Monthly Archives: July 2019

Cole-Frieman & Mallon 2019 Second Quarter Update

Below is our quarterly newsletter. If you would like to be added to our distribution list, please contact us.

Clients, Friends, Associates:

We hope you are enjoying the start of summer.  Typically the second quarter is quieter than the first quarter from a compliance perspective, however we continue to see meaningful enforcement actions taken by regulatory authorities and rapid developments in the digital asset space.  Entering the third quarter, we would like to highlight some items we hope will help you stay on top of the business and regulatory landscape in the coming months.

First, though, we’d like to announce a few exciting updates regarding Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP. Scott E. Kitchens has joined the firm as a partner and will be leading the firm’s new Denver office.  Our firm is once again a founding sponsor of the quickly approaching CoinAlts Fund Symposium. The event will be held in Chicago on September 26th and the founding sponsors will be hosting a pre-conference cocktail hour in Chicago on July 18th.  We look forward to seeing many of you there.


SEC Matters

SEC Adopts New Regulation Best Interest.  On June 5, 2019, the SEC adopted a package of rules and interpretations to bring a new level of transparency between retail investors, investment advisers and broker-dealers, including the new Regulation Best Interest rule and the Form CRS Relationship Summary.  The new Regulation Best Interest requires broker-dealers to act in the “best interest of retail customers when making a recommendation,” whereas previously broker-dealers were only required to recommend “suitable” investments. Broker-dealers are also required to establish and enforce policies designed to comply with this rule.  The Form CRS Relationship Summary, which will become the new Form ADV Part 3, will require RIAs to provide retail investors with “easy-to-understand information about the nature of their relationship with their financial professional,” including information on services, fees, conflicts, their legal standard of conduct, and prior disciplinary history.  The Form CRS, will be a standardized question-and-answer format and must be presented to retail investors at the beginning of their relationship.  The rules are effective 60 days after their publication in the Federal Register, however broker-dealers and investment advisers are given until June 30, 2020 to ensure compliance.

Individual Liable Under Rule 10b-5 for Knowingly Disseminating False or Misleading Statements Made by Another Person.  On March 27, 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that an individual violated Rule 10b-5 by disseminating statements he knew to be false to potential investors, even though he didn’t “make” the statements himself.  The individual sent an email to potential investors stating the assets of a company seeking investment was $10 million at the direction of his boss, who supplied the content and approved the email, while the individual knew the total assets were worth less than $400,000.  The case may result in an expansion of personal liability for those who transmit false or misleading statements that were made by another.  Managers should ensure that their supervised persons are not repeating false statements even if those statements were made by a superior.

SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) Issues Risk Alert.  On May 23, 2019, the OCIE issued a risk alert regarding the safeguarding of customer records and information network storage.  The OCIE observed that many firms did not always use their storage solution’s security features to prevent unauthorized access, including failing to use encryption or password protection.  The OCIE identified the following concerns that may give rise to compliance issues: (i) misconfigured network storage solutions; (ii) inadequate oversight of vendor-provided network storage solutions; and (iii) insufficient data classification policies and procedures. The OCIE encourages registered broker-dealers and investment advisers to evaluate their storage of customer information and consider whether security improvements are necessary.

RIA Settles with SEC for $5 Million for Failing to Implement Compliance Policies Reasonably Designed to Prevent Inaccurate Valuations.  On June 4, 2019, the SEC settled charges and instituted cease-and-desist proceedings against an RIA for failing to adopt compliance policies reasonably designed to prevent the risk that its traders were undervaluing securities by failing to maximize relevant observable inputs, such as trade prices. The RIA’s traders were accused of intentionally marking their bond prices below market value to maximize yield and allow them to sell for a profit when needed, in violation of GAAP.  While the RIA did not admit fault, the SEC alleged that the firm’s policies failed to address how their valuations would be conformed with GAAP, and further, that the adviser failed to implement its existing policy.  The SEC stressed the importance of valuation of client assets in the administrative proceeding, calling it “critically important.”

