On July 25, 2017, the SEC issued a report on an investigation related to an initial coin offering (ICO) by the DAO and statements by the Divisions of Corporation Finance and Enforcement related to the investigative report (the “Report”). On the same day, the SEC issued an Investor Bulletin related to ICO’s. Offers and sales of digital coins, cryptocurrencies or tokens using distributed ledger technology (DLT) or blockchain have become widely known as ICO’s.
The basis of the report is that offers and sales of digital assets, including cryptocurrencies, are subject to the federal (and state) securities laws. From the highest level, the nature of a digital asset must be examined to determine if it meets the definition of a security using established principles. In addition, all offers and sales of securities must either be registered with the SEC or there must be an available exemption from such registration. This statement applies to cryptocurrency securities in the same manner it applies to all other securities. In addition, participants in ICO’s are subject to federal securities laws to the same extent they are in other securities offerings, including broker-dealer registration requirements. Securities exchanges providing for trading must register unless an exemption applies.
Despite the SEC findings, it declined to pursue an enforcement action but rather used the opportunity to inform the public on its views and, in particular, that “the federal securities laws apply to those who offer and sell securities in the United States, regardless whether the issuing entity is a traditional company or a decentralized autonomous organization, regardless whether those securities are purchased using U.S. dollars or virtual currencies, and regardless whether they are distributed in certificated form or through distributed ledger technology.”
In the press release announcing the investigative findings, SEC Chair Jay Clayton stated, “[T]he SEC is studying the effects of distributed ledger and other innovative technologies and encourages market participants to engage with us. We seek to foster innovative and beneficial ways to raise capital, while ensuring – first and foremost – that investors and our markets are protected.”
This is not the first time the SEC has addressed registration and exemption requirements associated with cryptocurrencies. There have been several other cases. For example, in December 2014 the SEC settled charges against BTC Virtual Stock Exchange and LTC Global Virtual Stock Exchange related to violations of both the broker-dealer registration requirements and the securities offer and sale registration requirements.
This blog will summarize the SEC Report of Investigation, statements by the Divisions of Corporation Finance and Enforcement and the Investor Bulletin on Initial Coin Offerings.
SEC Report of Investigation on an ICO
On July 25, 2017, the SEC issued its Report on an investigation into an ICO and related activities by the DAO, an unincorporated entity, Slock.it UG (“Slock.it”), a German corporation, and various principals and participants. As mentioned earlier, although the report provides a platform for which the SEC can educate the marketplace, it did not pursue enforcement actions against the targets of the investigation.
The “DAO” stands for a decentralized autonomous organization, or a virtual network embodied in computer code on a on a DLT or blockchain. The DAO was created by Slock.it to sell tokens to investors, which proceeds would be used to fund for-profit projects. The token holders would share in the profits and, as such, had an expectation of a return on investment. The DAO tokens were also transferable and available for secondary trading on different web-based platforms. After the ICO, but before projects were funded, the DAO was hacked and approximately one-third of its assets stolen. Fortunately the DAO was able to come up with a plan that caused the return of ETGH raised from the DAO back to their original Ethereum address and thus return investments to the original investors.
The SEC opened an investigation as to whether the offer and sale of the DAO Tokens invoked federal securities laws, whether the DAO Tokens were securities and whether the platforms for the secondary trading of the Tokens required registration as a securities exchange. The answer to each of these questions, under the facts and circumstances presented, was in the affirmative. Since the DAO had not yet commenced operations, the SEC did not review whether the DAO was acting as an “investment company” under the Investment Company Act of 1940, but noted that had they begun operations, such an analysis would have been appropriate.
The Report begins with the conclusion. Whether or not a particular transaction involves the offer and sale of a security depends on an analysis of the facts and circumstances, regardless of terminology or technology used or employed. All persons or entities that use a Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO Entity), DLT or other blockchain-based technology as a means to raise capital in the U.S. are subject to the U.S. federal securities laws. All securities offered and sold in the U.S. must be registered or must qualify for an exemption from registration. Moreover, any entities or platforms that allow for the secondary trading of securities must either be registered as a national securities exchange or operate pursuant to a registration exemption. The automation of functions, computer code, smart contracts, and decentralization does not change the obligations under the federal securities laws.
