The SEC’s Strategic Hub For Innovation And Financial Technology
Responding to the growing necessity, in mid-October the SEC launched a Strategic Hub for Innovation and Financial Technology (FinHub). The FinHub will serve as a resource for public engagement on the SEC’s FinTech-related issues and initiatives, such as distributed ledger technology (including digital assets), automated investment advice, digital marketplace financing, and artificial intelligence/machine learning. The FinHub also replaces and consolidates several SEC internal working groups that have been working on these matters.
According to the SEC press release on the matter, the FinHub will:
- Provide a portal for the industry and the public to engage directly with SEC staff on innovative ideas and technological developments;
- Publicize information regarding the SEC’s activities and initiatives involving FinTech on the FinHub web page;
- Engage with the public through publications and events, including a FinTech Forum focusing on distributed ledger technology and digital assets planned for 2019;
- Act as a platform and clearinghouse for SEC staff to acquire and disseminate information and FinTech-related knowledge within the agency; and
- Serve as a liaison to other domestic and international regulators regarding emerging technologies in financial, regulatory, and supervisory systems.
Although I’m sure FinHub supports engagement in all FinTech areas, the website itself is broken into four categories: (i) blockchain/distributed ledger; (ii) digital marketplace financing; (iii) automated investment advice; and (iv) artificial intelligence/machine learning. Under each category the SEC has tabs with information such as regulations, speeches and presentations, opportunities for public input and empirical information.
Blockchain and distributed ledger generally refer to databases that maintain information across a network of computers in a decentralized or distributed manner. Blockchains are often used to issue and transfer ownership of digital assets that may be securities, depending on the facts and circumstances.
Clearly illustrating the need for regulatory initiatives, the “regulation, registration and related matters” tab under blockchain/distributed ledger is limited to public speeches, testimony and pronouncements, and enforcement actions, and not regulation (as none exists). Although certainly we in the community give public statements weight, they actually have no binding legal authority. The speeches, testimony and pronouncements that the SEC lists in this tab, and as such the ones that the SEC gives the most weight to, include (i) Chair Clayton’s testimony on virtual currencies to the Senate banking committee (see HERE); (ii) William Hinman’s speech on digital asset transactions (see HERE); (iii) statement on potentially unlawful online platforms for trading digital assets (see HERE); and (iv) remarks before the AICPA National Conference of Banks & Savings institutions (see HERE and HERE).
Providing more legal guidance are the enforcement proceedings. The SEC has provided a running list of all cyber enforcement actions broken down by category including digital asset/initial coin offerings; account intrusions; hacking/insider trading; market manipulation; safeguarding customer information; public company disclosure and controls; and trading suspensions.
Digital Marketplace Financing
Digital marketplace financing refers to fundraising using mass-marketed digital media – i.e., crowdfunding. In this category, the SEC includes traditional Title III Crowdfunding under Regulation CF and platforms for the marketing of Regulation D, Rule 506(c) offerings for the offering of debt or equity financing. Under the Regulation tab the SEC includes Regulation CF and the SEC’s Regulation CF homepage, including investor bulletins.
The SEC does not include a link to Rule 506(c) or Section 4(c) of the Securities Act, which provide an exemption for advertised offerings where all purchasers are accredited investors, and the platforms or web intermediaries that host such offerings, respectively. However, many securities token offerings are being completed relying on these exemptions from the registration provisions – in fact, more so than Regulation CF which is limited to $1,070,000 in any twelve-month period. In my opinion, this is a miss on the site layout.
This area of the FinHub website also provides a link to one of the first published SEC investor bulletins on initial coin offerings, including some high-level considerations to avoid a scam. Finally, this area provides a link to a Regulation CF empirical information page published by the SEC. Unfortunately I do not find the data to be user-friendly and could not determine how many, if any, Regulation CF offerings have included digitized assets or FinTech-related issuers.
Automated Investment Advice
Automated investment advisers or robo-advisers are investment advisers that typically provide asset management services through online algorithmic-based programs. Since their introduction, the SEC has been involved with regulating these market participants. Under this section, the SEC provides links to guidance related to robo-advisors.
Robo-advisers, like all registered investment advisers, are subject to the substantive and fiduciary obligations of the Advisers Act. However, since robo-advisers rely on algorithms, provide advisory services over the internet, and may offer limited, if any, direct human interaction to their clients, their unique business models may raise certain considerations when seeking to comply with the Advisers Act. In particular, the Advisors Act requires that a client receive information that is critical to his or her ability to make informed decisions about engaging, and then managing the relationship with, the investment adviser. As a fiduciary, an investment adviser has a duty to make full and fair disclosure of all material facts to, and to employ reasonable care to avoid misleading, clients. The information provided must be sufficiently specific so that a client is able to understand the investment adviser’s business practices and conflicts of interests. Such information must be presented in a manner that clients are likely to read (if in writing) and understand.
Since robo-advisors provide information and disclosure over the internet without human interaction and the benefit of back-and-forth discussions, the disclosures must be extra robust and provide thorough material on the use of an algorithm. The SEC’s guidance on the subject contains a fairly thorough list of matters that should be included in the client information.
Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning
Machine learning and artificial intelligence refer to methods of using computers to mine and analyze large data sets. The SEC includes links to a few speeches and presentations under this tab. The SEC uses machine learning and AI in numerous ways, including market risk assessment and helping identify risks that could result in enforcement proceedings such as the detection of potential investment adviser misconduct.
Further Reading on DLT/Blockchain and ICOs
For a review of the 2014 case against BTC Trading Corp. for acting as an unlicensed broker-dealer for operating a bitcoin trading platform, see HERE.
For an introduction on distributed ledger technology, including a summary of FINRA’s Report on Distributed Ledger Technology and Implication of Blockchain for the Securities Industry, see HERE.
For a discussion on the Section 21(a) Report on the DAO investigation, statements by the Divisions of Corporation Finance and Enforcement related to the investigative report and the SEC’s Investor Bulletin on ICOs, see HERE.
For a summary of SEC Chief Accountant Wesley R. Bricker’s statements on ICOs and accounting implications, see HERE.
For an update on state-distributed ledger technology and blockchain regulations, see HERE.
For a summary of the SEC and NASAA statements on ICOs and updates on enforcement proceedings as of January 2018, see HERE.
For a summary of the SEC and CFTC joint statements on cryptocurrencies, including The Wall Street Journal op-ed article and information on the International Organization of Securities Commissions statement and warning on ICOs, see HERE.
For a summary of the SEC and CFTC testimony to the United States Senate Committee on Banking Housing and Urban Affairs hearing on “Virtual Currencies: The Oversight Role of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission,” see HERE.
To learn about SAFTs and the issues with the SAFT investment structure, see HERE.
To learn about the SEC’s position and concerns with crypto-related funds and ETFs, see HERE.
For more information on the SEC’s statements on online trading platforms for cryptocurrencies and more thoughts on the uncertainty and the need for even further guidance in this space, see HERE.
For a discussion of William Hinman’s speech related to ether and bitcoin and guidance in cryptocurrencies in general, see HERE.
For a review of FinCEN’s role in cryptocurrency offerings and money transmitter businesses, see HERE.
For a review of Wyoming’s blockchain legislation, see HERE.
For a review of FINRA’s request for public comment on FinTech in general and blockchain, see HERE.
For a summary of three recent speeches by SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce, including her views on crypto and blockchain, and the SEC’s denial of a crypto-related fund or ETF, see HERE.
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