SEC Imposes Cease-And-Desist Order and Remedial Sanctions Against an RIA for “Cherry-Picking” Trades and Misusing Soft-Dollars.  On May 16, 2019, the SEC imposed a cease-and-desist order and remedial sanctions against an RIA for “cherry-picking” trades and misusing soft-dollars.  The RIA disproportionally allocated profitable trades to hedge funds of which the RIA’s portfolio manager was personally invested, while allocating less profitable trades to other clients, including a charitable foundation.  Further, the RIA allegedly used soft-dollar credits in a manner not disclosed to clients, including use in a principal’s divorce settlement, rent paid to a principal owned company, and maintenance fees on a principal’s personal timeshare.  In addition to disgorgement for both the RIA and portfolio manager, the portfolio manager has been banned from the industry.  This case is a reminder for investment advisers to only use soft-dollar credit to pay for disclosed expenses.

SEC Charges RIA Firm and COO for Cross Trades that Defrauded Client.  On March 15, 2019, the SEC charged a fund manager (an RIA) and its chief operating officer with breaching its fiduciary duties, including the obligation to seek the maximum price for an asset to be sold.  The RIA solicited two unwilling buyers to participate in a real estate auction under the promise that they would not win in order to artificially depress the price and allow a second private fund managed by the RIA to purchase it at a discount.  The RIA later resold the asset from the second private fund for a significant profit and received associated performance fees.  With the SEC’s continued focus on cross trades, fund managers should ensure their cross trade policies effectively identify and manage conflicts of interest.

SEC Proposals to Address Cross-Border Application of Security-Based Swap Requirements.  On May 10, 2019, the SEC proposed a series of rule amendments and guidance with the intention of improving the regulatory framework governing cross-border security-based swaps.  The proposals address the application of security-based swap transaction requirements to non-U.S. entities with U.S. personnel involved in “arranging, negotiating or executing the swaps,” and is intended to align the SEC’s regulatory regime with that of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.  The SEC sought public comment on the proposed amendments and guidance, with comments due July 2, 2019.

CFTC Matters 

CFTC Approves Final Rule to Provide Exception to Annual Privacy Notice Requirement.  On April 25, 2019, the CFTC approved a final rule to remove the requirement that commodity pool operators and commodity trading advisers, among others, provide annual privacy policy notices to customers when certain conditions are met.  The new rule provides an exception to such annual notice when a financial institution (i) does not share nonpublic personal information except in accordance with certain exceptions adopted by the CFTC and (ii) has not changed its policies and practices with regard to disclosing nonpublic personal information from those policies and practices that the institution most recently disclosed.

CFTC Publishes Public Enforcement Manual.  On May 8, 2019, the CFTC’s Division of Enforcement published its Enforcement Manual for the first time, providing clarity on the CFTC’s investigations and pursuit of violations processes.  In addition to increasing predictability of CFTC enforcement actions, the guide underscores the CFTC’s intention to incentivize self-reporting and cooperation, noting that the value of cooperation with the CFTC will be considered in deciding what charges and sanctions to impose and whether an individual or entity is eligible for a non-prosecution agreement or deferred prosecution agreement. The manual also provides a summary of prohibited conduct subject to investigation, which in addition to traditional enforcement action such as fraud, includes misappropriation of material non-public information and disruptive trading practices. The Enforcement Manual promises to provide meaningful information to advisers who suspect they may have committed a violation.

FINRA Matters 

FINRA Begins Effort to Simplify Firms’ Digital Experience.  On May 14, 2019, FINRA announced the launching of its Digital Experience Transformation, with the goal of simplifying digital interactions between firms and FINRA to create more efficient and effective compliance programs. The transformation is set to be implemented in stages through 2022, focusing on six solution areas identified as priorities by FINRA member firms, including enhanced interaction with FINRA staff and a simplified experience for users.

