Monthly Archives: May 2017

Hedge Fund Bits and Pieces for May 26, 2017

Happy Friday.  Best wishes for a happy and safe Memorial Day Weekend!

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Initial Coin Offerings – Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies took center stage this weeks as new high prices were reached in volatile trading and euphoria around the Consensus conference earlier this week. Initial coin offerings (or ICOs) were a major topic discussed there and should be a major topic going forward.

Artificial Intelligence Hedge Funds – perhaps lost over the last couple of weeks in the discussion of cryptocurrencies has been the general movement in finance toward utilizing artificial intelligence in the investment process. We recently wrote about artificial intelligence hedge fund strategies and detailed the issues that managers should consider when launching a fund in this space.

DOL Rule Effective June 9 – the delay of the DOL rule was short lived.  The DOL recently published a news release that provided that initial implementation of the rule would begin on June 9 (as opposed to April 10th, the originally scheduled implementation date) and that “advisers to retirement investors will be treated as fiduciaries and have an obligation to give advice that adheres to “impartial conduct standards” … [t]hese fiduciary standards require advisers to adhere to a best interest standard when making investment recommendations, charge no more than reasonable compensation for their services and refrain from making misleading statements.”

For hedge fund managers, life does not change to a large extent (managers will likely need to update their subscription documents, and may need to get additional representations from IRA and ERISA investors for any new investment made after June 9, 2017).  SMA managers will need to be careful and should review their relationship to retirement investors.  More information on this will be forthcoming on this blog and in our client updates.

CFTC Focus on FinTech – the CFTC launched a LabCFTC Initiative which “aimed at promoting responsible FinTech innovation to improve the quality, resiliency, and competitiveness of the markets the CFTC oversees.”  The overall goal of the program is to promote innovation for new FinTech products while providing the sponsors of such products more insight into the potential regulatory oversight of those products.  Central to that goal will be GuidePoint which will act as “dedicated point of contact for FinTech innovators to engage with the CFTC, learn about the CFTC’s regulatory framework, and obtain feedback and information on the implementation of innovative technology ideas for the market.”  This sort of proactive approach to innovation by regulators should be a welcome sight to new product sponsors.

Other Items

Cooperman Insider Trading Settlement – Leon Cooperman settled his insider trading case with the SEC and the SEC released an interesting statement on the settlement.  While the settlement allows his fund Omega to continue to operate, Cooperman and Omega were subject to a $1.7M fine for insider trading.  More importantly, the firm must retain an onsite independent consultant for the next 5 years to guard against insider trading.  There were a couple of additional requirements of the settlement which, with the various fines and independent consultant requirement, have to make the SEC feel like they got a big win here.  It will be interesting to see how or if this settlement is used as precedent in future cases.

SEC Issues Cybersecurity Alert – on the heels of the WannaCry ransomeware attack, the SEC issued a Cybersecurity Alert.   The alert is geared more towards smaller broker-dealers and investment advisory firms and provides background and links to other SEC resources on this issue.

New York Employers Cannot Ask About Salary History – on May 4, New York Mayor de Blasio signed a bill making it illegal (and subject to fines) for an employer to ask questions about a candidate’s prior compensation.  Hedge fund managers located in New York will want to discuss this issue with their internal HR persons, as well as their outside counsel.  The bill is called “Intro. 1253” and  goes into effect 180 days after the signing. A cached version of the de Blasio press release can be found here.

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Bart Mallon is a founding partner of Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP and focuses his legal practice on the investment management industry. He can be reached directly at 415-868-5345.

Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs)

ICO Overview and Securities Law Analysis

After a number of recent, high-profile and wildly successful Initial Coin Offerings or “ICOs”, the blockchain-based asset industry has been abuzz about new ICOs as well as the regulatory issues that surround the space.  This post provides a quick overview of the big securities laws issues surrounding these assets and discusses the regulatory structure currently applicable to the space.

