On November 8, 2018, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) settled its first case against an unregistered cryptocurrency exchange. Zachary Coburn, founder of EtherDelta, agreed to pay $313,000 in disgorgement and interest, along with a civil fine of $75,000, in order to settle SEC allegations that EtherDelta was acting as an unregistered securities exchange.
Last month (September 2018), the House of Commons Treasury Committee issued a report on its inquiry into the regulation of crypto-assets. The inquiry examined, amongst other subjects, the role of digital currencies in the UK; the impact of distributed ledger (blockchain) technology; and how these should be regulated. The report recommends improvements to consumer and anti-money laundering protections (AML) when dealing in crypto-assets. The improvement will be achieved in part by extending the Financial Services and Markets Act (Regulated Activities) Order 2000 (RAO) to crypto-assets and associated activities.
Read the full report on our sister site, the Technology Law Dispatch.
Unlike in most other European jurisdictions the regulatory practice in Germany has been to treat Bitcoins as units of account and as such financial instruments pursuant to Section 1 German Banking Act (Kreditwesengesetz, “KWG”). The practical consequence of this is that most commercial services surrounding Bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies (including trading, brokerage, operating exchanges, investment advisory etc.) will be regulated activities, requiring the relevant authorisation (licence) of the Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (Bundesanstalt für Finanzdienstleistungsaufsicht, “BaFin”). A person conducting banking business or providing financial services without the necessary authorisation will usually be ordered to immediately cease business operations and may be punished by a term of imprisonment of up to five years or a fine (Sections 37 and 54 para. 1 No. 2 KWG).
In September of this year, certain congressmen expressed their intention to preempt state regulation of virtual currency regulation. Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) expressed a need for “partial federal preemption” of state laws and Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) plans to introduce a bill that may seek federal preemption of state licensing and oversight requirements of virtual currency exchanges.
We have seen state push-back on attempts by the federal government to regulate parts of the FinTech space, in addition to other areas of regulation. For example, in March 2018, a group of 32 attorneys general wrote a bipartisan letter to the U.S. House of Representatives expressing concern that a draft bill places consumer reporting agencies and financial institutions out of the reach of state enforcement (please see Reed Smith blog post here). Does the federal government have enough momentum to continue its advancement of regulating virtual currency and digital tokens?
In March of this year, the NFA issued a notice reminded futures commission merchants (“FCM”), introducing brokers (“IB”), commodity pool operators (“CPO”) and commodity trading advisors (“CTA”) that trade in, solicit or accept orders in virtual currency products (spot and derivatives) of their ongoing obligation to notify the NFA of such activities by amending the annual questionnaire (please see Reed Smith client alert here). More recently, the NFA issued an August 2018 Interpretive Notice (“Notice I-18-13”) effective on October 31, 2018, establishing the disclosure requirements for NFA Members engaging in virtual currency derivatives activity.
What does this mean for NFA Members and how does it reflect broader regulatory concern over virtual currencies and digital assets?
Most companies considering an Initial Coin Offering to U.S. purchasers have resigned themselves to the fact that their proposed token or coin offering is likely to be considered an offering of securities by the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and must be made in compliance with U.S. securities laws. The logical next question then becomes – “what are my options?”
A traditional initial public offering (“IPO”) of equity securities usually requires extensive meetings with underwriters, accountants and lawyers, the preparation of audited financial statements and the filing of voluminous and detailed documents with the SEC. In addition, once a company has completed an initial public offering, it must comply with extensive ongoing SEC disclosure requirements.
Reg. D Private Placements
The sale of securities (including securities tokens) may also be conducted as a private placement under Regulation D of the Securities Act, particularly Rules 506(b) and (c). Rules 506(b) and (c) of Regulation D allow issuers to raise an unlimited amount of funds from “accredited” investors.
Issuers conducting their offering under Rule 506(b) may allow, in addition to the accredited investors, up to 35 sophisticated but non-accredited investors to participate in their offering, but there are heightened disclosure requirements that apply; there are no exceptions for Rule 506(c) offerings, which may be made only to accredited investors.
