber Unit only became fully operational in Fiscal Year 2018, the volume of enforcement actions in this space may well continue to increase in FY 2020. Even if not, participants in the industry should be mindful that the SEC is still scrutinizing cryptocurrency activities and is able and willing to penalize non-fraud violations of the securities laws. As Co-Directors Avakian and Peikin noted in the Report: “Collectively, these actions send the clear message that, if a product is a security, regardless of the label attached to it, those who issue, promote, or provide a platform for buying and selling that security must comply with the investor protection requirements of the federal securities laws.”

Still Waiting: SEC Again Delays Approvals of Bitcoin ETFs

As further evidence of the SEC’s resistance to the development of a regulated secondary market in bitcoin, on August 12 it delayed making a decision on three additional bitcoin exchange-traded fund (ETF) proposals.

On January 28, 2019, NYSE Arca, Inc. filed a proposed rule change under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 to list and trade shares of the Bitwise Bitcoin ETF Trust. Also, on January 30, CBOE BZX Exchange, Inc. filed a proposed rule change under the Exchange Act to list and trade shares of SolidX Bitcoin Shares issued by the VanEck SolidX Bitcoin Trust. Finally, on June 12, NYSE Arca, Inc. filed a proposed rule change to list and trade shares of the United States Bitcoin and Treasury Investment Trust.

The Exchange Act mandates that a final decision be made within 240 days of such filings. In the case of the first two proposals, the SEC exercised its discretion and found it appropriate to designate the remaining time available under the 240-day maximum period “so that it has sufficient time” to consider it. Based upon the same rationale, the SEC delayed action on the other NYSE Arca proposal for 45 days. Accordingly, it designated October 13, October 18 and September 29, 2019, with respect to the Bitwise Bitcoin ETF Trust, the VanEck SolidX Bitcoin Trust and the United States Bitcoin and Treasury Investment Trust, respectively, as the dates by which it “shall either approve or disapprove the proposed rule change.”

These delays come as no surprise given the SEC’s disapprovals of similar proposals to list other bitcoin ETFs, most notably the multi-year effort of investors Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss to list the Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust on the Bats BZX Exchange, Inc. In rejecting these proposals, the SEC has cited numerous concerns, including the risk of market manipulation, market surveillance and a potential divergence with futures trading as some issues. It remains to be seen whether the SEC will have the same concerns when it rules on the pending proposals.

Playing Catch-Up: Commissioner Peirce Proposes a Safe Harbor for Certain Token Offerings

SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce has once again earned her title as “Crypto Mom” by expressing support for building a “non-exclusive safe harbor” for the offer and sale of certain cryptocurrency tokens. Peirce explained that the concept of a safe harbor is still in its infancy and did not propose a timeline for the project. Nevertheless, her support is welcome news for the industry, which can hope that her well-stated views will influence the rest of the Commission to move to adopting a separate securities regulatory framework for cryptocurrency.

We expect that the SEC will take its time in moving forward with the development and implementation of a safe harbor for token offerings. Peirce previously defended the SEC’s slow approach to crypto regulation, indicating that delays in establishing crypto regulations “may actually allow more freedom for the technology to come into its own.” Peirce is cognizant of the repercussions of moving too slowly and seems to be trying to balance the need for regulatory certainty with the need to get the regulatory framework right.

Peirce explained that in developing its crypto regulatory regime, the SEC can learn from other countries that have taken the lead in developing a regulatory framework for token offerings. For example, Peirce explained that the “nebulous” definition of a security in the U.S., coupled with the difficulty of determining the precise nature of a digital asset – is it a currency, commodity, security or derivative? – has slowed our regulatory progress. Peirce suggests looking at the approach taken by Singapore for the classification of offerings as non-securities, since Singapore does not treat every token offering as a securities offering. Similarly, earlier this month the SEC and FINRA issued a joint statement explaining that there are still unanswered questions regarding custody of digital assets that have led to delays in approving ATS applications. Peirce recommends reviewing Bermuda’s guidance on the subject because “Bermuda is one of the only jurisdictions to address the custody question in detail.”

With so many countries so far ahead of the U.S. in developing regulatory regimes for token offerings, the SEC has an abundance of approaches to review. Ideally this will speed up the development and implementation of the safe harbor. If, however, the SEC continues to drag its feet, token projects that would otherwise prefer to launch in the U.S. might be expected to continue to choose jurisdictions with clearer regulatory regimes.

The SEC’s Second No-Action Relief for Digital Tokens: Meaningful Relief or a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?

