We've already mentioned one of the cases the SEC will be relying on for regs on offerings, the damn beavers, (dam beavers?) in September's "What Is A Security? The SEC and ICO's, Crypto, the Weaver's Beaver Case and Rule 10B-5".And I kept putting it off thinking "Maybe FT Alphaville's Alex Scaggs will post something" (she knows this stuff) but there was nothing from the bisque one (the FT, not Alexandra, the paper is bisque colored, not salmon).
I suppose I should put something together on Howey pretty soon as well.
But my delay paid dividends as the SEC's Director, Division of Corporation Finance, William Hinman gave a speech today:
Digital Asset Transactions: When Howey Met Gary (Plastic)
San Francisco, CA
June 14, 2018
Remarks at the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit: Crypto
Thank you Andy. I am pleased to be here today. This event provides a great opportunity to address a topic that is the subject of considerable debate in the press and in the crypto-community – whether a digital asset offered as a security can, over time, become something other than a security.
To start, we should frame the question differently and focus not on the digital asset itself, but on the circumstances surrounding the digital asset and the manner in which it is sold. To that end, a better line of inquiry is: “Can a digital asset that was originally offered in a securities offering ever be later sold in a manner that does not constitute an offering of a security?” In cases where the digital asset represents a set of rights that gives the holder a financial interest in an enterprise, the answer is likely “no.” In these cases, calling the transaction an initial coin offering, or “ICO,” or a sale of a “token,” will not take it out of the purview of the U.S. securities laws.
But what about cases where there is no longer any central enterprise being invested in or where the digital asset is sold only to be used to purchase a good or service available through the network on which it was created? I believe in these cases the answer is a qualified “yes.” I would like to share my thinking with you today about the circumstances under which that could occur.
Before I turn to the securities law analysis, let me share what I believe may be most exciting about distributed ledger technology – that is, the potential to share information, transfer value, and record transactions in a decentralized digital environment. Potential applications include supply chain management, intellectual property rights licensing, stock ownership transfers and countless others. There is real value in creating applications that can be accessed and executed electronically with a public, immutable record and without the need for a trusted third party to verify transactions. Some people believe that this technology will transform e-commerce as we know it. There is excitement and a great deal of speculative interest around this new technology. Unfortunately, there also are cases of fraud. In many regards, it is still “early days.”
But I am not here to discuss the promise of technology – there are many in attendance and speaking here today that can do a much better job of that. I would like to focus on the application of the federal securities laws to digital asset transactions – that is how tokens and coins are being issued, distributed and sold. While perhaps a bit dryer than the promise of the blockchain, this topic is critical to the broader acceptance and use of these novel instruments.
I will begin by describing what I often see. Promoters, in order to raise money to develop networks on which digital assets will operate, often sell the tokens or coins rather than sell shares, issue notes or obtain bank financing. But, in many cases, the economic substance is the same as a conventional securities offering. Funds are raised with the expectation that the promoters will build their system and investors can earn a return on the instrument – usually by selling their tokens in the secondary market once the promoters create something of value with the proceeds and the value of the digital enterprise increases.
When we see that kind of economic transaction, it is easy to apply the Supreme Court’s “investment contract” test first announced in SEC v. Howey. That test requires an investment of money in a common enterprise with an expectation of profit derived from the efforts of others. And it is important to reflect on the facts of Howey. A hotel operator sold interests in a citrus grove to its guests and claimed it was selling real estate, not securities. While the transaction was recorded as a real estate sale, it also included a service contract to cultivate and harvest the oranges. The purchasers could have arranged to service the grove themselves but, in fact, most were passive, relying on the efforts of Howey-in-the-Hills Service, Inc. for a return. In articulating the test for an investment contract, the Supreme Court stressed: “Form [is] disregarded for substance and the emphasis [is] placed upon economic reality.” So the purported real estate purchase was found to be an investment contract – an investment in orange groves was in these circumstances an investment in a security.
Just as in the Howey case, tokens and coins are often touted as assets that have a use in their own right, coupled with a promise that the assets will be cultivated in a way that will cause them to grow in value, to be sold later at a profit. And, as in Howey – where interests in the groves were sold to hotel guests, not farmers – tokens and coins typically are sold to a wide audience rather than to persons who are likely to use them on the network....MORE