Securities Laws and Regulation

On June 14, 2018, the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance Director, William Hinman, gave a speech titled “Digital Asset Transactions: When Howey Met Gary (Plastic).”  This speech provides additional insight into the SEC’s view as to whether cryptocurrencies and initial coin offerings (“ICOs”) are securities.  Here is a summary:

In his speech, Hinman explains that ICOs typically involve passive investors who purchase tokens in hopes that a promoter builds a successful network.  He posits that the networks involved are rarely functional, and that the token purchase “looks a lot more like a bet on the success of the enterprise and not a purchase of something used to exchange for goods or services on the network.”  These circumstances, combined with token marketing efforts that “are rarely narrowly targeted to token users,” are indicators that an ICO is a securities transaction.

ICO issuers have recently tried to avoid their tokens being classified as securities by labeling them “utility tokens” and arguing that the tokens are for consumptive use.  Hinman directly addresses this practice, stating that labeling something a “utility token” does not prevent it from being a security. While he conceded that tokens by themselves and tokens purchased for consumption only are likely not securities, he emphasized that the “economic substance of the transaction” determines whether a token sale is a securities transaction.  Specifically, the speech focused on the “investment strategy” used, and states that “virtually any assets” can be securities “provided the investor is reasonably expecting profits from the promoter’s efforts.”

To support the above concept that securities can be broadly defined to include an “investment strategy,”  Hinman explains that, as outlined in Gary Plastic Packaging Corp. v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., the Howey test “is not static and does not strictly inhere to the instrument.”  The non-static interpretation of Howey is critical because it indicates that tokens which start as securities can lose that designation over time as a token’s network becomes “sufficiently decentralized.”  Hinman clarified that a security-token loses its status as a security when it becomes decentralized enough that purchasers “no longer reasonably expect a person or group to carry out essential managerial or entrepreneurial efforts,”  noting that, as a system becomes increasingly decentralized, “material information asymmetries recede” and the “ability to identity an issuer or promoter to make the requisite disclosure [required in securities offerings] becomes difficult, and less meaningful.”  This interpretation rewards systems that prioritize decentralization with a shield from securities laws, but creates ambiguity regarding the requirements for a network to become “sufficiently decentralized.”

In light of the above, Hinman finds that Bitcoin and Ethereum’s native token, Ether, are not securities because they are decentralized enough that the efforts of others are not a “key determining factor” in whether an investment in Bitcoin or Ether is successful.  The speech adds that applying the disclosure regime of the federal securities laws to Bitcoin and Ethereum transactions would “add little value”, and that, “[o]ver time, there may be other sufficiently decentralized networks and systems where regulating the tokens or coins that function on them as securities may not be required.”

The first two weeks in March 2018 have seen a number of developments with respect to the regulation of cryptocurrencies in the United States.

Regulation of Online Cryptocurrency Trading Platforms

On March 7, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued a release addressing the regulation of online trading platforms (or exchanges) on which investors have bought and sold digital assets, including coins or tokens sold in initial coin offerings (“ICOs”).  Consistent with prior SEC articulated positions, the SEC stated that many of these tokens sold in an ICO meet the definition of a “security” and accordingly these trading platforms on which ICO tokens trade should register with the SEC as a national securities exchange or alternative trading system unless exempt from registration.  In its release, the SEC expressed its concern that many of these trading platforms may appear to investors as SEC-regulated exchanges, but are not and do not meet the regulatory and listing standards of a registered exchange. In light of this, in its release, the SEC listed a series of questions that investors should ask before trading assets on an online trading platform.  These include, but are not limited to, asking if:  (i) is the platform registered as a national securities exchange or an ATS with the SEC?; (ii) is there information in FINRA’s BrokerCheck ® about any individuals or firms operating the platform?; (iii) how does the platform select digital assets for trading?; (iv) what are the trading protocols?; (v) how are prices set on the platform?; (vi) how does the platform safeguard users’ trading and personal identifying information?; (vii) what are the platform’s protections against cybersecurity threats, such as hacking or intrusions?; and (viii) does the platform hold users’ assets?  If so, how are these assets safeguarded?  For a complete list of these questions and a copy of this SEC release see SEC Release.

