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SEC Obtains Emergency Court Order Against Canadian Firm for Allegedly Violating Federal Securities Law; Halts Initial Coin Offering
On December 4, the SEC announced it had obtained an emergency court order to freeze the assets of a Canadian company and the company’s founders (Defendants) and block Defendants’ ability to continue to raise funds through an initial coin offering (ICO). At the time the order was issued, the ICO had raised $15 million since August by “promising investors returns of 1,354% in under 29 days.” This is the first enforcement action taken by the SEC’s recently established Cyber Unit, whose focus includes distributed ledger technology and initial coin offering violations. (See previous InfoBytes Cyber Unit coverage here.)
According to a complaint filed December 1 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Defendants allegedly violated the anti-fraud and registration provisions of U.S. federal securities laws by making a series of materially false and misleading statements when marketing and selling securities as digital tokens/cryptocurrencies to obtain investor funds. From August to the present, Defendants purportedly raised $15 million through the ICO, and made false representations including, among other things, that: (i) the firm consisted of large teams of experts across the globe, and (ii) investors would receive certain promised returns (1,354% in less than a month) on investments if all tokens were sold. Further, Defendants allegedly failed to disclose (i) that a portion of the proceeds from the ICO funds would pay personal expenses, and (ii) that the company’s principal executive was “a known recidivist securities law violator in Canada.” The SEC seeks relief in the form of permanent injunctions, monetary penalties and interest, and an “officer-and-director bar and a bar from offering digital securities” against the company’s founders.
On September 7, Representatives Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and David Schweikert (R-Ariz.)—co-chairs of the Congressional Blockchain Caucus—introduced the Cryptocurrency Tax Fairness Act of 2017 to allow for tax and IRS reporting requirements exemptions on cryptocurrency transactions of up to $600. The bill is in response to an IRS notice issued in 2014 that held that virtual currency, such as bitcoin and other forms of cryptocurrency, must be treated as property for U.S. federal tax purposes. According to a press release issued by Rep. Polis’ office, this “outdated guidance classifies even the smallest of cryptocurrency transactions the same as buying or selling stock, which dis-incentivizes consumers from using virtual currencies to pay for goods and services.” The bill proposes amending the Internal Revenue Code to exclude up to $600 of “gain from the sale or exchange of virtual currency for other than cash or cash equivalents” from gross income and ordering the Treasury Department to create “regulations providing for information returns on virtual currency transactions for which gain or loss is recognized.”
On August 1, the Federal Reserve Board released a paper on the origins and growth of financial technology, and how these “deep innovations” have the potential to affect financial stability. The paper, “FinTech and Financial Innovation: Drivers and Depth,” was authored by John Schindler and adapted from a speech prepared for Banco Central do Brasil’s XI Annual Seminar on Risk, Financial Stability and Banking. Fintech, according to Schindler’s adaptation of the Financial Stability Board’s definition, is best understood as a “technologically enabled financial innovation that could result in new business models, applications, processes, products, or services with an associated material effect on financial markets and institutions and the provision of financial services.” Schindler considers the following to fall into the definition of fintech: (i) online marketplace lending; (ii) equity crowdfunding; (iii) robo-advice; (iv) financial applications of distributed ledger technology; (v) and financial applications of machine learning (also called artificial intelligence and machine intelligence). The paper provides a deeper discussion into the following topics driving fintech innovation:
- supply and demand factors of financial innovation, including regulatory changes and changes to financial or macroeconomic conditions, contributing to the use of technologies supporting fintech financial products and services;
- depth of innovations such as peer to peer lending, high frequency trading, mobile banking and payments, bitcoin, and blockchain all with the “potential to have transformational effects on the financial system”; and
- demographic demands.
Schindler’s position is that fintech evolved, in large part, due to a combination of a number of supply and demand factors occurring in a relatively small period of time, which, as a result, drove new financial innovations.