FINRA Introduces Peer-2-Peer Compliance Library.  FINRA launched its Peer-2-Peer Compliance Library providing a resource for member firms in locating templates, checklists and other materials to supplement FINRA provided materials. The library includes documents provided by FINRA registered firms on six compliance topics: (i) Customer Information, (ii) Cybersecurity, (iii) New Product Review, (iv) Outside Business Activities, (v) Outsourcing & Vendor Management, and (vi) Supervision.  The Library promises to be a useful resource for FINRA registered firms.

Digital Asset Matters

SEC Delays Decision on Two Bitcoin ETFs.  On May 14 and May 20, 2019, the SEC again delayed a decision on two bitcoin ETFs.  The SEC has yet to approve a bitcoin ETF, and is again seeking public comment on the ETF proposals.  The SEC will ultimately need to make a final decision by mid-October.  Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP submitted a comment in support of approval, arguing it is in the best interest of the bitcoin market that the ETF be approved as it will allow the continued expansion of the digital asset industry and the related ecosystems.

SEC Publishes First Framework in Determining if an ICO Constitutes a Security.  On April 3, 2019, the SEC published its first framework for analyzing whether U.S. securities laws apply to an initial coin offering.  The SEC has confirmed their view that the Howey test should be used to determine if an “investment contract” exists with respect to the sale of a digital asset, thus requiring the sale to either be registered or qualify for an exemption from registration.  The framework gives insight on each of the prongs of the Howey test, which states that an “investment contract exists when there is an investment of money in a common enterprise with a reasonable expectation of profits to be derived from the efforts of others.”  The framework gives examples of several characteristics that are indicative of an investment contract, which promises to provide helpful guidance for those seeking to raise funds through an initial coin offering.

SEC Publishes First No-Action Letter for Cryptocurrency Token Sale. On April 3, 2019, the SEC published the first no-action letter for the offer and sale of tokens by a jet leasing business.  The SEC stated that their no-action position was based on (i) the tokens being fully operational at the time of sale, (ii) the business selling the tokens for $1 each and redeeming each token for $1 of air charter services per token with the business only repurchasing tokens at a discount to face value, and (iii) the restriction on transfer of the tokens to external wallets.  Taken together, the SEC appears to have been satisfied that any purchase of the token would not be for investment purposes.

SEC Sues Online Messaging Application for Conducting $100 Million Unregistered Securities Offering of Digital Tokens.  On June 4, 2019, the SEC sued a Canadian company running a messaging app with conducting an illegal securities offering for raising over $100 million through an initial coin offering without registering the offer and sale as required under securities law.  The complaint alleges that the company advertised the tokens as an investment opportunity and promised to work to promote demand of the token through company efforts, including incorporating the tokens on their messaging app. This case underscores the importance of complying with securities laws when attempting to raise money through coin offerings, as the SEC will seek to enforce such laws if they deem the ICO a securities offering.

IRS Commissioner Announces Cryptocurrency Tax Guidance to be Released Soon.  On May 30, 2019, IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig stated in a letter to congressman Tom Emmer that cryptocurrency tax guidance is a priority of the IRS and should be released “soon.” The Commissioner stated that the IRS is considering several issues, including: (i) acceptable methods for calculating cost basis; (ii) acceptable methods of cost basis assignment; and (iii) tax treatment of forks.  Guidance promises to be welcome by crypto investors as the IRS last issued guidance in 2014, which left several key questions unanswered.  The cryptocurrency market has also seen itself become increasingly complicated since that time with the emergence of forks, airdrops and staking.

SEC Hosts Public Forum to Discuss Distributed Ledger Technology and Digital Assets.  The SEC held a public forum to discuss digital assets on May 31, 2019.  As the second forum on digital assets held by the SEC, it aimed to facilitate greater communication on digital assets between industry, academia, and regulators.  SEC staff moderated panels with fintech insiders covering capital formations, trading and markets, investment management, and distributed ledger technology industry trends.  The SEC also announced at the forum a new program for visiting scholars, seeking qualified professors or PhDs with expertise in blockchain to assists the SEC for one year with their oversight and regulatory processes.  The forum is available to view online.

