Tag Archives: securities regulation

Investment Advisers and Cryptocurrencies

In reaction to the growth and popularity of cryptocurrencies and digital tokens, the SEC has recently begun to exercise its authority over the digital asset market. The SEC, which is responsible for oversight of the securities markets in the United States, has determined that most cryptocurrencies and digital tokens are by definition “securities” and therefore subject to its jurisdiction under the federal securities laws. Consistent with that view, the SEC has made public statements, issued investor alerts and carried out enforcement actions addressing digital assets within the traditional legal framework for primary offerings and secondary market trading of securities.

Receiving less attention but no less significant are the activities of investment professionals who are advising others on investing in cryptocurrencies and digital tokens. Digital assets are becoming widely viewed as a distinct asset class which can offer investors additional alpha and diversification strategies, and investment professionals and private hedge funds are quickly becoming active institutional players in the market.     Continue reading Investment Advisers and Cryptocurrencies

Conducting ICOs in Compliance with the Securities Laws

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has made it clear that it considers all initial offerings of cryptocurrencies and digital tokens as offerings of securities. The matter is not completely free from doubt, as many cryptocurrency market participants continue to take issue with the SEC’s view. It is not inconceivable that the matter will ultimately end up in court or become the subject of legislation given the breadth of the ICO market, the potential of the underlying blockchain technology and the vast sums of money at stake. The SEC, however, has given all securities lawyers, accountants and underwriters fair warning, that for the present, almost all digital tokens and cryptocurrencies will be treated as securities under the federal securities laws and that any offer or sale of digital assets must be registered with the SEC or qualify for a valid exemption from registration.

The following link is a table that sets forth the terms of the more common methods of conducting securities offerings under federal securities law and SEC rules and regulations. Failure to fully comply with one of the offering alternatives can result in liability for investment losses, investor rescission rights, SEC civil penalties and criminal sanctions.

Click here to access the table “Securities Offering Requirements”:  ICO Securities Offerings

Cryptocurrencies and Digital Tokens as Securities

Since the release of Bitcoin in 2009, cryptocurrencies and digital tokens powered by blockchain technology have garnered the attention of investors, financial intermediaries and government agencies. Sales of digital tokens representing cryptocurrencies or some other digital asset or utility in so-called initial coin offerings (ICOs) have provided over $10 billion in capital to technology startups, and the aggregate market value of digital coins has surpassed $325 billion. ICOs have been typically open to the public through website platforms that link to white papers describing a startup’s technological proposition. More often than not, ICOs fund little more than concepts and ideas rather than development stage businesses. Staying largely under the radar of financial regulators, many ICOs have been a source of fraud, market manipulation and the financing of illegitimate ventures.

The investigative report of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on The DAO in July 2017 served as a point of departure for the ICO marketplace. Over a 30-day period in mid-2016, The DAO, a digital decentralized autonomous organization initiated on the Ethereum blockchain, issued digital tokens worth $150 million to fund various “projects” that would be voted on by token holders. Investors in the tokens would share in the earnings from these projects and could sell DAO tokens on the open market over cryptocurrency exchanges. The SEC found that The DAO tokens were in fact securities under longstanding securities law principles and that any offer or sale of the tokens was subject to registration with the SEC unless there was a valid exemption. The SEC applied the Howey test, which dates back to 1946, in its analysis. Under the Howey test, a digital token is a security if it represents an investment of money in a common enterprise with a reasonable expectation of profits to be derived from the entrepreneurial or managerial efforts of others. The SEC concluded The DAO token squarely met the criteria under the Howey test, and found that the tokens were securities sold without registration or a valid exemption. The SEC also indicated that the platforms that traded The DAO tokens were required to register under a national securities exchange or operate under an exemption. Continue reading Cryptocurrencies and Digital Tokens as Securities

SEC Releases New Guidance on Cybersecurity Disclosures for Public Companies

The recent spate of high-profile cybersecurity breaches has not spared public companies, as demonstrated by large data breaches in recent years involving Equifax Inc. (NYSE: EFX) and a multitude of other companies.  In response to the proliferation of cybersecurity threats to public companies, on February 21, 2018, the SEC released interpretive guidance to assist companies in preparing disclosures about cybersecurity risks and incidents.  The release, which expands upon the staff’s 2011 guidance and addresses several new topics, was adopted unanimously by the full SEC and, therefore, carries significant weight.

