On November 8, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) imposed a cease-and-desist order against Zachary Coburn for causing his former company, EtherDelta, to operate as an unregistered securities exchange in violation of Section 5 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”).  Notably, EtherDelta, a trading platform specializing in digital assets known as Ether and ERC20 tokens,[1] was not operated like a traditional exchange with centralized operations, as there was no ongoing, active management of the platform’s order taking and execution functions. Instead, EtherDelta was “decentralized,” in that it connected buyers and sellers through a pre-established smart contract protocol upon which all operational decisions were carried out.

In the SEC’s view, EtherDelta met Exchange Act Rule 3b-16(a)’s definition of an exchange notwithstanding the lack of ongoing centralized management of order taking and execution.  Robert Cohen, the Chief of the SEC’s Cyber Unit within the Division of Enforcement stated after the order’s release, “The focus is not on the label you put on something . . . The focus is on the function . . . whether it’s decentralized or not, whether it’s on a smart contract or not, what matters is it’s an exchange.” This functional approach echoes prior SEC guidance and enforcement actions in the digital asset securities markets in emphasizing that the Commission will look to the substance and not the form of a market participants’ operations in evaluating their effective compliance with U.S. securities laws. Continue Reading SEC Brings First Enforcement Action Against a Digital Assets Trading Platform for Failure to Register as a Securities Exchange

On September 26, 2018, a federal court in the District of Massachusetts found that virtual currencies are a commodity under the Commodity Exchange Act, 7 U.S.C. § 1 et seq, (“CEA”). This marks the second time that a court has accepted the Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s (“CFTC”) position and upheld the agency’s authority to regulate unleveraged and unmargined spot transactions in virtual currency under the agency’s anti-fraud and manipulation enforcement authority.  Most notably, however, the reasoning behind its decision potentially expands the scope of the CFTC’s oversight of the market. Continue Reading Second District Court Determines Virtual Currencies Are Commodities

Over the past year, the U.S Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) has increasingly scrutinized initial coin offerings (“ICO”) and certain digital assets.  On September 20, 2018, the SEC’s Enforcement Division co-Director, Stephanie Avakian, gave a speech in which she addressed the Division’s approach to dealing with these new forms of tradeable assets.  This speech came only days after the SEC settled its first case charging an unregistered broker-dealer for facilitating the sale of digital tokens from several ICOs since the 2017 DAO Report.  In her speech, Avakian provided three key insights into the Division’s enforcement strategy. Continue Reading SEC Enforcement Division Co-Director Provides Insight Into Commission’s Approach to ICOs and Cryptocurrencies

On September 11, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) each separately initiated their first enforcement action for violations of broker-dealer regulatory requirements under U.S. securities laws in digital asset markets. These actions echo all prior agency actions and alerts indicating that where a “security” is involved, both agencies will expect digital asset market participants to fully comply with U.S. securities laws. Additionally, they serve as a serious reminder to all persons acting as “brokers”[1] or “dealers”[2] (together, “broker-dealers”) that just because digital asset securities are unconventional securities with unconventional compliance challenges does not mean that either the SEC or FINRA will lower its compliance expectations. Continue Reading The SEC and FINRA Bring the First Enforcement Actions Against Broker-Dealers for Violations in Digital Asset Markets, Providing Reminder of Compliance Obligations

On Tuesday, September 11, 2018, Judge Raymond J. Dearie of the Eastern District of New York issued a decision holding that Initial Coin Offerings (“ICO”) may qualify as securities offerings and therefore be subject to the criminal federal securities laws.  This ruling came as two U.S. regulators—the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”)—announced separate actions under securities laws against companies engaged in the cryptocurrency marketplace, including the sale of digital tokens.  As the popularity of cryptocurrencies grows and businesses and entrepreneurs increasingly turn to ICOs to raise capital, these developments may serve as guideposts for how cryptocurrencies and ICOs will be viewed by courts and federal regulators in cases to follow. Continue Reading Federal Court, SEC, and FINRA Scrutinize Cryptocurrencies and ICOs

