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.

Growing cannabis, especially indoors, is energy-intensive. It can take upwards of 5,000 kWh to grow just one kilogram of cannabis (2,000 kWh to grow one pound) as compared to 10,000 kWh of energy to power a residence in the United States for one year. Recent reports show that the cannabis industry is having a significant impact on the use of electricity in states that have legalized it for medical and/or adult use. In 2015, various reports concluded that cannabis growers accounted for approximately 1.7% of the United States’ total electricity usage, a cost of upwards of $6 billion. The vast majority of states that have legalized cannabis cultivation, for medical and/or adult use, have not addressed the issues surrounding energy consumption prior to enacting legislation. As a result, municipal governments, state agencies and public utilities have had to take a reactive approach to the astronomical utilization of energy.

Currently, states and municipal governments that have legalized medical and/or adult use are implementing various techniques in order to curtail electricity use. The techniques vary, but the most common are taxes and/or fees on energy consumption. For example, Boulder County, Colorado has a requirement that growers either offset energy consumption with the use of renewable energy or pay a $0.02 charge per kWh of energy use. In addition, some state regulations have an adverse effect on energy consumption and compliance results in an increase in energy consumption by growers. For example, when Pennsylvania legalized cannabis in 2016 for medical use, its regulations required growers to contain their entire crop in indoor facilities  without addressing how the State would cope with the corresponding energy use from such requirement.

Although New Jersey has not yet weighed in on the energy use issues associated with the emerging cannabis industry, it is imperative that growers (and those that are contemplating growing operations) consider the impacts of their operations regarding electricity use in order to be prepared for any future regulations and/or taxes that might negatively affect their operations and profitability.

Upon assuming office earlier this year, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy emphasized his intention to legalize marijuana for adult use throughout the State as a priority item. To that end, the State of New Jersey has already taken visible steps toward legalization, namely through the recent introduction of proposed legislation in both the State Senate and Assembly.

Senate Bill 830 and Assembly Bill 1348 (collectively, the “NJ Bill”) propose  legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use for persons age 21 and over, and set forth a licensing scheme intended to facilitate the manufacturing, production and distribution of marijuana across the State. The NJ Bill would establish the Division of Marijuana Enforcement, a governmental agency vested with broad oversight and implementation authority pertaining to enforcement, licensing and general regulation. The regulations to be promulgated to facilitate implementation of the NJ Bill set forth, among other things, a proposed sales/transfer taxation scheme, in addition to regulations regarding advertising and marketing of marijuana products.

Introduction of the NJ Bill comes almost concurrently with the introduction of similar federal bills, Senate Bill 1689 and House Bill 4815, sponsored notably by Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and co-sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. The push for legalization also comes amidst policy change at the federal level, following U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions’s decision to overturn the Obama administration’s “Cole Memo” and issue a new memo, once again placing state-compliant marijuana-related businesses at risk of federal prosecution under the Controlled Substances Act.

Despite being a priority item for Governor Murphy, the legalization movement has encountered some skepticism and resistance. According to a survey recently conducted by NJ Cannabis Insider, the NJ Bill would fail in the State Senate if a vote were conducted today – with only 5 of the 40 senators polled committing to an affirmative vote in favor of the proposed legislation. Another 20 members indicated that they would vote against the NJ Bill, while 15 were either undecided or did not respond. Several New Jersey municipalities have also joined in the opposition, preemptively passing measures and/or resolving to oppose marijuana legalization and the institution of cannabis business enterprises within their bounds. Such locations include Middleton Township, Wall Township, Toms River and Seaside Heights.

While the NJ Bill remains pending, Governor Murphy has taken interim steps toward legalization, calling for a 60-day review of the State’s current medical marijuana program, potentially resulting in large-scale reforms to the program aimed at expanding access and loosening restrictions on both prescribers and users. These anticipated reforms, together with the proposed legislation, present a unique opportunity for entrepreneurs and investors to get in on the ground floor of what appears to be a rapidly emerging market sector.

 

Cheers!  New Jersey’s Agricultural and Natural Resources Committee voted 5-0 last week in favor of bill A2196.  The bill is designed, among other things, to eliminate the current “mandatory tour” obligation imposed upon New Jersey’s craft brewers.  Under the current state of the law, craft brewers are required to provide a tour of their facilities each and every time a patron enters the premises to purchase the breweries’ products for on-site consumption – whether it is the individuals first or one-hundredth time visiting the facility.  If passed, the pending legislation will alleviate craft breweries of this oft-criticized requirement in the hopes of placing New Jersey brewers on par with their competitors in neighboring states where such tours are not required.

As the bill continues to gain steam among craft brewers, many New Jersey bars and restaurants have expressed opposition.  These groups fear that the bill will provide breweries with an end-run around the steep costs of obtaining liquor licenses and thereby unfairly compete in the market.

At the present time, the bill is awaiting a second reading before the State Assembly.