Initial Background

An initial coin offering is the first distribution of a digital currency or digital token, normally offered exclusively through an online offering.  These coins or tokens, like many existing cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin or Ether, may represent some sort of fractional ownership in something (working similar to a security) or may represent a form of payment (like a currency).  These tokens may be pre-launch (to raise money to develop the use case, similar to crowd-funding) or post-launch (use case already exists).

Are ICOs Securities?

The first and biggest question related to ICOs is whether they are securities offerings (essentially digitized IPOs).  For any inquiry into whether something is a security or not, the starting point is the Howey Test.  Howey is a basic four-part test that is used to determine whether a contract, a transaction, or a series of actions constitutes a security under the Securities Act of 1933. The very broad overview of the Howey prongs are:

  • It is an investment of money
  • There is an expectation of profits from the investment
  • The investment of money is in a common enterprise
  • Any profit comes from the efforts of a promoter or third party

For many ICOs the answers to all of the above are usually “yes”.  We do, however, believe that some ICOs are not securities under the test and, although we start with Howey, that is not where the analysis stops.  As mentioned before in our post dealing with Bitcoin Hedge Funds, we believe that Debevoise’s Securities Law Framework provides a thoughtful approach to think about and analyze this question.  We also believe that the SEC will clarify its position regarding ICOs in the next several months.

Use Case – Blockchain Capital

One of the more interesting ICOs recently has been the ICO for the Blockchain Capital Token (BCAP Token, on TokenHub), which was placed by Argon Group, a blockchain asset investment bank.  Here the value of the BCAP Token is linked to the value of a newly created venture capital fund (which initial assets were received through the BCAP Token ICO process).  The subscription process of the ICO was conducted through a Regulation D 506(a) offering (see Blockchain Capital Token Form D), so there are a number of regulations that the group has already gone through, although none specifically dealing with the ICO itself.  What is particularly amazing is that the offering of $10M was oversubscribed and closed in only 6 hours.  The power of the ICO is apparent – what investment fund manager would not want to raise money in a very quick and efficient manner?

Blockchain Capital paved the way for ICOs linked to private investment funds – we would expect to see tokens linked to hedge funds and private equity funds in the near future.  While the Blockchain Capital offering was limited to accredited investors, the offering still presents questions about regulations, including the potential for fraud.  We liken the ICO process to something akin to the crowdfunding process and believe there are similar risks, in addition to the normal risks associated with the linked asset (in this case, a VC fund).

Future Regulation?

There is no doubt that the regulators will begin to figure out a regulatory regime for ICOs and cryptocurrencies, and this is likely to happen before any sort of Congressional action to change the laws of any of the securities or commodities acts.  The CFTC has already been active in the space (see our previous notes in our Client Update here) and it is very likely that the SEC will be starting the process to issue regulations as well (see here where a group has petitioned the SEC to begin that process).  We believe that during that comment and rulemaking process, the regulators will need to address a number of items, including the process with respect to ICOs.  The SEC needs to move with a deft hand, however, because any onerous regulations will just push business offshore – there are already exchanges who discriminate against potential market participants based on domicile (either with respect to U.S. domicile, or in some cases, New York domicile for fear of issues around the New York BitLicense regulations).

The crowdfunding space became regulated fairly quickly and there are now specific crowdfunding broker-dealers and I believe the same will be the case with the ICO regime.  We believe that any cryptocurrency regulatory regime will include requirements with respect to ICOs and ICO investment banks.

Conclusion

The ICO market is white hot and getting hotter.  It will undoubtedly create both winners and losers (and the winners are likely to be massive winners) and in some cases will usher in new ideas and technologies that will help define the landscape of Web 3.0.  The most important thing for regulators (and lawmakers) is to make sure all investors in these offerings are protected and provided with all necessary information and opportunities as provided through the current securities and commodities laws.  We believe that such regulation will come sooner rather than later.