On July 25, the SEC issued an investigative report stating that federal securities laws apply to anyone who offers and sells securities in the U.S., regardless of the manner of distribution or whether dollars or virtual currencies are used to purchase the securities. The SEC’s Report of Investigation (Report) advises users to make sure they are compliant with federal securities laws when raising capital through Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAO) or other forms of distributed ledgers or blockchain technology. These offering are often referred to as “Initial Coin Offerings” (ICOs) or “Token Sales.”
The Report originates from an Enforcement Division inquiry into whether the DAO—and affiliated entities—“violated federal securities laws with unregistered offers and sales of DAO Tokens in exchange for ‘Ether,’ a virtual currency.” According to the SEC, the DAO, which has been described as a “crowdfunding contract,” has not met any of the specific Regulation Crowdfunding exemption requirements issued earlier this year by the agency. These regulations were previously discussed in InfoBytes. In its Report, the SEC stated that the individuals involved in a 2016 virtual currency offering that was later hacked will not face charges, but will rather serve as a warning to the industry that people who offer and sell securities in the U.S. must follow the law. In light of this discussion, the SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy issued an Investor Bulletin to educate investors about the benefits and risks of ICOs, which promoters have begun to use to sell virtual currencies.
“Investors need the essential facts behind any investment opportunity so they can make fully informed decisions, and today's Report confirms that sponsors of offerings conducted through the use of distributed ledger or blockchain technology must comply with the securities laws,” said William Hinman, SEC Director of the Division of Corporation Finance.
BAFT Announces 2017 Global Payments Symposium; Will Highlight Advances in Payments Innovation, Blockchain, and Artificial Intelligence
On July 19 and 20, the Bankers Association for Finance and Trade (BAFT) will host its 2017 Global Payments Symposium in New York City. The symposium will help bankers and payments professionals understand the latest innovation trends affecting compliance, payments, blockchain, fintech, cybercrime, and artificial intelligence, among others. BAFT will also discuss methods to integrate innovations into the business lines and how global challenges and best practices impact the U.S.
House Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Holds Hearing to Discuss Consumer Fintech Needs
On June 8, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection held a hearing to discuss financial products and services offered by the fintech industry to meet consumer needs. (See previous InfoBytes coverage here.) Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio) opened the hearing asserting, “There are serious opportunities for companies to reach consumers with new products to help them create a rainy-day fund for the first time, pay their mortgage securely, rebuild their credit, budget and manage multiple income streams, and invest their earnings . . . Cybersecurity [specifically] is an ongoing challenge, and one the Energy and Commerce Committee is tackling head on.” The June 8 hearing included testimony and recommendations from the following witnesses:
- Ms. Jeanne Hogarth, Vice President at Center for Financial Services Innovation (CFSI) (statement). Hogarth stated that nearly three out of five American face financial health struggles and spoke about challenges fintech entrepreneurs may face when trying to help consumers, such as (i) “facilitat[ing] interstate and regulatory comity that enables consumers to access and use fintech products and service that promote financial health”; (ii) “support[ing] consumers’ access to their own data”; and (iii) “creat[ing] opportunities for pilot testing of both financial products and services and financial services regulations.” Hogath also detailed CFSI’s Financial Solutions Lab, which identifies financial health challenges faced by consumers and encourages companies to develop ways to address these issues.
- Mr. Javier Saade, Managing Director at Fenway Summer Ventures (statement). Saade—whose venture capital firm backs emerging fintech companies—stressed the importance of understanding and mitigating associated risks as financial innovation continues to expand. Growth is supported and encouraged, he noted, provided entrepreneurs understand that the “’fail fast and often’ approach, typical of tech-driven startups in other sectors, may not be well suited for the financial services industry.” Furthermore, Saade stated that because “nearly 30 million U.S. households either have no access to financial products or obtain products outside of the banking system . . . even modest strides in achieving economic inclusion present the single largest addressable opportunity in fintech.”
- Ms. Christina Tetreault, Staff Attorney at Consumer Union (statement). Tetreault, speaking on behalf of Consumer Union (the policy division of Consumer Reports), stated that while financial technology such as virtual currencies, digital cash, and distributed ledgers have the “potential to increase consumer access to safe financial products and return a measure of control to consumers,” safeguards devised between lawmakers and providers must be implemented with appropriate federal and state financial regulator oversight.