As the SEC release makes clear, in order to meet their ongoing disclosure requirements, public companies should adequately and timely disclose any and all material cybersecurity risks and incidents in their registration statements and in their periodic and current reports.  Public companies must weigh the potential materiality and likelihood of identified risks and, in the case of cybersecurity incidents, the importance of any compromised information and the impact on their operations.  Further, the SEC encourages the use of Forms 8-K and 6-K to promptly disclose cybersecurity risks and incidents, as it will help to reduce the risks of selective disclosure and insider trading.  The SEC guidance indicates that, although some time may be needed to discern the scope and implications of a cybersecurity incident, an ongoing internal or external investigation would not, on its own, provide a basis for avoiding disclosures of a material cybersecurity incident.  The release includes specific guidance on a number of disclosure elements required by Regulation S-K and Regulation S-X, including risk factors, management discussion and analysis, description of the business, legal proceedings, financial statements and board risk oversight. Continue reading SEC Releases New Guidance on Cybersecurity Disclosures for Public Companies

David N. Feldman

SEC Chair Clayton Comments on Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs)

At this week’s Practising Law Institute’s Annual Institute on Securities Regulation, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton commented, among other things, on initial coin offerings, or ICOs. As we know, this year alone billions of dollars have been raised in ICOs, where cryptocurrency in the form of a “token” or coin is sold to investors to raise money for a company or other business endeavor. The tokens often trade on an online platform. Previously the SEC had issued a warning saying that the tokens may be securities and to be careful. Prior to that players were assuming securities laws did not apply. They also last week issued a warning to celebrities about risks of endorsing ICOs.

Chairman Clayton went a bit further today, going off his script to say that he has yet to see an ICO that doesn’t have “sufficient indicia” of being a securities offering. He also mentioned that the trading platforms could face SEC scrutiny and might have to either register as national securities exchanges or make clear they have an exemption from doing so.

While there may well be circumstances in which structures can be implemented to avoid being deemed securities, it seems there could be an exciting opportunity for ICO promoters to conduct their offerings under the securities laws, and allow trading of tokens on proper SEC approved exchanges. There would still be real benefits, including not diluting insiders’ ownership of their company. This could reduce the risk of fraud and still encourage capital formation.

David N. Feldman

SEC Says ICOs May Be Securities Offerings

Purveyors of initial coin offerings (ICOs) received a strong lashing from the SEC recently in declaring that one particular ICO was a securities offering that should have been fully registered with the SEC or met with an exemption from registration. A very new and exploding technique, in ICOs companies issue digital tokens through blockchain technology to investors. It is said over $1 billion has been raised in ICOs just since this January. Several known pending deals seek to raise over $100 million each.

Because the coin purchasers do not invest in the company, some experts claim they are therefore not securities. The SEC disagreed but also said in a press release they would not bring an action against the particular company “in light of the facts and circumstances.” They then issued a warning to all those in the ICO world that many other such offerings might be deemed securities, especially if they become tradeable in a secondary market as many do. In ICOs, very little information is typically provided to investors, and many deals are completed even without attorneys or other advisers.

The SEC investigated the case in question, involving a virtual company known as “the DAO,” because millions of dollars of coins in their ICO were hacked (most were recovered). They also issued an investor bulletin warning the public about potential fraud in ICOs, including bad actors making promises of large returns on investment. ICOs may indeed become a worthwhile investment and method for companies to access capital, especially if promoters accede to the SEC’s warning and conduct a proper IPO or exempt offering such as under Regulation D.

David N. Feldman

SEC Reopens the Front Door for Small Cap Listings as First Regulation A+ IPO Trades on National Exchange

Duane Morris client Myomo Inc., a medical robotics company, completed its initial public offering on June 9, 2017 under SEC Regulation A+ created under the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act of 2012. The historic deal is the first Reg A+ IPO to be listed on a national exchange. In the IPO, Myomo raised a total of approximately $8 million between the public offering and a contemporaneous private offering of investment units. The stock commenced trading with the symbol “MYO” on the NYSE MKT on Monday, June 12, 2017.

For various reasons that have been studied extensively, smaller company IPOs, which proliferated in the 1990s, nearly disappeared starting around 2000. Other alternatives, including reverse mergers, often called “back door listings” because they are completed without advance SEC review, took their place until 2011 when the SEC added significant regulatory burdens to these transactions. A movement to update Regulation A to “reopen the front door” at the SEC started at the annual SEC small business conference in 2010.

Regulation A reforms were then included in Title IV of the JOBS Act. The law significantly increased the amount which a company can raise under what we now call Reg A+ from $5 million to $50 million and fully preempted all state “blue sky” review of those offerings, relieving significant regulatory and cost burdens. The final Reg A+ rules passed by the SEC under the JOBS Act also broadened the ability of Reg A+ issuers to “test the waters” with all potential investors both before and after filing their offering statement with the SEC. In addition, non-listed companies have somewhat scaled disclosure in their IPO as compared to a traditional registration.

The Reg A+ rules also permit non-listed companies a “light reporting” option after their IPO, further reducing costs and burdens as a public company while retaining strong investor protections. The SEC also has given extremely limited review to these filings, and has reported an average of 74 days from initial filing to SEC approval or “qualification.” As a result, companies are reporting a speedier, more cost-efficient and simpler process in completing their Reg A+ offerings than with traditional IPOs.

To date, the SEC has reported that dozens of Reg A+ deals have been consummated and hundreds of millions of dollars raised since the SEC’s final rules were implemented in 2015. Only a handful of these companies, however, have commenced trading their stock. To have completed the first Reg A+ deal to trade on a national exchange, therefore, is a very significant development for those working to redevelop a strong new IPO market for smaller companies.