Related articles:

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Bart Mallon is a founding partner of Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP.  Cole-Frieman & Mallon has been instrumental in structuring the launches of some of the first digital currency-focused hedge funds. For more information on this topic, please contact Mr. Mallon directly at 415-868-5345.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) Hedge Funds

Overview of AI in Investment Management

Hedge funds utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) have increasingly gained attention as technology continues to be a driving force behind large and fundamental changes in the investment management and financial industries. For most groups in this space, AI hedge funds represent a new way to process information and ultimately to use that information to execute various investment strategies. This post discusses the various structural, regulatory, and operational issues that arise for managers who utilize an AI strategy in their hedge fund.

Foundational Items – AI Definition in this Context

Many will liken AI funds to quant strategies which operate on algorithms without human intervention (and probably most AI funds will have programs to automate all trading) but AI is not necessarily quant – AI really is the process behind the selection of investments.  Artificial intelligence fund strategies cannot be grouped into one category and there are not specific AI investments – instead, managers utilize AI with respect to their strategy.  So an AI hedge fund may be focused on certain sectors, may be long/short, short only, etc.  Many AI programs are going to be based on long/short strategies in the large cap space because there is going to be the widest possible universe of data points and liquidity, but this is not a requirement.  We would imagine that over time as AI programs have more experience and have learned more, the programs would migrate into other investment universes and trading strategies.

Structural Considerations

AI programs are likely to be focused on liquid markets with large investment universes so the structure is likely to be basic and straightforward.

·  Hedge Fund or Private Equity Strategy.  At this point in time we have only seen AI deployed in the public markets space so most strategies are going to be utilizing the more liquid hedge fund structure.  Some AI inventors may have expertise in other areas related to technology and those areas may be ripe for early stage investments which might make for good side pocket investments (including cryptocurrencies / altcoins).  Given what we see as investor appetite for the AI itself, and not necessarily the manager’s specific expertise in other technological areas, we believe that side pocket type structures in an AI hedge fund strategy are, and will continue to be, rare in the near term.

·  Fund Terms.  Fund terms will be linked to the strategy.  As we expect most AI programs to be long/short, large cap strategies, the fund terms are likely to be basic and are likely to have favorable liquidity terms because of the liquidity profile of the strategy and the (potential) investor unease with a strategy being implemented with an AI paradigm.  Contributions will normally be accepted monthly as is standard with more standard trading programs.  Fee terms may be favorable, especially based on the recent trend toward lower fees for hedge fund products – low management fees can always be offset by higher performance fees in a tiered performance fee structure.  Right now AI strategies may utilize leverage and we have seen a number of groups do this.

·  Onshore / Offshore Structures.  There is nothing about an AI fund structure which would materially change any decision with respect to an onshore or offshore structure.  In general, a fund complex will only maintain only a U.S. fund if there are only U.S. investors; if there are non-U.S. investors (or U.S. tax exempt investors, if the manager is utilizing leverage) then the structure will be a master-feeder structure or a mini-master structure.  We currently have only had experience with AI in the liquid securities space, but if programs move to other instruments that are illiquid or have tax characteristics different from publicly traded securities, then the onshore / offshore structure should be reviewed.

Business, Regulatory and Other Considerations for AI Hedge Funds

Whereas other strategies may have instrument-related issues to consider, AI programs have a host of technological, oversight, regulatory and perhaps most important, intellectual property, issues to consider.

·  Intellectual Property.  Identification of and protection of intellectual property will be a central concern to the AI manager (as it would be with the quant manager) and we have discussed a number of these issues below. [Note: this section written in conjunction with Bill Samuels, an expert in IP issues and of counsel to Cole-Frieman & Mallon.]

Ownership of AI Code – many times the AI code will originally be developed by an individual (or individuals) and then tested on data sets and tweaked.  Therefore ownership of the code will reside in the individual who created the code.  Once in final form the individual may assign the AI code to an IP holding company that will then license the AI code to the management company and/or fund.

License Agreement – in the event the IP holding company licenses the code to the management company and/or the fund, terms of any license agreement will depend on the needs of the manager and the fund structure as a whole, but the following are common issues which will be addressed: exclusivity/non-exclusivity, ownership (including of derivative works), fees, term, termination.  Each of these issues has a number of sub-issues and other items to consider and a manager should discuss this license agreement with their attorney very carefully.

