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 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

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”

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

Following the December 2017 listing of futures contracts based on Bitcoin by two exchanges regulated by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), several fund sponsors and securities exchanges applied to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to list exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that would invest in those futures contracts.[1]  By investing in futures contracts regulated by the CFTC, instead of Bitcoin itself, these ETFs seemed designed to address concerns that had previously led the SEC to deny applications to list ETFs linked to Bitcoin.  This change was not sufficient, however, as the SEC raised new concerns in early January that led to the withdrawal of these new applications.[2]   Exchanges, ETF sponsors and investors are now left wondering:  what will it take for an ETF linked to Bitcoin to pass muster with the SEC? Continue Reading SEC Requests Withdrawal of Bitcoin Futures ETFs

The SEC has recently signaled an increased concern with the offerings and marketing of Initial Coin Offerings (“ICOs”),[1] which should be of interest to companies and institutions involved with ICOs.  On November 1, 2017, the SEC Division of Enforcement and Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) jointly issued a public statement warning celebrities and other influencers promoting Initial Coin Offerings (“ICOs”) about potential violations of a host of federal securities laws, including the anti-touting and anti-fraud provisions of the federal securities laws.  Specifically, the public statement noted that endorsements may be unlawful if they do not “disclose the nature, source, and amount of any compensation paid, directly or indirectly . . . in exchange for the endorsement.,” and that endorsers may also face liability for potential violations of the anti-fraud provisions, for participation in an unregistered securities offering, and for acting as unregistered brokers.  The public statement also noted that investment decisions should not be based solely on an endorsement and cautioned that “celebrity endorsement may appear unbiased, but instead be part of a paid promotion.”  The public statement follows an investigative report issued by the Division of Enforcement on July 25, 2017, which announced that blockchain technology-based coins or tokens sold in an ICO may be a form of security under the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. Continue Reading The SEC Warns That Celebrity Endorsements of Virtual Currency May Violate Federal Securities Laws

On Monday, December 4, 2017, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) obtained an emergency order from a U.S. District Court in New York to enjoin an allegedly fraudulent initial coin offering scheme.  The SEC’s complaint alleges that Dominic Lacroix, a recidivist securities law violator, and his company PlexCorps violated the anti-fraud and registration provisions of the U.S. federal securities laws in collecting up to $15 million in investor funds purportedly in exchange for digital tokens and promised returns in excess of 1,000% in 29 days.  The complaint also charges Lacroix’s partner Sabrina Paradis-Royer with securities fraud.  Among other relief, the district court has granted the SEC’s request to freeze the defendants’ assets. Continue Reading Newly Created SEC Cyber Unit Takes First Action Against Allegedly Fraudulent ICO