Background and Facts
In a one-month period from April 30, 2016, through May 28, 2016, the DAO offered and sold 1.15 billion DAO Tokens in exchange for 12 million Ether (“ETH”) valued at approximately $150 million USD. ETH is a virtual currency. The Financial Action Task Force defines a “virtual currency” as:
a digital representation of value that can be digitally traded and functions as: (1) a medium of exchange; and/or (2) a unit of account; and/or (3) a store of value, but does not have legal tender status (i.e., when tendered to a creditor, is a valid and legal offer of payment) in any jurisdiction. It is not issued or guaranteed by any jurisdiction, and fulfils the above functions only by agreement within the community of users of the virtual currency. Virtual currency is distinguished from fiat currency (a.k.a. “real currency,” “real money,” or “national currency”), which is the coin and paper money of a country that is designated as its legal tender; circulates; and is customarily used and accepted as a medium of exchange in the issuing country. It is distinct from e-money, which is a digital representation of fiat currency used to electronically transfer value denominated in fiat currency.
The DAO itself was created by the founders of Slock.it as a type of alternative corporation with all corporate functions and governance automated using blockchain and smart contracts. The DAO was the “first generation” of its kind. Participants sent in ETH in exchange for DAO Tokens. DAO Token holders could vote on projects to be used with the DAO assets (ETH, which could be exchanged for fiat currency and other physical or digital assets) and participate in rewards such as profit distributions and dividends. The entire DAO was intended to be autonomous such that project proposals were in the form of smart contracts and voting administered by computer code. The DAO code was launched on the Ethereum blockchain.
The DAO promoted itself through a website which described its purpose (“[T]o blaze a new path in business for the betterment of its members, existing simultaneously nowhere and everywhere and operating solely with the steadfast iron will of unstoppable code”), how it operated, its source code, and a link to buy the DAO Tokens. The DAO was also promoted through media attention and numerous social media channels.
Anyone was eligible to purchase DAO Tokens as long as they paid in ETH and there were no limitations on the number of DAO Tokens offered for sale or the number that could be purchased by any purchaser. There were no parameters set on the accreditation or sophistication level of a purchaser. Anyone with ETH and an ETH blockchain address could participate. All ETH from DAO Token sales were aggregated in the DAO’s Ethereum blockchain address.
Only DAO Token holders could submit proposed projects in which the DAO might participate, and each proposal would have to involve a smart contract and comply with the preset DAO Token holders voting code. Projects would be approved by a majority vote of DAO Token holders. Before being submitted for a vote, projects were to be reviewed by human curators. Although beyond the scope of this blog, there appeared to be many issues with the system, including the programming for voting.
The DAO Tokens were unrestricted and there were several platforms that allowed for the immediate secondary trading of the DAO Tokens. The secondary market trading platforms were registered with the Federal Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) as Money Services Businesses.
SEC Regulatory Analysis
Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933, as amended (“Securities Act”) requires the registration of all offers and sales of securities unless there is an available exemption. The registration provisions are based on “full and fair disclosure” of all material information for an investor to make an informed investment decision, including detailed information about the issuer’s financial condition, identity and background of management and the price and amount of securities to be offered.
Section 5 of the Securities Act, like many provisions in the securities laws, is written in the inclusive, such that all offers and sales are covered unless an exemption is available pursuant to statute or case law. Section 5 states that “unless a registration statement is in effect as to a security, it is unlawful for any person, directly or indirectly, to engage in the offer or sale of securities in interstate commerce.” A violation of Section 5 does not require intent.
The SEC begins its analysis of the DAO Tokens by reference to the definitions of a security found in both Section 2(a)(1) of the Securities Act and Section 3(a)(10) of the Securities Exchange Act. Both definitions include the term “investment contract,” which has been famously defined by the U.S. Supreme Court as an investment of money in a common enterprise with a reasonable expectation of profits to be derived from the entrepreneurial or managerial efforts of others.
Under the Howey Test, whether an investment instrument is a security requires a substance-over-form analysis. The Howey Test defines an investment contract as follows:
“… an investment contract for purposes of the Securities Act means a contract, transaction or scheme whereby a person invests his money in a common enterprise and is led to expect profits solely from the efforts of the promoter or a third party…. Such a definition… permits the fulfillment of the statutory purpose of compelling full and fair disclosure relative to the issuance of the many types of instruments that in our commercial world fall within the ordinary concept of a security…. It embodies a flexible rather than a static principle, one that is capable of adaptation to meet the countless and variable schemes devised by those who seek the use of the money of others on the promise of profits.”
Applying the Howey Test, courts have interpreted a security to include such diverse items as citrus groves, warehouse receipts, chinchillas, minks, diamonds, bullion, pay phones, real estate and equipment, and condominium units, when they were offered or sold under circumstances involving the investment of money and an expectation of a return through the efforts of others.