Copyright and Patent Considerations – while the actual code underlying the AI program cannot be patented, it can be copyrighted.  The copyright protects the actual code, but the conceptual framework of the code cannot necessarily be protected.  If the code interacts with the AI program in such a way that the implantation is somehow improved, then the implementation of the software may be able to be patented.  For these reasons, managers are very sensitive about protecting who can see their code, but may be able to protect themselves (potentially) through a patent.

Employee or Contractor Considerations – managers will want to protect their AI code and will need to be careful with employees and independent contractors and therefore most managers will enter into written agreements with anyone involved in the development or improvement or implementation of the code.  These agreements will normally specify that any code produced (as well as any derivative and resulting code) belongs to the manager (or the IP holding company).

Data Set Terms – when developing AI, many managers will use large data sets to begin the learning process.  Managers should make sure that they understand the terms of the license and the rights of the data owner with respect to anything derived from use of the data sets.  The big point is to make sure that the manager has the rights to any resulting manipulation and development of the data and that the manager is aware of any other person’s right to the resulting information.

Safeguarding of Code – some firms will choose to safeguard their code in some way.  Although safeguarding is not strictly necessary, there are software escrow companies that can hold code specifically for licenses and demonstrating ownership. As mentioned above, managers may choose to secure copyright registration on source code, redacting any sections that are trade secrets.

·  Technology and the Prime Broker – there are a number of issues with respect to the implementation of the AI program with the prime broker.  The manager will work with the broker’s API to integrate their trading system with the prime – managers should be aware of any triggering events (drawdown, leverage, etc) that could affect normal trading of the AI, and the manager should create infrastructure for monitoring such events and perhaps such events should be integrated into the code.  The manager should also examine what kind of human overrides the program will have if the program is an automated trading program.  Many managers also are concerned with reverse engineering by a prime broker.

·  Reverse Engineering – this has traditionally been an issue for large quant managers so many decided to use multiple prime brokers to try to hide how their quant algorithms work.  AI managers, likewise, could be susceptible to reverse engineering and may want to think about multiple prime brokers.  The confidential information provisions of any prime brokerage agreement (PBA) then become very important.  At a minimum, AI fund managers should include language in the PBA specifically noting that the broker will not reverse engineer or create derivate works on the clients confidential information.

·  Regulation of Management Company – management companies implementing AI programs are subject to the normal forms of regulation for management companies investing in securities and futures/commodities.  Generally, if the AI hedge fund trades securities and has less than $150M in AUM, the management company will be subject to state-level securities regulations – in general the management company will need to register as an investment adviser with the state or claim an exemption from registration.  If the AI hedge fund trades securities and has more than $150M in AUM, the management company will be subject registration with the SEC.  If the AI hedge fund trades futures/commodities, the standard CPO/CTA exemptions are in place.

·  Future Regulation of Use of AI?  Both the SEC and CFTC have made minor mention of artificial intelligence when discussing technology and the investment markets.  FINRA has begun to look into artificial intelligence (see here) and broadly puts this under its FinTech focus.  We believe that these regulatory bodies will continue to explore how AI technologies work in the various marketplaces and we believe that there will eventually be specifically regulations about the use of AI in trading.  Managers should note, that while there are not specifically AI regulations, manager using AI are still subject to the same regulations as managers utlitizing only human intelligence.

·  Compliance Considerations for AI Managers – managers utilizing AI should have robust compliance systems in place.  Managers will either have in-house personnel devoted to implementing their compliance program or should think about utilizing outside compliance consultants.  In addition to normal investment advisor regulatory considerations, manager will also want to have trading level compliance systems in place – for example, if the manager trades futures, the manager should have position limit systems in place.

·  Other Items.  Other items for an AI fund manager to consider include the specific risks to be disclosed with respect to the AI; as mentioned above, most risks are related to the strategy and with respect to the technology in general.  There may be specific risks associated with a certain AI program though.  With respect to other fund service providers to the AI fund, there should not be any issues.

