Initial coin offerings so far have gone through two major phases in their brief lifespan. The initial phase flew under the regulatory radar in an explosion of deals that raised billions of dollars seemingly overnight and without either registering the offerings with the SEC or complying with an exemption from registration. The ICO atmosphere changed drastically when the SEC issued its now famous DAO report in July 2017, which together with subsequent speecheswritten statements and enforcement actions took the position that tokens will generally be considered securities whose offering would need either to be registered with the SEC or qualify for a registration exemption such as Regulation D. That led to a second phase of issuers launching bifurcated ICOs consisting first of a sale of SAFTs to accredited investors under Regulation D, followed by the public sale of fully function tokens that sponsors would argue are not securities.

During the Senate’s February 6, 2018 committee hearing on cryptocurrencies, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton stressed the importance of disclosure for making informed decisions, but warned investors that no ICO had been registered with the SEC yet. That all seemed to change a month later when a group calling itself The Praetorian Group filed with the SEC a registration statement on Form S-1 to publicly offer and sell its cryptocurrency called PAX. With that S-1 filing, might we be entering a third phase of SEC-registered ICOs? For the reasons covered in this post, probably not.

The Registrant

The S-1 registration statement was filed by a company calling itself The Praetorian Group, and describes a dual business plan to be carried out in two phases. In the first phase, Praetorian will operate as a self-styled cryptocurrency real estate investment vehicle, or CREIV, through which it will purchase and upgrade residential and commercial real estate properties in lower income areas in New York, and then fund “outreach programs” to enrich the quality of life for the residents living in those properties. The second phase is projected to begin 12 months after the commencement of the first, and would involve the creation of a digital wallet that will convert cryptocurrencies (e.g., BTC, ETH, LTC, NEO, XLM) into local fiat currency and enable users to earn a reward in the form of PAX tokens for every purchase they make, which they can then spend, hold or sell.

What’s Wrong with this S-1?

The Praetorian S-1 is so deficient from a disclosure standpoint and so sloppy in its drafting that if the SEC bothered to review it, it may set some sort of record for number of comments in a comment letter.

Not to get overly picky, but the sloppiness starts right on the facing page. For starters, the registrant designates “The Praetorian Group” as its “exact name … as specified in its charter”, leaving out the “Inc.” It provides that the approximate date of commencement of the proposed sale to the public is “upon SEC registration as a ‘security’”. Technically, issuers may only proceed with a public offering after their registration statement is declared effective by the SEC. Also, it appears Praetorian may have marked up the facing page from an old S-1 filing, as Praetorian’s facing page form is missing a reference to emerging growth companies (EGCs).

The EGC facing page omission leads me to a more substantive observation, which is that a registrant more serious about its offering would arguably have availed itself of a JOBS Act feature that allows EGCs to submit an S-1 confidentially and undergo an initial review off the EDGAR radar screen. Why not file confidentially and clear up any disclosure and accounting issues before having to file publicly? On that score, it’s entirely possible that Praetorian isn’t even the first ICO to file an S-1, and may have been beaten in a race to the SEC by a confidential EGC filer we don’t even know about yet.

One of the sections in the S-1 that really jumped out at me is a rather bizarre liability disclaimer, which reads as follows:

To the maximum extent permitted by the applicable laws, regulations and rules the Company and/or the Distributor shall not be liable for any indirect, special, incidental, consequential, or other losses of any kind, in tort, contract, tax or otherwise (including but not limited to loss of revenue, income or profits, and loss of use or data), arising out of or in connection with any acceptance of or reliance on this Prospectus or any part thereof by you.”

Talk about an exercise in wishful thinking. Suffice it to say that I have never seen an issuer in a Securities Act registration statement attempt to disclaim liability for losses of any kind resulting from reliance on a prospectus. Federal securities law clearly allows a private plaintiff to recover damages for economic loss sustained as a result of an issuer’s material misstatements, omissions or fraud.

Pretty interesting given that Praetorian actually states that it’s “mindful of the uncertainties associated with the [SEC]’s view as to whether or not an [ICO] would constitute a ‘security’ under applicable federal securities laws” and consequently that they “believe it is more prudent to register the offering with the SEC to avoid any unanticipated regulatory issues”. It’s as if Praetorian is under the view that a registration statement is a notice filing, rather than a disclosure document to be vetted in great detail in a review process involving typically multiple rounds of comments followed by responses and registration statement amendments, and where issuers may not proceed with selling until the SEC is satisfied that all mandated disclosures have been made and accounting and other issues resolved and the SEC has declared the registration statement effective.

