Tag Archives: Bitcoin

Section 17(b) of the Securities Act in Crowdfunding and Token Sales

Among the tricks of Wall Street bad guys is the fake financial analysis, prepared (and paid for) to promote a particular stock but presented as an objective review. Section 17(b) of the Securities Act of 1933 was written to stop that:

It shall be unlawful for any person. . . . to publish, give publicity to, or circulate any notice, circular, advertisement, newspaper, article, letter, investment service, or communication which, though not purporting to offer a security for sale, describes such security for a consideration received or to be received, directly or indirectly, from an issuer, underwriter, or dealer, without fully disclosing the receipt, whether past or prospective, of such consideration and the amount thereof [italics added].

It’s no joke. For example, in April 2017 the SEC brought an enforcement action charging 28 businesses and individuals for participating in a scheme to generate bullish articles on investment websites like SeekingAlpha.com, Benzinga.com, and SmallCapNetwork.com while concealing the compensation.  See Press Release, SEC: Payments for Bullish Articles on Stocks Must Be Disclosed to Investors, Rel. No. 2017-79 (Apr. 10, 2017).

Hypothetical examples in the Crowdfunding and token world:

  • NewCo pays an industry periodical to publish an article written by NewCo that purports to objectively rate the “Top 10 ICOs of 2018” and happens to list NewCo’s ICO as #1. Section 17(b) doesn’t make the article illegal, it just says the periodical has to disclose both the fact that it’s being paid and the amount of the payment.
  • If NewCo paid me to highlight its ICO on this blog, I’d have to report the compensation.
  • A real estate Crowdfunding platform sends an email promoting an offering, or a group of offerings, on its platform. That email is not covered by section 17(b) because of the italicized language above, i.e., it’s clear that the email is an offer of securities (which raises its own issues, separate from section 17(b)).
  • An investor relations firm places favorable articles about NewCo in trade publications while NewCo’s ICO is live. Those articles are covered by section 17(b).
  • A live event called “ICO Summit World” purports to highlight “The Most Promising ICOs of 2018,” but presents only companies that pay to play. Definitely covered by section 17(b).

My sense is that in the Crowdfunding world, and especially in the token world, there’s a lot of paid promotional activity going on without the disclosure required by section 17(b). The securities laws don’t apply to tokens, right?

Questions? Let me know.

The Bad News About ICOs Is Good News

Every day brings more bad news about ICOs: another class action lawsuit, another subpoena by the SEC, another “request for information” by a state Attorney General, another country that outlawed ICOs altogether.

The bad news is probably hurting the industry’s reputation and driving away investors in the short term. But from my perspective the bad news is, on balance, actually good.

The ICO market was crazy in 2017. Lawyers were giving questionable advice, investors were buying anything called a token, and the billions of dollars sloshing around attracted bad actors and instant-millionaires. People convinced themselves this was normal and justified, as they did with tulip bulbs in 1636.

From my perspective, the bad news in today’s headlines shows that the fog is clearing. Among the lessons learned:

  • ICOs were not, after all, a law unto themselves.
  • It’s easier to describe a network than to build one.
  • Some smart contracts are dumb.
  • Honesty is still the best policy with investors.
  • An honest cop is good for the neighborhood.
  • The laws of economics have not been repealed.

Most important, it turns out that there really is value in blockchain, even without the hype, and that real entrepreneurs are building serious value and finding it easier to connect with investors as the fog clears. Your Uber driver is no longer offering tips on Bitcoin, but you can do a legal ICO, there really is such thing as a utility token, and there are a lot of really smart folks building real companies that are going to disrupt and transform a lot of industries.

We’re going through a much-needed adjustment right now. It’s all good, as we young people say.

Questions? Let me know.

Blockchain Is A Technology, Not A Philosophy

John Barlow died last Wednesday. Mr. Barlow wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead, dabbled in Republican politics in Wyoming, and, more famously, had big dreams for the internet. He referred to the internet as “the new home of the mind” and demanded of governments, “I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.”

Good things have come from the internet, no question, but for the most part Mr. Barlow’s dreams have not materialized. Twenty five years later, the internet means mainly Facebook and Google for most people, along with a loss of privacy, e.g., Equifax. The internet has made it easier to work from home and collaborate and start social movements like #MeToo and #TeaParty, but also allows Russia to interfere with our elections. We’re connected all the time, yet somehow feel more lonely. And all the information circling the globe leaves us with a citizenry somehow less informed than when television came in three black and white channels.

Mixed results are not unique to the internet. Pick any technology – electricity, automobiles, television, nuclear power – and you’ll find the same story of idealistic dreams transformed or broken on the shoals of the real world. We imperfect human beings keep asking technology to save us from ourselves, and it never can.

Which brings us to blockchain.

Speaking at a crypto-conference in New York the day Mr. Barlow died, I heard a speaker predict that blockchain would replace the banking system, that cryptocurrency would eliminate national currencies, that we are about to witness a fundamental change (for the good) in the human condition. You can read articles in serious business publications about the “ethos” of blockchain, how the technology will replace our broken trust in private and government institutions.