Aside from the unlimited offering potential, one other big advantage for many issuers using the Rule 506 exemptions is that the securities issued do not have to be registered with the SEC and therefore there is no SEC review process. Aside from a short Form D that must be filed with the SEC within 15 days of the first sale of securities with basic details of the offering (i.e., maximum dollar amount of securities being offered, number of investors, industry group, etc.), there are no other SEC filing requirements and no ongoing disclosure requirements.
Issuers using one of the Rule 506 exemptions will typically provide prospective investors with offering documents such as a private placement memorandum (which is subject to antifraud liability), but the costs, both financial and timewise, associated with Rule 506 offerings are significantly less than a traditional public offering. Of course, there also are drawbacks to conducting an offering under Rule 506. For example, we mention above that under Rule 506, securities may only be sold to accredited investors (barring the limited exception provided under Rule 506(b)). But perhaps the most significant drawback of Rule 506 offerings is that the securities offered and sold in a Rule 506 offering are deemed to be “restricted” securities under U.S. securities laws and must generally be held by the purchaser for one year before they may be resold. In addition, while Rule 506(c) offerings permit general solicitation and advertising, issuers conducting 506(b) offerings may not participate in any general solicitation or advertising.
Reg A+ Offerings
There is an alternative path that has been gaining a lot of attention in crypto circles recently, and that is the exemption provided by Regulation A+ of the Securities Act, deemed by some the “mini-IPO.”
Regulation A+ was passed under the JOBS Act as an improvement to the predecessor Regulation A exemption and provides for a more streamlined process than the typical IPO. Like an IPO, Regulation A+ permits eligible issuers to offer securities to the general public, not just to accredited investors. Issuers relying on Regulation A+ are required to file a Form 1-A with the SEC, which is subject to SEC review and approval (unlike Regulation D offerings, which are not reviewed and issuers do not need to wait for approval prior to issuance).
The crux of the Form 1-A is the offering circular, which must contain financial statements and other information similar to but less extensive than what would be required in a registration statement (albeit significantly more extensive than what is typically included in an ICO white paper).
Aside from the ability of the issuer to offer securities to the general public under Regulation A+ (subject to the non-accredited investor caps imposed by Tier 2), one of the most significant advantages of Regulation A+, as compared to Regulation D, is that securities issued in a Regulation A+ offering are not “restricted” securities and are freely tradable. However, we note that the potential for a trading market actually developing, and the potential for real liquidity, particularly for tokens and coins, should be evaluated. Another benefit to Regulation A+ is that it allows issuers to “test the waters” or solicit interest in a potential offering either before or after the filing of the Form 1-A, subject to certain conditions. However, Regulation A+ offerings are subject to offering caps, unlike Rule 506 offerings, as described below.
Regulation A+ consists of two offering categories – Tier 1 for offerings up to $20 million and Tier 2 for offerings up to $50 million. Aside from the price differential, the other significant differences between the two offering tiers are that Tier 2 offerings require audited financial statements, ongoing SEC disclosure requirements (albeit to a lesser extent than those required in connection with an IPO) and an investment cap for non-accredited investors. Tier 2 offerings, but not Tier 1 offerings, also preempt state securities regulatory review (similar to Rule 506 offerings), a significant improvement over the predecessor Regulation A.
So, is Regulation A+ the answer for crypto companies? Maybe, maybe not. To date, only six issuers have filed a publicly available Form 1-A for a token offering, and none of these filings has been qualified by the SEC.
As noted above, perhaps the most significant advantage to Regulation A+ is that investors receive unrestricted securities that are freely tradable. But how soon will a truly robust secondary trading market develop for the tokens and coins being offered by most crypto companies? And why would a crypto company subject itself to the filing requirements and ongoing disclosure requirements of a Regulation A+ offering, when it could instead offer unlimited securities (albeit to accredited investors only) under Rule 506 with limited filing requirements, not to mention no SEC review, and no ongoing SEC reporting obligations? The best alternative will, of course, be issuer specific, which is why it is critical for issuers to weigh the pros and cons with experienced legal counsel.
