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 November 16, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced its first enforcement actions against issuers of initial coin offerings solely for failing to register the offerings in violation of the federal securities laws since Munchee (i.e., without allegations of fraud). Unlike the Munchee order, these settlements impose penalties against the issuers and require certain undertakings, such as registering the digital assets as securities under the Exchange Act. The same day, the SEC’s Divisions of Corporation Finance, Investment Management and Trading and Markets released a joint statement reiterating the SEC’s lessons from recent enforcement actions related to digital assets. (more…)
On September 11, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) separately announced three “first of their kind” enforcement actions against participants in the digital asset (or “token”) market:
- In the Matter of TokenLot LLC. The SEC took action against a token sale website for operating as an unregistered broker-dealer in violation of the federal securities laws.
- In the Matter of Crypto Asset Management, LP. The SEC entered an order against a digital asset hedge fund manager for failing to register its fund as an investment company and offering and selling its fund’s securities in an unregistered offering.
- Department of Enforcement vs. Timothy Tilton Ayre. In its first disciplinary action involving digital assets, FINRA filed a complaint alleging that a registered person of a member firm violated federal securities laws and FINRA rules in its offering of a blockchain token as an unregistered security.
In the months following director William Hinman’s noteworthy speech on whether and when a digital asset is subject to securities laws, U.S. regulators have continued their stern warnings regarding the importance of compliance with the securities laws. This post highlights three important regulatory updates:
- On August 14, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC or Commission) issued an administrative order, In the Matter of Tomahawk Exploration LLC and David Thompson Laurance, taking action against an unregistered and fraudulent initial coin offering (ICO).
- On August 28, the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) released an update on the progress of its ongoing Operation Cryptosweep.
- The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) issued two investor alerts, on July 27 and August 16, regarding blockchain tokens and ICOs.