Money Transmitter Rules Apply to Initial Coin Offerings

In a letter published March 6, 2018 by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), which had previously been sent on February 13, 2018 to Senator Ron Wyden of the Senate Committee on Finance, FinCEN reiterated that in combatting the financing of terrorism (“CFT”) and illicit financing of criminal activity, the Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) and anti-money laundering (“AML”) laws and regulations applied to virtual currency exchanges and administrators that are based in the United States or that do business in whole or substantial part in the United States. These would include “a developer that sells convertible virtual currency, including in the form of … ICO coins or tokens, in exchange for another type of value that substitutes for currency….” FinCEN indicated that these exchanges and administrators would be considered a money transmitter who would have to be register with FinCEN as a money service business (“MSB”) with an established written AML compliance program designed to mitigate money laundering risks. These AML/CFT compliance programs would include filing of BSA suspicious activity and currency reports, maintaining records for certain transactions over some monetary threshold and obtaining customer identification information. The letter also clarified that in the case of an ICO that is structured as a sale of a security or derivative, the participants in the ICO could be subject to regulation by the SEC or the Commodity Futures and Trading Commission (“CFTC”).  In such cases, the SEC or CFTC AML/CFT requirements would apply.  Companies and exchanges involved in ICOs should consult legal counsel to clarify and satisfy their respective AML/CFT obligations.

U.S. District Court  Rules that the CFTC has Authority to Regulate Cryptocurrencies Not Involving Derivatives

In a Memorandum and Decision of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, issued on March 8, 2018, Judge Jack Weinstein issued a ruling as to the authority of the CFTC to prosecute a fraud case that it had brought against Patrick Kerry McDonnell, the operator of a cryptocurrency business.  Defendant McDonnell was alleged to have “operated a deceptive and fraudulent virtual currency scheme” whereby his company solicited investments from investors to assist them in purchasing and trading Bitcoin and Litecoin, but instead misappropriated their funds.  In his ruling, Judge Weinstein, after discussing the definition of a commodity under the Commodity Exchange Act (“CEA”) and relying, in part, on a 2015 CFTC administrative ruling that cryptocurrencies were commodities, held that “virtual currencies can be regulated by CFTC as a commodity,” and that, in the absence of federal rules, the CEA permitted the CFTC in a fraud case to exercise its jurisdiction over cryptocurrencies that did not directly involve the sale of futures or derivative contracts.

Judge Weinstein ruled that the CFTC could proceed prosecuting the case against the defendant and granted a preliminary injunction barring the defendant from further engagement in cryptocurrency investments as the case continues. For a copy of the case, see CFTC v. McDonnell.

The SEC has adopted final rules to address intrastate and small offerings, further expanding and modernizing the manner in which start-ups and other small businesses are able to raise capital.  The final rules amend Rule 147 under the Securities Act of 1933, as amended (the “Securities Act”) to facilitate the continued application of intrastate offering exemptions under State securities laws, including States’ crowdfunding provisions. The rules also create a new exemption, Rule 147A, which will permit general solicitation (including via internet) and will permit sales to residents within a State where the issuer was formed or where such issuer has its principal place of business.  In addition, the final rules amend Rule 504 to increase the aggregate amount of securities that may be offered and sold in any 12-month period from $1 million to $5 million, while repealing Rule 505 that limited such offerings to accredited investors and to up to 35 other persons who do not satisfy the financial sophistication standards.

The new Rule 147A and the amended Rule 147 include the following provisions:

  • A requirement that the issuer either (a) is formed or (b) has its principal place of business within the State in which the securities are sold (without requiring that issuers be incorporated or organized in the State where they are making the exempt offering under the new rules), and that the issuer satisfy at least one “doing business” requirement;
  • A new “reasonable belief” standard for determining the residence of the purchaser at the time of the sale of securities;
  • A requirement that the issuer obtain a written representation from each purchaser regarding the purchaser’s residency;
  • A six-month limit on resales to persons residing within the State or territory of the offering only;
  • An integration safe harbor that would include any prior offers or sales of securities made by the issuer under another provision, as well as certain subsequent offers or resales of securities by the issuer after the completion of the offering; and
  • Disclosure requirements, including legend requirements, regarding limitations on resales.

The amended Rule 504 retains the existing requirements, with the following changes:

  • An increase in the aggregate amount of securities that may be offered and sold in any 12-month period from $1 million to $5 million; and
  • A disqualification of bad actors from participating in an offering (consistent with the requirement of Rule 506).