As a result of the well-publicized scandals involving LIBOR rate manipulation, British regulators announced plans in July 2017 to phase-out LIBOR by 2021 and replace it with a more reliable benchmark.  In addition to other markets, the LIBOR phase-out will have a broad impact on the $4 trillion syndicated loan market, including currently existing loan documents that extend past 2021.  Specifically, in the case of loan documents that reference a LIBOR rate and automatically fall back to prime or base rate if LIBOR is unavailable, the permanent phase-out of LIBOR will likely lead to the imposition of a higher interest rate if this fallback language is not amended.  However, because LIBOR’s replacement has not yet been determined and the phase-out is at least three years away, it is probably premature at this time for borrowers to proactively seek amendments to their credit agreements.  That being said, there are a few steps that borrowers can take now to be prepared.

BACKGROUND

The London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) has been the global borrowing interest rate benchmark for nearly 50 years.  Many borrowers pay interest under their credit agreements based upon a LIBOR interest rate, which is typically defined first by reference to the screen rate published by ICE Benchmark Administration Limited (IBA), and then to an alternative reference source if the screen rate is unavailable.  Although the LIBOR rate is intended to represent the rate of interest at which major banks in London actually loan funds to each other, the financial crisis liquidity in the LIBOR market has dropped significantly to the point where more than 70% of 3-month LIBOR submissions are based on the judgment of the submitting bank as opposed to actual transactions.  Due to this lack of liquidity and the negative publicity surrounding the LIBOR scandal, the United Kingdom Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which has regulated LIBOR since April 2013, urged the phase-out of LIBOR by the end of 2021 and a transition to an alternative reference rate based on market transactions.

The uncertainty surrounding LIBOR’s fate is twofold.  First, although the FCA has encouraged the phase-out of LIBOR, it has stressed that the phase-out is not mandatory and, further, that the IBA may continue to produce LIBOR rates after 2021 if it chooses to do so.  Because of this, some commentators believe that LIBOR may continue to be quoted well beyond 2021 side-by-side with LIBOR’s replacement.  Second, the FCA has put the burden of finding LIBOR’s replacement primarily on market participants, who have not yet settled on an alternative rate.  The front runners at this point appear to be the Broad Treasury Financing Rate (BTFR) in the U.S., and the Sterling Overnight Index Average (SONIA) in the U.K., each of which is being considered as a replacement rate in the derivatives market.  However, neither of these rates are ready replacements for LIBOR in the lending market because (i) each is an overnight rate as opposed to LIBOR, which is quoted for seven borrowing periods ranging from overnight to one year, and (ii) each is based on past transactions (i.e., each is “backward looking”) as opposed to LIBOR, which is a stated rate for a forward-looking term.

WHAT BORROWERS CAN DO TO PREPARE

The first thing borrowers can do is review their existing credit agreements to see how the interest rate is determined if LIBOR no longer exists.  Although some credit agreements, such as the LSTA and LMA models, contain provisions that fall back to a waterfall of alternative reference rates if LIBOR is unavailable, such as a reference bank rate (i.e., an average of quotes of rates in the wholesale markets), the lenders’ cost of funds, or an alternative rate, many do not contain any fallback other than to simply default to base or prime rate loans.  As these rates are historically higher than the LIBOR rate, they can lead to the borrower incurring a significantly higher interest expense than it anticipated at the time the borrower entered into the loan.  However, even if a borrower is faced with a potential rate increase, given the uncertainty of both the timing of LIBOR’s phase-out and the replacement for the LIBOR rate, it is probably premature for it to approach its lender seeking an amendment.

If a borrower sees a potential issue with its LIBOR fallback language, it should closely monitor the marketplace to determine when and if it needs to take action.  Given the magnitude that LIBOR’s phase-out will have on the loan market, it is highly unlikely that the market will not do all that it can well in advance of the phase-out to effectuate a smooth transition to an alternative standard.  In particular, it is likely that LIBOR’s replacement will be determined well in advance of 2021 so borrowers can assess the impact on their credit agreements and be prepared to take appropriate action (e.g., seeking an amendment or prepaying the loan).  Further, it is also likely that the FCA will have signaled whether it will continue to quote LIBOR after the phase-out and, if so, for how long.  Depending on the length of time FCA continues to do so, borrowers with loans that mature past 2021 may be able to avoid amending their agreements entirely.  Finally, by the time the phase-out is implemented, the market will have likely settled on a standard for appropriate LIBOR fallback language, which should then be much easier to incorporate into existing loan documents than starting from scratch.  In short, although the temptation as a borrower may be to get ahead of the potential problem by proactively seeking an amendment, the best course of action is to monitor the situation and take a wait-and-see approach. One caveat to this is the situation where a borrower is already in the process of amending its credit agreement for other reasons, in which case it may as well amend the LIBOR fallback provision since the marginal cost of doing so is minimal.