Category Archives: Cryptocurrency Law & Regulation

CoinAlts Webinar – May 14th at 11am PT

Cole-Frieman & Mallon Presenting a Digital Asset Legal Update for 2020

We are excited to present our first webinar to update the industry on the various updates applicable to digital asset managers. We will be providing the US legal update during the webinar and will be covering the following topics:

  • Proposed Laws (state and federal)
  • Wyoming Update
  • SEC Digital Asset Priorities
  • The Courts
  • Structuring Trends

Below is our invitation for the event – it is free to join and all are welcome. Look for coming posts providing an overview of the content from the webinar. As always, please contact us if you’d like to be added to any mailing lists.

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With the rescheduling of our 2020 CoinAlts Fund Symposium to Fall of 2021, we are excited to announce our new CoinAlts Webinar Series, beginning on Thursday, May 14th at 11:00am PT.

Hear from industry experts on the investment, legal and operational issues that digital asset managers are facing in today’s climate. 

After the panel, we are excited to host a Q&A session with Matt Perona from Polychain Capital. 

Webinar details: 

·    Title: CoinAlts Fund Symposium Webinar Series 

·    Date: Thursday, May 14th

·    Time: 11:00am – 12:00pm PT

·    Registration: Click here to register

If you would like to submit a question for consideration to one of the founding sponsors or Matt Perona, you will have the opportunity to do so upon registration. For those unable to join, the webinar will be available for replay within 24 hours.

We look forward to having you! 

All the best, 

Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP

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Bart Mallon is a founding partner of Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP. Cole-Frieman & Mallon is a boutique law firm focused on providing institutional quality legal services to the investment management industry. For more information on this topic, please contact Mr. Mallon directly at 415-868-5345.

Aspect Advisors & CFM Compliance Update – January 23, 2020

IA / BD 2020 Compliance Overview & Networking Event

We would like to take this opportunity to introduce you to Aspect Advisors, a firm that focuses on regulatory compliance services for investment managers.  Aspect started at the beginning of 2019 and brings compliance solutions to broker-dealers, fintech companies, and traditional investment managers (hedge, PE, VC, real estate).  In conjunction with Justin Schleifer (President and Co-Founder of Aspect), we’d like to invite you to a compliance update presentation and networking event at the offices of Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP on January 23rd.  The event will address the following topics:

  • 2020 compliance calendar (including Form ADV annual update)
  • Major issues from the SEC and courts in 2019
  • SEC focus on crypto / digital assets in 2020
  • Fintech regulations and best practices
  • Regulation Best Interest
  • Other hot topics

We are planning an engaging event with audience participation and discussion so come ready with questions!  If you are interested in joining, please review the information below and contact us for more information.

Best regards,
Bart

 

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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.

Allocator Perspectives in Digital Assets – Panel Discussion

On November 19 Cole-Frieman & Mallon hosted an event for managers and investors in the digital asset and cryptocurrency space.  Below are notes from the panel discussion.

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Many thanks to all who made our event this week such a success, especially Moderator, Michael Arrington (Arrington XRP Capital) and Panelists, Aram Verdiyan (Accolade Partners), Brooke Pollack (Hutt Capital), Thomas Chladeck (Diginex), and Nabeel Qadri (Protocol Ventures).

Discussion was animated and at brief moments entertainingly off topic but within our hour-long panel we touched on many core issues:

