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.
SEC Charges Opporty for 2018 ICO
This week, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) continued its ICO crackdown. This time, the firm levied charges against project Opporty Founder and Brooklyn-resident Sergii Grybniak. The firm alleges that Grybniak broke the law when his firm raised approximately $600,000 during its 2018 ICO.
News of the charges first broke via Jan. 21 press release. In the release, the SEC reveals the charges laid against Grybniak in detail. Importantly, the primary charge is participating in the unregistered sale of securities. Additionally, the SEC claims that Grybniak made false statements in order to encourage more investor participation.
These statements include a myriad of exaggerated and completely fake claims. In one instance, Opporty claimed that its 2018 ICO was “100% SEC-compliant.” Unfortunately, this claim proved to be the tip of the iceberg. Apparently, Opporty also claimed to have thousands of “verified providers” who were ready to work with the platform.
This claim became so overblown that in one piece of marketing material, Opporty suggested it had a business database that included around 17 million participants. In actuality, the firm had no partnerships. Unfortunately, these claims served one main purpose, to push more investment capital into the ICO.
Major Software Firm
As if the shower of lies put forth weren’t enough, Opporty also made some very specific partnership claims that proved to be bunk as well. According to the SEC, the firm lied about a partnership with a major software company. This lie was to help ease investor doubt about the ability of developers to deliver on their hefty platform promises.
SEC Steps In – Opporty
It doesn’t take much research to see why Opporty ended up in the SEC’s crosshairs. Now, the SEC seeks injunctions against all future digital offerings by the company. On top of the cease-and-desist, regulators require Opporty to return all the funds the company raised during its 2018 ICO. Also, the firm is to face a variety of civil penalties for its actions.
Opporty executives sold the concept to investors as a blockchain-based ecosystem for small businesses. The platform was to provide these small-to-medium sized companies with access to advanced blockchain systems. For example, businesses could list their services and lock in their clients via smart contracts.
United States Investors
Aside from the obvious scamming that took place, Opporty made another key error in its strategy. You see, unlike many similar ICOs, the offering did not explicitly exclude U.S. investors from participating. The 2018 ICO included investments from around 200 US citizens. In this way, the firm invited the SEC to monitor its actions throughout its entire crowdfunding campaign.
An Oppurty Lost
Given the long list of violations this firm now faces, it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which Opporty decides to close its doors. Already, numerous SEC-charged firms have taken similar measures prior to refunding clients’ funds. For now, Opporty has a long legal battle and hefty fines to deal with. You can expect to hear more from this case as the SEC pursues its charges against Grybniak.
Disguises, Fake Identities, and an Illegal ICO – The SEC Looks to Lay Charges
The SEC is hard at work ousting, and holding accountable, those in the world of blockchain that have breached securities laws. Most recently, the SEC has turned their attention to an ICO hosted by a pair of companies operated by a duo of devious individuals.
- CG Blockchain Inc.
- BCT Inc.
This pairing of companies was marketed as developing technology to disrupt hedge funds, and the way they operate.
The Ring Leaders
- Boaz Manor (alias ‘Shaun Macdonald)
- Edith Pardo (alias ‘Edith Mehler’)
In all endeavours, it is believed that Boaz Manor was at the helm, with Edith Pardo acting as a ‘front-woman’, deflecting attention from Manor’s past.
In this particular case, the pair of companies, and the aforementioned individuals, are accused of facilitating/hosting a ‘fraudulent and unregistered offering of digital asset securities’.
$30 million worth of these securities were sold to investors, under the guise of a utility token ‘BCT’. Beyond simply selling illegal securities, those responsible flat out lied to their investors on a variety of fronts.
- Fake Identities
- Fake chain of command
- Product state of development
- Product Adoption
- Investments by founders
The list goes on. Simply put, they were not who they said they were, and the companies did not have a developed product gaining traction within the industry.
This next bit is not an everyday occurrence – rather, it was something you would see in a movie. Knowing full well that their activities were in violation of various securities based laws, Manor and Edith Pardo felt it prudent to hide their identities.
