Bart Mallon is a founding partner of Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP. Mr. Mallon can be reached directly at 415-868-5345.
The third quarter of 2018 saw increased interest from regulators in the digital asset space, as well as enforcement actions. For your convenience, we have provided an overview of key items from the quarter below.
SEC Charges Digital Asset Hedge Fund Manager
On September 11, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced the settlement of charges against a digital asset hedge fund and its manager. The charges included misleading investors, offering and selling unregistered securities, and failing to register the hedge fund as an investment company. The manager marketed the fund as the “first regulated crypto asset fund in the United States” and claimed the fund had filed registration statements with the SEC. Based on investments in “digital assets that were investment securities”, the fund was required to register as an investment company with the SEC. However, the fund was not registered and did not meet any exemptions or exclusions from the investment company registration requirements. The settlement included cease-and-desist orders, censure, investor rescission offers, and a $200,000 penalty. This is the first action the SEC has taken against a digital asset fund based on violations of the investment company registration requirements.
SEC Charges ICO Platform for Operating as Unregistered Broker-Dealer
On September 11, the SEC settled charges against an initial coin offering (“ICO”) platform. The business and its principals were charged with failing to register as broker-dealers and selling unregistered securities. This is the SEC’s first charge against an unregistered broker-dealer in the digital asset space following the SEC’s 2017 DAO Report, which cautioned anyone offering or selling digital assets to comply with federal securities laws such as broker-dealer registration requirements. The business agreed to pay $471,000 plus prejudgment interest, and the principals each agreed to a three-year bar from certain investment-related activities and $45,000 in penalties.
SEC Fines and Halts Fraudulent ICO
On August 14, the SEC settled charges related to an ICO. The token issuer was charged with fraud and the sale of unregistered securities after it claimed the proceeds from its ICO would be used to fund oil drilling in California. However, the issuer falsely represented that it had the necessary drilling lease and misled investors about the potential for profit and the prior bankruptcy and criminal history of the issuer’s principal. The settlement included permanent cease and desist orders, a permanent bar from certain investment-related activities, and a $30,000 fine. In light of recent charges like this, fund managers investing in ICOs should ensure they complete adequate due diligence on investment opportunities.
SEC Denies and Delays Bitcoin ETFs
On August 22, the SEC released three separate orders denying nine Bitcoin exchange-traded fund (“ETF”) proposals. These orders followed the SEC’s July 26 denial of another Bitcoin ETF. The SEC’s reasoning in these denials was mainly based on a concern that the price of Bitcoin may be susceptible to manipulation. However, on September 20, the SEC announced that it has begun a formal review for a physically-backed Bitcoin ETF. The acceptance of such an ETF would increase digital asset investment options and has the potential to promote the overall growth of the industry.
SEC Suspends Trading of Swedish Bitcoin Instruments
On September 9, the SEC temporarily suspended trading of two foreign cryptocurrency investment instruments commonly known as the “Swedish Bitcoin ETFs”. The instruments hold Bitcoin on behalf of shareholders and, prior to the suspension, had been tradable in U.S. brokerage accounts. The SEC suspended the ETFs out of a concern for investor confusion, which was likely based on inconsistent representations. The issuers’ broker-dealer applications referred to the instruments as ETFs, other sources characterized them as exchange-traded notes, and the issuers’ offering memoranda described them as “non-equity linked certificates”. With this suspension in mind, fund managers considering investing in novel digital asset instruments should ensure they understand the nature of the instruments.
CFTC Stresses Due Diligence in ICO Investments
On July 16, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) published an alert cautioning investors to conduct extensive research before investing in any ICO, especially those that claim to be utility tokens (i.e. non-securities). The alert includes factors that investors should consider before investing in a token offering, such as the potential for forks, mining costs, liquidity, and risk of hacks.
Court Enters Final Order for CFTC Charges Against Crypto Company
On August 23, a New York federal court entered final judgment against a digital asset company based on charges brought by the CFTC. The company claimed that, in exchange for sending digital assets, customers could receive expert crypto trading advice or have the company trade on their behalf. However, no such expert advice or trading services were provided. The company was charged with fraud and the final judgment included a permanent injunction from certain investment-related activities, more than $290,000 in restitution, more than $871,000 in civil penalties, and post-judgment interest.
NFA Requires CPOs and CTAs to Disclose Digital Asset Activity
On July 20, the National Futures Association (“NFA”) released a notice that imposed new disclosure requirements on futures commission merchants, commodity pool operators (“CPOs”), and commodity trading advisers (“CTAs”) engaged in digital asset activity. Specific to CPOs and CTAs, the NFA is now requiring discussion of certain aspects of digital asset investing, such as volatility, liquidity, and cybersecurity, as well as the inclusion of certain standardized disclosures. Additional details are available in our recent blog post.