  • Allocators must answer to their own investors/limited partners – currently demand (from endowments, institutions, family office, etc) for digital asset products is not high.
  • We discussed the Bitwise study on allocating crypto in an institutional portfolio.  While that study makes clear the potential positives, the panel was divided on whether exposure to digital assets should be done through FOF vehicles or simply through holding bitcoin at one of the large custodians (Coinbase Anchorage, Fidelity, etc).
  • The panel discussed a broad spectrum of digital asset investment styles – from VC type strategies to long tokens/protocols to trading strategies, acknowledging there are pros and cons with each.  Ultimately panelists were split on what the right mix might be and opinions were informed by their time-horizon preferences.
  • Opinions varied on portfolio construction.  Some believe that protocol layers are the correct play and that businesses will eventually be built on the protocol layers.  Others believe the industry is so much in its infancy that the bets need to be placed on development teams/companies who can develop and pivot as necessary.
  • The panelists agreed that manager pedigree is an important measure of due diligence and the allocators will generally look to a manager’s understanding of the space, their technical capacity and knowledge, and their historical presence in the space.  One panelist noted it is not uncommon to find managers with 5-6 year portfolios.
  • The topic of timing was big – many of the panelists did not think they had the ability to specifically time the market and that all investments in this space should really be focused on the long term prospects of the industry as a whole.
  • Everyone seemed to agree that the digital asset space is waiting for its Lotus123 moment.  As of now it appears Bitcoin is both the religion and killer app even as there are various trends which pop up from time to time (DeFi as the trend right now).

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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.

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.

Conclusion

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.

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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.

Bitcoin ETF – Bitwise Asset Management

Cole-Frieman & Mallon Comment Letter to SEC

On June 12, 2019 our law firm submitted a comment letter to the SEC with respect to the Bitwise Bitcoin ETF application.  In our comment we stated that we believe it is in the best interest of the bitcoin market that the Bitwise ETF be approved.  We made this statement based on our firm’s experience with asset managers generally, and specifically with asset managers in the digital asset space.  We also believe that the various Bitwise presentations and research prepared for the staff (here, here, and here) present strong arguments for the approval of the Bitwise ETF.

The Bitwise ETF application was originally submitted to the SEC by the listing Exchange (NYSE Arca) on January 28, 2019 and has subsequently under gone two statutory extensions (see here) as the SEC tries to figure out how they are going to regulate the digital asset industry.  Ultimately the SEC will need to make a final decision (accept or reject) by mid-October.  The various comment letters (found here) show overall support for the Bitwise ETF and generally implore the SEC to approve the application.

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For more information on this topic, please see our collection of cryptocurrency fund legal and operational posts.

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 cryptocurrency focused hedge funds. For more information on this topic, please contact Mr. Mallon directly at 415-868-5345.

Crypto Headlines from Week of April 26 – Bitfinex/Tether & SeedInvest

There were two big announcements in the crypto space this week and we anticipate that both will shape the dialogue in crypto circles over the course of the next few months.

NY AG Order re Bitfinex and Tether – the New York Attorney General announced an order requiring Bitfinex to provide certain information on its corporate activities to New York in connection with an investigation into Tether.  The central issue is whether Bitfinex used Tether funds to “hide the apparent loss of $850 million dollars of [Bitfinex] co-mingled client and corporate funds.”  The order was announced yesterday and sent the entire crypto market down 10%.  Bitfinex has released a statement in response to the order saying that Bitfinex and Tether are “financially strong – full stop.”  We anticipate this will be a major story over the next couple of weeks.

SeedInvest Receives ATS License – ever since the SEC released the DAO report in July 2017, firms have been trying to secure a broker-dealer with an Alternative Trading System.  A broker-dealer with an ATS designation would allow a digital asset trading platform to legally provide an exchange/trading service in the US.  SeedInvest (which was recently bought by Circle), through its affiliated broker-dealer SI Securities, just received the ATS designation (see here on page 11 – “The Firm operates an alternative trading system to facilitate the trading of securities previously purchased in private placement transactions through SI Securities.”).  The ATS designation in this instance allows the firm to have a trading system/platform for previously issues equity securities (private placements) and not for tokens; however, it is generally viewed that this is the first step toward FINRA ultimately allowing for the ATS designation to apply to a token platform.  We will see how this plays out with other platforms in the near future but this is certainly a sign that regulators are moving in the right direction.

