What is a SAFT?

A Simple Agreement for Future Tokens (“SAFT”) is an investment contract originally designed to provide a compliant alternative to an initial coin offering (ICO).  A SAFT as used today was intended to satisfy the U.S. federal securities laws, money services and tax laws and act as an alternative to an ICO when the platform and other utilization for the cryptocurrency or token was not yet completed. The form of the SAFT is the result of a joint effort between the Cooley law firm and Protocol Lab as detailed in the white paper released on October 2, 2017 entitled “The SAFT Project: Toward a Compliant Token Sale Framework.” As discussed in this blog, the SAFT’s compliance with federal securities laws has now come into question by both the SEC and practitioners.

SAFT’s are offered and sold to accredited investors as an investment to fund the development of a business or project in a way not dissimilar to the way equity changes hands in traditional venture capital. A SAFT was developed from the oft-used simple agreement for future equity (SAFE) contract in the venture capital setting. In a SAFT sale, no coins are ever offered, sold or exchanged. Rather, money is exchanged for traditional paper documents that promise access to future product. Fundamentally, a SAFT has been relying on the premise that the future product is not in and of itself a security.

Although the SEC had been looking at ICO’s for a while, on July 25, 2017 it issued a Section 21(a) Report on an investigation related to an initial coin offering (ICO) by the DAO concluding that the ICO was a securities offering. The Section 21(a) Report established that the Howey Test is the appropriate standard for determining whether a particular token involves an investment contract and the application of the federal securities laws. SEC Chair Jay Clayton has confirmed this standard in several public statements and in testimony before the United States Senate Committee on Banking Housing and Urban Affairs (“Banking Committee”).

Following the Section 21(a) Report, in a slew of enforcement proceedings by both the SEC and state securities regulators, and in numerous public statements, it is clear that regulators have viewed most, if not all, ICO’s as involving the sale of securities. At the same time, the SAFT grew in popularity as an attempt to comply with the securities laws. The SEC’s position is based on an analysis of the current market for ICO’s and the issuance of “coins” or “tokens” for capital raising transactions and as speculative investment contracts.

SAFT users rely on the premise that a cryptocurrency which today may be an investment contract (security) can morph into a commodity (currency) or other type of digital asset. The SAFT would delay the issuance of the cryptocurrency until it has reached its future utility. Investors in a SAFT automatically receive the cryptocurrency when it is publicly distributed in an ICO. The SAFT investors generally receive the crypto at a discount to the public offering price. However, this premise is taking a direct hit lately. Although I’ll lay out more on the SAFT history and why it was thought of as a solution further in this blog, I’ll jump right to the current analysis, and why a SAFT might not provide the intended protections.

The SAFT Problem

Although everyone, including regulators, agree that the state of the law in the area of cryptocurrencies and tokens is unsettled, regulators, including both the CFTC and SEC, have increasingly taken positions that would bring cryptocurrencies within their jurisdiction. I believe regulators are reacting to overarching fraud and therefore a necessity to take action to protect investors. Without congressional rule making and definitive guidance, regulators have no choice but to make the current law fit the circumstances. In some cases that works fine, but in others it does not and I suspect continuing changes in interpretations, enforcement premises and ultimately rule making will occur.

As I’ve previously discussed, the CFTC first found that Bitcoin and other virtual currencies were properly defined as commodities in 2015. Accordingly, the CFTC has regulatory oversight over futures, options, and derivatives contracts on virtual currencies and has oversight to pursue claims of fraud or manipulation involving a virtual currency traded in interstate commerce. Beyond instances of fraud or manipulation, the CFTC generally does not oversee “spot” or cash market exchanges and transactions involving virtual currencies that do not utilize margin, leverage or financing. Rather, these “exchanges” are regulated as payment processors or money transmitters under state law. See HERE.

The SEC has also taken the stance that ICO’s involve the sale of securities, and that exchanges providing for the after-market trading of cryptocurrencies must register unless an exemption applies. The SEC is now taking it one step further, postulating that the tokens or cryptocurrencies underlying the SAFT could also be a security (and when I say “could” I mean “are”), in which case the SAFT structure is nothing more than a convertible security and fails to comply with the federal securities laws and makes it even more likely that it would result in an enforcement proceeding, or private litigation.