FINRA Charges Broker with Fraud and Unlawful Distribution for Token Offering
On September 11, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) charged a broker in connection with a token offering. The broker attempted to raise money through the offering for an allegedly worthless public company and, in the process, misled investors about the company’s operations and finances. The broker is charged with making material misrepresentations, offering and selling unregistered securities, and failing to notify the broker’s firm about the transactions. This is FINRA’s first disciplinary action involving digital assets.
Congressional Representative Introduces Crypto-Friendly Bills
On September 21, Minnesota Congressional Representative Tom Emmer announced three crypto-friendly bills. The first bill would codify an overall “light touch, consistent, and simple” approach to digital asset regulation. The second bill would provide a safe harbor for certain businesses that lack control over consumer funds by exempting them from certain regulations, such as money transmitter licensing requirements. Lastly, the third bill would limit fines for taxpayers that failed to fully report forked digital assets until the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) provides further guidance on how such forks should be reported.
New York Attorney General Releases Report on Digital Asset Exchanges
On September 18, the Office of the Attorney General of New York (the “OAG”) released a report summarizing a crypto exchange fact-finding initiative. The report outlines three primary areas of concern:
- Conflicts of Interest – Crypto exchanges are exposed to potential conflicts of interest in several ways. For example, exchanges often have additional lines of business (e.g. broker-dealer) that would either be prohibited or carefully monitored in traditional securities contexts. Additionally, employees may have access to non-public information, and may hold and trade digital assets on their employer’s or competitors’ exchanges. Some exchanges also lack standards for determining which tokens are listed, and the possibility that an exchange may take fees for such a listing create a potential conflict of interest.
- Lack of Anti-Abuse Efforts – Digital asset exchanges have not consistently implemented safeguards to protect the integrity of their platforms. Such safeguards include monitoring real-time and past trades, and restricting the use of bots. Additionally, some exchanges engage in proprietary trading (i.e. trading from the exchange’s own account in order to, for example, promote market liquidity) which may expose users to price manipulation or other abuse.
- Limited Customer Funds Protections – Exchanges lack a consistent and transparent approach to auditing the digital assets they hold. Additionally, several exchanges do not have independent audits completed. These shortcomings make it difficult to determine whether crypto exchanges adequately maintain and protect customers’ assets. The OAG also raised concerns over whether exchanges have adequate protection against hacks and maintain sufficient insurance policies.
Digital asset fund managers should keep these concerns in mind and ensure they properly vet exchanges they may utilize.
Court Rules ICO Tokens May Be Subject to Securities Laws
On September 11, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York ruled that a criminal case brought against the individual behind two ICOs can proceed to trial. The defendant faces conspiracy and securities fraud charges for allegedly making false claims that the tokens sold in the ICOs were backed by real estate and diamonds. The defendant moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that securities laws are too vague to apply to ICOs, and that the issued tokens were not securities. The issue of whether the tokens in question are securities may now ultimately be decided by a jury.
Texas Issues Emergency Cease and Desists Against Crypto Investment Scheme
On September 18, the Securities Commissioner of Texas (the “Commissioner”) released three orders related to digital asset investment schemes. First, the Commissioner issued a cease and desist order against a mining company that used promotional materials falsely implying third-party endorsements and associations. Second, the Commissioner issued a cease and desist order against a company that solicited investments to develop a biometric token wallet. The business misled investors with a video of former President Barack Obama that falsely implied he was discussing the company. The business also made unsubstantiated claims, for example, that it was backed by “a leading financial institution”. Lastly, the Commissioner issued a cease and desist order against a company that solicited investments for its crypto and forex trading programs. The company told investors they could earn 10x returns, that those returns were guaranteed, and that there was no investment risk. All orders allege that the companies violated securities laws by offering and selling unregistered securities, engaging in fraud, and making materially misleading statements. These orders further highlight the need for fund managers to conduct due diligence on digital asset investment opportunities.
Congressional Representatives Urge IRS to Provide Guidance on Cryptocurrency
On September 19, five members of the House of Representatives published a letter urging the IRS to issue updated guidance on digital asset taxation. The last major guidance from the IRS, Notice 2014-21, was issued in March 2014. Since then, the IRS has increased digital asset scrutiny by, for example, requesting transaction records from crypto exchanges and choosing not to provide leniency through a voluntary crypto disclosure program. Such guidance would hopefully resolve some of the tax uncertainties digital asset fund managers currently face.
NASAA Announces Coordinated Digital Asset Investigations
On August 28, the North American Securities Administrators Association (“NASAA”) announced that regulators in the U.S. and Canada are engaged in more than 200 digital asset-related investigations as part of a coordinated NASAA initiative known as “Operation Cryptosweep”. While investigations have focused on suspected securities fraud, regulators have uncovered other violations, such as the offer and sale of unregistered securities. The initiative has resulted in at least 46 enforcement actions related to ICOs or digital asset investment products.
Bart Mallon is a founding partner of Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP. Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP has been instrumental in structuring the launches of some of the first digital currency-focused hedge funds and works routinely on matters affecting the digital asset industry. Mr. Mallon can be reached directly at 415-868-5345