After over 130 security token prospectuses were submitted to BaFin, the German regulator, it was the Bitbond STO that was the first to be granted approval.
In 2016, Bitbond became the first blockchain business to be regulated as a financial institution in Germany. The next logical step was to crowdfund our growth – compliantly – with a bond issued on blockchain technology.
As the first, we had no guidelines to follow, but we learned a lot in the process that followed. Rather than keep these insights to ourselves, we want to share them, in the interests of growing the whole industry and encouraging adoption.
What makes an STO an attractive option?
The institutional mismanagement of money that triggered 2008’s global financial crisis has had profound effects on investor appetite for alternative products. Crowdfunding and micro-lending have been growing, which has enabled a new frontier: decentralized financial products.
Relying on no bank or centralised authority, decentralized finance encompasses cryptocurrencies and blockchain-powered financial products that are decentralized, relying on less middlemen or intermediaries.
Security Token Offerings (STOs) – where a company creates a digital asset that represents a tradable stake or asset, which it sells to investors in return for capital – have been a natural progression from the crowdfunding boom launched by Kickstarter in 2009 and crowdlending movement initiated by Topa and LendingClub.
The sale of a digitized version of a security, STOs have become an onboarding point for non-crypto investors to learn about digital assets. At the same time STOs are a cheaper, and more efficient tool for businesses to fundraise, with the added benefit of a compliant structure to adhere to.
So, what does it take to launch a regulated STO?
Step One: Get your business, and your story, in order
Obtaining regulatory approval for any financial product is not easy. It shouldn’t be. With emerging technology like an STO, the barriers become even steeper.
Before embarking on the road to regulation, you need to clarify your motivations within your business. What makes an STO the most efficient method of fundraising for your goals? How will a diverse pool of international investors offer more value to your business than a smaller pool of sophisticated investors or experienced VCs?
For Bitbond, it made sense to launch an STO to the public, as the core product is about creating access to finance for underserved demographics, in a compliant way.
Similarly, when Blockstack, a decentralized computing ecosystem, was looking to raise money in a decentralized and accessible way, it made sense for them to make use of the SEC’s crowdfunding regulation, Reg-A+.
When a business is built on the idea of decentralization, using a fundraising method that encourages wider participation and access is the logical route to take.
Step Two: Talk – and listen – to regulators
In Germany, regulators have defined cryptocurrencies and other blockchain-backed tokens as units of account, so they have to be treated as financial instruments. This means any kind of service for third parties in relation to cryptocurrencies or crypto tokens must be authorised by BaFin.
Whilst they judge on a case-by-case basis, any token or cryptocurrency project looking to facilitate the issuance, exchange or other services around tokens must make their case to BaFin.
When BaFin are presented with a prospectus, they must give feedback within 20 days, which is a short time, even when they are assessing a product they already know.
With emerging technologies, a different tactic is needed: the blockchain industry needs to talk to the regulators, not just on the products we’re building, but on the ecosystem at large.
In April 2018, Bitbond reached out to BaFin, to present a legal framework of the Bitbond STO. By opening the conversation with something tangible to build from, we could tailor our prospectus around their concerns.
Over the next months, we went back and forth with the regulators; much of conversation centred on how blockchain transactions work, what additional risks and opportunities stem from them, the unique features of the Bitbond offering and how the proof of ownership in the security works if there is no central clearing.
We took things back to basics, when talking to BaFin to provide a crash course in the fundamentals of blockchain. We answered numerous questions on how the blockchain works, what Ethereum and Stellar are and how transactions work on these protocols.
This gave them the language to interrogate our project – and helped us identify the main areas of concern and the risks BaFin wanted to see addressed in a prospectus.
By teaching them the context, including the fundamental pillars of blockchain technology, and the way tokens facilitate the use of that technology, we can help regulators make more informed decisions, and ask better questions.
Step 3: Prepare a prospectus that addresses concerns and regulations
They may bring administrative hassle, but regulators play an important role in the financial ecosystem. They hold businesses like us to account to maintain the stability of the financial system and protect consumers.
In Bitbond’s case, the idea for the STO came in February 2018, conversations began with the regulator in April, a prospectus was submitted at the end of October, with approval being granted in January 2019: nearly a year later.
This took longer than a standard securities application, but that was because the concept we were presenting was so new – there was nothing the regulators could compare it with.
Investing this time was worthwhile, as we now have the first mover advantage with the first regulated STO in Germany.
More than that, we have the privilege of paving the way for more German and European businesses to launch compliant STOs.
