The regulatory scrutiny has morphed into a permanent reality in the crypto space. This much had become clear in early 2018. Regulators from all corners of the globe are looking to ﬁt the crypto phenomenon into some regulatory rules or framework. The main question however is to discern what crypto assets are? And whether crypto assets are securities? If they are, then the relevant law must be applied.
In the US, Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had announced that all crypto assets are investment contracts or – securities. This later corrected that all, except for Bitcoin and Ethereum (in its present stage) are to be deemed securities. 1https://coincenter.org/ ﬁles/2019-03/clayton-token-response.pdf
The reality is the American legal system largely still relies on the 86 year old Securities Act, with exceptions made available with enacting the JOBS Act in 2012. And within this amendment, there is a place for security tokens to be issued as well. Small issuances of up to USD 1m can be effected as crowdfunding projects. Larger deals can be done as private placements or public offerings limited to accredited (professional or high net worth) investors. Either way, the registration of the issuing security is mandatory. It is likely that the Securities Act may see a major revamp to exclude most cryptocurrencies from the scope of federal securities law. 2https://cryptovest.com/news/bipartisan-bill-proposes-to-exclude-crypto-from-us-securities-law/ In the meantime, the most recent discussion identiﬁes guidelines on how to assess if the publicly offered or sold digital asset is an investment contract and therefore a security. 3https://www.sec.gov/ﬁles/dlt-framework.pdf
In Europe, on the other hand, the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) has called to extend Europe’s revised Markets in Financial Instruments Directive (MIFID II) to include cryptocurrency products such as initial coin offerings with securities features among transferable securities or other types of ﬁnancial instruments. 4https://www.esma.europa.eu/press-news/esma-news/crypto-assets-need-common-eu-wide-approach-ensure-investor-protection European Prospectus Regulations will apply in full from 21 July 2019 and replace the current directive. Under the Regulation each EU member state will be able to set its own limit between 1 and 8 million EUR when the mandatory prospectus requirement applies.
On the brink of Brexit, the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) published an extensive consultation paper on the classiﬁcation and regulation of crypto assets. 5https://www.fca.org.uk/publication/consultation/cp19-03.pdf The paper seeks to provide regulatory clarity for ﬁrms and consumers, when certain activities around “cryptoassets” or tokens themselves fall within the FCA’s regulatory perimeter. The FCA reminds that the breach of authorisation regime is a criminal offence and carries a maximum penalty of 2 years imprisonment or an unlimited ﬁne, or both. Following the consultation period, FCA intends to publish the ﬁnal Policy Statement in relation to cryptoassets by summer 2019.
Other pioneering jurisdictions, such as Switzerland, Malta, Estonia, Lithuania, Liechtenstein have reviewed the types of crypto assets and proposed a classiﬁcation thereof.
All the above mentioned jurisdictions offer more-or-less similar classiﬁcation of tokens. Largely separating tree or four types. It is a matter of not so distant future, when every national regulatory body will be compelled to put out their opinion or guidelines on the subject.
Tokenisation – digital and immutable proof of ownership
The rise and fall of the ICO exuberance has resulted in setting a ﬁrm precedent in demand for tokenisation. It has also set an example for how the future of securities will likely look. There will always be a law governing securities issuance. But there also will be a decentralised reﬂection of the issued securities on the blockchain. With transparent protocol implementation, everyone should be able to access smart contract speciﬁcations and assess overall market interest.
The IEO or initial exchange offering appeared to remedy some of the most lacking aspects of a typical ICO, such as reliability, custodianship, vetting, transaction speed, cost, and sales channels. But it is yet to be seen, if it turns out to be the most appropriate utility token issuance method. After all, tokenisation is adding to a healthy competition amongst issuers and issuance platforms.
A legacy exchange listing cannot be applied to tokenised securities. Legacy exchanges lack understanding of the underlying technology and regulatory clearance. This is why there are many new technologically advanced initiatives, looking to set up a regulated space for security token listing and secondary market.
For a small-capital company a KYC/AML compliant STO campaign can be considered as an alternative way to access funding. Tokenising businesses by offering equity tokens, revenue sharing or raising capital with debt tokens may become an inevitable part of a company funding life cycle. A security token offering may be equaled to initial or subsequent equity or debt offering in the form of a digital token.
When asset becomes a digital and immutable proof of ownership to a global community, that is when we have created a democratic access for everyone to participate in the growth of the global economy. Today, not all countries have harmonised securities laws. But we are well on the way to lowering barriers of entry for both investors and issuers.
About the author
Liza Aizupiete, the Managing Director of Fintelum, which serves the crypto industry by carrying out a technically sound and KYC/AML compliant token sale process, crypto funds co-custody, transfer agency, secondary token OTC desk and corporate actions.
Previously Liza was a founder and the Managing Director of a cyptocurrency exchange Globitex, as well as the General Director of Lithuanian e-money institution NexPay UAB. A Latvian native, Liza graduated from the University of Geneva, Switzerland, majoring in Philosophy. Liza is experienced in the ﬁnancial industry, including trading, fund and portfolio management. Since 2012, she has become passionate about Bitcoin and later crypto industry at large, as a proponent of a decentralised and sound monetary system.
Fintelum is a comprehensive ICO/STO token launch platform for businesses looking to tokenise their assets in the form of utility, equity, debt and other asset or revenue sharing token. Fintelum suite of services comprises a regulated KYC investor onboarding, and continuous compliance with the EU AML laws. The token sale process can be followed through a tailor made dashboard. The backofﬁce system allows data access and management as well as on-demand reporting. In addition, to help mitigate token sale process risks, Fintelum acts as a crypto currency co-custodian. The system incorporates an integrated multi signature cold/hot wallets. To serve the security token industry, Fintelum acts as a transfer agent, ensuring security token ownership amongst whitelisted investors. Fintelum is also able to provide secondary token OTC exchange desk functions, with ongoing corporate action services, such as voting, dividends and announcements.
Learn more at https://www.ﬁntelum.com
This is part 5 of a 5 part series.
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.