Pocketful of Quarters, Inc. (PoQ) is the second-ever recipient of no-action relief from the Division of Corporation Finance of the Securities and Exchange Commission for the issuance of “Quarters.” Quarters are a digital arcade token that is usable, like its conventional physical counterparts, across participating games and platforms. This no-action relief evidences a more thoughtful and sophisticated approach to the regulation of digital tokens and, in that respect, is welcome news to an industry that has been adrift since SEC Chairman Clayton’s statement in December 2017 that “[b]y and large, the structures of initial coin offerings that [he has] seen promoted involve the offer and sale of securities.” This no-action relief, though arguably unnecessary because Quarters are clearly not securities, confirms that certain classes of tokens are not subject to the requirements of the federal securities laws. Moreover, the conditions and restrictions imposed by the no-action letter on the issuance and use of Quarters are so onerous that the relief granted, while reaffirming, is not groundbreaking.

In the no-action relief, the Chief Legal Advisor to FinHub indicated that, subject to conditions, the Division would not recommend enforcement action to the Commission if PoQ offers and sells Quarters without registering the tokens as securities under Section 5 of the Securities Act and Section 12(g) of the Exchange Act. Some of the more significant conditions are:

  • The Quarters will be immediately usable for their intended purposes (gaming) at the time they are sold;
  • PoQ will restrict the transfer of Quarters through technological and contractual provisions governing the Quarters and the Quarters Platform that restrict the transfer of Quarters to PoQ or to wallets on the Quarters Platform;
  • Gamers will only be able to transfer Quarters to addresses of Developers with Approved Accounts or to PoQ in connection with participation in e-sports tournaments;
  • Only Developers and Influencers with Approved Accounts will be capable of exchanging Quarters for ETH at pre-determined exchange rates by transferring their Quarters to the Quarters Smart Contract;
  • Quarters will be made continuously available to gamers in unlimited quantities at a fixed price;
  • PoQ will market and sell Quarters to gamers solely for consumptive use as a means of accessing and interacting with Participating Games.

Considered as a whole, these conditions are so restrictive and duplicative that they raise doubt as to the necessity of the relief. For example, since Quarters will be made continuously available in unlimited quantities at a fixed price, no reasonable purchaser can expect the price of Quarters to increase and therefore cannot expect to profit from the purchase of Quarters. Accordingly, the transfer and secondary market trading restrictions are superfluous, and by highlighting them as a condition of the relief, CorpFin is effectively imposing conditions on a non-security.

Commissioner Hester Pierce raised a similar concern regarding the staff’s issuance of the first token no-action letter to TurnKey Jet, a charter jet company that sought to tokenize gift cards that could be used to charter its jet services. She stated that the offering of Turnkey tokens is so “clearly not an offer of securities that I worry the staff’s issuance of a digital token no-action letter . . . may in fact have the effect of broadening the perceived reach of our securities laws.” She continued by stating that the Turnkey no-action letter “effectively imposed conditions on a non-security.” Nevertheless, the Quarter’s no-action relief should be touted because it reestablishes the possibility of issuing a digital token that is not a security.

There are three additional aspects of PoQ’s letter requesting no-action relief that merit special attention: (i) the two-tiered token approach used by PoQ; (ii) the built-in token economics managed by a smart contract; and (iii) the condition that KYC/AML compliance reviews must be made at account initiation and on an ongoing basis.

First, Quarters are the second class of tokens that PoQ will issue, but the only one for which it sought no-action relief. PoQ conceded that the first class of tokens PoQ issued, “Q2 Tokens,” are securities, which were sold to investors through an exempt offering to raise funds to build the Quarters platform. The holders of the Q2 Tokens will benefit from the sale of Quarters by receiving, ratably, 15% of the funds collected from the sale of Quarters. This, or a similar, structure could prove beneficial to other investors that purchased tokens through an exempt offering and are now waiting for a return on their investment.

Next, the no-action relief implicitly approves the token economics of the PoQ network. According to PoQ’s letter requesting no-action relief, a portion of the funds received from the sale of Quarters will be used to compensate developers, influencers and Q2 Token holders in ETH. The funds distribution process will be managed by a smart contract. If Quarters are purchased with fiat currency, PoQ will transfer an equivalent amount of ETH to the Quarters Smart Contract upon such purchases for the purposes of such compensation.

Last, the no-action request raises, but leaves unanswered, a question pertinent to all token issuers: whether PoQ or any participant on the Quarters Platform must register with FinCEN as a money services business. Although this question is left unanswered, it appears that PoQ has built in some processes that would be required if it were a registered MSB. For example, a condition of the no-action relief states that: “to create an Approved Account, Developers and Influencers will be subject to KYC/AML checks at account initiation as well as on an ongoing basis.” In addition, the no-action request explains that purchases of Quarters through the PoQ Website “will occur via a licensed payment processor.” Similarly, purchases made through the Apple App store and Google Play store will occur via the standard payment processing solutions generally applicable to purchases made through those platforms; it is possible that this system was put in place to take advantage of one of the money transmitter exemptions such as the payment processor exemption. For the time being, however, it appears that PoQ has not registered with FinCEN; PoQ does not appear as a registered entity on FinCEN’s MSB Registrant database.