- Mr. Peter Van Valkenburgh, Research Director at Coin Center (statement). Coin Center is a non-profit organization, which focuses on “public policy ramifications of digital currencies and open blockchain networks.” Van Valkenburgh emphasized the need for Congress to (i) create a nationwide federal money transmission license as an alternative to “state by state licensing,” which, in his opinion, emphasizes the needs of individual states rather than addressing the health and risk profile as a whole; and (ii) create a federal safe harbor to “protect Americans developing open blockchain infrastructure.” Van Valkenburgh also encouraged the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency to establish federal “fintech charters” to promote a unified approach to regulating blockchain companies.
On June 13, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) announced a new outreach initiative to improve its understanding of fintech innovations and how they impact the securities industry. The Innovation Outreach Initiative will consist of the following components:
- the launch of FINRA’s new webpage dedicated to fintech topics such as RegTech (covering compliance monitoring, fraud prevention, data management, and the identification and interpretation of regulations affecting the securities industry), artificial intelligence, and social media sentiment investing; and
- the creation of a cross-departmental team led by the Office of Emerging Regulatory Issues developed to, among other things, foster discussion on fintech developments, develop publications on fintech topics, and increase collaboration with domestic and international regulators.
Additionally, FINRA announced it will host a Blockchain Symposium in New York City on July 13 to create an opportunity for regulators and industry leaders to join together and discuss opportunities and challenges related to the use of Distributed Ledger Technology, also known as blockchain.
On June 8, Vermont Governor Phil Scott signed into law legislation (S. 135), which would, among other things, allow for broader business and legal application of blockchain technology to promote economic development. Additionally, S. 135 requires the Center for Legal Innovation at Vermont Law School, the Commissioner of Financial Regulation, the Secretary of Commerce and Community Development, and the Vermont Attorney General to prepare a joint report for the General Assembly on “findings and recommendations,” as well as policy proposals and “measurable goals and outcomes” concerning “potential opportunities and risks presented by developments in financial technology.” The new law follows the passage of House Bill 868 last June, which defined blockchain as “a mathematically secured, chronological, and decentralized consensus ledger or database,” and formally recognized blockchain-notarized documents as having legal bearing in a court of law.
As previously reported in InfoBytes, Arizona recently enacted a similar law (AZ H.B. 2417) recognizing blockchain signatures and smart contracts under state law.
On June 5, the governor of Nevada signed into law legislation (SB 398) that prohibits local governments from taxing or establishing restrictions on blockchain use—making it the first state to outlaw blockchain taxes. In addition to taxes, the new law prohibits requiring a license, permit, or certificate or any other condition on the use of blockchain. The bill also states that blockchain data can now be submitted in situations where the law requires a record to be in writing.
On April 19, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a study examining four “subsectors” within the fintech industry—marketplace lenders, mobile payments, digital wealth management platforms, and distributed ledger technology (also known as blockchain)—and highlighting the types of products and services offered and how they are regulated. The report, Financial Technology – Information on Subsectors and Regulatory Oversight, is the first in a series of planned reports on fintech, following a request by Congress for a review of issues related to the industry. From July 2016 to April 2017, GAO reviewed agency publications, guidance, final rulemakings, initiatives, and enforcement actions, and also conducted interviews with representatives from the federal prudential regulators, state supervision agencies, and trade associations in order to compile the findings in the report. The report provides an overview of the technologies associated with each subsector, identifies primary users of the products and services, notes potential benefits and risks, and highlights industry trends and current regulations and oversight. Notably, GAO stated it made no recommendations in this report.
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “How the new administration sets the tone for 2021” at the American Conference Institute Legal, Regulatory and Compliance Forum on Fintech & Emerging Payment Systems
- Sherry-Maria Safchuk to discuss UDAAP in consumer finance at an American Bar Association webinar
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss "What to expect: The new administration and regulatory changes" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “The future of fair lending” at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Steven R. vonBerg to discuss "LO comp challenges" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "Major litigation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss “The False Claims Act today” at the Federal Bar Association Qui Tam Section Roundtable