Long awaited guidance from the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on application of the Howey test to digital assets came on April 3 in the form of a Framework for “Investment Contract” Analysis of Digital Assets (“Framework”) and a No-Action Letter regarding TurnKey Jet, Inc. (the “TurnKey No-Action Letter”). These two documents are best understood as part of a trilogy with the June 2018 Hinman speech.

The Framework offers the clearest indication yet of the SEC staff’s thinking on the Howey test, with the TurnKey No-Action Letter and the Hinman speech providing examples of where a digital asset fails to meet a necessary element of the test. For purposes of clarity, it helps to think of the Howey test as having four elements:  (1) an investment of money (2) in a common enterprise (3) with a reasonable expectation of profits (4) derived from the efforts of others.[1]

The first two prongs are essentially throwaways inasmuch as the Framework devotes only three sentences to them in total. SEC staff note that these prongs are “typically satisfied” in evaluating digital assets. On the other hand, the Framework pays significant attention to the third and fourth elements.
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The Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC or Commission) November 16 announcement charging two cryptocurrency companies—CarrierEQ Inc. (d/b/a Airfox) and Paragon Coin Inc. (Paragon)—with conducting an initial coin offering (ICO) in violation of the securities registration rules should not come as a surprise to those in the industry. The SEC has repeatedly emphasized that issuers of securities—even those based on a blockchain or distributed ledger technology—must register such securities or comply with an applicable exemption from registration under the Securities Act of 1933 (the Securities Act). The Airfox and Paragon orders explain when the SEC will determine that a token offering constitutes a security, and the remedial measures that the SEC may require for token offerings that do not comply with the Securities Act. Following the announcement, the Commission’s divisions also put out a public statement outlining their views on digital asset securities issuance and trading. We view these actions as signals that the Commission is likely to ramp up its efforts to enforce the securities laws in the weeks and months to come.
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On October 17, 2018, Alan Cohn participated in a panel discussion with Daniel Alter of Murphy & McGonigle and Scott Kimpel of Hunton Andrews Kurthen titled “Initial Coin Offerings: Can Securities Regulators Balance Market Growth and Investor Protection?” at the Washington Legal Foundation. Cohn lay the foundation for an in depth discussion on cryptocurrency and

On July 25, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued its first guidance on how it will interpret token issuances or “Initial Coin Offerings” (ICOs) under relevant securities laws.

The headlines—“SEC Finds DAO Tokens are Securities”—come from Release No. 81207, “Report of Investigation Pursuant to Section 21(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934: The DAO” (July 25, 2017), in which the SEC determined that the tokens issued in association with the Distributed Autonomous Organization (DAO tokens) in April-May 2016 were securities and explored the various implications of that determination.  (See Steptoe’s analysis of this report here.)

However, the real news may be the other document released on July 25, a notice to investors titled “Investor Bulletin: Initial Coin Offerings” (July 25, 2017).  In that document, the SEC sets out several areas of concern regarding ICOs—framed as advice to investors—from which the reader can discern the SEC’s initial expectations with respect to ICOs.  Much of the guidance is not surprising, but the SEC’s statement paves the way for more certainty for companies considering ICOs.
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The SEC announced yesterday that “offers and sales of digital assets by ‘virtual’ organizations are subject to the requirements of the federal securities laws.”  Although not coming as a surprise, the SEC’s announcement affirms that companies seeking to involve US investors in an initial coin offering (ICO) must register offers and sales with the SEC or else qualify for an exemption.

The SEC chose the token offering by the Distributed Autonomous Organization (DAO) in April-May 2016 as the focus of the study.  The DAO was built on top of the Ethereum  blockchain by the German unincorporated organization Slock.it, and the success of its token offering ushered in the current wave of ICO activity.  Although questions surrounded the DAO offering in terms of its prospective treatment under US securities laws, the DAO made headlines when it suffered an exploitation that led to the loss of $50 million in Ether.  Although the SEC found that DAO “may have violated federal securities laws,” it decided against pursuing an enforcement action, choosing instead to use DAO as a demonstrative for future ICOs (“to advise those who would use a Decentralized Autonomous Organization … or other distributed ledger or blockchain-enabled means for capital raising, to take appropriate steps to ensure compliance with the US federal securities laws”).
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