An STO remains a more efficient way of fundraising than going through a private VC fund or accredited investors: there is only one prospectus to prepare, rather than having to tailor many proposals to individual institutions or investment banks.
This prospectus must cover all conceivable risk factors that exist for investors. These range from unexpected rises in transaction fees reducing the profitability of the bond, through to the tax risks associated with holding an emerging asset class that is subject to legal changes.
Projections must be made, and justified. Assets and liabilities must be declared and broken down in a balance sheet. The target market must be identified, and characterised.
An extensive history of the issuer and its business activities must be laid out, in language that the investors will understand.
Once all the details have been laid out, there are far fewer intermediaries needed between the business and investors, which makes the raising process significantly leaner, more efficient, and easier to manage.
With these future savings, educating the regulators is a worthwhile investment.
Conclusion: Education and open-mindedness will improve access to alternative forms of finance
It is in the interests of all stakeholders in this space – from regulators to businesses to customers – for emerging technologies to operate within a compliant structure. We have already started working with other companies looking to gain the regulator’s approval and use our technology for the issuance process.
As well as a fundraising method, an STO has become a vehicle to teach investors about digital securities.
It is exciting that the process of getting approval for a prospectus can become an extension of this educational process, which can act as a catalyst for regulatory engagement.
BaFin’s willingness to interact, and learn from the industry is an exciting opportunity for Germany to step up as world leaders of innovative financial services and products.
If the industry continues to invest time and resources to educate and work together with regulators, we can create a framework for compliant STOs, which in turn provides a welcoming environment for the next generation of compliant digital securities.
HODL Your Hoopla Over SEC Changes For Exempt Offerings – Thought Leaders
Last week the The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission released a proposal – that has yet to become regulation – to simplify how exempt offerings are done. Shortly thereafter, a flurry of articles and newsletters made their way through the digital asset industry – many of which suggested their platforms were already being modified to fit the new rules. While the SEC has proposed changes, time will tell whether the proposal is adopted – and if so, whether there will be changes to the final draft that will be published to the Federal Register.
The US exempt offering framework includes tools such as Reg D, Reg A, crowdfunding (a.k.a. Reg CF) – essentially everything that is not a public or retail offering. This framework has seen little in the way of changes or modernization since the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. There has been significant public criticism of the current rules for exempt offerings, largely because they reserve access for only the wealthiest Americans to invest in private funds, companies, and other offerings.
If passed, the proposed changes could allow for the average person to invest in earlier stage deals – such as Uber or WeWork – before they reach their lofty valuations and dumped into the public markets. Enabling SPV (special purpose vehicles) and harmonized reporting (ie combing Reg D and Reg CF into one, not two reports), and increasing the total amount that can be raised would help streamline compliance for issuing firms. Additionally, the changes could also enable crowdfunding to become a viable capital formation tool for investing in such asset classes as real estate.
Currently, US offering exemptions such as Regulation CF (crowdfunding) are quite restrictive, limiting the total amount you can raise to $1.07M USD per 12 month period and includes significant restrictions per investor. The US SEC appears to be following the lead of other jurisdictions such as Canada where regulators proposed similar changes, or Europe where regulations were updated last year, increasing the limits for the EGP (European Growth Prospectus) to €8M EUR, a little over $9M USD. According to the new proposal, companies would be able to raise up to $5M USD. While $5M is still a relatively small amount of capital, it does allow early stage companies to build their tribe with a broader investor base.
The SEC proposed similar changes to Reg A, increasing the upper limit to $75M USD. This could make Reg A viable for many later stage companies where larger Series B, C, or even D rounds demand more capital than what is currently available in Reg A.. This also opens up these investment opportunities to the retail investor, previously these deals were only available to the wealthiest corporate venture firms, private equity shops, and high net worth individuals.
Further changes include allowing accredited investors to participate in crowdfunding. Previously, if you used a crowdfunding exemption, you could not accept funds from accredited investors and would actually have to use another exemption, such as Reg D, simultaneously. This typically forces companies into more paperwork, legal fees, and an increased risk of getting something wrong – which could result in regulatory or civil actions. The proposed changes would enable companies to combine accredited and retail investors into one offering.
Aside from accredited investors, the changes also open the doors to institutional and corporate investors, including the SPV (Special Purpose Vehicle).
An SPV is a corporate entity created for a specific purpose – usually for reasons such as limiting liability, tax efficiency, investment, or capital formation. For example: In order to tokenize a piece of real estate, you might form an SPV, and transfer the deed to the real estate into this company. The purpose of that company/vehicle is to hold the deed of this real estate and maintain a accurate record of who the owners are, SPVs are commonly used for investment funds as well.
