Sweat the Small Stuff and Maybe the Bigger Issues Will Take Care of Themselves.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s (“SEC” or “Commission”) recent enforcement actions involving AirFox, Paragon, Crypto Asset Management, TokenLot, and EtherDelta’s founder illustrate that market participants must still adhere to well-established and well-functioning federal securities law framework when dealing with technological innovations, regardless of whether the securities are issued in certificated form or using new technologies, such as blockchain.
Broadly speaking, the issues raised in these actions fall into three categories: (1) initial offers and sales of digital asset securities (including those issued in initial coin offerings (“ICOs”)); (2) investment vehicles investing in digital asset securities and those who advise others about investing in these securities; and (3) secondary market trading of digital asset securities. 1 See Statement on Digital Asset Securities Issuance and Trading by the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance, Division of Investment Management, and Division of Trading and Markets (Nov. 16, 2018). https://www.sec.gov/news/public-statement/digital-asset-securites-issuuance-and-trading This article discusses some of the nuances of trading of digital asset securities in the secondary market.
As the Commission’ statement made clear “[a]ny entity that provides a marketplace for bringing together buyers and sellers of securities, regardless of the applied technology, must determine whether its activities meet the definition of an exchange under the federal securities laws. Exchange Act Rule 3b-16 provides a functional test to assess whether an entity meets the definition of an exchange under Section 3(a)(1) of the Exchange Act. An entity that meets the definition of an exchange must register with the Commission as a national securities exchange or be exempt from registration, such as by operating as an alternative trading system (“ATS“) in compliance with Regulation ATS.” 2 Id.
In determining whether an individual, entity or platform is acting as a broker-dealer or an exchange, the SEC will conduct its analysis based upon 1) the totality of the activities conducted by the participant as well as 2) the functional reality of what those activities achieve. If an entity provides a marketplace for bringing together buyers and sellers of digital asset securities, the SEC may find that such an entity is operating as an exchange. If an entity or a person is effecting transactions in digital assets or buying and selling digital assets for its own account, the SEC may find that such an entity or individual is acting as a broker or dealer in securities. 3 See Scheibe, Taub, Selinger, Steele and Woodward, SEC DIVISIONS ISSUE DIGITAL ASSET SECURITIES STATEMENT November 28, 2018 https://www.mwe.com/insights/sec-divisions-issue-digital-asset-securities-statement/ Any such broker-dealer must register with the SEC, as well as become a member of a self-regulatory organization, such as FINRA. Registration as a broker or dealer also results in adherence to a far-reaching compliance and investor protection regime.
Some of the most basic requirements that can pose roadblocks or speedbumps for the development of secondary market trading of digital assets include:
- Books and Records: Registered broker-dealers must make and maintain current books and records. Rules 17a-3 and 17a-4 under the Exchange Act and FINRA Rule 4511, for example, require that broker-dealers preserve certain records for specified periods of time and use certain technology such as write once read many (WORM) format. How can a digital-asset ATS be sure that the use of Digital Ledger Technology for recording and maintaining such information is in compliance with the SEC and FINRA’s requirements? The short answer should be that the blockchain is immutable and thus satisfies this requirement but some regulatory assurances on this would be helpful.
- Customer Protection: Under SEC Rule 15c3-3, a broker-dealer must maintain the physical possession or control of all fully paid securities and excess margin securities carried by the broker-dealer for the account of its customers. It is currently unclear whether the requirements of Rule 15c3-3 are met where transactions in digital securities are recorded on a database that is maintained over a public or private network. Does a Broker-dealer have the ability to demonstrate receipt, delivery and custody of securities and other assets of their customer’s accounts where such records are held on chain? For example, is it required that ICO tokens, securities or other assets be held in a customer’s account (wallet) or does the ATS sponsor need to provide for the custody of these securities and assets with a third-party qualified custodian?
- Examinations: Broker-dealers and regulators are still figuring out these new technologies and how existing regulations apply to them. FINRA’s current examination module for an ATS may very well be ill suited to a digital asset ATS. FINRA in Notice 18-20 (July 6, 2018) made clear that is seeking additional information from broker-dealers and “to encourage each firm to promptly notify FINRA if it, or its associated persons or affiliates, currently engages, or intends to engage, in any activities related to digital assets”.
- Net Capital Rules: The Commission’s net capital rules will arguably have the most severe impact on the development of secondary trading markets in digital assets. The SEC has previously stated that Exchange Act Rule 15c3-1 “requires broker-dealers to maintain a minimum level of net capital (consisting of highly liquid assets) at all times.” 4 See SEC Securities Exchange Act Release No. 70073 (July 30, 2013) (Order Approving File No. S7-23-11). FINRA Rule 4100 Series (Financial Condition) expands the various requirements for broker-dealers to ensure compliance with the SEC’s net capital rules. Given that digital assets coming off the Reg D imposed restriction period are unlikely to meet the requirements for highly liquid assets, these net capital requirements may pose the biggest hurdle in allowing for deep and liquid markets to come into being in the near term. In order to allow this nascent digital asset securities market to grow and bring liquidity to shareholders, the Commission and FINRA may wish to allow for a pilot program to facilitate the development and oversight of this market.
In conclusion, the promise of DLT and the application of Exchange Act Rules still have some ways to go before digital assets can be traded freely and transparently on exchanges and ATS’. That being said, it’s not too early for market participants in this space and regulators to come together to address a roadmap for the near future in the U.S. A discussion of some of these topics at the upcoming SEC Forum 5SEC Staff to Hold Fintech Forum to Discuss Distributed Ledger Technology and Digital Assets, SEC Press Release 2019-35 (March 15, 2019) is essential for furthering this dialogue and unlocking the promise of liquidity that digital asset issuers aspire to.
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.