The SEC Division of Corporate Finance and Enforcement have jointly published a public statement regarding the DAO investigation and the ensuing report and cautionary statement on ICOs. The two powerful branches of the SEC came together in recognition of the changing world of finance as Fintech innovation takes hold and regulators and policy makers struggle to keep pace. The ICO market has boomed during the first half of 2017 as the completely unregulated market took advantage of blockchain technology and the concept of raising funds by issuing bespoke digital tokens. Now the pendulum has swung in the opposition direction as the Feds sent shots across the bow of cryptocurrency entrepreneurs establishing the fact that Initial Coin Offerings, are in fact regulated securities.
The statement by CorpFin and Enforcement (the largest division of the SEC), is reproduced below.
Emerging Technologies and the Federal Securities Laws
Distributed ledger and other emerging technologies have the potential to influence and improve the capital markets and the financial services industry. Interest in and funding for these technologies appears to be growing at a rapid pace. We welcome and encourage the appropriate use of technology to facilitate capital formation and provide investors with new investment opportunities. We are particularly hopeful that innovation in this area will facilitate fair and efficient capital raisings for small businesses. We are also mindful of our obligation to protect investors and recognize that new technologies can offer opportunities for misconduct and abuse.
A fundamental tenet of our regulatory framework is that an offer or sale of securities in the United States must comply with the federal securities laws. This approach has been critical to maintaining market integrity and fostering investor protection for over 80 years, including through various changes in technology. In this regard, the issue of whether a particular investment opportunity involves the offer or sale of a security — regardless of the terminology or technology used in the transaction — depends on the facts and circumstances, including the economic realities and structure of the enterprise.
Report of Investigation — DAO Tokens are Securities
Today, the Commission issued a Report of Investigation (“Report”) relating to an offering by The DAO — a decentralized autonomous organization that used distributed ledger or blockchain technology to operate as a “virtual” entity. The DAO sold tokens representing interests in its enterprise to investors in exchange for payment with virtual currency. Investors could hold these tokens as an investment with certain voting and ownership rights or could sell them on web-based secondary market platforms. Based on the facts and circumstances of this offering, the Commission, as explained in the Report, determined that the DAO tokens are securities.
Sponsors involved in an exchange of something of value for an interest in a digital or other novel form for storing value should carefully consider whether they are creating an investment arrangement that constitutes a security. The definition of a security under the federal securities laws is broad, covering traditional notions of a security, such as a stock or bond, as well as novel products or instruments where value may be represented and transferred in digital form. A hallmark of a security is an investment of money or value in a business or operation where the investor has a reasonable expectation of profits based on the efforts of others.
A market participant engaged in offering an investment opportunity that constitutes a security must either register the offer and sale of the security with the Commission or structure it so that it qualifies for an exemption from registration. Market participants in this area must also consider other aspects of the securities laws, such as whether a platform facilitating transactions in its securities is operating as an exchange, whether the entity offering and selling the security could be an investment company, and whether anyone providing advice about an investment in the security could be an investment adviser. Structuring an offering so that it involves digital instruments of value or operates using a distributed ledger or blockchain does not remove that activity from the requirements of the federal securities laws.
Consultation with Securities Counsel and the Staff
Although some of the detailed aspects of the federal securities laws and regulations embody more traditional forms of offerings or corporate organizations, these laws have a principles-based framework that can readily adapt to new types of technologies for creating and distributing securities. We encourage market participants who are employing new technologies to form investment vehicles or distribute investment opportunities to consult with securities counsel to aid in their analysis of these issues and to contact our staff, as needed, for assistance in analyzing the application of the federal securities laws.
In particular, staff providing assistance on these matters can be reached at FinTech@sec.gov .
Investors Should Be Mindful of Risks Associated with New Technologies, Including Risks of Fraud
Finally, we recognize that new technologies also present new opportunities for bad actors to engage in fraudulent schemes, including old schemes under new names and using new terminology. We urge the investing public to be mindful of traditional “red flags” when making any investment decision, including: deals that sound too good to be true; promises of high returns with little or no risk; high-pressure sales tactics; and working with unregistered or unlicensed sellers. In that regard, the SEC’s website for individual investors, Investor.gov, has a number of relevant resources — including an Investor Bulletin that the SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy issued today regarding Initial Coin Offerings.