SEC and NASAA Statements on ICOs and More Enforcement Proceedings

Posted by on January 29, 2018

SEC and NASAA Statements on ICOs and More Enforcement Proceedings- Today is the first in a LawCast series talking about the newest SEC and regulator statements on ICO’s and related enforcement proceedings. The message from the SEC is very clear: participants in initial coin offerings (ICO’s) and cryptocurrencies in general need to comply with the federal securities laws or they will be the subject of enforcement proceedings. This message spreads beyond companies and entities issuing cryptocurrencies, also including securities lawyers, accountants, consultants and secondary trading platforms. Moreover, the SEC is not the only watchdog. State securities regulators and the plaintiffs’ bar are both taking aim at the crypto marketplace. Several class actions have been filed recently against companies that have completed ICO’s.

After a period of silence, on July 25, 2017, the SEC issued a Section 21(a) Report on an investigation and related activities by the DAO, with concurrent statements by both the Divisions of Corporation Finance and Enforcement. On the same day, the SEC issued an Investor Bulletin related to ICO’s. I have discussed the Section 21(a) report and statements by the Divisions of Corporation Finance and Enforcement in a prior LawCast series. Since that time, the SEC has engaged in a steady flow of enforcement proceedings and statements on the subject.

The DAO report centered on a traditional analysis to determine whether a token is a security and thus whether an ICO is a securities offering. In particular, the nature of a digital asset (“coin” or “token”) must be examined to determine if it meets the definition of a security using established principles, including the Howey Test. The report also pointed out that participants in ICO’s are subject to federal securities laws to the same extent they are in other securities offerings, including broker-dealer registration requirements, and that securities exchanges providing for trading must register unless an exemption applies.

On November 1, 2017, the SEC issued a warning to the public about the improper marketing of certain ICO’s, token offerings and investments, including promotions and endorsements by celebrities. Celebrities, like any other promoter, are subject to the provisions of Section 17(b) of the Securities Act, including the requirement to disclose the nature, scope, and amount of compensation received in exchange for the promotion. I discussed Section 17(b) and securities promotion in general, in my immediately preceding LawCast series.

On December 11, 2017, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton issued a statement on cryptocurrencies and initial coin offerings. In that statement, Clayton drilled down on the sudden rise of “non-security” ICO’s, now being referred to as “utility tokens,” clearly conveying the message that if a token has attributes of a security, it will be governed as a security. To make the message even clearer, also on December 11, 2017, the SEC halted the ICO by Munchee, Inc., disagreeing with Munchee’s statements and conclusions that its token was a “utility token” and not a security.

This was not the first ICO halt. On December 4, 2017, the SEC halted the ICO by PlexCorps, including outright fraud with the claims of an unregistered offering. The SEC has also taken aim at companies that are in the crypto space in general, having halting the trading of The Crypto Company on December 19, 2017 after a 2,700% stock price increase. This was not the first trading halt, either. Others include American Security Resources Corp, halted on August 24, 2017; First Bitcoin Capital, halted on August 23, 2017; CIAO Group, halted on August 9, 2017; and Sunshine Capital on June 7, 2017.

More recently, on January 5, 2018, the SEC halted the trading of UBI Blockchain Internet, Ltd. citing questions regarding the accuracy of information in SEC filings and concerns about market activity, which was the epitome of an unexplained stock surge.

On August 28, 2017, the SEC issued an investor alert warning about public companies making ICO-related claims. The alert specifically mentioned the trading suspensions and warned that ICO claims could be a sign of a pump-and-dump scheme.

On January 4, 2018, Chair Clayton issued another statement, this time joined by Commissioners Kara Stein and Michael Piwowar, commenting on the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) statement made the same day. The NASAA is a group comprised of state securities regulators, which, among other functions, acts as a communication arm for the individual state regulators on important marketplace topics.