David N. Feldman

“T+2” Trade Settlement Arrives

If you don’t know what the headline means, maybe just skip this one. Otherwise read on! Last week, the SEC approved a rule change that shortens the typical settlement period for public trading through brokers (known as “T+” for “trading plus”) to two business days from three. The SEC believes this will reduce trading risks. The rule comes into effect officially in September.

Does this matter to investors? Well, if you are selling stock it means the money will now be in your account in two business days. The prior rule for most trades was three business days. But be careful because some trades, like in mutual funds, settle more quickly. So if you’re buying one and selling another make sure the settlement times match or there is enough money in your account to cover. Some brokerage firms let all trades go through as long as they are made on the same day even if they settle differently.

What’s the bigger picture? In the olden days when horses had to bring stock certificates from place to place, settlement periods were typically 14 days. Then in the 70s and 80s with computerized trading it went to T+5, then T+3, and now T+2. The speed with which everything happens in the stock markets continues to accelerate thanks to everything being computerized at this point. So everything, including money, moves faster than ever. So when will it be T+one millisecond? Maybe not that far away.

First SEC Staff Comments on Recent Non-GAAP CDIs

As many of us have noticed, the first comment letters from the staff in the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance, following Corp Fin’s recent issuance of new CDI guidance on the presentation of non-GAAP financial measures, have become available publicly.  The comment letters shed additional useful light on Corp Fin’s views concerning non-GAAP presentations.

One of the comment letters sent to Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Inc. on June 20, 2016, provides a particularly helpful glimpse into Corp Fin’s views about the use of non-GAAP information in the executive summary of MD&A.  The staff’s letter includes the following comment in reference to MD&A in the registrant’s 2015 Form 10-K:

We note that in your executive summary you focus on key non-GAAP financial measures and not GAAP financial measures which may be inconsistent with the updated Compliance and Disclosure Interpretations issued on May 17, 2016 (specifically Question 102.10). We also note issues related to prominence within your earnings release filed on February 1, 2016. Please review this guidance when preparing your next earnings release.

Indeed, the executive summary portion of the MD&A – when initially conceptualized in the SEC’s 2003 release providing interpretive guidance in the preparation of MD&A – was supposed to include an overview to facilitate investor understanding.  The overview was intended to reflect the most important matters on which management focuses in evaluating operating performance and financial condition.  In particular, the overview was not supposed to be duplicative, but rather more of a “dashboard” providing investors insight in management’s operation and management of the business.

Looking back at the release to write this blog entry, I note references, with regard to Commission guidance on preparation of the MD&A overview, explaining that the presentation should inform investors about how the company earns revenues and income and generates cash, among other matters, but should not include boilerplate disclaimers and other generic language.  The Commission even acknowledged that the overview “cannot disclose everything and should not be considered by itself in determining whether a company has made full disclosure.”

Many companies have presented in their MD&A overview those non-GAAP measures used by management to operate the business and otherwise manage the company.  Where appropriate, references typically are made to the information appearing elsewhere in the document, presented to enable compliance with applicable rules and guidance for non-GAAP presentations.  Interestingly, the staff, in its comment, questions the “prominence” of the non-GAAP presentation in the context of the earnings release (noting that the staff provides less specificity in the portion of its comment relating to the MD&A overview).  This focus on prominence – to the extent the staff’s concerns relate to the MD&A overview – is worth further consideration in preparing MD&A disclosure.   In this connection, query whether the staff – in questioning prominence – could be expressing a view that when management analyzes for investors the measures on which it focuses in managing the business, if management relies on non-GAAP measures, it necessarily must focus on (and explain) – with no less prominence – the corresponding GAAP measures.

David N. Feldman

SEC Proposes Expansion of Those Eligible For Scaled Reporting as “Smaller Reporting Companies”

On June 27, 2016, the SEC released a proposal that would increase the number of companies eligible to be “smaller reporting companies.” SRCs get the benefits of reduced disclosure over other public companies, such as two years of financial statements instead of three. To be an SRC, currently you have to have a public trading float value below $75 million, or if your float is zero, then revenues less than $50 million. The SEC is proposing increasing these thresholds to either a public float of less than $250 million, or if no float, then revenues of less than $100 million.

The JOBS Act created “emerging growth companies” (EGCs) which get some of the same benefits as SRCs. But EGC benefits go away with time whereas the SRC benefits do not. Plus, companies that went public before the JOBS Act generally cannot be EGCs. So why is all this cool? Because it was recommended multiple times at the annual SEC small business conference by folks like your humble blogger, and also by the SEC’s advisory committee on small and emerging companies.

Why else is it cool? Because the pool of SRCs has dropped from 42% to 32% of all public companies since the SRC rules were set up. So fewer companies get the benefit. With these proposed changes the SEC projects it would go back to 42%.