 An “accredited investor,” in the context of a natural person, includes anyone who: (i) earned income that exceeded $200,000 (or $300,000 together with a spouse) in each of the prior two years, and reasonably expects the same for the current year; or (ii) has a net worth over $1 million, either alone or together with a spouse (excluding the value of the person’s primary residence. Entities such as banks, partnerships, corporations, nonprofits and trusts with total assets in excess of $5 million also qualify as accredited investors.
Click here to see a demonstration of a simplified “AI and the Law: Data Contract”: https://lnkd.in/gRNDBk2 and the Companion Software Application. This demo shows how we can access contract information stored as fields of data on the Microsoft Azure cloud. (I use a credit agreement as an example, but the same principles work for any contract.) With the increased focus on digitization of contracts in financial services, healthcare, shipping, energy, entertainment, and other industries, efforts are underway to create a new form of contract in a data format (a “Data Contract”) – the next step in the evolution of contracts. The essence of the Data Contract is that the terms of the contract are stored in a database at both the Clause Level and the Idea Level. This gives the parties complete control over the information in the contract for purposes of origination, amendment, reporting, compliance, and other operational issues, as well as transfer, securitization, and other forms of monetization. We can always print to paper or pdf, so there is no downside or risk to experimenting with a Data Contract. See, past and future posts for more information about the “New Logic of the Law,” which is the math and logic system underlying Data Contracts. – William S. Veatch https://www.linkedin.com/in/william-veatch-9666371b/
Governor John Kasich signed a bill into law on Friday, August 3, 2018, adding Ohio to the list of U.S. states enacting blockchain legislation. Introduced last October and passed by the House at the end of June, SB 220 legally recognizes records or contracts and signatures secured through blockchain technology. Specifically, the bill amends Section 1306.01 of Ohio’s Uniform Electronic Transactions Act, reflecting a “record or contract that is secured through blockchain technology is considered to be in an electronic form and to be an electronic record,” and a “signature that is secured through blockchain technology is considered to be in an electronic form and to be an electronic signature.” This language was incorporated from an earlier bill introduced in May, SB 300, although language legally recognizing smart contracts was cut.
Ohio’s recent statutory adoption follows a growing state-by-state trend. For example, Nevada, Delaware, Tennessee, and Wyoming, among others, have already enacted similar laws relating to authorizing blockchain-based records, and states continue to lead blockchain-friendly legislative initiatives in other contexts, such as establishing regulatory sandboxes and clarifying money transmission laws.
While generally welcomed by the industry, there also is some concern that the state-level legislation makes too many distinctions between technologies and may have additional harmful domino effects. For example, the Electronic Signatures and Records Association (“ESRA”) and the Chamber of Digital Commerce issued a joint statement in April 2018, warning that while state legislation may be well-intentioned, it can lead to redundancies, inconsistencies, and issues with federal preemption.
On July 18, 2018, Acting Director Mick Mulvaney of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) announced that Paul Watkins will head the CFPB’s new Office of Innovation. According to the press release, the office, which Mulvaney created to focus on consumer-friendly innovation, “will focus on creating policies to facilitate innovation, engaging with entrepreneurs and regulators, and reviewing outdated or unnecessary regulations.” Watkins previously managed the first state fintech regulatory sandbox in the United States out of the the Arizona Office of the Attorney General, which we have previously reported on here. He is expected to take charge of a sandbox initiative that the CFPB is working on in coordination with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”). A sandbox program aims to provide relief from various regulatory requirements and regulatory guidance to start-ups, while providing insight into fintech startups and technology innovation to regulators.
In a speech delivered at Mansion House on 21 June 2018, Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England (BofE), made the case for a modernised financial services sector, which would be underpinned by a thriving FinTech sector, especially in the area of payments.
The remarks reinforce the BofE’s plan for FinTech in central banking, which started last year when it partnered with a range of firms to look into the functionality the BofE would need to offer to support the sector. The result came when the BofE announced that a new generation of non-bank payment service providers would be eligible to apply for a settlement account under its real-time gross settlement system (RTGS). Those proposed changes were also focused on widening access to UK payment systems, supporting financial stability through greater diversity and risk-reduction technologies, and creating a more level playing field for non-banks wishing to compete with banks.