In order to do this, and distance themselves from their past activities (more on that, later), the pair went to great lengths. The SEC states,
“During the scheme, Manor employed a number of deceptive devices related to his fake identity and to the concealment of his background and role.”
Some of the tactics used to conceal their identities included dying hair, growing beards, attaining fake identification under the alias ‘Shaun MacDonald’, etc.
There are few reasons to justify hiding one’s identity in the manner that Manor did – either you’ve done something bad, or are doing something bad. In this particular case, Manor is guilty of both.
We’ve discussed the illegalities associated with his actions in the aforementioned ICO, however Manor has a history of such activity. Dating back to 2005 in Canada, Manor was found to be running a fraudulent hedge fund, valued at nearly $750 million.
When light was shed upon his operation, Manor proceeded to flee the great white north, becoming a fugitive in the process. After eventually returning, and completing a prison sentence of 1 year, Manor went on his way, staying out of the limelight until now.
Due to the great lengths gone to by the pair to partake in the aforementioned illegal activities, in addition to the sum of money raised, the SEC is taking a strong stance. The following is an excerpt from their court filing.
“Unless Defendants are restrained and enjoined, they will again engage in the acts, practices, transactions, and courses of business set forth in this Complaint or in acts, practices, transactions, and courses of business of similar type and object.”
The Securities and Exchange Commission is a United Stated based regulatory body, tasked with creating, an enforcing, regulation surrounding securities. The goal of which is to foster and maintain a fair, transparent, and efficient market for all participants.
Chairman, Jay Clayton, currently oversees company operations.
EMURGO Starts New Blockchain Task Force in Uzbekistan
This week, the blockchain arm of Cardano, EMURGO announced the creation of a special task force to assist the Uzbekistani government with security token integration. The newly developed team’s tasks will include researching, developing, and instituting new security token solutions into the market. Additionally, the team will guide Uzbeki officials on the creation of a regulatory framework to support a shift towards digital assets within the country’s financial sector.
News of the new taskforce first emerged via Cardano’s official blog. In the post, the company announced the creation of its new “strategic blockchain task force.” The post took a moment to describe the overall goals of the group. These goals include the development of a legal framework for STOs and security token trading. As such, the team will need to complete its market research in order to determine the best pathway towards providing solutions for the security token market locally.
Given the remarkable size and importance of the task at hand, it’s no surprise to learn that EMURGO made important strategic partnerships. To date, the firm works with the government of Uzbekistan’s National Agency of Project Management (NAPM), Infinity Blockchain Holdings and the KOBEA group.
KOBEA – Blockchain Education
Notably, the Korean-based blockchain firm, KOBEA will assist EMURGO in the development of an educational structure. The new blockchain-based courses will be available at universities and community centers in the very near future. This structure is necessary to further the local markets’ access to blockchain professionals.
Discussing the importance of the partnerships, the CEO of the EMURGO Group, Ken Kodama took a moment to express the “great honor” his firm feels after receiving the official go-ahead with the project. He also explained why Uzbekistan is one of the best places for blockchain development to occur. Notably, he touched on the government’s willingness to push the adoption of new technology. He even stated that “Uzbekistan is more willing than ever to adopt innovation.”
For its part, EMURGO will provide advisory services to the Uzbek government. Additionally, the firm will look into how to best integrate Cardano’s third generation blockchain into infrastructure projects. Blockchain infrastructure projects are on the rise. Despite the unprecedented growth within the sector over the last year, many analysts still see a lack of infrastructure as the main choke point towards full-scale blockchain adoption.
EMURGO and KOBEA
Interestingly, both EMURGO and KOBEA will provide additional insight into the digital asset banking markets. This data, coupled with a new educational initiative across all major Uzbek universities, should provide the country with a treasure trove of highly-trained professionals.
Cardano continues to impress with its 4th generation blockchain’s capabilities. Now, it appears that the firm has caught the attention of more than just your typical crypto investors. Given the sheer magnitude of its latest project, you can expect to see Cardano remain dominant in the crypto space for years to come.