Conclusion

As some of the world’s largest asset managers are beginning to utilize artificial intelligence with respect to their investing (see here and here), and some of the largest tech companies in the world are placing a focus on developing AI (see here about Google’s “AI-first” world), we are entering the very beginning phase of a new world where AI is an integral part of our lives and the financial markets.

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Bart Mallon is a founding partner of Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP. Cole-Frieman & Mallon has been instrumental in structuring the launches of some of the first AI hedge funds. For more information on this topic, please contact Mr. Mallon directly at 415-868-5345.

Bitcoin Hedge Fund FAQs

Common Questions Related to Cryptocurrency Funds

[Note: information posted on May 19, 2017.  Certain areas below will be updated periodically and we will update the timing of the information in each particular section.]

We recently wrote an overview of bitcoin/altcoin hedge funds.  That post led to a number of conversations with current and future cryptocurrency managers which yielded a number of questions regarding the business and regulatory issues applicable to these fund structures.  Some of the items we discussed are issues of first impression.  Some of the items probably don’t have “for sure” answers and instead we look to industry best practices for guidance.  While there will be a lot of “grey areas” and “probablys” and “I don’t knows” in this space as the regulators start to become more involved, I have tried my best to address these items below in my answers to these common questions.

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Are Bitcoins and other Cryptocurrencies “securities” under the Securities Act of 1933?

Many of the very large cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum are probably not “securities”, and can probably be classified as “digital currencies” for now.  Other cryptocurrencies or tokens would need to be examined on a facts and circumstances basis.  For such an inquiry, I believe the Coinbase Securities Law Framework (See Appendix A) is a great place to start.

Why does it matter?

If a hedge fund invests in or buys a cryptocurrency, and that cryptocurrency is deemed to be a security, then the fund’s management company (general partner) will be, by definition, an investment adviser under federal law and most likely the laws of the state where the management company operates (where the sponsor/owner of the management company is physically located).  If the management company is an investment adviser, then the management company will need to register with the SEC (upon reaching certain asset levels, generally $150M) or with a state securities commission.  Some states may have exemptions from registration, like the Exempt Reporting Adviser (ERA) regime.  (See here for information on the SEC ERA regime and here for California’s ERA regime.)  If a management company registers as an investment adviser or ERA, the manager will be required to have the fund undergo an annual audit, and there will also be a requirement that performance fees be charged only to qualified clients.  Additionally, regardless of manager’s registration status (SEC, state or is an ERA) the manager will be subject to the anti-fraud provisions of Section 206-4 of the Investment Advisers Act which generally governs the manner in which the adviser communicates with the public.

If a cryptocurrency is deemed to be a security, then the fund would also technically be subject to the Investment Company Act of 1940.  Most hedge funds utilize either the 3(c)(1) or 3(c)(7) exemption from registration under the ICA.  In general this will not wildly change the fund’s offering documents, but it will be an item that needs to be addressed.

What if the cryptocurrencies are not deemed to be securities?

If the fund only invests in assets that are not securities, then the investment advisory regulatory regime does not apply.  This means there would be no regulatory requirement for an audit (assuming no CFTC regulations apply) and the manager could charge performance fees to non-qualified clients.  The Investment Company Act would also not apply which means that the fund would be able to have more than 99 investors.  The fund would, however, still be limited to 35 non-accredited investors over the life of the fund to maintain the 506 exemption under the Securities Act.

What about state regulations and New York’s BitLicense registration requirement?

Outside of the investment advisory regulations that would be applicable to a manager if the cryptocurrency or token was deemed to be a security, the states don’t really have regulations applicable to bitcoin managers.

With respect to New York’s BitLicense requirement, we believe that currently these regulations are not applicable to the standard bitcoin hedge fund manager who is only buying and selling bitcoin (and other tokens/altcoins) for the fund’s account.  The BitLicense requirements may apply (depending on facts and circumstances) to managers who engage in other aspects of the cryptocurrency industry – such as issuing coins or otherwise acting as an exchange platform.  We expect other states to develop legal and regulatory frameworks similar to New York in the future, and in the event the SEC attempts to shoehorn bitcoin managers into the definition of investment adviser, we believe the states would shortly follow suit.

