SEC Continues to Review, And Delay, Crypto Funds

On January 18, 2018, the SEC issued a letter to the Investment Company Institute and the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA) explaining why the SEC could not approve a cryptocurrency-related exchange traded fund (ETF) or mutual fund. The letter, authored by SEC Division of Investment Management director Dalia Blass, explains the SEC’s reservations and concerns about approving a crypto-related mutual fund or ETF. The letter advised against seeking registration of funds that invest heavily in cryptocurrency-related products until the raised questions and concerns can be properly addressed.

The SEC letter comes a year after the SEC rejected a proposal by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, famously linked to the founding of Facebook, to create a bitcoin-tracking ETF. Since that time the SEC has privately rejected several similar requests. Many in the industry appreciate the SEC letter as it offers specific guidance and concrete issues to be addressed as the march towards the eventual approval of a crypto-related fund continues.

Since the January 18 letter, the SEC has been reviewing and conducting proceedings on a New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) proposal to list and trade five bitcoin-related ETFs. The proceedings are expected to go on for a few months. This blog will begin with an explanation of what exactly is an ETF and then address the SEC’s concerns related to the clearance of crypto-related ETFs.

What is an ETF?

Exchange traded funds or ETFs are funds that track indexes. Historically, exchange traded funds have tracked big-board indexes such as the Nasdaq 100, S&P 500 or Dow Jones; however, as ETFs have risen in popularity, there are now funds that track lesser-known indexes or specially created indexes to feed the ETF market. There are indexes based on market sectors, such as tech, healthcare, financial; foreign markets; market cap (micro-, small-, mid-, large-, and mega-cap); asset type (small-growth, large-growth, etc.); and commodities. The primary difference between an ETF and other index funds is that an ETF does not try to outperform the corresponding index, but rather tries to track and replicate the performance.

An ETF allows an investor the advantage of copying an index with a single stock trade, without the risk associated with a fund manager trying to outperform the market.  Since the fund manager is simply copying and mirroring the particular index, the management style is referred to as “passive management.”

Passive management reduces the administrative costs from an actively managed portfolio, and that savings can be passed down to the investors. A typical private hedge fund charges 2% per annum for administrative fees. That fee is reduced to 1% for mutual or registered funds. The typical fee for an ETF is less than .20% per year. Moreover, since an ETF does not trade as actively as typical funds, it has fewer capital gain events and therefore lower taxes.

An ETF trades just like a stock, with continuous trading throughout a day. ETFs are generally margin-eligible and accordingly can be sold short. Conversely, mutual funds are generally only priced once a day after market closings and are not margin-eligible.

ETFs have become increasingly popular over the years, especially with investors that are interested in market sectors, regions or asset types. It is not surprising that investors are interested in crypto-related ETFs and that fund creators are likewise trying to meet this investor demand.

SEC Position on Crypto-related Mutual Funds and ETFs

As mentioned, On January 18, 2018, the SEC Division of Investment Management issued a letter to the Investment Company Institute and the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA) explaining why the SEC could not approve a cryptocurrency-related exchange traded fund (ETF) or similar investment product such as a mutual fund.

The SEC begins with its commitment to fostering innovation and the development of new types of investment products, ETFs being a primary example, but quickly continues with the assertion that multiple investor protection issues need to be resolved before a crypto-related fund could be offered.  The primary issues are valuation, liquidity, custody, arbitrage, potential manipulation and other risks.

The concerns and questions raised by the SEC will also impact future changes to exchange listing standards by the Division of Corporation Finance, the Division of Trading and Markets and the Office of the Chief Accountant. The SEC foresees needed changes to accounting, auditing and reporting requirements for crypto-related funds and ETFs.

Valuation

Mutual funds and ETFs must value their assets on each business day in order to reach a net asset value (“NAV”). NAV is used to determine fund performance, what investors pay for mutual funds and what authorized participants pay for ETFs as well as what they receive when they redeem or sell. The SEC is concerned that a fund or ETF would not have the necessary information to value a cryptocurrency as a result of their volatility, fragmentation, lack of regulation, nascent state and current trading volume (or lack thereof) in the cryptocurrency futures markets.

