When it comes to choosing a jurisdiction for a digital securities offering, Malta is among the first on the list. In the course of the past several years, Malta has taken a unique position as the “blockchain island”, fostering technological innovation by introducing advanced blockchain legislation, friendly tax policies and progressive approach to regulation.
This article provides a comprehensive overview of the legal status of digital securities in Malta, based on the months of research and personal communication with Maltese regulator and local lawyers, while we have been structuring our platform for digital securities offering on the island.
Digital securities on Malta are regulated, first and foremost, by traditional legislation on financial instruments and services, the most important of them being the Companies Act and Investment Services Act. These acts incorporate themselves into provision of the EU legislation, namely MiFID II, Prospectus Regulation and others.
Apart from the existing set of laws, Malta has also introduced a specific legislation on innovative blockchain-based financial instruments that defines what should be regulated by the traditional legislation and what falls under the scope of the new ones.
This approach is different from the one adopted by countries with a common law system that don’t require a specific legislation to define the legal status of an innovative object, relying on the existing one instead.
There are three main acts referring to the digital securities particularly:
- Virtual Financial Assets (VFA Act), which defines DLT-based assets and the rules governing them
- Malta Digital Innovation Authority (MDIA), which established MDIA as a governing entity and its role in regulating blockchain companies
- The Innovation Technology Arrangements & Services (ITAS), which introduced the term “innovative technology arrangement”, the procedure and conditions for the licensing
A separate act regarding STOs as a fundraising method is currently under development.
Apart from that, there are several guidelines and strategies. The most relevant of them are the MFSA STO Consultation Paper that outlines the MFSA approach to STO and MFSA Fintech Strategy, which, inter alia, discusses plans to establish regulatory sandbox for fintech ventures.
Below, I am taking a closer look at the most important aspects of the existing legislation.
There are two main regulatory bodies governing digital securities on Malta: The Malta Financial Services Authority (MFSA) and The Malta Digital Innovation Authority (MDIA).
MFSA is the single regulator of financial services in Malta, which regulates both financial services providers and issuers of any types of financial instruments. This has two implications for digital securities issuers:
- They need to work with MFSA-licensed service providers
- Their offering has to be approved by the MFSA
The role of MDIA is to set and enforce rules and standards for technological innovation. In digital securities regard, the regulator reviews and authorizes the technical infrastructure of crypto and security token exchanges and other infrastructural projects to make sure they are reliable and secure.
In order to get an MFSA (prevailing financial authority) license, you do not necessarily need MDIA authorization – in most cases, system audit is enough and MDIA opinion remain voluntary. However, if transaction volumes exceed certain levels, the authorization by the latter becomes mandatory.
Obviously, MDIA has limited bandwidth and cannot check every application for authorization itself, so the regulator attracts third-party MDIA-licensed system auditors to review the technical blueprint of the suggested system. There are currently five of them, including consulting giants KPMG and PwC. Once the audit is done, MDIA makes the final decision to grant the authorization based on the auditor assessment, business model, senior management personalities and qualifying shareholders of the innovative technology company.
The competent authorities are pursuing three priority goals: protecting investors, supporting
Malta’s reputation of the “center for excellence for technological innovation” and promoting healthy competition and choice.
The strong focus on reputation makes Malta different from other blockchain-friendly jurisdictions, such as Estonia. Although Malta does much to promote blockchain-based business by establishing clear legislation, creating regulatory fintech sandbox and so on, getting licenses here is more difficult. To get licensed, a company needs to comply with strict requirements, pass systems audit to ensure the resilience of infrastructure, defend its business model.
One of the necessary requirements to get authorization for any regulated activity on Malta are so-called “fit and proper checks” for all qualifying shareholders (>25% stake) and senior management – another mechanism to prevent fraud, protect investors and good reputation of Malta.
Such measures create an additional credibility for a company licensed on Malta, which in its turn creates incentives for decent companies to establish business activities there.