What about an auditor?  If I have to have an audit, what will that be like and how much will it cost?

In the event a manager engages an auditor, the auditor will be able to discuss the process and procedures that will be employed.  Because there is additional work involved in a bitcoin launch, it is likely that an audit will be more expensive than for a similarly sized fund investing only in publicly traded securities.

There are not many groups who can audit funds in this space.  Some groups can audit in this space, but can only audit major cryptocurrencies. As more groups get into the space and procedures become more defined, we expect that audit prices will eventually come down a bit.

Cryptocurrencies present a number of issues for audit firms including: (1) existence of the asset/currency, (2) control of the asset/currency, and (3) custody.  For many altcoins, the first two issues can be addressed with a review of the blockchain and the manager showing control of the asset by moving it on the blockchain in some manner.  The last issue is potentially more problematic in that the investment management industry is used to a certain definition of custody (holding something) that may not fit within the digital asset space, where control and the ability to utilize an asset is really more of the applicable context.

What about an administrator?

A hedge fund administrator provides certain accounting and other operational functions for the fund like subscription document processing.  Normally the fund administrator will be responsible for calculating NAVs on a monthly/quarterly basis and when investors enter and exit the fund.  They also compute management and performance fees.  Having an administrator is not a regulatory requirement for a cryptocurrency fund, but it is a best practice.  We will note that all of the cryptocurrency funds we have worked with have decided to engage an administration firm.

What about bank accounts?

One to two years ago, there was no issue for a manager to get a bank account for a bitcoin hedge fund.  Since then, bitcoin has become a risk for banks and over the last six months we’ve seen banks fully eschewing this space.  Groups who previously banked bitcoin funds will not bank new funds (although they would continue to maintain existing accounts) and groups who were not in the space are completely staying away.  We have fortunately been introduced to a couple of banks who are now more comfortable with banking cryptocurrency clients.  While these banks can provide the very basic subscription account for funds, there also may be value-added services, especially with respect to transfers to and from exchanges, as well as API integration.

The process to get a bank account is going to be a little longer than for a traditional hedge fund because the bank will complete more due diligence than for a normal fund (i.e., look into the business background of the manager, the proposed investment program, who the investors are, etc).  While these groups are comfortable with the cryptocurrency space in general, they likely will not bank groups who pose even the slightest reputational risk or groups who have had regulatory issues in the past.

What about compliance and outside compliance consultants?

Right now compliance really only applies to the fund structure (as opposed to the manager as would be the case if the manager was an investment adviser).  Fund compliance really just involves the legal requirements related to the Regulation D 506 offering applicable to the issuance of fund interests (e.g. Form D filings, annual updates and amendments, blue sky filings, etc).

Compliance related to the management of a cryptocurrency portfolio is really nonexistent.  We would expect that the managers would adhere to normal anti-fraud provisions, and a best practice would be to have certain business continuity plans and other standard fund management policies and procedures, even if there is no outside regulatory requirement.  Some groups have asked us about setting up compliance programs in anticipation of future compliance needs and we think this is a good idea.  Either a law firm or a compliance consulting firm would be able to draft a compliance manual for the needs of a cryptocurrency fund manager.

What about ICOs?

As of right now, there are no extra regulatory requirements around participation in initial coin offerings (ICOs).  We believe that this will change in the future.

What are some common terms of bitcoin funds?

The biggest questions are around lock ups and liquidity.  In general most managers will tend to want to provide less liquidity than investors are looking for and some managers have thought about instituting gate provisions, especially if the investment program is focused on smaller altcoins that may have less liquidity.  We are also seeing a number of managers who would like to allow in-kind contributions and distributions, which will implicate certain tax regulations.

How is bitcoin taxed?