Combined, SPVs, corporate investors, accredited investors, and major institutional investors can move large amounts of capital. However, they weren’t able to invest in crowdfunding offerings in the US. This created an interesting paradox for companies raising capital, if you could get the big fish interested, you would avoid the crowd – but, if your offering didn’t look good enough for professional investors, your last resort may be crowdfunding. The crowdfunding industry as a whole has faced a lot of criticism from professional investors for low returns and low deal quality, this is likely to change when retail investors have access to the same deals as larger institutions.
Finally, the new crowdfunding regulations propose several major changes to how much each investor can put into any one offering. Currently, investors who do not meet the accreditation thresholds were limited on how much they could invest based on the lower of their income or net worth. The new regulations would change this to the greater of those two. These changes are expected to not only fuel innovation, they are likely to bring in a lot of smart money as well.
For example, an investor with a net worth of $750,000 and an income of $150,000 couldn’t qualify as an accredited investor. This person has a Phd in bioscience and finds a startup with a revolutionary innovation in the field of bioscience – they are not qualified as an accredited investor and barred from investing. Ironically, they can be an advisor to any institutional investor on why this particular startup is so hot – but under the current rules, they are not qualified to risk their own money.
While these changes are welcomed by most market participants, they are not a sure thing. This proposal for a new exempt offering framework is not yet regulation, it still has to make it’s way through the government and be entered into the Federal Register. Looking back at the proposals for crowdfunding in the US we can see how different a proposal can be from the regulation – and there are still a lot of lobbying dollars that want to see the status quo maintained. It is important to not make important business decisions based on this proposal – rather, look at these changes as a larger trend among securities regulators globally.
We’re seeing securities regulators trying to make easier for distributed capital formation. Crowdsales and crowdfunding are actually becoming something that the regulators across around the world are working together to harmonize their frameworks. By combining the crowdfunding regulations from jurisdictions around the world, early stage companies would be able to access global capital and build a global investor base, without being forced to break the rules like most of the ICO and STO issuers are doing today.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about the SEC’s proposed changes is how they demonstrate a very coordinated effort among securities commissions globally. As this new era of capital formation emerges, businesses will be able to combine and leverage the regulatory frameworks of multiple countries. That being said, for US based offerings, we still have to wait for the new regulations before knowing what they will look like, or their impact on the digital securities industry.
Why EU blacklisting the Cayman Islands matters for the STO industry – Thought Leaders
On February 18th the European Union added the Cayman Islands to its tax haven blacklist. While this has not made the news in the security token industry, it has had major implications. Due to the strict demands of AML & KYC in many jurisdictions, regulators are focusing more resources on beneficial ownership, tax transparency, and enforcement.
For companies raising capital, the blacklisting means you should not take money from a Cayman fund if you’re a European issuer. In the EU, a lot of the investment in security tokens, real estate, and private equity comes from or through Cayman fund structures. Cayman is also where a large portion of American VC funds are domiciled.
The current tax haven blacklist also includes American Samoa, Fiji, Guam, Oman, Palau, Panama, Samoa, Trinidad and Tobago, US Virgin Islands, Vanuatu, and Seychelles.
Any company taking funds from a Cayman domiciled fund, or working with a platform/issuer/bank in that market should be aware that being associated with a blacklisted country could create significant new risk exposure for your project, and possibly yourself. These changes are effective immediately. Until recently, most firms could fly under the radar but the EU is also rolling out a public registry of corporate ownership. This will not only make non-compliance much easier to spot but also increases the ability for regulators in the EU to investigate and enforce.
The regulation could impact people working at (including directors, officers, or significant shareholders) a company that received funding from a Cayman source after the blacklist date. Enforcement severity changes by country but can include criminal charges, company seizure, and known associates may end up on a variety of sanctions and watch lists. Not to mention the reputational damage.
This is a good example of why a good AML program does not only consist of face matching a document and pinging an API to name match a sanctions list – you are opening up your venture, and most likely yourself, to massive liability. Your legal and regulatory obligation is to take a risk based approach. What that looks like can change by country, transaction value, activity history, etc., so AML program needs to be dynamic, robust, and comprehensive enough to catch things like narrative sanctions.
