On January 22, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) released its 2019 Risk Monitoring and Examination Priorities Letter (the “Letter”). The Letter highlights material new priorities for FINRA examinations in the coming year, as well as priorities in areas of ongoing concern. The topics highlighted in this year’s Letter reflect FINRA’s increasing focus on its members’ interaction with, and adoption of, innovative financial technologies, as well as its implicit acknowledgement of the ability for such innovations to assist in regulatory compliance. The new priorities highlighted in the Letter include several related to FinTech, including online distribution platforms, use of regulatory technology (or “RegTech”), and supervision of digital asset businesses. In priority areas of ongoing concern, the Letter confirmed that FINRA will continue to focus on reviewing the adequacy of firms’ cybersecurity programs. Below we detail FINRA’s discussion of these priorities and analyze them in the context of other recent guidance and enforcement actions. Continue Reading FINRA 2019 Examination Priorities Letter Includes Focus on FinTech and Cybersecurity
On December 21, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced settlements with two robo-advisors, Wealthfront Advisers LLC (Wealthfront) and Hedgeable Inc. (Hedgeable), for making false statements about investment products and engaging in misleading advertising in violation of the Investment Advisors Act of 1940 (Act). These settlements mark the SEC’s first enforcement actions against robo-advisors and serve as a reminder that, although technology may change how an investment adviser operates, the SEC expects full compliance with all requirements of the Act. Continue Reading The SEC Announces First Enforcement Actions Against Robo-Advisors
Continuing its efforts to engage with FinTech innovators and market participants in the adoption of new technologies, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) and its LabCFTC released a Primer on Smart Contracts (the “Primer”) on November 27. The Commission focused its Primer on (1) detailing the technical aspects of smart contract technology; (2) examining potential benefits and risks connected to their widespread adoption; and (3) the CFTC’s role in regulating the adoption of the technology within those markets under its jurisdiction.
On November 12, 2018, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (“MAS”) released guidelines for financial services firms to consider when they make decisions related to artificial intelligence and data analytics (“AIDA”). The guidelines, entitled “Principles to Promote Fairness, Ethics, Accountability and Transparency (FEAT) in the Use of Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics in Singapore’s Financial Sector” (the “Principles”), are believed to be the first AIDA guidelines issued by a central bank or financial regulator, and emphasize the importance of fairness, ethics, accountability and transparency in how firms utilize AIDA with respect to their customers. Continue Reading Meet FEAT: Singapore’s New AI and Data Analytics Principles for the Financial Sector
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, 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” or “dealers” (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