The Securities and Exchange Commission’s recent barrage of crypto-related firms and investments with enforcement actions tells a story that has long been a mystery to many. Two of these prominent cases made headlines in June. The first, a case against a social media platform, Kik, and Kin foundation – the foundation governing the operations of the Kin ecosystem. The second was against Longfin Corp, a fintech company that “offers commodity trading, alternate risk transfer, and carry trade financing services.”.
While many expect more of such crackdowns, the back and forth between the SEC and these companies have somewhat opened fresh controversies surrounding the viability of the regulatory framework governing digital securities and tokens. In light of this, it is important to examine the arguments from both sides of the divide to fully acknowledge the critical nature of the situation and its implications on America’s investment landscape. But first, let’s explore the actions/inactions of Kik and Longfin that might have forced the SEC to sue them.
SEC vs Longfin
In April 2018, the SEC froze the trading profits generated from the sales of Longfin’s stock, which the regulator accused of selling unregistered shares after acquiring Zidduu.com (a crypto trading company). In June 2019, SEC filed fraud action against the same company and its CEO, Venkata S. Meenavalli. The released complaint claimed that Meenavali had “conducted a fraudulent public offering of Longfin shares” by misleading investors on the financial standing and mode of operation of its company’s crypto-related business.
SEC vs Kik
On June 4, 2019, the SEC officially took legal action against Kik Interactive Inc. for conducting an illegal $100 million securities offering of digital tokens back in 2017. If you will recall, Kik was one of the many companies that capitalized on 2017’s ICO boom to raise money for its blockchain ecosystem. SEC asserted that Kik’s fundraising campaign was illegal because the company sold $55 million worth of tokens to US investors without registering the offers or sales.
Secondly, the complaint alleged that at the time of the fundraising campaign, none of the products and services that Kik had implied would drive the demand for Kin tokens did not exist. Also, the watchdog claimed that the revenue-sharing clause that featured in the Kin offering campaign established that the Kin token is a security. This is true since the campaign failed the Howey test as it promised profits “predominantly from the effort of others” to build an ecosystem and drive the value of the token.
And so, SEC based its case on Kik’s failure to comply with the registration requirements under U.S. securities law and the omission of information that would have helped investors make informed decisions. It is worthwhile to note that Kik had released a strong response to SEC’s initial claim.
Although there was no clear framework to guide the conduct of ICOs or digital security offerings in 2017, that has not stopped SEC from litigating companies that had sold digital tokens years before regulators issued guidelines.
The Howey Test Controversy
From the details of the highlighted charges, it is clear that funding a business or company through fabrication or manipulation of information is, by the standard of current securities law, a punishable act. This is also true for investments that do not comply with existing required financial disclosures. However, as argued by David Weisberger (co-founder and CEO of CoinRoutes), the current financial disclosure requirements are not effective when it comes to giving investors insights on the viability of the investments.
In its true sense, existing securities laws only require the disclosure of information about the issuer and its finances. As such, Weisberger argues that there is no way investors would use such information to judge the prospect of digital tokens. Using Kik’s travail with the SEC as a case study, he explained that if Kik had followed due process and complied with registration requirements, it still wouldn’t have given investors a hint that the price of the token would today worth far less than what it had sold for in 2017.
Nevertheless, as SEC puts it in the complaints, before the commencement of the Kin promotional campaign, Kik was in dire need of funds, as its expenses had consistently trumped its revenue. If Kik had informed prospective investors about its financial predicament, many would have had a rethink. As such, there is no doubt that such information would have helped investors to make informed decisions.
Also, SEC’s released a clarification on the Howey test, which explains the factors that determine whether a digital asset is a security or not, showed that many of the tokens out there are securities. Perhaps, the most interesting piece of information in the 13-page document is the one that revealed that companies must have working products before embarking on fundraising campaigns.
Again, this clarification implicates Kik and many of the organizations issuing digital tokens, as it is common practice for startups and established companies to base their ICO campaign on fictional products.
To fully appreciate the controversy surrounding the “security” and “utility” conversation, one must take a look at the origin of the Howey test way back in 1946. Back then, a company, the Howey company, introduced an investment scheme that would allow investors to buy a fraction of its orange groves, with the hope of making returns on the profit made from selling the cultivated oranges.
