On November 16, 2018, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) Division of Corporation Finance (“Corp. Fin.”), Division of Investment Management, and Division of Trading and Markets issued a joint public statement on “Digital Asset Securities Issuance and Trading.”  The public statement is the latest in the Divisions’—and the Commission’s—steady efforts to publicly outline and develop its analysis on the application of the federal securities laws to initial coin offerings (“ICOs”) and certain digital tokens.  These efforts have combined a series of enforcement proceedings with public statements by Chairman Jay Clayton and staff, including a more detailed statement of the SEC’s analytical approach in Corp. Fin. Director William Hinman’s speech on digital assets in June 2018. Continue Reading SEC Divisions Issue Public Statement on Digital Assets and ICOs, Echoing Recent Enforcement Actions

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

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 Thursday, June 14th, the SEC Director of Corporation Finance, William Hinman, stated his view that current secondary market trades of Ether are not now securities transactions as part of a speech on the treatment of digital assets under the securities laws.  While he expressly set aside the question of whether the capital-raising that initially accompanied the sale of Ether in 2014 was a securities offering, he confirmed previous suggestions that Ether is a prime example of a digital asset that may once have been offered as a security, but is now “something else” that is not  regulated by the securities laws.  While Hinman’s views are not binding on the Commission, his remarks strongly suggest the Commission’s willingness to consider whether certain digital assets that may be initially offered as securities over time can later lose their status as securities—a view that is shared by at least one CFTC commissioner.  Continue Reading SEC Director of Corporation Finance States That Secondary Market Sales of Ether Are Not Securities Transactions Now, but “Something Else”

On March 27, 2018, Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin announced that the state had ordered five firms to halt initial coin offerings (“ICOs”) on the grounds that the ICOs constituted unregistered offerings of securities but made no allegations of fraud.  These orders follow a growing line of state enforcement actions aimed at ICOs.

This was not Massachusetts’s first foray into regulating ICOs.  On January 17, 2018 the state filed a complaint alleging violations of securities and broker-dealer registration requirements against the company Caviar and its founder for an ICO that sought to create a “pooled investment fund with hedged exposure to crypto-assets and real estate debt.”

Continue Reading Massachusetts Orders Five Companies to Halt ICOs as States Step Up Enforcement Efforts

Part 3: Developments in the United States and the Rising Tide of Enforcement

In 2017, the use of initial coin offerings (“ICOs”) as an alternative means to raise capital took off worldwide. By the end of the year, ICO sponsors raised over $5.6 billion globally through token offerings.[1] At the same time, U.S. regulators’ focus on ICOs has rapidly expanded as well. Since releasing the DAO Investigative Report in July 2017 (the “DAO Report”), the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) has steadily increased its focus on ICO activity. As exemplified by numerous investor advisories, the creation of the Cyber Unit within the Enforcement Division with the purpose to halt and deter cyber-related misconduct in the securities markets, enforcement actions against ICOs, and the Office of Compliance Inspection and Examinations’ (“OCIE”) announcement that monitoring ICO sales will be one of its top 2018 priorities, it is clear that the SEC views ICOs as squarely within the scope of its mandate for regulation and enforcement. Unsurprisingly, state enforcement actions and private class action litigation targeting ICOs are also on the rise. Continue Reading Around the World in ICOs: ICOs in the United States

The Directive states that “in light of modern advances”, it is important “for reasons of clarity and rationality” to “apply uniform rules that are as strict as possible”. Indeed, the regulatory regime established by the Directive is of considerable rigour: it contains detailed registration, disclosure and marketing requirements. We are, of course, referring to the EU Potatoes Directive (2002/56/EC). When it comes, however, to initial coin offerings (“ICOs”) of cryptographically encoded digital “tokens” to retail investors via distributed ledger technology – almost anything goes! At least, that appeared to be the case until recently, when a multitude of EU regulators issued warnings and statements on the application of EU regulations to ICOs.

In this post, we seek to decipher some of those statements and offer some practical observations to determine how EU securities laws might (or might not) apply to ICOs. Continue Reading Around the World in ICOs, Part 2: Catching up With Potatoes? The Regulatory Response to ICOs in the EU so Far

This past week, we received further evidence that U.S. federal regulators will continue to scrutinize potential compliance issues in virtual currency trading and initial coin offerings (“ICOs”) under existing law. However, the key takeaway is that the U.S. regulators, so far, are doing so under established interpretations of their existing authority. In our view, none of these events should be construed either as establishing a new regulatory framework or as a significant expansion of prior regulatory authority.

Please click here to read the full alert memorandum.

Further to its consultation on potential legal framework of Initial Coin Offerings (“ICOs”) (the “Consultation”), the French Autorité des Marchés Financiers (“AMF”) published on February 22, 2018 a summary of the responses received.[1]

The majority of respondents favor an optional authorization regime for ICOs, which is seen as a balanced and pragmatic approach.

  • Initiators of ICOs targeting French investors would obtain a visa from the AMF subject to satisfying certain conditions and providing guarantees to investors.
  • An offer launched without visa would not be illegal but would contain a warning informing potential investors that they have not received an authorization and that is a risky transaction. Failing such warning, tokens offers would give rise to sanctions.

Continue Reading AMF Consultation on ICOs – Initial Feedback