As my firm does not practice in the enforcement arena, it is not an area I always write about, but this year I found a few trends that are interesting. In particular, just by following published enforcement matters on the SEC’s website, I’ve noticed a large uptick in actions to suspend the trading in, or otherwise take action against, micro- and small-cap companies, especially delinquent filers. I’ve also noticed a large uptick of actions against smaller public and private companies that use misleading means to raise capital from retail investors, and the concurrent use of unlicensed broker-dealers. Of course, there have always been a significant number of actions involving cryptocurrencies. In light of my own observations, I decided to review and report on the SEC’s view of its actions.
As an aside, before discussing the report, I note that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has raised concerns about the quality of record keeping and documentation maintained by the
In May 2019, the Financial Crime Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued a thirty-page comprehensive review of its regulations as pertains to convertible virtual currencies. Previously, in February 2018, FinCEN stated that it expects issuers of initial coin offerings (ICOs) to comply with the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), including its anti-money laundering (AML) and know your customer (KYC) requirements (see HERE).
In general, entities that are subject to the BSA must: (i) register with FinCEN as a money services business (MSB); (ii) prepare a written AML compliance program that is designed to mitigate risks, including AML risks, and to ensure compliance with all BSA requirements including the filing of suspicious activity reports (SAR) and currency transaction reports; (iii) keep records for certain types of transactions at specific thresholds; and (iv) obtain customer identification information sufficient to comply with the AML program and recordkeeping requirements.
Although the new guidance does not establish any new regulatory requirements, it is the first time
On April 3, 2019, the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance published a “Framework for Investment Contract Analysis of Digital Assets,” issued a No-Action Letter to Turnkey Jet, Inc. and made a statement on both. Although all guidance is appreciated, there is really nothing new or different about the analysis, which is firmly based on SEC v. W.J. Howey Co. (the “Howey Test”). Moreover, as discussed below, even though the SEC found that Turnkey Jet did not need to comply with the federal securities laws in the issuance and sales of its tokens, the opinion and issued guidelines do not go far enough and still leave a great deal of uncertainty.
Framework for Investment Contract Analysis of Digital Assets
The SEC’s framework sets forth facts and circumstances to be considered in applying the Howey Test to determine if a digital asset is an investment contract and thus a security subject to state and federal securities laws in its
On November 16, 2018, the SEC settled two actions involving cryptocurrency offerings which settlement requires the registration of the digital assets. On the same day, the SEC issued a public statement stating, “[T]hese two matters demonstrate that there is a path to compliance with the federal securities laws going forward, even where issuers have conducted an illegal unregistered offering of digital asset securities.”
The two settled actions, CarrierEQ Inc., known as Airfox and Paragon Coin Inc., both involved an unregistered issuance of a cryptocurrency. In its statement the SEC highlighted three other recent settled actions involving digital assets and, in particular, the actions involving Crypto Asset Management, TokenLot and EtherDelta. The three additional cases involved investment vehicles investing in digital assets and the providing of investment advice, and secondary market trading of digital asset securities.
The SEC has developed a consistent mantra declaring both support for technological innovation while emphasizing the requirement to “adhere to [our] well-established and well-functioning
In three recent speeches, SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce continued to proclaim her support for technological innovation and freedom in capital markets. On September 12, 2018, Ms. Peirce gave a speech at the Cato Institute’s FinTech Unbound Conference which she titled Motherhood and Humble Pie, on September 24 she spoke at the University of Michigan Law School titling her speech Wolves and Wolverines, and then on October 2 she spoke at the Financial Planning Association 2018 Major Firms Symposium, calling that speech Pickups and Put Downs. Besides the great titles, I applaud her content and perspective.
Motherhood and Humble Pie
A prevailing theme in all three speeches centered on her dissent to the SEC’s rejection of an exchange traded product or mutual fund. As an aside, since I wrote this blog on the SEC’s published concerns related to a cryptocurrency-related exchange traded product or mutual fund, HERE, the SEC has continued to deny several more applications for such a product.
On June 19, 2018, the SEC published a draft Strategic Plan and requested public comment on the Plan. The Strategic Plan would guide the SEC’s priorities through fiscal year 2022. The Plan reiterates the theme of serving the interests of Main Street investors, but also recognizes the changing technological world with a priority of becoming more innovative, responsive and resilient to market developments and trends. The Plan also broadly focuses on improving SEC staff’s performance using data and analytics.
The Strategic Plan begins with a broad overview about the SEC itself, a topic I go back to and reiterate on occasion, such as HERE. The SEC’s mission has remained unchanged over the years, including to protect investors, maintain fair, orderly and efficient markets, and facilitate capital formation. In addition, according to the Strategic Plan, the SEC:
- Engages and interacts with the investing public directly on a daily basis through a variety of channels, including investor roundtables and education
On July 30, 2018, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) published a Special Notice seeking public comments on how FINRA can support fintech developments including those related to data aggregation services, supervisory processes, including with the use of artificial intelligence, and the development of a taxonomy-based, machine-readable rulebook. The Special Notice, and fintech in general, necessarily includes blockchain technology, a topic FINRA has been examining for a few years now. Last July, FINRA held a Blockchain Symposium to assess the use of distributed ledger technology (DLT) in the financial industry, and earlier in January 2017 FINRA issued a report entitled “Distributed Ledger Technology: Implications of Blockchain for the Securities Industry” on the topic (see HERE).
Also, on July 6, 2018, FINRA sent Regulatory Notice 18-20 to its members asking all FINRA member firms to notify FINRA if they engage in activities related to digital assets such as cryptocurrencies, virtual coins and tokens. FINRA informs members that it is
In the continuing dilemma over determining just what kind of asset a cryptocurrency is, multiple regulators have expressed opinions and differing views on regulations. Likewise, multiple regulators have conducted investigations and initiated enforcement proceedings against those in the cybersecurity space. The SEC has asserted the opinion that most, if not all, cryptocurrencies are securities; the CFTC has found them to be commodities; the IRS’s official definition is the same as the CFTC, and in particular a digital representation of value that functions as a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and/or a store of value, and now the Financial Crime Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has asserted that issuers of cryptocurrencies are money transmitters.
In particular, in a letter written to the US Senate Committee on Finance on February 13, 2018, FinCEN indicates that it expects issuers of initial coin offerings (ICOs) to comply with the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), including its anti-money laundering (AML) and know your customer (KYC)
On June 14, 2018, William Hinman, the Director of the SEC Division of Corporation Finance, gave a speech at Yahoo Finance’s All Markets Summit in which he made two huge revelations for the crypto marketplace. The first is that he believes a cryptocurrency issued in a securities offering could later be purchased and sold in transactions not subject to the securities laws. The second is that Ether and Bitcoin are not currently securities. Also, for the first time, Hinman gives the marketplace guidance on how to structure a token or coin such that it might not be a security.
While this gives the marketplace much-needed guidance on the topic, a speech by an executive with the SEC has no legal force. As a result, the blogs and press responding to Mr. Hinman’s speech have been mixed. Personally, I think it is a significant advancement in the regulatory uncertainty surrounding the crypto space and a signal that more constructive guidance
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