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For more information on this topic, please see our collection of cryptocurrency fund legal and operational posts.

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 cryptocurrency focused hedge funds. For more information on this topic, please contact Mr. Mallon directly at 415-868-5345.

Digital Asset Regulatory Items – Third Quarter 2018

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.

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SEC MATTERS

Enforcement

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.

Other

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 MATTERS

Investor Alerts

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.

Enforcement

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 MATTERS

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 MATTERS

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.

FEDERAL LEGISLATION

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.

STATE MATTERS

New York

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

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.

OTHER MATTERS

Statements

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.

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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

NFA to Require Disclosure of Digital Asset Activities

CPOs and CTAs to Augment Disclosure Documents

On July 20, 2018, the National Futures Association (“NFA”) submitted an Interpretive Notice titled Disclosure Requirements for NFA Members Engaging in Virtual Currency Activities to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”).  Through Section 17(j) of the Commodity Exchange Ac (“CEA”), the NFA has invoked the “ten-day” provision to allow the Interpretive Notice to become effective 10 days after its submission to the CFTC.  The NFA has proposed this Interpretive Notice in an effort to better inform and notify consumers of the risks involved with trading and investing in cryptocurrencies.  This Interpretive Notice sets forth disclosure requirements for two groups: (1) futures commission merchants (“FCMs”) and introducing brokers (“IBs”) and (2) commodity pool operators (“CPOs”) and commodity trading advisors (“CTAs”).

Proposed Interpretive Notice

The proposed Interpretive Notice specifies the following requirements:

For FCMs and IBs:

  • provide customers with the NFA Investor Advisory – Futures on Virtual Currencies Including Bitcoin and the CFTC Customer Advisory: Understand the Risk of Virtual Currency Trading (collectively, the “Advisories”) and for introduced accounts, the FCM or IB may provide the Advisories;
  • provide customers who traded a virtual currency derivative prior to the issuance of the Interpretive Notice with the Advisories within 30 calendar days of the Interpretive Notice’s effective date;
  • provide customers of FCMs and IBs offering services in spot market virtual currencies with a standardized disclosure[1] that specifically states that the NFA does not have regulatory oversight authority over underlying or spot virtual currency products or transactions or virtual currency exchanges, custodians, or markets;
  • provide the Advisories to a customer at or before the time the customer engages in a virtual currency derivative transaction;
  • provide the standardized disclosure at or before the time a customer or counterparty engages in any underlying or spot virtual currency activity with or through the FCM or IB;
  • provide retail customers the Advisories and standardized disclosure language in writing or electronically in a prominent manner designed to ensure that the customer is aware of them; and
  • display the standardized disclosure language on any promotional materials related to spot market virtual currencies.

For CPOs and CTAs:

  • address the following areas that are applicable to their activities in their disclosure documents, offering documents, and promotional material related to virtual currencies: (1) unique features of virtual currencies; (2) price volatility; (3) valuation and liquidity; (4) cybersecurity; (5) the opaque spot market; (6) virtual currency exchanges, intermediaries, and custodians; (7) the regulatory landscape; (8) technology; and (9) transaction fees;
  • customize disclosure documents and offering documents to address all the unique risks related to their particular activities;
  • include a standardized disclosure[2] in disclosure documents, offering documents, and promotional materials related to virtual currencies addressing the limits of the NFA’s oversight and informing investors that there currently is no sound or acceptable practice that the NFA can use to verify the ownership and control of underlying or spot virtual currencies (this is a requirement of CPOs or CTAs that operate a pool, exempt pool, or trading program that trades spot market virtual currencies); and
  • provide a standardized disclosure[3] to customers and counterparties that specifically states that the NFA does not have regulatory oversight authority over underlying or spot virtual currency activities and display it in any promotional materials for any spot market virtual currency activities (other than as an investment in a pool or managed account program) engaged in by a CPO or CTA.