FinCEN Takes First Enforcement Action Against a Virtual Currency Exchanger.  On April 18, 2019, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) assessed a $35,350 penalty against a peer-to-peer exchanger of bitcoin for the willful violation of the Bank Secrecy Act’s registration and reporting requirements.  FinCEN found the exchanger was not merely a “user” of virtual currency, but a “money transmitter,” and thus was required to register as a money services business and comply with regulatory requirements applicable to them, including having an effective written AML program, filing SARs on transactions they “know, suspect, or have reason to suspect” are suspicious, and filing currency transaction reports on transactions over $10,000.  Exchangers of virtual currency must be aware they are considered money transmitters and must comply with the Bank Secrecy Act’s regulations or risk monetary penalties and a ban from the industry by FinCEN.  FinCEN has indicated that they will continue to seek enforcement action against exchangers who fail to register as money services businesses.

CFM Summarizes Blockstack Regulation A+ Offering.  We have provided a summary of Blockstack’s Regulation A+ “Tier 2” offering to the SEC.  While Regulation A+ has previously been discussed as a potential avenue for blockchain groups to raise capital, it had been untested until now.  The post summarizes many of the legal and regulatory aspects of Blockstack’s offering, and also highlights interesting business aspects that were revealed.  As Blockstack’s offering was just “qualified” by the SEC, their offering circular promises to work as a guide for future blockchain token projects seeking to raise capital through Regulation A+.

Offshore Matters 

Cayman Islands Announce No Penalties for Delayed Filings.  On April 9, 2019, Cayman Islands announced that while the deadline for Cayman Financial Institutions’ to satisfy their CRS/FATCA reporting obligations was May 31, 2019.  Financial Institutions that report by July 31, 2019 will not be subject to enforcement measures or penalties.

Bermuda Proposes Legislation Exempting Non-Tax Residents from Economic Substance Requirements.  On June 28, 2019, Bermuda’s Economic Substance Amendment Act 2019 became law.  The Amendment creates an exemption from Economic Substance requirements for ‘non-resident entities,’ which is an entity which is a resident for tax purposes in a jurisdiction outside Bermuda, not including those countries in Annex 1 to the EU list of non-cooperative jurisdiction (the so called “black list”).  The change brings Bermuda’s regulations in line with the regulations of the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands, both of which exclude non-resident entities from their substance requirements.

Other Matters 

IRS Issues Qualified Opportunity Fund Guidance.  On April 17, 2019, the IRS issued additional guidance for the deferral of capital gains through investment in qualified opportunity funds.  Crucially, the IRS clarified the “substantially all” requirement for the holding period and use of tangible business property.  Under the regulations, property can qualify as “qualified opportunity zone business property” if substantially all of the use of the property is in a qualified opportunity zone for substantially all of the qualified opportunity fund’s holding period of such property.  The IRS has clarified that the threshold for “substantially all” is (i) 70% with respect to the use of the property; and (ii) 90% with respect to the qualified opportunity fund’s holding period of such property.

IRS Issues Proposed Regulations for Determining Global Intangible Low-Taxed Income.  On  June 14, 2019, the IRS published proposed regulations that provide taxpayers with guidance for determining the amount of global intangible low-taxed income (“GILTI”) to include in gross income.  Importantly for fund managers, the proposed regulations change how the GILTI regime applies to domestic partnerships, adopting an aggregate approach where GILTI is computed at the partner level rather than the entity level.  As the regulations are retroactive to 2018, fund managers who paid GILTI should discuss with their tax advisers if filing an amended tax return is advisable.

