The SEC And CFTC Joint Statements On Cryptocurrencies; Global Regulators Join In

On January 19, 2018 and again on January 25, 2018, the SEC and CFTC divisions of enforcement issued joint statements regarding cryptocurrencies. The January 19 statement was short and to the point, reading in total:

“When market participants engage in fraud under the guise of offering digital instruments – whether characterized as virtual currencies, coins, tokens, or the like – the SEC and the CFTC will look beyond form, examine the substance of the activity and prosecute violations of the federal securities and commodities laws. The Divisions of Enforcement for the SEC and CFTC will continue to address violations and bring actions to stop and prevent fraud in the offer and sale of digital instruments.”

The January 25, 2018 statement was issued by SEC Chairman Jay Clayton and CFTC Chairman J. Christopher Giancarlo and was published as an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal.  In summarizing the statements, I add my usual commentary and facts and information on this fast-moving marketplace.

Distributed ledger technology, or DLT, is the advancement that underpins an array of new financial products, including cryptocurrencies and digital payment services. Clearly the regulators understand the technological disruption, pointing out that “[S]ome have even compared it [DLT] to productivity-driving innovations such as the steam engine and personal computer.”

The regulators are careful not to discourage the technological advancement or investments themselves but rather are concerned that only those that are sophisticated and can afford a loss, participate. Likewise, unfortunately with every boom comes fraudsters, and investors have to ask the right questions and perform the right due diligence.

Like the dot-com era, of the hundreds (or thousands) of companies popping up in this space, few will survive and investments in those that do not, will be lost. The message from the regulators remains consistent, cautioning investors about the high risks with investments in this new space and stating that “[T]he CFTC and SEC, along with other federal and state regulators and criminal authorities, will continue to work together to bring transparency and integrity to these markets and, importantly, to deter and prosecute fraud and abuse.”

While the initial cryptocurrencies, like bitcoin and ether, were likened to a payment alternative to fiat currencies like the dollar and euro, these alternative currencies are very different.  None are backed by a sovereign government, and they lack governance standards, accountability and oversight, reliable reporting of trading, or consistent reporting of price and other financial metrics.

Of course, this is an exciting era of development and Chairs Clayton and Giancarlo know that, stating:

“This is not a statement against investments in innovation. The willingness to pursue the commercialization of innovation is one of America’s great strengths. Together Americans embrace new technology and contribute resources to developing it. Through great human effort and competition, strong companies emerge. Some of the dot-com survivors are the among the world’s leading companies today. This longstanding, uniquely American characteristic is the envy of the world. Our regulatory efforts should embrace it.”

The SEC and CFTC are considering whether the historic approach to the regulation of currency transactions is appropriate for the cryptocurrency markets. Check cashing, payment processing and money transmission services are primarily state regulated. Many of the Internet-based cryptocurrency trading platforms have registered as payment services and are not subject to direct oversight by the SEC or the CFTC. For example, Coinbase has money transmitting licenses from the majority of states. Gemini is a licensed trust company with the New York State of Financial Services. Furthermore, the Bank Secrecy Act and its anti-money laundering (AML) requirements apply to those in the business of accepting and transmitting, selling or storing cryptocurrencies.

Not a single cyptocurrency trading platform is currently registered by the SEC or CFTC.  However, two CFTC regulated exchanges have now listed bitcoin futures products and, in doing so, engaged in lengthy conversations with the CFTC, ultimately agreeing to implement risk mitigation and oversight measures, heightened margin requirements, and added information sharing agreements with the underlying bitcoin trading platforms. In my next blog I will drill down on the CFTC’s regulatory role and position on cryptocurrencies including a discussion of its October 17, 2017 published article, “A CFTC Primer on Virtual Currencies.”

The SEC does not have jurisdiction over transactions involving currencies or commodities; however, where an offering of a cryptocurrency has characteristics of a securities offering, the SEC and state securities regulators have, and have exercised, jurisdiction. In addition to the many SEC enforcement proceedings I have written about, state regulators have likewise been very active in the enforcement arena against those offering cryptocurrency- or blockchain-related investments. The SEC is carefully monitoring the entire marketplace including issuers, broker-dealers, investment advisors and trading platforms.  On January 18, 2018, the SEC issued a no-action letter prohibiting the registration under the Investment Company Act of 1940 of U.S. investment funds that desire to invest substantially in cryptocurrency and related products. I will provide further details on this letter in an upcoming blog.

As the boom has continued, many cryptocurrencies are simply being marketed for their potential increase in value on secondary trading platforms, again none of which are licensed by the SEC or CFTC.  The utility side of the tokens (if any) has taken a back seat to the craze.  Although a few trading platforms are licensed by state regulators as payment processors, many overseas are not licensed by any regulator whatsoever.

As the SEC has been repeating, the op-ed piece again clearly states that “federal securities laws apply regardless of whether the offered security—a purposefully broad and flexible term—is labeled a  ‘coin’ or ‘utility token’ rather than a stock, bond or investment contract. Market participants, including lawyers, trading venues and financial services firms, should be aware that we are disturbed by many examples of form being elevated over substance, with form-based arguments depriving investors of mandatory protections.”

While attending the North American Bitcoin Conference in Miami a few weeks ago, I was amazed at the thousands of attendees and companies. I go to a lot of financial conferences and had never seen anything like this. I understand the concerns of the regulators and the need to issue constant warnings. While I met some extremely smart people and learned about great companies that could have hugely successful futures, many others were obviously trying to ride a boom, with nothing to offer. They lacked a strong management team, technological know-how, engineers and programmers, a real business, a real plan, or anything to support lasting value of the token issued in their ICO, or being touted for a future issuance. The sole opportunity for an investor was a potential increase in secondary trading value, which was being propped up with hundreds of thousands of dollars (raised in the ICO) of marketing, including crews of people paid to talk about the token on chat boards such as Telegram.

Like many practitioners, I am fascinated with the technology and disruption it will bring to many aspects of our lives including the arenas of corporate finance and trading markets, and have even invested.

International Organization of Securities Commissions Issues Warning on ICO’s

On January 18, 2018, the Board of the International Organization of Securities Commissions (“IOSCO”) issued a warning on ICO’s including the high risk associated with these speculative investments and concerns about fraud. The IOSCO is the leading international policy forum for securities regulators and is a recognized standard setter for securities regulation. The group’s members regulate more than 95% of the world’s securities markets in more than 115 jurisdictions.

The statement from IOSCO points out that ICO’s are not standardized and their legal and regulatory status depends on a facts and circumstances analysis. ICO’s are highly speculative and there is a chance that an entire investment will be lost. The warning continues: “[W]hile some operators are providing legitimate investment opportunities to fund projects or businesses, the increased targeting of ICOs to retail investors through online distribution channels by parties often located outside an investor’s home jurisdiction — which may not be subject to regulation or may be operating illegally in violation of existing laws — raises investor protection concerns.”

The IOSCO has provided its members with information on approaches to ICO’s and related due diligence. The IOSCO has also established an ICO Consultation Network with its members to continue the discussion.