“Spot” Digital Assets vs. Digital Asset Derivatives

Throughout the proposed Interpretive Notice the NFA discusses both spot and derivative digital assets.  “Spot” digital assets are digital assets that are purchased for cash intended for immediate delivery and not at some future date.  The CFTC generally does not oversee spot digital assets, other than in instances of fraud or manipulation.  In contrast, digital asset derivatives are instruments that stem from and are priced in comparison to the underlying digital asset, with the underlying asset intended to be delivered at a future date.  Digital asset derivatives include instruments such as futures and options.  Unlike spot digital assets, the CFTC and NFA have jurisdiction over the digital asset derivatives.

What comes next?

Over the last few days our law firm has spoken with both the NFA and CFTC about this matter.  Although they could not provide more information regarding the drafting of the Interpretive Notice, they mentioned that once the Interpretive Notice becomes effective, individuals subject to the Interpretive Notice will be given time to become compliant.  They also mentioned that it likely that the NFA will issue another announcement that will publicize the effective date of the notice and when qualifying members need to be in compliance.

Conclusion

It is unclear if the CFTC will take up the NFA’s Interpretive Notice for approval or if the Interpretive Notice will become effective 10 days after its submission to the CFTC.  However, it should be noted that the majority of NFA proposals sent to the CFTC are approved.  Despite this, all FCMs, IBs, CPOs, and CTAs should review the various indicated communications and documents to prepare for the potential approval of the Interpretive Notice.  We will continue to report on this issue.

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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

Links to the other NFA items on digital assets:

[1] The standardized disclosure required is the following: [NAME OF NFA MEMBER] IS A MEMBER OF NFA AND IS SUBJECT TO NFA’S REGULATORY OVERSIGHT AND EXAMINATIONS. HOWEVER, YOU SHOULD BE AWARE THAT NFA DOES NOT HAVE REGULATORY OVERSIGHT AUTHORITY OVER UNDERLYING OR SPOT VIRTUAL CURRENCY PRODUCTS OR TRANSACTIONS OR VIRTUAL CURRENCY EXCHANGES, CUSTODIANS OR MARKETS.

[2] The standardized disclosure required is the following: [NAME OF NFA MEMBER] IS A MEMBER OF NFA AND IS SUBJECT TO NFA’S REGULATORY OVERSIGHT AND EXAMINATIONS. [NAME OF NFA MEMBER] HAS ENGAGED OR MAY ENGAGE IN UNDERLYING OR SPOT VIRTUAL CURRENCY TRANSACTIONS IN A [COMMODITY POOL OR MANAGED ACCOUNT PROGRAM]. ALTHOUGH NFA HAS JURISDICTION OVER [NAME OF NFA MEMBER] AND ITS [COMMODITY POOL OR MANAGED ACCOUNT PROGRAM], YOU SHOULD BE AWARE THAT NFA DOES NOT HAVE REGULATORY OVERSIGHT AUTHORITY FOR UNDERLYING OR SPOT MARKET VIRTUAL CURRENCY PRODUCTS OR TRANSACTIONS OR VIRTUAL CURRENCY EXCHANGES, CUSTODIANS OR MARKETS. YOU SHOULD ALSO BE AWARE THAT GIVEN CERTAIN MATERIAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THESE PRODUCTS, INCLUDING LACK OF A CENTRALIZED PRICING SOURCE AND THE OPAQUE NATURE OF THE VIRTUAL CURRENCY MARKET, THERE CURRENTLY IS NO SOUND OR ACCEPTABLE PRACTICE FOR NFA TO ADEQUATELY VERIFY THE OWNERSHIP AND CONTROL OF A VIRTUAL CURRENCY OR THE VALUATION ATTRIBUTED TO A VIRTUAL CURRENCY BY [NAME OF NFA MEMBER].