The final rules also repealed the exemption previously provided under Rule 505. The amended Rule 147 and new Rule 147A will be effective 150 days after publication in the Federal Register.  The amended Rule 504 will be effective 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.  The repeal of Rule 505 will be effective 180 days after publication in the Federal Register.

The final rules are available here.

The SEC’s recently-adopted changes to Form ADV and Rule 204-2 of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, as amended (the so-called “books and records rule”), raise important considerations for many private fund advisers – particularly those that also advise separately managed accounts or that manage multiple funds through affiliated entities.

In particular, the amendments will: (1) call for the collection of more specific information about advisers’ separately managed accounts (“SMAs”), (2) permit so-called umbrella registration on a single Form ADV for affiliated advisers that participate in a single advisory business, and (3) impose several new disclosure and recordkeeping obligations on advisers.

The SMA-related amendments include the following additional disclosure items:

  • Approximate percentage of SMA regulatory assets under management (“RAUM”) that are invested in 12 broad asset categories;
  • For advisors with at least $500 million in RAUM attributable to SMAs, the amount of RAUM attributable to SMAs and the dollar amount of borrowings attributable to those assets; and
  • Certain information about custodians that account for 10 percent or more of the adviser’s aggregate RAUM attributable to SMAs.

The umbrella registration-related amendments essentially modernize Form ADV to accommodate this form of registration and streamline the registration process consistent with the SEC’s position in the recent American Bar Association, Business Law Section, SEC Staff Letter (Jan. 18, 2012).  Note that these amendments do not extend to exempt reporting advisers and that certain conditions must be met in order for registered advisers to utilize umbrella registration, including:

  • The filing adviser and each relying adviser must advise only private funds and separately managed accounts in which the clients are “qualified clients”;
  • The relying advisers must be subject to examination by the SEC; and
  • The filing adviser and the relying advisers must operate under a single code of ethics and a single set of written compliance policies, and the procedures must be administered by a single CCO.

Separately, the amendments to Form ADV will call for new disclosures about advisers’ social media accounts, offices, and outsourced chief compliance officers (an area of recent focus by the SEC), among other things.

In conjunction with the amendments to Form ADV, the SEC also revised the books and records rule to require that advisers retain materials that demonstrate the calculation of performance or rates of return in any communications distributed to any person, as well as to maintain originals of all written communications received or copies of all written communications sent that relate to the performance or rate of return of managed accounts or securities recommendations.  Note that emails constitute “written communications” for these purposes.

Although the amendments to Form ADV and the revisions to the books and records rule do not go into effect until October 1, 2017, private fund advisers should consider what steps they should be taking now in order to be in a position to comply with these new requirements before the time comes.

The final rules are available here.

Earlier this month, the Securities and Exchange Commission approved amendments to, among other things, revise the rules related to the thresholds for registration, termination of registration, and suspension of reporting under Section 12(g) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (the “Exchange Act”).

The amendments, include establishing:

  • a higher threshold of (1) a minimum of $10 million in assets; and (2) 2,000 holders of record or 500 holders of record that are not “accredited investors” for an issuer to be required to register a class of equity pursuant to Rules 12(g)(1);
  • a higher threshold of 300 holders of record (or 500 holders of record, if total assets have not exceeded $10 million) below which an issuer may terminate registration under Rule 12g-4(a);
  • a higher threshold of 300 holders of record (or 500 holders of record, where if the issuer’s total assets have not exceeded $10 million) below which an issuer may suspend Exchange Act reporting under Rule 12h-3; and
  • flexibility in calculating securities “held of record” for purposes of determining registration requirements under Exchange Act Section 12(g) by permitting the exclusion of certain securities held by employees and other persons who receive them under employee compensation plans exempt from Section 5 of the Securities Act and establishing a non-exclusive safe harbor for determining securities “held of record” for purposes of Rule 12g5-1.

Thresholds were also amended for banks and savings and loan holding companies.

These amendments implement provisions of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (JOBS Act) and the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act and completes the rulemaking mandated by the JOBS Act. These rules generally harmonize the SEC rules with the statutory changes to the Exchange Act.

The amendments will become effective on June 9. 2016. The final rules are available here.