Virtual Financial Assets Act: providing classification
VFA Act introduced the legal framework for virtual financial assets and asset offerings in November 2018. The Act defines four types of DLT-assets:
- electronic money – common money, accounted for on DLT
- virtual tokens – units that have value only inside a system, for example, loyalty points
- financial instruments – assets defined by MiFID II regulations which include, inter alia, transferable securities and units in collective investment undertakings
- virtual financial assets – everything that does not fit into any of the above
The beauty of the Act is that when an asset does not fall into conventional forms, it is dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Many jurisdictions don’t adopt such a granular approach, preferring to qualify DLT-based assets broadly as security, utility and payment tokens with the same rules for every group of assets.
While it might seem like a good idea to create a separate category for cryptocurrencies, the problem is that, as we know, they can be very different by their essence: some are native tokens of a blockchain, others are not, some are anonymous, some are not, some are decentralized, and some are not.
VFA Act is mostly focused on procedures regarding the issuance or offering of virtual financial assets. However, it is unclear from the act itself how security tokens should be qualified depending on their nature. Thus MFSA has issued further guidelines and is working on a specific legislation for digital securities, which is going to cover all specific use cases in the industry.
STO Consultation Paper: defining digital securities
STO Consultation Paper divides security token offerings into traditional and non-traditional.
Units, offered during traditional STO, are classified as financial instruments under MiFID. Thus, they are regulated mostly by MiFID and Investment Services Act. At Stobox we call such units “digital securities”, and mostly work with them.
All other exotic types of investment units fall under the definition of non-traditional STOs. The most common example may include a unit that provides a right to a revenue share but does not represent a company’s equity, thus being some sort of a derivative contract. Many of the security token offerings conducted so far have been of such nature, although the regulation they fall under differs depending on the jurisdiction. Most security token offerings conducted so far have been of that nature.
MFSA has not yet issued an opinion on non-traditional STOs.
Prospectus regulation: offering & trading digital securities
The offering of digital securities is regulated mainly by the Prospectus Regulation, which requires issuers to register a Prospectus when making a public offering. However, European legislation courteously offers exemptions under which the offering can be conducted without registering a Prospectus.
The two most widely used include:
1) offering targeted solely on accredited investors (private sale)
2) offering with a total consideration under EUR 5 million in the European Union during a 12 months period.
Nonetheless, if the issuer is seeking to get listed on a trading venue it has to comply with the listing rules and prepare a Prospectus-like Admission Document, thus reducing the benefits of an exempted offer.
However, there are secondary market arrangements that do not fall under the definition of a regulated trading venue and, thus, can introduce less strict admission rules. One of them is bulletin board, which is a market at which participants can place their buying and selling interests, but there is no automated matching. Instead transaction is initiated when another clients agrees with the proposed terms and chooses to become a counterparty of the trade. Although there is no precedent of a kind on Malta yet, UK’s Financial Conduct Authority, which is subject to the same EU legislation, does not consider such arrangement an MTF:
“In our view, any system that merely receives, pools, aggregates and broadcasts indications of interest, bids and offers or prices should not be considered a multilateral system. That means that a bulletin board should not be considered a multilateral system. This is because there is no reaction of one trading interest to another other within these types of facilities.”
For this reason, we at Stobox are building our secondary marketplace in the form of a bulletin board to reduce requirements for companies to be onboarded and have access to liquidity.
Malta has introduced one of the most progressive legislative frameworks for digital securities in the world, which finds balance between investor protection and facilitating innovation. Creating comprehensive legislation from scratch is an non trivial task and takes a lot of time –– it explains why the majority of digital securities offerings to the date took place in other jurisdictions. However, exactly due to the fact that Malta has put so much time and effort into it, Maltese providers and companies can be trusted from both the perspective of long-term regulatory stability and correspondence to prudential standards.
Japanese Government Introduces New STO Regulations
Japanese regulators officially launched their STO market via amendments to the country’s current securities regulations this week. The new crypto exchange-specific amendments add clarity to the market and introduce a number of important customer protections. As such, analysts predict that the Japanese crypto sector is about to experience rapid expansion.
