definition of a security

This post continues my recap of where things stand regarding the treatment of tokens, coins, cryptocurrencies, and other digital assets under the federal securities laws. My prior post discussed actions and statements made by the SEC in 2017. This post reviews significant enforcement actions and statements this year prior to the recent Coburn enforcement action.

The Securities and Exchange Commission’s (“SEC”) recent action against a digital trading platform illustrates the continued uncertainty surrounding the treatment of tokens, coins, cryptocurrencies, and other digital assets under the federal securities laws. Senior SEC officials have expressed concern that a significant amount of activity in this industry may not comply with federal securities laws and increasing SEC enforcement activity evinces these concerns. This set of posts offers a recap of the SEC’s previous enforcement actions and statements, providing a reminder to market participants that there is not yet any formal, comprehensive guidance on the reach of federal securities laws in this area. As a result, whether the SEC or a court determines that a particular token, coin, cryptocurrency or digital asset is a security remains a case-by-case, facts and circumstances analysis.

On November 8, the SEC announced an enforcement action charging the founder of a digital “token” trading platform for operating as an unregistered national securities exchange. The SEC has previously brought enforcement actions relating to unregistered broker-dealers and unregistered ICOs, including some of the tokens traded on EtherDelta. Stephanie Avakian, Co-Director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division, commented that “EtherDelta had both the user interface and underlying functionality of an online national securities exchange and was required to register with the SEC or qualify for an exemption.”

Recently, I have had an opportunity to review many “tokens” that can be transferred over the Ethereum blockchain and used for various “smart contracts.” Depending on their facts and circumstances, certain kinds of tokens being sold in so-called “initial coin offerings” were the subject of a recent SEC Section 21(a) report. I have also seen correspondence from family offices seeking to participate in these token offerings, in some cases before the developer has fully worked out the token. This raises a concern that a family office may wound itself trying to get in on the “cutting edge” of this new way to disseminate technology.