The IRS addressed this issue in 2014 when it released Notice 2014-21, IRS Virtual Currency Guidance.  Right now most cryptocurrencies (and other “virtual currencies”) are treated as property and subject to the normal tax principles regarding property.  This means that dispositions of virtural currencies will result in short-term or long-term capital gains or losses and not foreign currency gains or losses.  Standard ways to determine gain or losses at disposition will apply (for most cryptocurrencies), and we would look to the various exchanges to determine a price of a cryptocurrency at any particular point in time.  This would be important if a manager or other investor in a fund decided to invest in a fund through an in-kind cryptocurrency contribution.

According to Notice 2014-21, bitcoin is deemed to be a “convertible” virtual currency because it has an equivalent value in real currency.  Early this year bitcoin became legal tender in Japan.

What about separately managed accounts or prop trading?

As of right now we do not know of any way to create a traditional separately managed account structure for an investment in cryptocurrencies.  In a SMA structure in the traditional securities space the client will typically establish a brokerage account at a large broker (Schwab, Fidelity, etc) and the manager will be given power of attorney to trade the account.  The relationship is governed by some kind of advisory agreement laying out the fees and term of the relationship.  Typically the brokers will have a way for the manager to have trading only access to the client’s account.  We do not believe that any of the exchanges currently have this functionality.  We anticipate that sometime after the regulatory agencies implement a regulatory structure that the exchanges will create mechanisms to implement such relationships on their platforms.

Other Items 

We anticipate writing about the following soon in some fashion:

  • Creating structures to allow funds to invest on exchanges that do not allow U.S. persons
  • Creating structures to allow funds to invest on exchanges that do not allow New York persons
  • Third party marketing in the cryptocurrency space
  • Using the ICO process to launch a private fund
  • Issues around Regulation D, including the Bad Actor regulations

Final Notes

Please reach out if you have questions on any of the above.  We will continue to update as we run into more issues and common questions.

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Bart Mallon is a founding partner of Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP. Cole-Frieman & Mallon has been instrumental in structuring the launches of some of the first digital currency-focused hedge funds. For more information on this topic, please contact Mr. Mallon directly at 415-868-5345.

 

New York BitLicense

Overview of the Cryptocurrency Licensing Regime in New York

As cryptocurrencies continue to make headlines, questions continue to arise about the regulatory landscape applicable to market participants. While there have been no new laws or regulations related to the cryptocurrency space from federal agencies (although in the Coinflip order, the CFTC stated that bitcoin is a virtual currency), some states are beginning to examine cryptocurrencies with New York as a forerunner in this space.  In 2015, New York created a BitLicense Regulatory Framework whereby certain cryptocurrency market participants were required to obtain a license to transact business within New York (and/or with New York residents).  This post focuses on New York’s regulatory action regarding cryptocurrencies with the issuance of the BitLicense, and the potential impact this may have on investment managers.

New York BitLicense

Pursuant to the Part 200. Virtual Currencies regulations, any persons involved in “virtual currency business activity” in New York must obtain a license known as the “BitLicense.”  The regulation defines a “virtual currency business activity” as:

  • receiving virtual currency for transmission or transmitting virtual currency, except where the transaction is undertaken for non-financial purposes and does not involve the transfer of more than a nominal amount of virtual currency;
  • storing, holding, or maintaining custody or control of virtual currency on behalf of others;
  • buying and selling virtual currency as a customer business;
  • performing exchange services as a customer business; and
  • controlling, administering, or issuing a virtual currency.

The above categories really seem to apply to those groups who are acting as cryptocurrency exchanges and/or are offering “wallet” type services.  For most fund managers who are simply managing a fund which is investing in virtual currencies, the above items would not implicate such managers and such managers would not need to obtain the BitLicense.  However, if a manager (or an investment fund) was engaged in activity other than simply buying/selling/holding cryptocurrencies, the manager should be aware of the above items.

BitLicense Application

In order to receive the license, an applicant must complete a 30-page Application for License to Engage In Virtual Currency Business Activity and pay a $5,000 application fee.  The application requires information on the history of the business, its owners and operators, operational items, financials, information on AML procedures, and information on its general compliance processes.  In total the application is fairly onerous and costly and will likely deter many potential companies for applying for the license.  Few BitLicenses have actually been granted to date, and those that have been granted were to major players in the industry such as Coinbase and Ripple.