Though restrictive in its terms, the Quarters no-action relief demonstrates the SEC’s willingness to engage with token issuers and permit use of cryptocurrency outside of the SEC’s regulation, although the agency does not appear ready to give the concept free reign.

SEC/FINRA Joint Statement on Digital Asset Securities Does Not Address Regulatory Log Jam

Last week, the Staffs of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) (collectively, the Staffs) released a Joint Statement concerning the application of the SEC’s Customer Protection Rule and other federal laws and regulations to transactions in digital asset securities. The Joint Statement is the result of months of dialogue among the Staffs and industry participants regarding the practical application of the federal securities laws to emerging digital technologies. Nonetheless, it gives no indication as to when FINRA expects to begin working down its backlog of applications from broker-dealers seeking to facilitate markets in digital asset securities.

The Customer Protection Rule

The Joint Statement primarily addresses the application of SEC Rule 15c3-3, the Customer Protection Rule, to federally registered broker-dealers taking custody over their customers’ digital asset securities. The Customer Protection Rule requires broker-dealers to segregate customer assets in specially protected accounts, thereby increasing the likelihood that customers will be able to withdraw their assets even if the broker-dealer becomes insolvent. To comply with the rule, broker-dealers must either physically hold customers’ fully paid and excess margin securities or deposit them at the Depository Trust Company, a clearing bank, or other “good control location” free of any liens or encumberments. This infrastructure additionally protects customers by allowing mistaken or unauthorized transactions to be reversed or canceled.

While the Customer Protection Rule applies to both traditional and digital asset securities, the Staffs advised that broker-dealers taking custody over digital asset securities may need to take additional precautions to respond to unique risks presented by these emerging technologies. For instance, there may be greater risk that a broker-dealer maintaining custody of digital asset securities could become the victim of fraud or theft or could lose the “private key” required to transfer a client’s digital asset securities. Further, another party could hold a copy of the private key without the broker-dealer’s knowledge and transfer the digital asset security without the broker-dealer’s consent. The Staffs noted that an estimated $1.7 billion worth of digital assets was stolen in 2018, of which approximately $950 million resulted from cyberattacks on bitcoin trading platforms. These risks could cause customers to suffer losses and create liabilities for the broker-dealer and its creditors.

The Staffs noted that broker-dealer activities that do not involve custody functions do not trigger the Customer Protection Rule. Examples of such activities include the facilitation of bilateral transactions between buyers and sellers similar to traditional private placements or “over the counter” secondary market transactions. These transactions do not “raise the same level of concern among the Staffs” as do transactions in which the broker-dealer assumes custody over the securities.

Other Federal Regulations

The Staffs advised broker-dealers to consider how distributed ledger technology may impact their ability to comply with broker-dealer recordkeeping and reporting rules. Because transactions in digital asset securities are recorded on distributed ledgers such as blockchains rather than traditional ledgers, broker-dealers may find it more difficult to evidence the existence of these digital asset securities on financial statements and to provide sufficient detail about these assets to independent auditors.

Finally, the Staffs discussed the application of the Securities Investor Protection Act (SIPA) to broker-dealers exercising custody over digital assets. In the event a broker-dealer is liquidated, SIPA gives securities customers first-priority claims to securities and cash deposited with the broker-dealer. However, the Joint Statement notes that SIPA’s definition of “security” is different than the federal securities laws definitions. For example, the definition in SIPA of “security” excludes an investment contract or interest that is not the subject of a registration statement with the Commission pursuant to the provisions of the Securities Act of 1933. Consequently, customers whose digital assets are subject to the Customer Protection Rule and other federal regulations may only have an unsecured general creditor claim against their broker-dealer’s estate in the event their broker-dealer fails. The Staffs found that such outcomes are likely inconsistent with the expectations of investors in digital assets that do not qualify for SIPA protection.

Waiting Game

Absent from the Joint Statement is a clear answer to the question at the forefront of many industry participants’ minds: When will FINRA begin approving the dozens of applications of existing broker-dealers and new registrants seeking authority to offer a variety of custodial and non-custodial services with respect to digital assets? Applicants seeking to engage only in non-custodial activities, such as market-making, may be encouraged that the Staffs have indicated that those activities pose the least concern to federal regulators, and, presumptively, may be more readily approved. Nonetheless, the Staffs have given no indication that FINRA will prioritize processing applications seeking authority to provide only non-custodial services currently in its backlog, or when such applications will once again be approved.

Meanwhile, the Joint Statement underscores that considerable uncertainty remains regarding the application of existing laws and regulations to broker-dealer activities involving the custody of digital assets. While the Staffs invite broker-dealers and other industry participants to continue to engage with federal regulators to develop workable methodologies for securely carrying customers’ digital assets, industry participants hoping to get a firm answer as to when secondary market trading in digital asset securities will gain federal regulators’ seal of approval will have to keep waiting.