[3] The standardized disclosure required is the following: [NAME OF NFA MEMBER] IS A MEMBER OF NFA AND IS SUBJECT TO NFA’S REGULATORY OVERSIGHT AND EXAMINATIONS. HOWEVER, YOU SHOULD BE AWARE THAT NFA DOES NOT HAVE REGULATORY OVERSIGHT AUTHORITY OVER UNDERLYING OR SPOT VIRTUAL CURRENCY PRODUCTS OR TRANSACTIONS OR VIRTUAL CURRENCY EXCHANGES, CUSTODIANS OR MARKETS.

Regulation A+ for Token Offerings

Overview of Regulation A+ for Token Sponsors

Token issuers have come under increasing scrutiny with respect to their offerings on the heels of various statements by SEC personnel (see here, here and here).  SEC representatives have testified recently before House and Senate committees that the initial coin offerings (“ICOs”) they have seen are securities offerings and that it is “hard to have an [ICO] without a securities offering.”  These statements along with recent SEC enforcement actions against ICOs have created the desire for token issuers to make their offerings SEC compliant.  Many token issuers have thus begun to offer and issue tokens through certain exemptions from the securities registration regime including Regulation D private offerings and the Simple Agreement for Future Tokens (“SAFT”).  One option many groups are looking into is using Regulation A+ (“Reg. A+”) to offer security tokens publicly.

Background

Regulation A was overhauled through the JOBS Act, resulting in what is now referred to as Regulation A+.  Reg. A+ allows for a registered security to go through a general solicitation process without going through the long and costly IPO process.  Securities issued under Reg. A+ can be freely traded, subject to some restrictions and holding periods.  Another unique feature is that it allows for “testing the waters,” soliciting investors to gauge interest in the offering before or after filing the offering statement.  To qualify to use Reg. A+, an issuer must have their principal place of business in the United States or Canada and not be an ineligible investor (please see our blog post Notes on Regulation A+ for more information).

Reg. A+ has two tiers; Tier 1 allows issuers to raise up to $20 million and Tier 2 allows issuers to raise up to $50 million over a 12-month rolling period.[1]  Below is a side-by-side comparison of the two tiers.

Tier 1 and Tier 2 Comparison

Tier 1

  • Can raise up to $20 million
  • No limit on amount investor can purchase
  • All types of investors (qualified purchasers, accredited investors, and unaccredited investors)
  • 2,000 investor limit pursuant to Section 12(g) of the ’34 Act
  • Do not need audited financial statements except in special circumstances
  • Must comply with state “blue sky” laws regarding securities registration
Tier 2

  • Can raise up to $50 million
  • Limits on how much an unaccredited investor can purchase (see below)
  • All types of investors (qualified purchasers, accredited investors, and unaccredited investors)
  • Conditional exemption from Section 12(g) of the ’34 Act restrictions[2]
  • Audited financial statements
  • State “blue sky” laws regarding securities registration are preempted
  • Must file annual, semi-annual, and current event reports after the offering with the SEC

Process

The process will look something like the following:

