Keyword: digital tokens

SEC and FINRA Confirm Digital Assets a 2019 Examination Priority

Recently, the Staffs of the SEC and FINRA announced their annual examination and regulatory priorities: the SEC’s Office of Compliance, Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) issued its 2019 Examination Priorities just before its employees were sent home on furlough, and FINRA issued its 2019 Risk Monitoring and Examination Priorities Letter last week, several weeks later than its usual first-of-the-year release. The high points and overlap of the two releases are covered in an Orrick Client Alert, but for purposes of On the Chain, we will briefly discuss the two regulators’ not-surprising designation of digital currency as one of their priorities.

The priorities letters clearly telegraph both regulators’ intentions to examine firms’ participation in the digital assets marketplace. OCIE flags digital assets as a concern because of the market’s significant growth and risks. OCIE indicates that it will issue high-level inquiries designed first to identify market participants offering, selling, trading, and managing these assets, or considering or actively seeking to offer these products. Once it identifies those participants, OCIE will then assess the extent of their activities and examine firms focused on “portfolio management of digital assets, trading, safety of client funds and assets, pricing of client portfolios, compliance, and internal controls.”

For its part, FINRA treats digital assets under the heading of “Operational Risks,” and encourages firms to notify it if they plan to engage in activities related to digital assets, even, curiously, “where a membership application is not required.” In this context, FINRA references its Regulation Notice 18-20, July 6, 2018, which is headlined “FINRA Encourages Firms to Notify FIRNA If They Engage in Activities Related to Digital Assets.” These initiatives provide a partial explanation for the long-expected delays in FINRA granting member firms explicit authority to effect transactions in digital assets.

FINRA also states its intention to review these activities and assess firms’ compliance with applicable securities laws and regulations and related supervisory, compliance and operational controls to mitigate the risks associated with such activities. FINRA states that it will look at whether firms have implemented adequate controls and supervision over compliance with rules related to the marketing, sale, execution, control, clearance, recordkeeping and valuation of digital assets, as well as AML/Bank Secrecy Act rules and regulations. These issues are addressed in detail in FINRA’s January 2017 report on “Distributed Ledger Technology: Implications of Blockchain for the Securities Industry.”

The SEC and FINRA clearly will seek to align their concerns about firms participating in the digital asset markets and the compliance and supervision standards to which they will hold them. The regulators’ jurisdiction overlaps, but the SEC’s is broader – it extends to all issuers, while FINRA would be limited only to those issuers that are member broker-dealer firms. The SEC also has jurisdiction over investment advisers, while FINRA again is limited to those advisers who are members. And because the SEC effectively owns the definition of security, FINRA also states its intention to coordinate closely with the SEC in considering how firms determine whether a particular digital asset is a security. At the same time, FINRA has jurisdiction over any activities engaged in by broker-dealers with respect to its customers, even those that do not involve a security, meaning that a member firm’s transactions in or custody of, for example, bitcoin – declared by the SEC not to be a security – still will implicate FINRA’s oversight.

The regulators’ coordination on their digital currency reviews will likely not diminish regulatory attention, but at least it will provide industry participants some comfort that coordinated thought is being given to how best to regulate this emerging area.

Transactors in Digital Tokens – New Bill Offers Hope

On December 20, 2018, Representatives Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) and Darren Soto (D-Fla) offered some early holiday hope to digital token issuers by introducing the “Token Taxonomy Act” (the TTA). If passed, the TTA would exclude “digital tokens” from the federal securities laws and would undoubtedly have profound effects for the U.S. digital token economy. The TTA is an ambitious piece of legislation that faces an uncertain future. Nevertheless, Representatives Davidson and Soto should be commended for attempting to provide some regulatory relief and certainty to an industry that has been yearning for it.

In addition to exempting digital tokens from the securities laws, the TTA would amend the Internal Revenue Code and classify the exchange of digital tokens as like-kind exchanges under Section 1031, and allow digital tokens to be held by retirement accounts.

The TTA would also amend language in the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 and the Investment Company Act of 1940 so that state-regulated trust companies, which include broker dealers, investment advisors and investment companies, would be able to hold digital assets for customers.

According to the TTA’s authors, the intention behind the bill is to provide much-needed regulatory certainty to digital token issuers and to ensure the U.S. remains competitive against other countries like Switzerland, where blockchain startups are thriving.