A SAFT is a type of pre-ICO investment with the investors automatically receiving the crypto when the company completes its public ICO. If the underlying token is a security, then the future ICO fails to comply with the federal securities laws and the original SAFT also fails to comply.

Getting ahead of this issue, many companies have structured a SAFT such that the future ICO is also labeled a security, and the SAFT investor will receive the crypto when the future ICO is registered with the SEC. However, this results in a private pre-public security sale, which in and of itself is prohibited by the securities laws.

In particular, Securities Act CD&I 139.01 provides:

Question: Where the offer and sale of convertible securities or warrants are being registered under the Securities Act, and such securities are convertible or exercisable within one year, must the underlying securities be registered at that time?

Answer: Yes. Because the securities are convertible or exercisable within one year, an offering of both the overlying security and underlying security is deemed to be taking place. If such securities are not convertible or exercisable within one year, the issuer may choose not to register the underlying securities at the time of registering the convertible securities or warrants. However, the underlying securities must be registered no later than the date such securities become convertible or exercisable by their terms, if no exemption for such conversion or exercise is available. Where securities are convertible only at the option of the issuer, the underlying securities must be registered at the time the offer and sale of the convertible securities are registered since the entire investment decision that investors will be making is at the time of purchasing the convertible securities. The security holder, by purchasing a convertible security that is convertible only at the option of the issuer, is in effect also deciding to accept the underlying security. [Aug. 14, 2009] (emphasis added)

In a Crowdfund Insider article published March 26, 2018, one practitioner (Anthony Zeoli) has had discussions with the SEC on the subject. As reported in the article, the SEC has stated that if the SAFT investor will automatically receive tokens in the future when and if the tokens are registered, without any further action on the part of the investor, then the tokens must be registered as of the date of the SAFT investment.

Of course, the future ICO or token offering could be completed in a private offering in compliance with the federal securities laws, such as using Rule 506(c) and limiting all sales to accredited investors. However, assuming the token or coin really is designed to create a decentralized community or to have utility value that can be widely used by the public, limiting sales to accredited investors does not meet the needs of the issuers. Moreover, even if the future offering is structured as a private securities offering, the SAFT sale disclosure documents would need to include full disclosure on the future coin or token such that the investor could make an informed investment decision at the time of the SAFT investment.

In the same article, Zeoli delves into a more nuanced issue, which is the rising difference in the meaning of a “coin” vs a “token.” A SAFT is a simple agreement for future “tokens” but is being used to pre-sell initial “coin” offerings. If a coin and a token are two very different things (as Zeoli suggests—think stock vs. LLC interest), then the underlying contract has systemic problems beyond the registration and exemption provisions of the federal securities laws and may be a misrepresentation resulting in fraud claims.

More On SAFT; Background

As mentioned, the current form of a SAFT was created by a joint effort between the Cooley law firm and Protocol Lab as detailed in the white paper released on October 2, 2017 entitled “The SAFT Project: Toward a Compliant Token Sale Framework.” The SAFT was intended to comply with the federal securities, money transmittal and tax laws. Also, as discussed, the SAFT relies on the premise that a cryptocurrency which today may be an investment contract (security) will tomorrow be a non-security digital asset satisfying the Howey Test.  The SAFT would delay the issuance of the cryptocurrency until it has reached its future utility.

The original SAFT white paper states:

The SAFT is an investment contract. A SAFT transaction contemplates an initial sale of a SAFT by developers to accredited investors. The SAFT obligates investors to immediately fund the developers. In exchange, the developers use the funds to develop genuinely functional network, with genuinely functional utility tokens, and then deliver those tokens to the investors once functional. The investors may then resell the tokens to the public, presumably for a profit, and so may the developers.

The SAFT is a security. It demands compliance with the securities laws. The resulting tokens, however, are already functional, and need not be securities under the Howey test. They are consumptive products and, as such, demand compliance with state and federal consumer protection laws.

Despite its good intentions, as of today, the model SAFT no longer works.