  • Step 1: Entity Formation
    • To start the process, the entity must first be created.  This includes putting together the articles of incorporation and operating agreement, registering the entity with the state(s) in which it will operate, drafting promissory note distribution agreements (a SAFT can be used here instead), and issuing securities.
  • Step 2: Draft Form 1-A
    • There are three parts to Form 1-A: Part I: Notification Filing, Part II: Offering Circular, and Part III: Exhibits.
    • Part I: Notification Filing
      • This is a brief summary of information about the issuer, offering, and jurisdictional information.  It can be filled out online and is formatted like the Form D filing.  It requires information such as balance sheet financials, determination of eligibility, a summary of the offering, and designation of the jurisdiction.
    • Part II: Offering Circular
      • The offering circular is a simplified and scaled down version for the Form S-1 and is similar to hedge fund offering documents. It is the primary disclosure document prepared in connection with the Reg. A+ offering.  This section requires information such as risk factors, the business plan, plan of distribution, Management’s Discussion & Analysis (“MD&A”) of Financial Condition and Results of Operations, management interests, and detailed analysis of the securities being offered.
    • Part III: Exhibits
      • The exhibit that are required as part of the Form 1-A include:
      • Issuer formation documents (e., operating agreement, articles of incorporation, etc.)
      • Promissory note agreement (or SAFT)
      • Agreement between issuer and broker-dealer
      • Opinion from legal counsel
      • Consent of auditor
      • Testing the waters materials
      • Escrow agreement (if necessary)
  • Step 3: Submission to the SEC
    • Once all the materials for the Form 1-A are assembled, the Form 1-A will be filed for qualification on the SEC’s Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval (“EDGAR”) system.  Issuers can request that their offering statement be non-public as long as they are publicly filed no later than 21 calendar days before qualification.  Once Form 1-A has been submitted, the issuer will correspond with the SEC regarding the submission to ensure that it is complete.  The offering statement on Form 1-A only needs to be qualified by order of the SEC and issuers will receive a notice of qualification from the Division of Corporation Finance.  With the consent of the Director of the Division of Corporation Finance, issuers are allowed to withdraw an offering statement so long as none of the securities under it have been sold and the offering statemen is not subject to a temporary order suspending the Regulation A exemption.
  • Step 4: Notice Filing
    • For this step, the issuer will need to determine in which states to concentrate their selling efforts.  Once the states have been selected, the issuer will need to conduct the required notice filings in each state.  Although Tier 2 offerings preempt state securities registration and qualification provisions, state securities regulators can still require issuers to file any documents that were with the SEC with state with state securities regulators.
  • Step 5: Ongoing Compliance
    • Tier 2 issuers are required to file Form 1-K, Form 1-SA, and Form 1-U with the SEC.
      • Form 1-K is an annual report that is filed 120 days after the fiscal year end. It consists of two parts: part 1 contain basic fillable information; part 2 requires the following: business operations of the issuer; transactions with related persons; information about directors, executives, and significant employees; MD&A; and two years of audited financials.
      • Form 1-SA is a semiannual report which is filed 90 days after end of first 6 months of fiscal year. It does not require an audit and includes financial statements and MD&A.
      • Form 1-U needs to be filed within 4 business days of any of the following:
        • Fundamental changes in the nature of the business;
        • Bankruptcy or receivership;
        • Material modification of the rights of security holders;
        • Changes in the certifying accountant of the issuer;
        • Non-reliance on previous financial statements or a related audit report or completed interim review;
        • Changes in control of the issuer;
        • Departures of the principal executive officer, principal financial officer or principal accounting officer; or
        • Unregistered sales of 10 percent or more of outstanding equity securities.
  • Final Step: Exit Reporting
    • Tier 1 issuers are required to file an exit report on Form 1-Z through EDGAR no later than 30 calendar days after the termination or completion of an offering.
    • Tier 2 issuers may file an exit report on Form 1-Z if the offering has fewer than 300 security holders of record, offers and sales are not ongoing, and the issuer is up to date on all filings required by Regulation A.

Timeline

The timeline for a Reg. A+ offering will look something like the following:

  • Week 1: The initial discussion of terms and the offering will take place.  The issuer and their legal counsel will create a detailed legal and operational timeline.
  • Week 2: The issuer will form the necessary entities, start drafting Form 1-A, and begin gathering the needed financials statements and other documents.
  • Week 3-4: All documents and financials will be finalized and submitted to the SEC.
  • Week 5: The issuer will begin the notice filing process and conduct the necessary ongoing compliance.
  • Week 6 and on: The issuer will begin back and forth discussion process with the SEC regarding the offering.