Following the introduction of this scheme, the SEC, while claiming that the terms of the investment meant that it was security, moved to block the sale. What ensued next was a hard-fought legal battle that dragged to the supreme court. Eventually, the supreme court ruled in favor of the SEC. And so the definition of securities established in this case has since been the de facto framework for defining securities till this very moment.
No respite for digital (utility) token issuers
The commitment of the SEC to establish a standard and enforce securities laws on firms that had once found a way around regulatory structures will undoubtedly change the outlook of the digital asset markets. While some crypto firms have taken up the defensive stance to fight the imposition of these new directives, others are working closely with regulators to establish clear rules and to guarantee investors protection.
There is no doubt that the present regulation narrative is stifling the growth of the crypto sector in this part of the world, as established companies like Coinbase are yet to find their footings. It does not help that even after complying with the SEC’s regulations, companies have to deal with the various regulatory provisions of each state.
But it is also true that things would have deteriorated had regulators chosen to stay on the sideline. For one, the surge of scams that punctuated the ICO era of 2017 would have continued as investors had no means of ascertaining the legality of tokens. Only now some cases are becoming public, such as notorious ICOBox violating securities laws with its 2017 token sale and further activity promoting other initial coin offerings (ICOs) or an extortion case Nerayoff and Hlady. There are many more cases like this that are yet to become public. The SEC’s primary goal is to protect investors. And as argued by CEO and co-founder of Symbiont, Mark Smith, it is up to firms to look for ways to work with regulators to define the fine line between utility and security. This right here is the step forward, rather than the common practice of bypassing existing laws.
Nonetheless, if the SEC were to change its stance and introduce new securities laws, creating a subclass of tokens issued to investors to fund for-profit organizations will go a long way to help the watchdog update the 70 years old Howey test. In turn, the establishment of such an asset class will help the SEC to formulate an adequate framework to govern the exchanges and dealers that trade them.
Interestingly enough, the US House of Representatives has taken the initiative to reintroduce a taxonomy act that would exclude digital tokens from the broad definition of securities. To achieve this, the legislators plan on amending the security acts of 1933 and 1934. Having said that, the implication of such a development, which will be treated in a separate article, would kick-start a domino effect.
— Constantin (@constkogan) October 10, 2019
SEC’s reinvigorated approach to digital tokens and security laws has not come as a surprise. The ICO abuse of 2017 was just an anomaly brought about by the change of guard in SEC’s leadership after the swearing-in of President Donald Trump. For this reason, digital token issuers must ensure that all their operations fall within the confines of the law, as there are no more free passes.
BREAKING: Harvard’s endowment invested $5M – $10M directly into Blockstack’s token sale.
This means that one of the leading university endowments is comfortable holding tokens directly.
THE VIRUS IS SPREADING 🔥
— Pomp 🌪 (@APompliano) April 11, 2019
P.S. IT’S OFFICIAL!.Ether is a commodity.
Firsthand Overview of Digital Securities Legislation in Malta
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.”
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.
Sufficient Decentralization and Security Tokens – Thought Leaders
By Derek Edward Schloss, Director of Strategy, Security Token Academy
*Author’s Note: The following is not legal advice, but an exploration and possible interpretation of the currently regulatory landscape for blockchain-based fundraising.
As it relates to the explosive blockchain industry, perhaps no theme has been dissected more than that of industry regulation.
On one hand, a number of projects have questioned whether digital assets can thrive in the U.S. without forward-thinking regulation. On the other hand, insiders argue that our regulators are doing their best to follow the laws enacted through the legislative process — really, it’s up to our lawmakers to draw the final boundaries.
The truth is likely somewhere in between.
In the midst of these arguments, the SEC has increased the volume of its “guidance by enforcement” actions, targeting bad-faith fundraisers and ICOs that have consciously ignored the presence of federal securities laws over the last few years. In 2018, the SEC doled out over a dozen enforcement actions involving digital assets and initial coin offerings. And although this year’s numbers aren’t yet available, several high-profile cases are shining light on the regulatory opacity many have criticized.
Of note, the SEC made headlines last quarter when it reached a $24 million settlement with Block.one, the firm behind the EOS blockchain. Block.one had previously sold tokens to fund the development of the EOS network, raising over $4 billion between 2017 and 2018. The SEC argued that a purchaser in the ICO would have had a reasonable expectation of future profit based on Block.one’s efforts, including its development of EOS software and promotion of the EOS blockchain, satisfying the presence of an investment contract under the Howey Test and U.S. federal securities laws. As a result of the offering’s status as a security, the SEC found that Block.one violated securities laws by not filing a registration statement for its initial offering, or qualifying for an exemption from registration.