Applying the Howey Test to the DAO Tokens, the SEC notes that “money” need not include cash, but rather can be anything of value. A contribution of ETH is an investment as considered by the Howey Test. Investors in the DAO were investing in a common enterprise with the expectation of profits, including dividends and increased value. The SEC also found that the profits were to be derived from the efforts of others, including Slock.it, its founders and the DAO curators.
In its analysis of whether the DAO was a security, the SEC spent the most discussion on the “from the efforts of others” factor. Presumably this is because the DAO was established as an autonomous organization with participants voting on all projects. However, the Slock.it team, through its curators, and management of the DAO website and participation in online forums, “led investors to believe that they could be relied on to provide the significant managerial efforts required to make the DAO a success.” Moreover, in fact, the curators and Slock.it team did exercise significant control over proposals and operations of the DAO and were responsible for stopping the hacking attack and coming up with a plan to rectify the situation.
The SEC also noted that the DAO Token holders voting rights were limited. The DAO Token holders could only vote within the rules (code) established by the Slock.it management team. The SEC points to case law related to multi-level marketing schemes which were securities despite the labor put forth by the investors because the promoter dictated the terms and controlled the scheme itself. The SEC stated that “[T]he voting rights afforded DAO Token holders did not provide them with meaningful control over the enterprise, because (1) DAO Token holders’ ability to vote for contracts was a largely perfunctory one; and (2) DAO Token holders were widely dispersed and limited in their ability to communicate with one another.” Furthermore, the SEC questioned the level of disclosure on projects, believing that such disclosure was not “full and fair” such as to allow an informed investment decision.
Upon concluding that the DAO Tokens were securities, the SEC also concluded that the DAO needed to register their issuance, or satisfy a registration exemption, regardless of whether the DAO was incorporated or an unincorporated organization. Issuers, like securities, are broadly defined to include any sponsor or organization that is primarily responsible for the success or failure of the venture. Participants in an offering are also subject to Section 5 obligations and liability. Accordingly, this included the Slock.it founders and principals.
The secondary trading platforms also required registration, or the availability of an exemption, under the federal securities laws. Section 5 of the Exchange Act makes it unlawful for any broker, dealer or exchange to directly or indirectly affect any transaction in a security or report such transaction unless the exchange is registered as a national exchange or exempted from such registration. Section 3(a)(1) of the Exchange Act defines an “exchange” as “any organization, association, or group of persons, whether incorporated or unincorporated, which constitutes, maintains, or provides a market place or facilities for bringing together purchasers and sellers of securities or for otherwise performing with respect to securities the functions commonly performed by a stock exchange as that term is generally understood …”
The functions of a stock exchange generally include: (i) bringing together orders for securities of multiple buyers and sellers; and (ii) using established, non-discretionary methods under which such orders interact with each other, and the buyers and sellers entering such orders agree to the terms of the trade. A frequent exemption to the definition of an exchange is an Alternative Trading System (ATS) that complies with Regulation ATS. Regulation ATS requires, among others, registration as a broker-dealer. The OTC Markets is an ATS, as is t0 Technologies. The platforms that traded the DAO Tokens fit within the definition of an exchange and did not satisfy any available registration exemptions.
Statement by the Divisions of Corporation Finance and Enforcement on the Report of Investigation on the DAO
On the same day that the SEC issued its investigative Report, the Divisions of Corporation Finance and Enforcement issued a statement on the Report. Off the top I notice that the SEC, under Chair Jay Clayton, Commissioner Michael Piwowar and the numerous new executive members, has a decidedly more positive attitude towards business and capital raising overall, than the prior regime. I also notice, through review of enforcement proceedings, that the new regime has not been deterred at all from its mission to detect and prosecute fraud, including micro-cap and penny-stock-related schemes.
To begin its statement, the Divisions noted that DLT, blockchain and other emerging technologies have the potential to influence and improve capital markets and the financial services industry. The Divisions “welcome and encourage the appropriate use of technology to facilitate capital formation and provide investors with new investment opportunities,” and are “hopeful that innovation in this area will facilitate fair and efficient capital raisings for small businesses.” However, new technologies also offer new opportunities for misconduct and abuse.
The Divisions reiterate the SEC Report’s assertion that an offer and sale of securities must comply with the federal securities laws and that determining whether a particular investment opportunity involves a security involves a facts and circumstances analysis, including economic realities and underlying structure, regardless of the terminology or technology used.
Noting that the SEC Report had found that the DAO Tokens were securities, the Divisions caution sponsors and other participants in offerings of digital or other novel forms of value to consider whether they involve a security and thus their obligations under the federal securities laws, including registration or meeting the qualifications for a registration exemption. Market participants that operate a web or other platform that facilitates transactions in securities must also consider whether they need to be registered as a broker-dealer or an exchange, or if there is an available exemption.