The SEC has requested that the industry evaluate and provide information as to how valuations would be conducted. Furthermore, the SEC has asked how funds would develop and implement policies and procedures related to crypto-related valuations to ensure that the requirements as to fair value are met. Likewise, the SEC would need satisfaction that a fund or ETF could adequately address the accounting and valuation impacts of “forks” such as when a cryptocurrency diverges into two separate currencies with different prices.

The SEC questions the policies a fund would implement to identify and determine eligibility and acceptability for newly created cryptocurrencies. The SEC has concern as to how a fund would consider the impact of market information and manipulation in the underlying cryptocurrency markets as related to the determination of the settlement price of cryptocurrency futures.

Liquidity

Investments in open-ended funds such as mutual funds and ETFs are redeemable on a daily basis and as such, the funds must maintain sufficient liquid assets to satisfy redemptions.  Rule 22e-4 promulgated under the Investment Company Act of 1940 (the “1940 Act”) requires funds to implement liquidity risk management programs. Under the rule, funds must classify their investments into one of four liquidity categories and limit their investments in illiquid securities to 15% of the fund’s assets.

The SEC is concerned with the steps a fund or ETF that invests in cryptocurrencies or crypto-related products would take to ensure that it would have sufficient liquidity to meet daily redemptions. Moreover, the SEC raises questions as to how such funds would satisfy Rule 22e-4 and in particular, how could any crypto-related investment be classified as anything other than illiquid under the rule.

The SEC specifically asks how such funds would take into account the trading history, price volatility and trading volume of cryptocurrency futures contracts, and would funds be able to conduct a meaningful market-depth analysis in light of these factors.  Similarly, given the fragmentation and volatility in the cryptocurrency markets, would these funds need to assume an unusually sizable potential daily redemption amount in light of the potential for steep market declines in the value of underlying assets.

Custody

The 1940 Act provides for certain requirements related to the custody of securities held by funds, including who may act as a custodian and when funds must verify holdings. The SEC questions how a fund or ETF could satisfy the custody requirements for cryptocurrency-related products. The SEC notes that there are currently no custodians providing fund custodial services for cryptocurrencies. Likewise, although currently all bitcoin future contracts are cash-settled, if physical settlement contracts develop, the SEC questions how a fund will custody the bitcoin to make delivery.

The SEC further questions how a fund will validate existence, exclusive ownership and software functionality of private cryptocurrency keys and other ownership records.  Another issue for cryptocurrencies is cybersecurity and the threat of hacking.  The SEC has concerns about how custodians can satisfy their requirements for the safekeeping of crypto assets.

Arbitrage for ETFs

ETFs obtain SEC orders that enable them to operate in a specialized structure that provides for both exchange trading of their shares throughout the day at market-based prices, and “creation unit” purchases and redemptions transacted at NAV by authorized participants. In order to promote fair treatment of investors, an ETF is required to have a market price that would not deviate materially from the ETF’s NAV. The SEC questions how an ETF could comply with the terms of an order considering the fragmentation, volatility and trading volume in the cryptocurrency marketplace.

The SEC would like funds to engage with market makers and authorized participants to understand the feasibility of the arbitrage for ETFs investing substantially in cryptocurrency and cryptocurrency-related products. The SEC also questions how trading halts or the shutdown of a cryptocurrency exchange would affect the market price or arbitrage.

Potential Manipulation and Other Risks

The SEC believes that the current cryptocurrency markets have substantially fewer investor protections than traditional securities markets. Moreover, the SEC, other federal regulators, and state regulators have found considerable fraud in the cryptocurrency marketplace. The SEC is concerned about how a fund would address fraud concerns in the underlying markets when offering investments in the fund to retail investors. Similarly, the SEC is concerned about the disclosure of, and ability for a retail investor to understand, the risks of an investment in a crypto-related fund.

Likewise, the SEC would like funds to engage in discussions with broker-dealers who may distribute the funds, as to how the broker-dealer will satisfy their suitability requirements. The SEC is also concerned with how an investment advisor will satisfy their fiduciary obligations when recommending a crypto-related fund.