Other Related Items

There are a number of interesting related items and a discussion about these can be found on the BitLicense FAQs page.  A couple of the more interesting items:

  • Chartered New York Bank – if a group is already chartered under the New York Banking Law, that entity does not need to apply for the BitLicense but must first receive prior approval from the New York Department of Financial Services to engage in the activity.
  • Money Transmitter License – groups who engage in certain activities may also need to apply for a money transmitter license in New York.  Groups who are applying to engage in both activities only need to submit one application.

The two items above are most likely not applicable to fund managers.

Looking Forward

The establishment of a BitLicense demonstrates that states are trying to figure out how to assert authority over a space that prides itself on decentralization. The New York BitLicense has been seen as controversial, along with similarly proposed licenses in other states. Although this appears to not have a direct impact on investment managers yet, investment managers that engage in certain kinds of virtual currency activity may fall within the scope of requiring a license.

Related articles:

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Bart Mallon is a founding partner of Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP. Cole-Frieman & Mallon has been instrumental in structuring the launches of some of the first digital currency-focused hedge funds. For more information on this topic, please contact Mr. Mallon directly at 415-868-5345.

Hedge Fund Bits and Pieces for May 12, 2017

Happy Friday.

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SEC New Chairman Jay Clayton Sworn In – last week Justice Anthony Kennedy swore in Jay Clayton as the new SEC Chairman.  Clayton has a long background working in the the securities industry at a large law firm and has acted as a law school professor with respect to various aspects of the securities industry.  Clayton begins the Chairmanship during rapidly changing times – technological innovation is changing both the products in the securities industry as well as how market participants interact with those products.  We are both excited and hopeful that he will be able to lead the SEC in this this environment to adequately protect investors while also encouraging innovation and growth within the industry.  More information on his background can be found in the SEC press release.

State Cybersecurity Workshop – we hear about cybersecurity threats on an almost daily basis now; last week introduced a phishing scam involving Google Docs.  As this issue continues to be a forefront issue, the regulators and states are trying to help industry participants become better prepared in this area.  As an example, Washington state just announced that it will hold a “Cyber Security Workshop for Small & Medium Businesses”  in Washington state in conjunction with the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA).  We anticipate we will see more initiatives like this for investment managers going forward and encourage all managers to continue their education in this area.

CFTC Reduces Burden for Swap CCOs – last week the CFTC published in the Federal Register amendments to regulations applicable to certain chief compliance officers of firms that engage in swaps.  We recognize that these CCOs have a very difficult job (especially as the products become more and more complex) and we applaud the CFTC for attempting to identify areas where regulatory burdens can be lifted.  We anticipate there will be a number of comments in this area, which are due by July 7, and we will provide updates as applicable.

Other Items

AI Trend Continues – we note that a number of the legal projects we are currently working on deal with Artificial Intelligence (AI) in some way.  A service provider to the investment management industry, Orbital Insight, showcase that AI is front and center on the minds of the industry when it announced a $50M Series C round.

State Carried Interest Tax Changes? – according to this update a number of states are contemplating changes to the manner in which carried interest is taxed.  It seems like it will be a bit of a waiting game until a Federal tax bill is proposed, but it is interesting to note that there seems to be some kind of momentum toward changing the manner of taxation.

CFTC Requests Public Input on Simplifying Rules – the CFTC announced that it is asking for input on how regulations should be modified to better address regulatory items and to reduce costs.  We think this is a step in the right direction and also mirrors the initiative by FINRA (which we reported on earlier).  We believe that investor protection is paramount, but we also believe that modifications to certain investment regulations can increase efficiency and reduce costs for market participants which would be a benefit for everyone.  For more information see the CFTC’s ProjectKiss site; comments are generally due by September 30.

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Bart Mallon is a founding partner of Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP and focuses his legal practice on the investment management industry. He can be reached directly at 415-868-5345.