Adoption of blockchain and distributed ledger technology has the potential to revolutionize business and business practices in ways not seen since the advent of the internet and e-commerce.
Whether you are directly responsible for researching, developing, or implementing new blockchain initiatives, or you are executive management and need a more informed understanding of the issues your project teams are confronting, Sidley’s Blockchain Legal Launch Pad is a place to which you can turn as a resource.
On September 25, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)’s Division of Trading and Markets issued its first no-action letter (Letter) to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, Inc. (FINRA),1 related to digital asset securities. Based on the Letter, the SEC staff (Staff) would not recommend enforcement action pursuant to SEC Rule 15c3-3 (the Customer Protection Rule) under the U.S. Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (Exchange Act) if a registered broker-dealer operates a noncustodial alternative trading system (ATS) that trades digital asset securities issued and/or transferred using blockchain technology, subject to certain conditions. The Letter elaborates on the July 28, 2019, joint statement (Joint Statement) issued by the staffs of the SEC and FINRA,2 which discusses a broker-dealer’s ability to comply with the Customer Protection Rule with respect to digital asset securities and outlines potential noncustodial broker-dealer models for digital assets, including operating an ATS3 that only matches buyers and sellers of digital asset securities but does not custody such securities for the account of customers.
On June 10, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) released its Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the Securities Industry Report (Report), a culmination of a two-year review by FINRA’s Office of Financial Innovation to learn about the emerging challenges confronted by broker-dealers (Firms) and other market participants as they introduce AI-based applications into their businesses. The Report provides an overview of AI technology, explores its diverse, multifaceted applications in the securities industry and identifies the challenges and legal considerations with leveraging this technology. FINRA requests industry feedback on topics covered in the Report by August 31, 2020.
On February 6, 2020, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC or Commission) Commissioner Hester M. Peirce (Commissioner Peirce) gave a speech describing the need for more clarity on application of the securities laws to the offer and sale of blockchain tokens or digital assets. As part of the speech, she proposed a safe harbor (Proposal or Safe Harbor) exempting certain tokens from the registration requirements of the Securities Act of 1933 (Securities Act) and Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (Exchange Act), including an exemption for persons engaging in certain transactions with respect to such tokens from the definitions of “exchange,” “broker” and “dealer” under the Exchange Act. The Proposal is of significance to any existing or future blockchain development team considering the distribution of tokens, as well as any digital asset exchange or over-the-counter desk that facilitates transactions in digital assets, blockchain tokens or virtual currencies.
On January 14, 2020, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Office of Investor Education and Advocacy published an investor alert (Alert) regarding initial exchange offerings (IEOs), a type of digital asset fundraising facilitated by online trading platforms.1 Although the Alert is directed at investors, it provides important information to blockchain companies and trading platforms. The Alert highlights the following:
- an explanation of an IEO
- IEOs that are securities offerings must comply with federal securities laws
- a platform offering an IEO may need to register as a broker-dealer, national securities exchange or operate pursuant to an exemption, such as an alternative trading system (ATS)
- IEOs offered to U.S. investors, even if offered from outside the United States, must comply with federal securities laws
On October 11, 2019, the leaders of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) (together, the Agencies) issued a joint statement highlighting the application of anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) obligations under the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) to persons engaged in activities involving digital assets (Joint Statement). On the same day, the SEC filed an emergency action to halt a digital asset distribution, citing BSA/AML concerns.1
On July 8, 2019, the long-awaited statement (Statement) on custody of digital asset securities was released jointly by the staffs (Staffs) of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Division of Trading and Markets and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA).1 The Statement is based on industry discussions with the Staffs and highlights the following:
- Certain noncustodial broker-dealer models may have a path forward for FINRA approval.
- The Staffs have concerns relating to broker-dealer custody of digital asset securities that remain unanswered, but certain good control locations (i.e., banks, issuers and transfer agents) may provide a viable custody solution under the Customer Protection Rule.2
- Market participants should consider other broker-dealer requirements, including books and records and financial reporting rules.
On April 3, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)’s Strategic Hub for Innovation and Financial Technology (FinHub or Staff) released its much-anticipated guidance, the Framework for “Investment Contract” Analysis of Digital Assets (Framework), regarding its views on factors to consider in applying the Howey test to digital assets. In conjunction with the Framework, the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance published its first no-action letter in connection with the sale of digital assets, providing relief to TurnKey Jet, Inc., for its proposed token sale.
On February 8, 2019, U.S. Securities and Exchange (SEC) Commissioner Hester Peirce delivered a speech addressing the relationship between technological innovation and regulation, in particular addressing some of the pending regulatory challenges surrounding blockchain and digital assets.1 The key takeaways from Commissioner Peirce’s speech, titled “Regulation: A View From Inside the Machine,” 2 are these:
On January 17, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) released its annual Risk Monitoring and Examination Priorities Letter (Letter), which identifies topics that FINRA will focus on in 2019. Unlike in previous years, this Letter primarily discusses new topics and priorities in areas of ongoing concern while not repeating topics that have been at the center of FINRA’s attention over the years. FINRA notes, however, that while traditional topics such as cybersecurity,1 recidivist brokers and anti-money-laundering (AML) may not be discussed extensively in the Letter, FINRA will nonetheless review firms for compliance regarding these areas of focus.
As always, firms should use the Letter to review their compliance and supervisory procedures carefully and make any necessary revisions. Firms also should be prepared to explain their compliance and supervisory policies in these areas in their upcoming FINRA examinations and provide documentation of relevant reviews. The following is a discussion of some of the more salient points of the FINRA Letter. (more…)