However, the TTA’s benefits are hypothetical at this point, since it is likely to be opposed by the SEC. On November 30, 2018, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton opined at a New York Times-hosted event that SEC rules were made by “geniuses” and “have stood the test of time.” He stated that he did not foresee changing rules “just to fit a technology.” While he was not referring specifically to the TTA, these comments indicate an unwillingness by the SEC to change its longstanding rules to accommodate a nascent technology.

Even if the bill is passed, it would permit the SEC to determine whether a particular digital unit qualifies as a security and therefore is subject to the SEC’s regulation. The SEC thus would have the power to halt an offering and force compliance with the applicable securities laws. The TTA would spare issuers from any penalties if they have acted in good faith and take reasonable steps to cease sales. But with an unclear, and a potentially costly or lengthy, appeals process, the SEC could discourage issuers from taking the risk of attempting to qualify and sell digital tokens from the start. This provision would blunt the intended deregulatory impact of the TTA.

Although its future is uncertain, the TTA shows that there are government leaders that are listening to the concerns of the digital token issuers. If the TTA is introduced in the 116th Congress, it will be a piece of legislation worth tracking. Even if this particular bill is not enacted, it might point the way to other legislation whose passage might provide some regulatory relief to those who transact in digital tokens.

The CFTC Wants to Know More About Ether: Your Feedback Could Impact Ether Futures in 2019

The CFTC is giving the public an opportunity to influence its views as they relate to Ethereum, Ether or similar virtual currencies or projects. On December 11, 2018 the CFTC issued a Request for Information (the “Request”) seeking public comments and feedback on Ether and the Ethereum Network. The Request “seeks to understand similarities and distinctions between certain virtual currencies, including Ether and Bitcoin, as well as Ether-specific opportunities, challenges, and risks,” according to the accompanying press release. The version of the Request published in the Federal Register states that public comments must be received on or before February 15, 2019.

Individuals and companies involved in cryptocurrency, especially if related to the Ethereum Network or one of its competitors, should consider making a submission. The Request states that information submitted to the CFTC will be used to inform the work of LabCFTC (a dedicated function of the CFTC, launched in 2017 to “make the CFTC more accessible to FinTech innovators”) and the CFTC as a whole. It appears likely that the CFTC will look to the submissions to assist it in deciding whether to green light Ether futures trading.

Of the over 2,000 cryptocurrencies currently in circulation, Bitcoin is the only one for which futures contracts are traded on regulated futures exchanges. Bitcoin is also the only cryptocurrency which the SEC (through Chairman Clayton’s testimony) has officially deemed not to be a security. As mentioned in the Request, a certain SEC senior official recently stated that offers and sales of Ether, in its current state, are not securities transactions. The SEC’s stance on Ether likely paves the way for the CFTC to green-light regulated futures exchanges, such as the Chicago Board Options Exchange, to offer Ether futures contracts.

The cryptocurrency market is desperate for some good news to pull it out of the prolonged bear market it is currently enduring. Many had hoped that the announcement of Ether futures would be the catalyst that turns the market around. It appears possible that the CFTC will authorize Ether futures contracts, once it has reviewed the comments submitted in response to this request.

 

HMRC Publishes UK Tax Guidance on Cryptocurrency for Individuals

On December 19, HM Revenue and Customs (“HMRC”), the UK’s counterpart to the US Treasury, published long-awaited (and arguably long overdue) guidance on the taxation of cryptocurrencies (which it refers to as “cryptoassets”), building on the UK government’s Cryptoassets Taskforce’s report that was published last year. This guidance is welcome in an area of law that needs to play catch-up to apply to income and gains on technology and digital assets. It is important to note that this guidance is limited to HMRC’s view in relation to individuals holding cryptoassets and does not extend to tokens or assets held by businesses. However, HMRC states its intention to publish further guidance in relation to the taxation of cryptoasset transactions involving business and companies sometime in the future.

The guidance confirms that HMRC does not consider cryptoassets to be currency or money for tax purposes and separates cryptoassets into three categories of “tokens”: exchange tokens, utility tokens and security tokens. This guidance focuses on the taxation of “exchange tokens,” a term encompassing assets such as Bitcoin, which presumably it considers to be the most prevalent and widespread. The approach is very similar to the IRS’ approach in this area in Notice 2014-21. HMRC considers that in the “vast majority” of cases, individuals hold (and acquire and dispose of) cryptoassets as part of a personal investment and will, therefore, be liable to capital gains tax. The analysis of whether the cryptoassets are held in the nature of a trade or an investment, and the consequential tax treatment, will largely follow the existing approach and case law but HMRC only expects individuals to be buying and selling cryptoassets with such frequency, level of organization and sophistication such that it amounts to a financial trade in itself in “exceptional circumstances”. If, following the application of the traditional analysis, the cryptoassets are considered to be held as part of a trade, then the Income Tax provisions will take priority over the capital gains tax provisions.