According to new reports, the amendments will go into effect on May 1. Importantly the changes directly alter the Payment Services Act and the Financial Instruments and Exchange Act. The amendments introduced a variety of new measures ranging from new banking regulations and cold wallet requirements, all the way to, new legal terminology.
Storage Upgrades – STO Regulations
Specifically, the new amendments put new requirements on exchanges. For one, all exchanges must now keep in cold storage an amount equal or greater than the number of users’ funds held online. This regulation ensures that exchanges rely on cold storage whenever possible. Along the same line of thought, exchanges are no longer allowed to keep users’ funds and their funds together. Importantly, this regulation extends across both crypto and fiat reserves.
ICO and STO Amendments
Another important amendment added to the regulations is the legal definitions of initial coin offerings (ICOs) and security token offerings (STOs). For years, blockchain firms struggled to get regulators to clarify the exact differences in terms of regulations. Now, regulators have a clear cut understanding of what type of fundraising campaign is underway, and how to classify it.
Fighting Fake News – STO Regulations
Interestingly, the new amendments go after all forms of market manipulation. There are now stricter fines and punishments in place for spreading rumors or making false statements. This is an important addition as market manipulation is a real concern internationally. Japanese officials hope they can curb these nefarious actors and weed out bad sources of information.
As part of the new enforcement policies, the new regulations place cryptocurrency asset derivatives transactions under the FSA’s jurisdiction. Additionally, there are some terminology changes. Moving forward, cryptoassets and not “cryptocurrencies” is the terminology regulators agreed on.
Importantly, a group of Japan’s top securities firms has been patiently waiting for these regulations to become official. The group includes Monex Group, Rakuten, and one of the largest financial institutions in the country, SBI. In March, the group publicly revealed plans to create a regulated security token exchange.
The group’s wish could have come sooner if the world wasn’t in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the virus has wreaked havoc on the markets and caused multiple delays for regulators. Notably, Japan was even forced to postpone the 2020 Olympics.
Japan STO Market is Here
Despite the dreary state of the international markets, Japan seeks to be the blockchain capital of the region. This determination, coupled with regulators forward-looking stance, is sure to give the country an advantage over the competition. For now, you can expect to see progress as the Japanese STO market is officially active.
XRP Ripple Lawsuit re-filed, but not as a Security?
This week, news broke that an amended complaint against Ripple has been filed by XRP investors. This news is the latest development in a two-year class-action lawsuit brought against the firm. Interestingly, investors chose to amend this lawsuit in order to add protections in the case that XRP doesn’t fall under securities regulations.
Importantly, the amended suit includes former XRP investor Bradley Sostack as the lead plaintiff. In this go-around, the plaintiffs brought additional claims against Ripple and its CEO, Brad Garlinghouse for violation of California business law. The report alleges the company blurred the differences between its enterprise solutions and XRP to further drive demand in the market.
Hedge Your Bets
Originally, the lawsuit alleged that Ripple raised millions of dollars through the unregistered sales of XRP to US retail investors. Now, according to a court document filed on March 25, investors decided to attempt another approach. Perhaps, fearing that XRP could escape securities regulations, the new suit goes after the firm for violations of California business laws.
To this extent, the sixth claim for relief states that the firm participated in false advertising, while a seventh claim, further accuses the firm of unfair competition in violation of California regulations. Also, the claim states that Ripple reportedly limited the supply of XRP to drive price appreciation.
Garlinghouse Under Fire
Specifically, the allegations claim that Garlinghouse made numerous conflicting claims to investors. In multiple instances, he stated that he was holding XRP for long-term gains. However, researchers pointed out that these statements were false. Throughout 2017, Garlinghouse sold millions of XRP via cryptocurrency exchanges. In fact, a review of the XRP ledger indicates that Garlinghouse sold over 67 million XRP in 2017 alone. Additionally, on multiple occasions, he dumped his XRP within days of receiving it from Ripple.