While the $24 million settlement might appear significant, many in the blockchain community were quick to note that the amount represented less than 1% of the total capital raised during Block.one’s year-long ICO. Further, Block.one announced that the negotiated settlement resolved all ongoing matters between Block.one and the SEC, leading some to question whether the EOS token, which currently trades on exchanges and is used to power the EOS blockchain, no longer falls within the crosshairs of federal securities laws.
One day after the Block.one settlement was announced, the SEC settled with Nebulous over an unregistered token offering that took place in 2014. As part of the settlement, Nebulous did not have to register its Siacoin utility token as a security. Like the EOS token, the Siacoin token currently powers a blockchain network that’s fairly well used by a number of distributed parties (323 hosts in 43 different countries).
Two weeks later, messaging giant Telegram Inc. was sued by the SEC to enjoin the firm from flooding the U.S. capital markets with billions of Grams tokens previously sold to accredited investors. Telegram had raised $1.7 billion selling Gram tokens to over 170 accredited investors under a SAFT framework (Simple Agreement for Future Tokens). Like the intended utility of the EOS and Siacoin tokens, Grams tokens were intended to eventually power the TON network.
Read together, what exactly do these three cases tell us? It’s difficult to decipher. Certainly, we know that Block.one and Nebulous originally offered investment contracts to investors — those events were unquestionably illegal offers of unregistered securities. But reading between the lines, it’s also possible to argue that both project’s utility tokens (EOS tokens and Siacoin tokens) are not securities today, though both trade freely on cryptoasset exchanges.
Telegram’s case is more straightforward — its offering of (future) Grams tokens to investors was also deemed to be an investment contract security by the SEC, but unlike the EOS token, for example, Grams tokens appear to remain securities in the eyes of the regulatory body. As a result, the SEC successfully enjoined Telegram from flooding the U.S. capital markets with Grams tokens.
So how are Grams tokens still securities after their initial sale, while the analysis for EOS and Siacoin tokens more murky? In its emergency action against Telegram, the SEC found that because initial purchasers expected to “reap enormous profits” once the Grams market launched, there still existed an expectation of profit reliant on the future actions of Telegram, Inc. As a result, the SEC articulated that Grams tokens remained investment contract securities, as the prongs of the Howey Test remain satisfied.
As it relates to the EOS token, recall that the SEC’s Framework for “Investment Contract” Analysis of Digital Assets published in 2019 stated that digital assets previously sold as investment contract securities could be “reevaluated at the time of later offers or sales”. In these situations, if there exists no more “reliance on the effort of others”, nor a “reasonable expectation of profit” as it relates to the investment contract security, then it’s possible the prongs of Howey will not be satisfied, and the investment contract analysis will fail. In these select circumstances, future sales of the digital asset would not be classified as sales of a security.
With this framework in mind, if we attempt to chart a through-line across the three recent SEC actions, one possible (but certainly not definitive) conclusion is that the SEC views the EOS and Sia networks to be sufficiently decentralized as the networks exist today. What factors might play into that analysis? As the SEC’s William Hinman stated in June 2018, and as later codified in the SEC’s Framework in 2019, “if the network on which the token…is sufficiently decentralized — where purchasers would no longer reasonably expect a person or group to carry out essential managerial or entrepreneurial efforts — the assets may not represent an investment contract.” Applying this analysis, it’s plausible that the EOS token could have successfully transitioned from an investment contract at the point of their initial sale into something more akin to a commodity today.
Alternatively, as it relates to Telegram’s TON blockchain, it’s easier to conclude that the SEC believes there still exists a reasonable expectation of profit (held by token holders) enabled by the ongoing role of an active participant (here, Telegram Inc.). As a result, the TON blockchain does not yet meet the minimum threshold for sufficient decentralization. And, without a sufficiently decentralized network, Grams tokens must remain investment contract securities — the form they originally took during the initial offering to investors. There has been no transition under those facts.
Other takeaways? When looking at these three SEC actions together, one could argue that securities laws will always apply to investment contract sales of pre-launched network tokens, regardless of the offering’s form as a SAFT or direct token sale. This fact notwithstanding, the SEC could also be acknowledging the concept of “transitional” securities as a token’s underlying network decentralizes over time.