Legislature Presented with Two Bills Reforming Cannabis Banking.  Two bills are being considered by Congress that attempt to provide cannabis-related businesses and service providers with access to the banking and financial markets. On March 28, 2019, the House of Representatives Financial Services Committee approved the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act (“SAFE Act”), which would prohibit federal banking and financial regulators and law enforcement from taking action against institutions solely because they provide financial services to cannabis-related businesses and also excludes legitimate cannabis related business from being deemed proceeds from unlawful activity under anti-money laundering laws. On April 4, 2019, the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act (“STATES Act”) was re-introduced in both the House and the Senate.  The STATES Act would remove state-legal marijuana-related activity from the Controlled Substances Act, significantly restricting federal enforcement abilities of cannabis.  Both bills would significantly alter the cannabis industry, allowing them to access and interact with the economy in ways previously denied to them.


Compliance Calendar.


Please note the following important dates as you plan your regulatory compliance timeline for the coming months:

Deadline Filing
June 29, 2019 Delivery of audited financial statements to investors (private fund managers to fund of funds, including SEC, State, and CFTC registrants)
June 30, 2019 Deadline for Cayman Island registered funds with a fiscal year end of December 31 to file the Fund Annual Return and audited financial statements with Cayman Islands Monetary Authority
June 30, 2019 Deadline for making available AIFMD annual report for funds in or advertising in the EU (Alternative Investment Funds with a financial year ending on December 31)
June 30, 2019 Review holdings to determine Form PF filing requirements
July 10, 2019 Review transactions and assess whether Form 13H needs to be amended
July 15, 2019 Quarterly Form PF due for large liquidity fund advisers
July 30, 2019 Quarterly account statements due (Commodity Pool Operators (“CPOs”) claiming the 4.7 exemption)
July 31, 2019 Cayman Islands CRS and US FATCA reporting deadline without adverse consequences (for those who missed the initial May 31, 2018 deadline)
August 14, 2019 Form 13F filing (advisers managing $100 million in 13F Securities)
August 14, 2019 CTA-PR filing with NFA
August 29, 2019 Quarterly Form PF due for large hedge fund advisers
August 29, 2019 CPO-PQR filing with NFA
September 30, 2019 Review transactions and assess whether Form 13H needs to be amended
September 30, 2019 Deadline to designate a MLRO, DMLRO, and AMLCO for Cayman Islands AML compliance
October 15, 2019 Quarterly Form PF due for large liquidity fund advisers
October 15, 2019 Annual Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts Report deadline (for those who missed the April 17 deadline

Bart Mallon is a founding partner of Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP.  Mr. Mallon can be reached directly at 415-868-5345.

Blockstack Regulation A+ Token Offering

Overview of the Regulation A+ Offering Circular for Crypto Tokens

By Bart Mallon
Co-Managing Partner, Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP

It is generally accepted that the initial coin offering (ICO) from mid-2017 is dead and that firms raising money for their blockchain or token projects will need to do so in a way that is compliant with SEC laws and regulations.  For many groups, this means raising money through general private placements or various SAFTs (simple agreement for future tokens)  and SAFEs (simple agreement for future equity).  However, raising money in this manner does not put the seller’s tokens in the hands of a mass audience which is an important element for groups who are trying to obtain network effects for their project.  One alternative to traditional private offerings for token projects is the Regulation A+ public offering of tokens for up to $50M in proceeds.  Although Regulation A+ has been a potential avenue for a number of blockchain groups, it has been an untested and it was unclear what the time or costs would be to complete such an offering.  This all changed with the Blockstack public offering of tokens pursuant to Reg A+.

Through considerable time and cost, Blockstack submitted its Regulation A+ “Tier 2” offering to the SEC for “qualification” to publicly sell its tokens (Stacks Tokens) on April 11 2019.  We have reviewed all 203 dense pages of Blockstack’s Offering Circular (which is estimated to cost $1.8M in legal and accounting fees to produce) and take this opportunity to discuss the unique characteristics of the the offering which any token project will need to address in the future.  While we can see that this will be the first step in standardizing token offerings under Regulation A+, we also see that there are a number of legal, business and operational issues that any token sponsor will need to address in what will inevitably be a “not as easy as advertised” process with the SEC.

What is Blockstack & the Stacks Token?