Issues & Other Items to Consider

There are a few items to consider when choosing to register under the Regulation A exemption:

  1. Testing the Waters – If testing the waters occurs after filing the offering statement, any solicitation materials used must be preceded or accompanied by a preliminary offering circular or contain a notice informing potential investors where and how the most current preliminary offering circular can be obtained.  These solicitation materials must also be included as an exhibit when the offering statement is submitted for nonpublic review or filed.
  2. Tier 2 Unaccredited Investor Limit – In a Tier 2 offering, an unaccredited investor can purchase no more than: (a) 10% of the greater of annual income or net worth (for natural persons); or (b) 10% of the greater of annual revenue or net assets at fiscal year end (for non-natural persons).
  3. Auditing – Tier 2 issuers will need to have their financial statements audited and should begin this process as soon as possible.  However, if a Tier 1 issuer has had previously audited financial statements, in certain cases they may need to submit these.
  4. Solicitation through Electronic Communication – An issuer is allowed to “test the waters” through platforms that limit the number of characters or text that can be included and still satisfy the requirements of Rule 255 if: (a) the electronic communication is distributed through a platform that limits the number of characters or text that may be included in the communication; (b) including the required Rule 255 statements together with the other information would cause the communication to exceed the platform’s characters or text limit; and (c) the communication contains an active hyperlink to the required Rule 255 statements and prominently conveys important or required information through the hyperlink.  However, if an electronic communication can contain the Rule 255 statements in their entirety along with the other information without exceeding the platform’s characters or text limit, it is not appropriate to only include hyperlink to the required statements.
  5. Payment for Securities – For both tiers, an issuer can accept payment for the sales of its securities only after its offering material have been qualified by the SEC.  In addition, issuers under Tier 1 offerings generally must have their offering materials qualified by state securities regulators in each state in which it plans to sell securities.
  6. Secondary Sales – For the 12 months following its first offering, no more than 30% of the aggregate offering price may be sold by security holders.  After the 12 months, secondary sales by affiliates will be subject to the 30% limit over a 12-month period.  Secondary sales by non-affiliates at this point will only be curtailed by the maximum offering allowed under each tier.

Conclusion

Thus far, Reg. A+ provides the most flexibility for SEC compliant ICOs.  Although there are reporting obligations and other restrictions, Reg. A+ allows for what is essentially a “mini-IPO” without the cumbersome process.  As token issuers look to be compliant, we are likely to see an uptick in Reg. A+ offerings.

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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.  Bart can be reached directly at 415-868-5345.

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[1] This rolling 12-month period means that each month you will need to recalculate the aggregate sales, dropping off the sales from more than 12 months ago. For example, if an offering pursuant to Reg. A+ started in January of 2018, it means that by February of 2019 initial sale of securities from January 2018 are no longer in the aggregate total (thus only calculating February 2018 – February 2019 sales).

[2] As long as the issuer remains current with their periodic reporting, engages the services of a transfer agent registered with the SEC pursuant to Section 17A of the Exchange Act, and meets the size-based requirements similar to those of a “smaller reporting company” under the Securities Act and the Exchange Act.

Airdrops and Securities Laws

Legal Issues Surrounding Digital Asset Airdrops

Given the regulatory scrutiny on initial coin offerings, many digital asset company sponsors (those launching an ICO token/product/security/utility/etc) have been looking for ways to get their assets in the hands of a large number of people to begin creating network effects so the digital asset become valuable.  One way to accomplish this is through an “airdrop” where the sponsor gives away the digital asset to certain persons under certain circumstances.  Airdrops come in many shapes and forms – in some, the sponsor deposits only the digital asset they have created and in others a sponsor or other third party might deposit a variety of digital assets created by different groups.  Some airdrops require users to do something (sign up for a list or tweet a link related to the sponsor) and some are done for “free”.  In any event, there are potentially securities laws issues related to the airdrops and any transactions in the digital asset after the airdrop.  The below analysis is intended as a broad overview, but each airdrop should be considered in light of its facts and circumstances.  Additionally, the regulation of airdrops, including how they may be taxed, is beginning to evolve and subject to change.