Another bizarre aspect of the S-1 is that Praetorian appears to be confused over whom it may sell to, or that it’s forgotten that it has filed a registration statement (which, if declared effective, would allow it to sell to anyone) and is not seeking to sell within the purchaser requirements of a given exemption:

We strongly encourage each “accredited investor” to access the various SEC websites to gain a deeper and more knowledgeable understanding of this new form of digital currency prior to investing in the PAX token.”

Either Praetorian believes it may only sell in the public offering to accredited investors (as is the case in a private offering exemption under Rule 506(c)), or it strangely thinks that only accredited investors (which by definition must have a minimum net worth or annual income) need to be encouraged to inform themselves of the risks associated with ICOs.

Another glaring deficiency is the lack of risk factor disclosure. The only risk included in the section entitled “Risks and Uncertainties” is the risk that it may not be successful in achieving secondary market listings of the PAX token. Otherwise, the section simply consists of a conclusory statement that prospective purchasers of tokens should evaluate all risks and uncertainties associated with the company, the tokens, the token sale and the business plan prior to any purchase of tokens.

Finally, Praetorian’s S-1 omits in totality all of the information required in Part II of S-1. This includes expenses of issuance and distribution, indemnification of directors and officers, recent sales of unregistered securities, exhibits, financial statement schedules and certain required undertakings.

Conclusion

The Praetorian Guard was an elite unit of the Imperial Roman Army whose members served as personal bodyguards to the Roman emperors, sort of like the Roman equivalent of today’s Secret Service that protects the President. Although the ancient Praetorians continued to serve in that capacity for roughly three centuries, they became notable for their intrigue and interference in Roman politics, including overthrowing emperors and proclaiming successors. In the year 312, the Praetorian Guard was disbanded by Constantine the Great. Like its namesake, The Praetorian Group has generated a fair amount of intrigue with its S-1 filing, but I can only imagine that the great examiners of the SEC will take a page out of Constantine’s playbook and disband this Praetorian Group’s S-1 registration statement.

The Wall Street Journal ominously reported on February 28 that the Securities and Exchange Commission recently issued dozens of subpoenas to initial coin offering issuers and their advisors demanding information about the structure of their ICOs. Although the Commission has yet to officially acknowledge them, the subpoenas are consistent with a series of SEC enforcement actions alleging fraud or illegal sale of securities (see, e.g., here and here) and public speeches and statements warning ICO participants about regulatory compliance and promising greater scrutiny and enforcement (see, e.g., here, here and here).  Nevertheless, the enforcement actions and speeches don’t appear to have had much success in slowing down the pace of the ICO market.  Coinschedule reports that ICOs have raised over $3.3 billion in 88 deals already in 2018 through March 16, and is on pace to exceed the estimated $5.6 billion raised in 2017. The latest SEC subpoena campaign coupled with the accelerating pace of deals suggests the Commission believes its message is not resonating in the ICO market.

Although I’m grateful I didn’t find one of the subpoenas in my mailbox, I’m definitely curious about their contents.  Coindesk quotes industry sources who have seen several of the ICO subpoenas as saying that the requested information includes investor lists, emails, marketing materials, organizational structures, amounts raised, location of funds and people involved and their locations. It also cites an anonymous industry lawyer saying that the 25-page subpoena received by his client was “hyper-detailed” and that it asked for “every bit of communication around the token launch.”

So what exactly is the Commission focusing on?  Many naturally believe the Commission is primarily targeting fraud.  But the Journal, Coindesk and others suggest a different focus: Simple Agreements for Future Tokens or SAFTs.

The SAFT is modeled after Y Combinator’s Simple Agreement for Future Equity, or SAFE, which has been a popular mechanism for funding startups. With both the SAFE and the SAFT, the investor receives a right to something of value in the future in exchange for the current investment. With a SAFE, the investor gets the right to receive the security issued in the issuer’s next major funding round, typically preferred stock and usually at a discount to the next round’s price.  In a SAFT, the investor is given the right to receive tokens, also at a discount, typically once the network is created and the tokens are fully functional.

My first observation is that there may be some confusion in the media regarding SAFTs and Federal securities law, with some seeming to suggest that there may be a conflict of opinion about whether the SAFT itself is a security or whether the contract itself is illegal or non-compliant.  I’ve seen statements such as “what will happen to those who invested time and money if SAFTs don’t satisfy securities law?” and “what happens if the SEC comes out and says SAFTs are illegal”? Crowdfund Insider ran a piece with this provocative title: “Bad News: SAFTs May Not Be ‘Compliant’ After All”.