SEC vs Ripple XRP
The lawsuit cites statements made from Ripple about XRP being a utility token essential for international payments. Additionally, the firm and CEO made statements in which they described the cryptocurrency sales are primarily to market makers. This last point could prove to be a major problem for Ripple as 60 percent of XRP is owned by Ripple, and until now, only saw use solely for fundraising efforts.
The Ripple XRP Saga
The XRP securities saga started when a group of disgruntled investors lodged a complaint with the SEC back in 2018. Since that time, the case has seen numerous amendments as both Ripple and the plaintiffs adjusted their strategies. Ripple hoped to get the case dismissed early on, but U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton in the Northern District of California ordered in February the suit could proceed to trial.
While the news did seem bleak for Ripple, at that time, Judge Hamilton also stated that the company did not violate California state law. Consequently, both the false advertising and personal liability against Ripple’s CEO Brad Garlinghouse were dropped in that instance.
Now, Ripple worries that the plaintiffs will utilize unlimited amendments to falter the XRP market. Given the new legal approach that the plaintiffs have taken to towards the company, there may be some validity to their concerns.
BSTX Experiences Proposal Delay, as SEC Seeks Further Commentary
The SEC has recently released an update on a proposal put forth in 2019 by the, yet-to-launch, Boston Security Token Exchange (BSTX). Despite being considered since last May, the proposal has been postponed. The purpose of this delay is to allow for public commentary.
This move, delaying the final decision, comes after months of deliberation on the proposal put forth by the BTSX. From the time of the initial filing, we have covered developments surrounding the BSTX on multiple occasions. The following articles shed light on this timeline, and what the BSTX is trying to achieve.
While not all-encompassing, the following are a few of the key points put forth by the BSTX in their proposal for change.
- Asset ownership recorded using a private blockchain
- Trading enabled through use of BSTX tokens
- Whitelisted Clients
In their most recent extension, the SEC noted that it was done in hopes that the public would come forth, and share their stances towards the proposal. They stated,
“The Commission requests that interested persons provide written submissions of their views, data, and arguments with respect to the issues identified above, as well as any other concerns they may have with the proposal.”
Presumably, what prompted this delay is multiple responses received during the first commentary period. While there were only two received, each expressed trepidation towards what the BSTX is trying to achieve.
Of the two responses received, thus far, one was received by a representative of Nasdaq. It is stated,
“Nasdaq respectfully submits that the BOX proposal may place an unreasonable burden on competition because the blockchain (ledger) technology used to track ownership of the security token—the only aspect of this instrument that is unique—would not have a common distributed ledger. Rather, the distributed ledger would be exclusively available on BOX, thereby placing other exchanges at a competitive disadvantage that cannot be remedied by replicating the blockchain offering. Furthermore, the proposal appears to provide insufficient detail regarding: (1) digital securities infrastructure and technology pairing with the existing equities market infrastructure, and (2) its impact on the anti-fraud and customer protection provisions of the Act, as well as possible investor confusion. Nasdaq recommends that BOX submit additional detail addressing these concerns before the proposal is approved.”
Simply put, they break down their issues into two main points:
- ‘The Proposal places an unreasonable burden on competition’
- ‘The Proposal provides insufficient information to assess compliance with the Act or the costs to market participants.’
The commentary, put forth by Nasdaq, closes with a request for more information, stating,
“For the reasons described above, Nasdaq believes that BOX has provided insufficient information concerning the proposal’s impact on competition, how it complies with other aspects of the Exchange Act and Anti-Money Laundering statutes, and how BOX intends to avoid investor confusion. Nasdaq recommends that BOX submit additional detail addressing these concerns before the proposal is approved.”
Boston Security Token Exchange (BSTX)
Founded in 2018, the BSTX is a joint venture between BOX Digital, and tZERO. The goal of the BSTX is to establish a regulated and full-fledged exchange, which offers support for digital securities.
CEO, Lisa Fall, currently oversees company operations.