This week, the New York Department of Financial Services (“NYDFS”) announced approval for its two licensed FinTech-oriented state trust companies, Gemini Trust Company LLC and Paxos Trust Company LLC (formerly known as itBit Trust Company), to offer a new type of cryptocurrency referred to as a Stablecoin.  The Gemini Dollar (“GUSD”) and Paxos Standard Token (“PAX”) are designed to be collateralized one-for-one by the U.S. dollar, and will permit payment for other assets traded on blockchains with instant settlement and minimal transaction costs. As described, GUSD and PAX are issued only when a customer of Gemini or Paxos deposits a corresponding amount of U.S. dollars, which are always held in a reserve account by the issuer on behalf of GUSD and PAX holders.  At all times under this framework, Gemini or Paxos are required to hold, in a fiduciary capacity, at least as much fiat currency as GUSD and PAX in circulation. Continue Reading New York Department of Financial Services Approves Gemini and Paxos Virtual Currency “Stablecoins”

Artificial intelligence and machine learning (for simplicity, we refer to these concepts together as “AI”)[1] have been hot topics in the financial services industry in recent years as the industry wrestles with how to harness technological innovations.  In its report on Nonbank Financials, Fintech, and Innovation released on July 31st, the Treasury Department (“Treasury”) generally embraced AI and recommended facilitating the further development and incorporation of such technologies into the financial services industry to realize the potential the technologies can provide for financial services and the broader economy.

Continue Reading Treasury Report Embraces Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence in Financial Services

On July 31st, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) announced that it would begin accepting applications for a special purpose national bank charter (“FinTech Charter”) from nonbank financial technology companies that offer bank products and services, meet the OCC’s chartering requirements (the “FinTech Charter Policy Statement”) and adhere to the OCC’s supplemental Licensing Manual (the “Comptroller’s Manual Supplement” or the “Supplement”).  Hours earlier, the Treasury Department released its fourth and final report in response to President Trump’s Executive Order 13772.  The report, entitled “A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities: Nonbank Financials, Fintech, and Innovation”, recommends that the OCC move forward with the FinTech Charter.

While the OCC announced it would begin accepting applications, it did not answer some key questions about the new FinTech Charter.  Among those questions is what businesses will be permissible in the FinTech Charter?  Neither the OCC’s statement nor the Comptroller’s Manual Supplement defined the permissible businesses for FinTech Charters.  Follow-up discussions have confirmed that payments and other similar businesses are considered in scope, but that no final decision has been made by the OCC on whether the new FinTech Charter will be available for virtual currency-focused businesses.

Please click here to read the full alert memorandum.

On July 31st, the Treasury Department (“Treasury”) released its fourth and final report in response to President Trump’s Executive Order 13772.  The report, entitled “A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities: Nonbank Financials, Fintech, and Innovation” (the “Report”), only briefly addresses distributed ledger technologies, blockchain and digital assets, but takes broad aim at perceived regulatory challenges to innovation.  The Report argues for a significant rethinking of state and federal regulation across data access, licensing, payments and many other issues. Continue Reading Treasury Report Recommends More Consistent Regulation to Spur Innovation

Today, Treasury released its long-awaited FinTech report entitled “A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities: Nonbank Financials, Fintech, and Innovation”. While the report provided only a very truncated discussion of distributed ledger technologies, blockchain, and digital assets, it discussed at length other key innovation and technology issues that are impacting the market for financial services. While DLT and digital assets appropriately garner many headlines, the innovative potential of new technologies for how financial services are accessed, delivered, bundled, analyzed, marketed, and regulated offers great opportunities as well as risks. The focus of the Treasury FinTech report on these fundamental issues no doubt will spur even more examination of our changing financial environment. Continue Reading Treasury Releases FinTech Report, and OCC Immediately Relaunches a National FinTech Charter