It’s also possible that these cases can be broadly interpreted as a win for security tokens as an initial fundraising mechanism. If pre-network digital assets must always be offered as investment contracts under federal securities laws, then the token being sold should be placed inside a security token wrapper, and the project’s fundraisers must file a registration statement for the securities offering, or qualify for an exemption from registration. In addition, if a network token aims to transition into a commodity-like digital asset sometime in the future — much like Ether, EOS, or Siacoin tokens — then the token must be imbued with security token transfer restrictions until that event occurs, so that all parties remain in compliance. Security token protocols offer issuers this type of transitional regulatory compliance.
Finally, it’s possible the next wave of digital asset regulation in the U.S. will be more fluid, more accessible, and more open than any of our current legacy constructs. A reading of these cases demonstrates that our U.S. regulators may be evolving their historically rigid interpretations of securities laws to meet this transformative technology head on.
What’s certain is that many questions still remain. For example, while we may have a better conceptual understanding of when sufficient decentralization is satisfied at the network level (Ethereum, EOS, Sia), and when it certainly is not satisfied (Telegram’s TON Blockchain), we still don’t know the exact point at which decentralization is reached during a network’s lifecycle, and as a result, when that network’s underlying token has officially transitioned out of security status.
Maybe that’s for our legislators to decide.
But whether you believe the SEC’s actions represent a loud warning for the industry, or a sign that our regulators are willing to play ball and speak the same language as the digital asset world, it’s undeniable that the increasing clarity provided will ensure the industry’s evolution — in one direction or another.
Binance IEOs Outperform Competing IEO Projects – Thought Leaders
Over the past 12-month IEOs (Initial Exchange Offerings) have replaced ICOs (Initial Coin Offerings) as the fund-raising method of choice for blockchain companies. There are undeniable advantages to IEOs compared to ICOs.
One of the biggest advantages is there’s a reduced risk of investment funds being siphoned from a hacked website. One example of this happening to an ICO is the Etherparty hack whereby hackers discreetly modified the Ethereum address displayed on the ICO website to reroute incoming investments to a Hacker’s Ethereum address.
The barrier to entry to launch an IEO is also significantly higher than an ICO, which is beneficial to investors. Trusted exchanges will (in theory) only list reputable projects after they perform extensive due diligence. Compare this to ICOs, many of which copy and paste existing whitepapers, create fake founder LinkedIn profiles, and then advertise to unsuspecting investors using Google Adwords.
In this sense, IEOs are a much better alternative to ICOs. Investors have a much easier time both accessing the fundraising opportunity as well as funding the investment. This is provided in a safe (but unregulated) environment as provided by the exchange. Different exchanges offer differing parameters for listing an IEO. For instance, we noticed much higher quality IEO listings with market leading exchange Binance, and Kucoin, versus some of the smaller exchanges such as LAToken and Yobit.
While IEOs provide financial benefits to both the host exchange and startups, the same cannot be stated for the financial benefits that are offered to investors. From crunching the numbers IEOs have to date performed poorly.
In researching this article we reviewed IEOs from all major exchanges. Over 50% of the IEOs on smaller exchanges were not listed on CoinMarketCap.
Nonetheless, there were some surprises. While the majority of IEOs performed poorly and provided negative returns on the majority of exchanges, Binance was the odd exchange which actually had a higher number of tokens outperform the market. This was especially true for IEOs launched in 2019.
Below we track the launch date of several IEOs on the Binance exchange, the amount raised, as well as the IEO sale price of each token and the current market value of each token. The reason we do not use market map is that this number is very misleading for investors, as the total market cap includes the entire value of a token project, versus the IEO tokens which were initially sold to investors.
These numbers are based on publicly available data and may not be 100% accurate.
|Company:||IEO Date:||Raise:||Initial Token USD:||Current Token USD:|
|Celer Network||March 2019||4M||0.0067||0.005940|
|Perlin||August 2019||6.7M||0.07743 USD||0.060321|
Unfortunately, other exchanges did not fare so well. Some exchanges performed so poorly with the IEOs that they offered, that we could not find the market value of the tokens listed anywhere.
In conclusion, what is currently more important than the actual project being listed, is where the project is listed. We anticipate that once regulated security tokens increase in popularity, that IEOs may be an enticing option to list these security tokens on regulated exchanges. This would be similar to how stock exchanges currently operate.
Disclaimer: While I have previously held BRD & BTT tokens, in September 2019, I did not hold any of the IEO tokens as profiled in this article.