Potential Application of Securities Laws to Airdrops

The legal status of digital assets is uncertain and continually developing – whether a token is a security ultimately depends on the particulars of each token.  Given recent statements by the SEC, however, it is safest to assume that any airdropped tokens are securities.  The public offering or sales of securities must be registered with the SEC or qualify for an exemption, though many token companies are not complying with these requirements.  As a result, a number of these airdrops may be violating securities laws, even if the teams behind the assets claim they are not securities, or if they do not realize their activities fall within the scope of the securities laws.  In light of this, the following legal issues may apply to an airdrop:

  • Transfer Restrictions – Even if a token qualifies for an exemption from registration with the SEC, it may be subject to transfer restrictions. For example, many securities are exempt from SEC registration via the private placement exemption under Regulation D (also known as “Reg D”), which requires a certain holding period (e.g. 6-12 months) before a purchaser can transfer the securities.  While the Reg D exemption applies to purchases and sales of securities, the Reg D holding restrictions may apply because the SEC may view the exchange of personal information and/or public promotion as payment.  In light of this, the recipients of digital assets (unknowingly) may be restricted from transferring those assets and should be careful.
  • Free Stock Enforcement Actions – In the late 1990’s the SEC brought enforcement actions in cases of “free stock” offerings. In such instances, companies gave out “free” stock in exchange for something of value to the company.  For example, recipients provided personal information, solicited additional investors, and linked to issuers’ websites.  The SEC was concerned that investors were not receiving full and fair disclosures about the securities.  Airdrops resemble free stock since the airdrop teams give “free” tokens, often in exchange for information like email addresses or social media shares.  Additionally, these airdrop programs are often promoted in mediums such as Telegram chats where disclosures are entirely absent.  Because of these similarities with free stock, the SEC could bring enforcement actions against the sponsors of the airdrops in the future.
  • Broker-Dealer Regulations – Generally, a broker is anyone that engages in securities transactions on behalf of another person for compensation, and must be registered with the SEC. If a team airdrops digital assets on behalf of other token companies, it could be deemed a broker if it receives compensation for the airdrop.  This compensation could take the form of tokens or marketing services from issuers of the airdropped assets.
  • Underwriter Liability – An underwriter is someone that acts on behalf of a securities issuer, for example, by distributing securities of the issuer. Depending on the circumstances, underwriters can be liable for an issuer’s securities violations.  If an airdrop team deposits tokens that are issued by another company, it could also be liable for the securities violations of that company, which very well may be the case, as described above.
  • Pump & Dump – Pump and dump schemes occur when an organized group coordinates to artificially change the price of an asset. The SEC and CFTC have issued warnings about token pump and dump schemes, and the SEC has already pursued certain groups for these schemes.  In light of this, airdrop announcements and marketing materials will likely be subject to heightened scrutiny by the SEC and CFTC.
  • KYC/AML – Know Your Customer (“KYC”) and Anti-Money Laundering (“AML”) laws are aimed at combatting money laundering and bribery and require certain due diligence on clients. KYC and AML regulations typically apply to banks, broker-dealers, FINRA members, and other financial institutions, as well as large cash transactions.  Many token exchanges already implement KYC and AML procedures, for example, by requiring new users to upload a driver’s license in order to prove their identities.  It’s possible that an airdrop team may be subject to KYC and AML requirements such that it would need to verify the identity of each recipient.

Conclusion

As the digital asset industry becomes more aware of the securities laws and the nuances of the application of those laws to the digital asset space, sponsors of digital assets are working to make sure their business plan and token distribution structure fit within the laws.  While airdrops (“free tokens”) seem like one way to get around certain securities laws, there are still risks and sponsors should vet any potential distribution, even if free, with legal counsel.  We do expect to see a wider variety of token offering structures used in the future, including Regulation A+ which has fewer restrictions on securities transfers.

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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.  Please contact Mr. Mallon directly at 415-868-5345 if you have any questions on this post.