For example: The most popular security token platforms today only use KYC for digital onboarding of natural persons – not corporate entities. However, when you look at the investors in their previous token issuances you can see that most of the funds are coming from corporate accounts, corporation owned wallets, but the on-chain transaction and KYC is done by an individual. These platforms are missing the technical capabilities to spot transactions coming through blacklisted jurisdictions such as Grand Cayman.
iComply recently helped a virtual asset exchange pass the audits needed to offer their users the ability to spend virtual assets, such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, with a Visa card. This process involved independent audits from Visa, their banks, and regulators – each wanted to see the client demonstrate how they would be able to identify these risks and fulfill the requirements of a whole web of regulations.
Now that they have passed the audit, they are first to market with a very compelling offer compared to their competition who still have months of development on their AML systems before their applications will go through. Using iComply to get ahead of the regulations has also put them ahead of their competition.
We can expect the same for the security token market. Token issuers need to pay close attention to their AML compliance – Telegram had to refund over $1B USD over AML, has spent millions in court with the SEC, and the OCC has not even started with them yet…after that, how many of their “not investors” will be ready to jump onto an investor class action lawsuit? We have already seen this with the recent OCC case against MYSB in New York, or with the SEC and AirFox in Boston.
Regulated Digital Assets Take Over in 2020 – Thought Leaders
2018 was the highwater mark for initial coin offerings (ICOs), when 1,253 new coins raised $7.8 billion. In 2019, this “Wild West” market went from boom to bust. Dollars raised in ICOs plummeted 95% compared to 2018, and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) continues to announce new actions against various ICO players for fraud and unregistered issuances. The sheriff has come to town.
Regulation, my old friend
It’s no consolation to investors who lost millions in ICO scams, but they were part of a natural market evolution. The laws governing traditional securities were also originally inspired by bad actors like “bucket shops” that emerged as another new technology, the telegraph, was changing financial markets. The SEC’s decision to crack down on digital assets and apply those same laws to blockchain securities is good news for market participants.
Blockchain securities have the potential to increase efficiency, lower costs, provide greater transparency and mitigate risk. However, the financial industry can’t fully realize the potential of blockchain securities without a public market and regulated ecosystem to support their full lifecycle. That means fully compliant issuing, investing, trading, settlement and custody.
Governments around the globe are working to establish the necessary frameworks in their own jurisdictions. This is lowering the risk of investing in blockchain securities by introducing investor protections associated with traditional markets. Although different jurisdictions have different requirements for regulated entities, investors, traders and users, there are four common areas being addressed:
- Distribution – how are security tokens created and why, and how are they delivered to their owners?
- Custody – where is the ultimate record of ownership kept and by whom?
- Reporting and Record Keeping – what additional regulatory requirements are placed on participants such as transfer agent services?
- Specific Processes – what additional processes are required, for example, in order to move security tokens between personal and master wallets?
The SEC and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) have established guidance in all four areas through a series of communications including the report on The DAO and a joint statement on broker-dealer custody of digital assets. The necessary U.S. framework is finally in place to allow regulated, public trading of blockchain securities to blossom.
If the juice don’t look like this
In parallel with these regulatory developments, companies have rushed to create the necessary market infrastructure. Critical components are in place and more are coming this year. The question for those considering whether to participate: is the juice from this 2.0 version of digital assets worth the squeeze? The answer will be yes if the blockchain securities market looks like an upgrade of traditional markets, which would require that it offers two key benefits to investors and companies looking to raise money.
The first is efficiency. Blockchain securities need to eliminate the cumbersome data systems and manual paper-based processes of traditional securities trading. The potential is there but execution is everything as the saying goes. Implemented correctly, blockchain can efficiently support the entire lifecycle of digital assets from issuance and investing through trading, settlement and custody.
The second benefit is smart oversight. To be viable over the long term, the blockchain securities market needs to be fully compliant not only to satisfy regulators, but to create liquidity. It needs to supply investors with convenient access to transparency, account safeguards, and regulated trading. This will require integration with traditional brokerage accounts as well as intuitive user interfaces.
I’ve become so numb
I was hoping to get through this article without using “disruption” because I know we are all numb to the concept. Unfortunately, I keep hearing that blockchain securities will disrupt financial markets. I’ve said it myself! But the reality is that blockchain securities are an evolution not a revolution. The same year that ICOs peaked at $7.8 billion, the traditional US securities industry raised $2.4 trillion. For blockchain securities to become a mainstream asset class, they can’t remain on the island of personal wallets. They need to be bought, held and sold by retail investors, institutions, and advisors through traditional trading systems and brokerage accounts. That could happen as early as this year.