Blockstack is a blockchain platform with a goal of “sponsoring and commercializing an open-source peer-to-peer network using blockchain technologies to ultimately build a new network for decentralized applications.”  The platform has been designed to do a number of things that current blockchains and centralized working solutions (i.e. Google Docs) do, but with a focus on decentralization and a high level of privacy.  Blockstack is introducing use cases which include a browser, universal user accounts and personal data lockers which are all designed to give users control over their personal data.  Eventually the blockchain will allow for more decentralized apps and a smart contract platform with a new smart contract language and more clarity on costs for use of the language.

The Stacks Tokens on the Blockstack network, which are being sold in the offering, will ultimately be used as fuel for running the smart contracts on the blockchain (the tokens will be burned).  The Stacks Tokens will also be used by consumers as payments for the decentralized applications that will live on the network.  Tokens will also be used for polling purposes and other incentives.  In general, the platform looks very similar to other smart contract platforms with some technical differences.  The project sponsored is Blockstack PBC, a Delaware public benefit corporation,  a company with a number of well-healed and well known investors.  For more information on the Stacks Token and project as a whole, you can see their sales deck for the token offering.

$50M Regulation A+ Raise

The proceeds from the raise will be generated through two different programs – the cash program and the app-mining program.  Together the programs will raise $50M in consideration over the 12 months following the “qualification” of the offering.

Cash Program

In the cash program, there are two different sales prices for the tokens based on whether the tokens are sold in exchange for vouchers (to persons who indicated interest to Blockstack in November and December of 2017) or if they are sold in the general offering.  The price is $0.12 per token (up to 215M tokens) for investors who participated in the voucher program and $0.30 (up to 40M tokens, but can be modified to be up to 62M tokens) for investors who participate through the general offering.  The total consideration amount from the cash program (vocher and general offerings) will not exceed $38M, but the total amounts are subject to the tokens ultimately distributed through the app mining program, which is variable.

App Mining Program

Blockstack is offering tokens as rewards to certain developers of applications on its blockchain.  [Include more here.]  These token rewards are being included as part of the Reg A+ offering because they may be deemed to be investment contracts and/or as part of the offering.  Pursuant to this program, all gifted tokens will be deemed to be work $0.30 per token for the first three months after the qualification of the offering, and then based on current market prices for the tokens.  The idea is that Blockstack is getting consideration in-kind with work provided on its blockchain and is paying for that work with tokens.

Other Aspects of the Offering and Business

There are a number of other interesting legal and business items which were discussed throughout the offering circular.  Many of these items are unique to Blockstack’s business, but many will have general applicability to future Reg A+ digital asset offerings.