In my opinion that thinking isn’t just wrong but dangerous. Blockchain is not going to replace the banking system, and shouldn’t. Cryptocurrencies will replace fiat currencies only in countries without a functioning currency of their own. If you see a country where Bitcoin is the currency of choice, it’s like seeing a guy on the subway with an IV in his arm:  you’re not sure what’s wrong, but you know he’s sick.

If you think blockchain has an ethos, you’ll sell tokens without bothering about securities laws. You’ll encourage wage-earners to invest their savings in a cryptocurrency whose price chart makes Pets.com look stable, having decided that it’s not so much a “currency” as a “store of value.” Most dangerous, you’ll convince yourself that technology is a substitute for morality.

Like every technology, starting with fire, blockchain can improve the human condition only if we tether it to our needs.

Fortunately, based on what I saw at the conference on Wednesday, there’s a lot of tethering along with the hype. Among other things, we heard from entrepreneurs using blockchain technology to:

  • Improve healthcare outcomes
  • Give consumers control over their financial records
  • Facilitate business and consumer payments
  • Reduce fraud in the financial markets
  • Make sense of our antiquated system of property ownership

With the grandiose predictions and the mystification and, frankly, some wishful thinking by lawyers, the blockchain industry has earned a black eye in the minds of many, including government regulators. Even so, light shines through. As an industry, let’s dedicate ourselves to using the technology wisely, making it work for ordinary people, being more transparent than the law requires, thinking long-term, and above all, remembering that how blockchain is viewed 25 years from now depends not on technology, but on imperfect human beings like us.

Questions? Let me know.

CROWDFUNDING AND CRYPTOCURRENCIES

bitcoin-1813503_1920

Cryptocurrencies are hot. And often the sale of cryptocurrencies is referred to as Crowdfunding. Unfortunately, the use of “cryptocurrencies” and “Crowdfunding” together creates confusion about both, along with some pretty serious legal risks.

We use “Crowdfunding” to mean raising money for a business or other venture online. We say “donation-based Crowdfunding” when we’re talking about Kickstarter, where people ask for donations. We say “equity-based Crowdfunding” when we’re talking about raising money from investors, who receive a stock certificate or some other security.

A cryptocurrency is, well, hard to pin down. It’s a transaction registered in a distributed, secure database. Because it exists in limited quantities and is secure, it has value. Like anything of value, it can be used as a currency. For purposes of this post, the key feature of a true cryptocurrency is that is has value of itself, like a nugget of gold.

You use Crowdfunding to sell shares of stock. Obviously, the paper certificates representing the shares of stock have no value by themselves, they have value only to evidence ownership in the business that issued the certificates or, more exactly, in the cash flow the business is expected to generate. So it wouldn’t make sense to say “I’m selling nuggets of gold using Crowdfunding.” The nuggets of gold have an intrinsic value without reference to the cash flow of anything else, or at least you hope they do. I can go shopping with a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin or Ethereum, just as I can shop with US dollars or, historically, with gold.

This is where things get tricky and words matter. The blockchain – the technology underlying all cryptocurrencies – can be used for a lot of things other than cryptocurrencies. As it happens, one of the things the blockchain can be used for is to keep track of stock certificates. In fact, the blockchain works so well keeping track of stock certificates that it will undoubtedly be used by (or replace) all public stock transfer agents within the next five years.

What’s happening today is that companies are selling what they call “cryptocurrencies” that are really just interests in the future operations of a business, i.e., really just hi-tech stock certificates. Cool, they’re using blockchain technology to keep track of who owns the company! But that doesn’t mean what you’re buying is really a cryptocurrency and that you’re going to get rich like the early buyers of Ethereum.

Words are powerful, and the confusion around cryptocurrencies is deepened by the nomenclature. Sales of cryptocurrencies are often referred to as “initial coin offerings,” or ICOs, which implies a similarity to “initial public offerings,” or IPOs. Yet if we’re being careful, the two have nothing in common. In an IPO a company sells its own securities, which have value only based on the success of the company. In an ICO somebody sells a product that has intrinsic value of itself.

Ignoring the difference is going to land someone in hot water, probably sooner rather than later. A company that sells something it calls a cryptocurrency but is really just a share of stock is selling a security, even if that company has an address near Palo Alto. And a company that sells a security is subject to all those pesky laws from the 1930s. If you sell a cryptocurrency that is really just a hi-tech stock certificate, then not only do you risk penalties from the SEC and state securities regulators, you’ll also face lawsuits from your investors if things don’t go as planned.

How to know whether you’re selling a true cryptocurrency or a hi-tech stock certificate? Here are some tips:

  • If the value of the cryptocurrency depends on the success of the business, it’s a security.
  • If the value of the cryptocurrency depends on, or is backed by, real estate or other property, it’s a security.
  • If the cryptocurrency is marketed as an investment, it’s probably a security.
  • If the value of the cryptocurrency depends what the buyer does with it, rather than the success of the business, it’s probably not a security.
  • If the cryptocurrency merely gives the holder the right to participate in a group effort (g., the development of software), it’s probably not a security.
  • If you’re selling the cryptocurrency in lieu of issuing stock, it’s probably a security.
%d bloggers like this: