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What is the ‘Howey Test’?



 on is not an investment adviser, and this does not constitute investment advice, financial advice, or trading advice. does not recommend that any security should be bought, sold, or held by you. Conduct your own due diligence and consult a financial adviser before making any investment decisions.

The Howey Test is a cornerstone of U.S. law that determines whether or not an asset is a security.  It does this by setting the criteria for what constitutes an “investment contract” and thus falls under the regulatory purview of securities legislation.  Behind the enforcement of the Howey Test is the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Origins of the Howey Test

The Howey Test derives from the 1946 Supreme Court case, SEC v. W.J. Howey Co., where the sale of real estate contracts for citrus groves in Florida prompted the need to determine whether such transactions qualified as investment contracts under the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.  The affirmative decision by the Court laid the foundation for the Howey Test, shaping the future of investment regulation.

Parameters of the Howey Test

The Howey Test identifies an investment contract through a transaction where there is:

  1. Investment of Money: This criterion is broadly interpreted to encompass not just the transfer of money but also assets, goods, or services of value.  The investment must represent a commitment of resources by an investor in the expectation of earning a return.
  2. A Common Enterprise: A common enterprise is characterized by the pooling of the investor's money or assets with those of other investors.  The test does not strictly define how this pooling should occur, leading to variations in interpretation.  Most courts look for horizontal commonality, where investors' fortunes are interlinked by the pooling of assets, resulting in profits shared proportionally.  Some jurisdictions also recognize vertical commonality, focusing on the relationship between the promoter and the investor, with the investor's returns primarily depending on the promoter's efforts.
  3. An Expectation of Profits: Investors must be drawn to the venture with the expectation of earning profits, which are typically realized through the efforts of others.  This distinguishes investment contracts from other forms of commercial agreements where profits might come from the investor's direct actions or business operations.  The “efforts of others” clause emphasizes the reliance of investors on the managerial or entrepreneurial efforts of a third party to generate a return on their investment.

This framework aims to protect investors in scenarios resembling traditional securities, even in the absence of conventional instruments like stocks or bonds.

Expansion Beyond Traditional Investments

The Howey Test's application has broadened to encompass various investment schemes, reflecting its adaptability to the evolving financial landscape.  This adaptability has its limits, though, with the SEC struggling in recent years on multiple occasions to successfully deem certain digital assets as securities.

Calls for Clarity and Specific Guidance

Notably, there has been a loud and widespread call across the digital asset industry in recent years for an update or clarification of the Howey Test.  The argument is that the test, which was a product of the 1930's, cannot encapsulate the complexities of modern FinTech.  Stakeholders advocate for a framework that recognizes the unique attributes of blockchain technology and digital assets, fueling debate over the adequacy of existing laws versus the need for new legislation.

Global Impact and International Considerations

Internationally, the Howey Test influences securities regulation, with many countries developing similar criteria to define investment contracts.  This global perspective is vital in the borderless realm of digital assets, where investments transcend national boundaries.

Clinging to Relevance?

The enduring relevance of the Howey Test in securities law, its application to a broad range of investment schemes, and the ongoing discussions surrounding its adaptation to digital assets highlight the dynamic interplay between law, finance, and technology.

To date, a rich body of legal precedents has emerged from the application of the Howey Test, offering critical insights for navigating securities law. These precedents underscore the legal complexities surrounding investment contracts and the ongoing evolution of regulatory interpretations.

As the financial landscape continues to transform, the Howey Test's principles will, no doubt, remain central to regulatory efforts, ensuring investor protection while fostering innovation in new and emerging markets.

Daniel is a big proponent of how blockchain will eventually disrupt big finance. He breathes technology and lives to try new gadgets.