  • Finalizing tokens offered in program – as previously discussed, the total amount of tokens sold through the offering is not set in stone.  Directly after the SEC deems the offering “qualified”, Blockstack will finalize the allocation of tokens between the cash and app mining programs.  A sale of the tokens will open 28 days after the SEC deems the offering to be “qualified”.
  • Tier 2 investor qualification – the offering is a “Tier 2” offering which means both accredited and unaccredited investors will be allowed to invest.  Because it is a Tier 2 offering, the unaccredited investors are limited to invest 10% of the greater of annual income or net worth.
  • Concurrent Reg S offering – Blockstack is raising additional capital from non-US persons in a concurrent offering.  The tokens sold in the Regulation S offering will be subject to a 1 year lockup (investors cannot use during the lockup period) and are being sold at $0.25 per token.
  • Tokens subject to a time-lock – for many reasons Blockstack has chosen that the purchased tokens will be introduced to the platform over time, with full distribution of all sold tokens 2 years after the qualification of the offering.  Blockstack will release 1/24th of the sold tokens at inception, then will release 1/24th of the sold tokens once a month thereafter (every 4,320 blocks on the bitcoin blockchain).
  • No restriction on transfers of tokens – this offering is not of restricted securities (see our earlier post about token distribution issues / restricted securities) and are free usable and tradable (on a registered exchange or ATS) upon release from the time-lock; however, Blockstack believes the Stacks Tokens will not initially trade on any crypto exchanges and this will make it hard to sell the tokens.
  • “Cap Table” – there was much information presented about the current token float (the genesis block created 1.32B tokens) and the amount of tokens sold in previous offerings (various private placements and SAFTs).  After all the offerings and various distributions, there will be 116M tokens unallocated that Blockstack will control and can utilize however they wish.  Many of the issued tokens have been or are being provided to related entities to compensate employees, similar to stock option grants.
  • Use of proceeds – as is the case with most all offerings, there is a discussion of how the sponsors will use the cash proceeds from the sale.  Blockstack also discusses the use of the cash proceeds under different levels of total subscription (25%, 50%, 75% and 100%).
  • Milestones – through a previous funding round, Blockstack was provided with capital if they met certain milestones with respect to the development and adoption of the Blockstack network.  While they easily met the first milestone (technical implementation of certain features of the blockchain), it is unclear if they will meet the second milestone (dealing with adoption of the network).  They will be required to “return a significant amount of capital that Blockstack currently intends to use in the development of the Blockstack network.”  The milestone is 1M verified users by the end of January 2020.  Blockstack specifically says that at current growth rates it will not achieve the second milestone.
  • Hard Fork from Bitcoin – Blockstack currently runs as a virtual blockchain on the bitcoin network.  It will ultimately transition over to its own blockchain when it has a large enough network to maintain security.  This will involve a “hard fork” to the Blockstack network and its associated risks.
  • Risk Factors – as with any public or private placement, there are attendant risks which are disclosed to potential investors.  These include normal investment risks (operations, catastrophic events, etc) and general risks related to digital/crypto (loss of token, irreversible, loss of keys, various hacks, forks, volatility, uncertain tax treatment, etc), however, there were a number of interesting Blockstack specific risks including: risk of not attracting both users and developers to the platform, the time-lock risk, regulatory risk (does not have New York BitLicense, is not a money transmitter or money services business, potential violation of Regulation M with respect to its activities in its own tokens, etc).

Legal Issues Presented

In addition to the description of many of the business issues related to the creation of the blockchain, there are a number of novel legal issues presented and addressed in the offering circular.  Below we have identified the most interesting of these issues and have included how Blockstack has addressed them.

  • Are the tokens securities?  Blockstack believes that the current tokens (non-sufficiently decentralized) are a type of security called an investment contract and are not equity or debt securities:

We do not believe that the Stacks Tokens should be characterized as either debt or equity under the securities laws.  We believe that these tokens should currently be characterized as investment contracts.  Holders will not receive a right to any repayment of principal or interest, as might be expected under a traditional debt instrument; nor will they receive an interest in the profits or losses of any Blockstack affiliate, any rights to distributions from any Blockstack affiliate, or any legal or contractual right to exercise control over the operations or continued development of any Blockstack affiliate, as might be expected for a traditional equity instrument.

  • When will the tokens be “sufficiently decentralized” so they are no longer securities?  This is one of the most important questions of the offering and essentially addresses the question of when the SEC will lose jurisdiction over the tokens in the offering and when/how Blockstack can issue, sell or otherwise use the tokens as rewards for certain activity on its blockchain.

The board of directors of Blockstack PBC will be responsible for regularly considering and ultimately determining whether the Stacks Tokens no longer constitute securities issued by us under the federal and state securities laws of the United States.  In making this determination, the board will refer to the relevant legal and regulatory standards for such determination in effect at the time of such determination, will consult with legal counsel and will, if possible and appropriate, seek consultation with relevant regulatory authorities including, we expect, the Commission.  At the present time, based on the guidance cited above, we expect this determination to turn the SEC’s recent guidance on the application of the test under SEC v. W. J. Howey Co. (the “Howey test”) to digital assets set forth in its release “Framework for ‘Investment Contract’ Analysis of Digital Assets,” and specifically on whether the Blockstack network is sufficiently decentralized, which will, in turn, depend on whether purchasers of Stacks Tokens reasonably expect Blockstack to carry out essential managerial or entrepreneurial efforts, and whether Blockstack retains a degree of power over the governance of the network such that its material non-public information may be of special relevance to the future of the Blockstack network, as compared to other network participants. Under current guidance, Blockstack would expect to take the position that if the answers to these questions are that purchasers do not and Blockstack does not, the Stacks Tokens will no longer constitute a security under the federal and state securities laws of the United States. The board of directors of Blockstack PBC may also assess other criteria for making this determination, including any criteria based on additional guidance we receive from U.S. regulators.   …