Individuals will be liable to Income Tax (and national insurance contribution, where appropriate) on cryptoassets which they receive from their employer as a form of non-cash payment (and which may be collected via withholding tax) and/or in return for “mining” the cryptoassets, “transaction confirmations” or “airdrops” The guidance describes these transactions and the applicable taxes. As discussed in the guidance, miners are the people that verify additions to the blockchain ledger. They may receive either cryptocurrency or fees for this function. An airdrop is where someone receives an allocation of tokens or other cryptoassets, for example as part of a marketing or advertising campaign in which people are selected to receive them. As pointed out in the guidance, while the receipt of cryptoassets is often subject to the income tax, appreciation will be subject to capital gains tax upon disposition.

In addition to the tax analysis, HMRC points out that cryptoasset exchanges might only keep records of transactions for a short period, or the exchange might no longer be in existence when an individual completes their tax return. The onus is, therefore, on individuals to keep separate and sufficient records for each cryptoasset transaction for the purposes of their tax records.

Despite Alleged Fraud, Judge Denies SEC’s Preliminary Injunction Request Based on Howey

Despite evidence of egregious fraud in the marketing of tokens, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California recently held the line against the SEC and denied its request for a preliminary injunction. In doing so, the court reaffirmed that in order for an injunction to be issued, the SEC must make a compelling showing that the tokens qualify as securities under the Howey test.

In Securities and Exchange Commission v. Blockvest, LLC et al., Judge Curiel of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California ruled on November 27, 2018, on a request by the SEC for a preliminary injunction against Blockvest, LLC and its principal Reginald Ringgold. The SEC’s request for a preliminary injunction came six weeks after the court granted a temporary restraining order in the SEC’s favor.

To obtain a preliminary injunction, the SEC bore the burden of showing that Blockvest and Ringgold committed a prima facie case of a securities law violation, and that such violation would likely repeat.  Specifically, the SEC alleged that Blockvest and Ringgold had engaged in an unregistered securities offering when selling proprietary BLV tokens to 32 individuals. The SEC argued that under the Howey test, these tokens qualified as securities because Blockvest and Ringgold engaged in a marketing campaign to induce purchasers to believe that, based on the efforts of Ringgold and Blockvest’s employees, the tokens would appreciate in value. Blockvest’s and Ringgold’s wrong would allegedly repeat because Ringgold demonstrated disregard for the SEC’s enforcement efforts in the days immediately after the initial delivery of its complaint.

Compounding the SEC’s case was the allegedly egregious fraud perpetrated by the Defendants. Ringgold represented that his offering was endorsed by the SEC, CFTC, and Deloitte Touche, as well as a fictional regulatory agency called the “Bitcoin Exchange Commission” that had the same address as the SEC and a seal modelled upon the seal of the SEC.

Despite the strong allegations of fraud, Judge Curiel denied the preliminary injunction because he gave credence to the Defendants’ rebuttals, and because the SEC had failed to make a compelling case. For instance, the court considered Ringgold’s assertion that the alleged 32 token purchasers were simply testers who had no expectation of profit; indeed, the pre-sale program through which the purchasers obtained the tokens had not yet even been cleared by the company’s compliance officer and the website where the purchases allegedly occurred was not operational.

All told, the court found that the SEC could not show that under the Howey test, any purchase based on an expectation of profit had actually occurred.  Likewise, the court concluded that the SEC could not show a reasonable likelihood of repetition of the wrong because no wrong had occurred in the first place, and Ringgold demonstrated intent to comply with securities laws going forward.

SEC Finds Digital Tokens Issued in Exchange for Services Can Still Constitute Securities

In a recent settled enforcement action, In the Matter of Tomahawk Exploration LLC and David Thompson Laurance, the SEC found that the issuance of digital tokens in exchange for services, rather than money, can still constitute an offering of securities.

Learn what this decision might mean for the future of initial coin offerings from this recent Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Alert.