Although the Divisions statement does not mention it, keeping in line with the fundamental view that basic securities laws apply, a web platform that meets the criteria set out in Section 4(b) of the Securities Act, as created by the JOBS Act, should qualify for a broker-dealer exemption when hosting digital coin or token offerings. See HERE for details on this exemption.
Furthermore, the Divisions caution that sponsors and other market participants should consider whether their business model results in an entity that needs to be registered as an investment company and whether anyone providing advice about an investment in the security could be an investment advisor.
The Divisions also caution against bad actors and fraud, again using the same principles and tenets that have always applied to economies. Investors should watch for red flags, including deals that sound too good to be true, promises of high returns with little or no risk, high-pressure sales tactics, and working with unregistered or unlicensed persons.
A fundamental message that I always try to deliver is that anyone engaging in any activity that could invoke the securities laws, should consult with competent securities counsel. The Divisions statement relays the same message, and in particular, that “market participants who are employing new technologies to form investment vehicles or distribute investment opportunities to consult with securities counsel to aid in their analysis of these issues.” The SEC staff also encourages direct communication with the SEC and has set up an email address for communications related to these matters.
Investor Bulletin on Initial Coin Offerings
In addition to its Report and statement of the Divisions of Corporation Finance and Enforcement, on July 25, 2017, the SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy issued an Investor Bulletin on Initial Coin Offerings (ICO’s). The Investor Bulletin is written in a simple format and helps to inform the public on the basics of ICO’s.
As noted throughout this blog, virtual coins or tokens are created using DLT or blockchain and can be sold in exchange for other virtual coins (such as Bitcoin or Ethereum) or for fiat currency such as U.S. dollars. Generally tokens sold entitle the purchaser to some return on investment or participation in a project and also may be resold or traded on secondary markets, such as virtual currency exchanges. The Investor Bulletin informs the public that these virtual coin or token offerings can invoke the federal securities laws.
The Investor Bulletin provides some basic information on blockchain and virtual currencies. In particular, taken from the Investor Bulletin:
What is a blockchain?
A blockchain is an electronic distributed ledger or list of entries – much like a stock ledger – that is maintained by various participants in a network of computers. Blockchains use cryptography to process and verify transactions on the ledger, providing comfort to users and potential users of the blockchain that entries are secure. Some examples of blockchain are the Bitcoin and Ethereum blockchains, which are used to create and track transactions in Bitcoin and Ether, respectively.
What is a virtual currency or virtual token or coin?
A virtual currency is a digital representation of value that can be digitally traded and functions as a medium of exchange, unit of account, or store of value. Virtual tokens or coins may represent other rights, as well. Accordingly, in certain cases, the tokens or coins will be securities and may not be lawfully sold without registration with the SEC or pursuant to an exemption from registration.
What is a virtual currency exchange?
A virtual currency exchange is a person or entity that exchanges virtual currency for fiat currency, funds, or other forms of virtual currency. Virtual currency exchanges typically charge fees for these services. Secondary market trading of virtual tokens or coins may also occur on an exchange. These exchanges may not be registered securities exchanges or alternative trading systems regulated under the federal securities laws. Accordingly, in purchasing and selling virtual coins and tokens, you may not have the same protections that would apply in the case of stocks listed on an exchange.
Who issues virtual tokens or coins?
Virtual tokens or coins may be issued by a virtual organization or other capital-raising entity. A virtual organization is an organization embodied in computer code and executed on a distributed ledger or blockchain. The code, often called a “smart contract,” serves to automate certain functions of the organization, which may include the issuance of certain virtual coins or tokens. The DAO, which was a decentralized autonomous organization, is an example of a virtual organization.
The Investor Bulletin continues with warnings to potential investors, including to be aware that the federal securities laws require either registration or an exemption from registration for an offer and sale of securities. The Investor Bulletin points potential investors to the EDGAR database to find registration statements, and reminds investors that exemptions usually are limited to accredited investors.
Further, the Investor Bulletin discusses disclosure obligations and sets forth key information that an investor should be informed of, such as use of proceeds, management and business plans.
The Investor Bulletin points out that even if there has been a fraud or theft, their rights may be limited do to the nature of ICO’s in general, including that they can be autonomous, the inability to trace money, the international scope of offerings, that there is no central controlling authority and that there is no method to freeze or secure virtual currency. Finally, the Investor Bulletin points to the usual red flags, including “guaranteed” high returns or low risk, unsolicited offers, sounds too good to be true, buying pressure, no net worth or other investor requirements and unlicensed sellers.