In the event that the board of directors of Blockstack PBC determines that the Stacks Tokens are no longer a security issued by Blockstack Token LLC, Blockstack will make a public announcement of its determination at least six months prior to taking any actions based on this determination, such as filing an exit report on Form 1-Z terminating its reporting obligations with respect to the Stacks Tokens under Regulation A.

  • Are any actors related to Blockstack or its blockchain required to be registered in any way?  Here, Blockstack addresses the issue of whether certain actors are required to be transfer or clearing agents because of their relationship to the blockchain and creation or distribution of the tokens:

We have taken the position that Blockstack, the miners on the network, and the network’s blockchain are not required to register as transfer agents, both because the Stacks Tokens are not currently securities registered under Section 12 of the Exchange Act, and because none of the activities Blockstack, the miners, or the blockchain is involved in are described in the definition of a transfer agent.  In addition, to the extent that certain activities that meet the definition of a transfer agent are performed automatically on the blockchain, the blockchain is not a “person” that would be required to register.  …

We have taken the position that Blockstack, the miners and the blockchain are not clearing agencies under the Exchange Act because the types of activities they engage in are not those described in the definition of a clearing agency.  To the extent that these activities occur on the blockchain, the blockchain is not a “person” that would be required to register.

Blockstack has included similar discussions related to questions on whether it or any related actor is an investment company, broker-dealer, money transmitter, money services business, or subject to New York BitLicense requirements.  All of these discussions conclude that the way the current blockchain works, and pursuant to the current interpretation of the securities laws, Blockstack and related actors would not be required to register as any of the above.  It is possible that the SEC or the various state securities regulators could disagree with conclusions presented in the offering circular.

  • Is the Blockstack Network or the browser an ATS?  The issue of what actors may be deemed to be an ATS is an open one and will eventually be an important issue when the SEC provides FINRA and the digital asset industry with future guidance.  (HFLB note: SEC and FINRA just recently released a joint statement on digital asset custody which we will be reviewing shortly.)

We have taken the position that neither the network nor the Browser should be viewed as an exchange or an ATS because neither will “bring together” anyone by sorting or organizing orders in the Stacks Tokens in a consolidated way or by receiving orders for processing and execution of transactions in the Stacks Tokens.  Instead, each proposed transaction involving Stacks Tokens on the network will by individually negotiated and implemented. For example, transactions by users (such as developers or users of Decentralized Applications) will be posted on an individual basis. In addition, we will be the only “seller” of Stacks Tokens when we distribute them as rewards on the network. …

We also take the position that payments on the network and the Browser for services do not involve “orders” of securities, because they are not primarily purchases of securities. Instead, these payments are commercial sales of access to Decentralized Applications or of items bought through in-app purchases.


It is clear that Blockstack has carefully thought through the business and legal issues involved in launching a Regulation A+ capital raise in order to expand a blockchain and token network.  While the offering circular provides thoughtful analysis, it also highlights the many unresolved issues that plague the digital asset space.  The digital asset industry in the US is starved for clarity on many of these issues and, if this offering is ultimately qualified, it will be a large step forward in solidifying how token sponsors should proceed with capital raises.  Blockstack spent a lot of money to produce the offering circular and we must hope that this filing, or a filing similar to this, can become the template for blockchain token projects of the future.


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.