There should be no controversy regarding the SAFT itself (as opposed to the tokens that ultimately get issued). Protocol Labs and Cooley’s SAFT White Paper states in no uncertain terms that the SAFT is a security and must satisfy an exemption from registration, and contemplates compliance with Rule 506(c) under Regulation D.  I haven’t seen or heard anyone suggesting otherwise.  In fact, each SAFT investor is required to represent in the SAFT that it “has no intent to use or consume any or all Tokens on the corresponding blockchain network for the Tokens after Network Launch” and “enters into this security instrument purely to realize profits that accrue from purchasing Tokens at the Discount Price”. Accordingly, there should be no Federal securities law issue with the issuance of the SAFT itself, assuming of course that the issuer complies with Rule 506(c)’s requirements, i.e., disclosure obligations, selling only to accredited investors, using reasonable methods to verify accredited investor status and filing Form D.

The real issue is whether the eventual tokens, assuming they are issued to investors only when the network is created and the tokens fully functional, are necessarily not securities because of their full functionality.  SAFT proponents argue that fully functional tokens fail the “expectation of profits” and/or the “through the efforts of others” prongs of the Howey test, and thus should not be deemed to be securities. The SAFT White Paper analyzes these two prongs of the test from the perspective of the two likely categories of purchasers of tokens: actual token users and investors.  In the case of actual users, their bona fide desire to make direct use of the relevant consumptive aspect of a token on a blockchain-based platform predominates their profit-seeking motives, so arguably they fail the “expectation of profit” prong of Howey.  Investors, on the other hand, clearly expect a profit from resale of the tokens on a secondary market; that profit expectation, however, is usually not predominantly “through the efforts of others” (because management has already brought the tokens to full functionality) but rather from the myriad of factors that cause the price of assets to increase or decrease on an open market.

Opponents of the SAFT approach (see, e.g., Cardozo Blockchain Project’s Not So Fast—Risks Related to the Use of a “SAFT” for Token Sales) reject the concept of a bright-line test, i.e., they reject the notion that the question of whether a utility token will be deemed a security solely turns on whether the token is “fully functional”.  They maintain that courts and the SEC have repeatedly, and unambiguously, stated that the question of whether or not an instrument is a security is not subject to a bright-line test but rather an examination of the facts, circumstances and economic realities of the transaction.  Opponents also assert that the SAFT approach actually runs the risk of increasing regulatory scrutiny of utility token issuers because of the emphasis on the speculative, profit-generating aspects of the utility tokens (e.g., the investor reps referred to above), which could ironically transform an inherently consumptive digital good (the token itself) into an investment contract subject to federal securities laws.  Others have suggested that reliance on the efforts of management doesn’t end with full functionality of the tokens, and that ultimately the success of the network and hence the investment will turn on whether management is successful in overcoming competition.

If anything, the Commission’s subpoena campaign suggests that the SAFT opponents correctly predicted the increased regulatory scrutiny.  And the increased regulatory scrutiny through the subpoena campaign is a stark warning to ICO issuers and counsel that SAFTs may not be completely safe after all.

Dual or multi-class capitalization structures generally allow companies to sell large amounts of shares to the public while maintaining control in the hands of the founders and early investors. Popularized by the Google IPO in 2004, weighted voting rights have since been featured in the high profile IPOs of LinkedIn, Groupon, Zynga, Facebook, Fitbit and Blue Apron.  Snap then took them to a new level last year when it acknowledged (or boasted) that it was the first company to launch an IPO with shares having zero voting rights.  I blogged about Snap’s IPO here.

Dropbox, Inc. is now the latest to go public with a multi-class structure. Having submitted its registration statement confidentially in early January, Dropbox finally filed its S-1 publicly on February 23. Dropbox’s S-1 shows that its capital structure consists of three classes of authorized common – Class A, Class B and Class C – with the rights of the holders of all three classes being identical except with respect to voting. Class A shares (offered to the public) are entitled to one vote per share, Class B shares are entitled to ten votes per share and Class C shares have no voting rights, except as otherwise required by law.  Although the general rule in Delaware is that each share receives one vote, a corporation may provide in its certificate of incorporation that a particular class or series has limited or no voting rights.

Because of the ten-to-one vote ratio between Dropbox’s Class B and Class A, the Class B stockholders – basically the co-founders and lead VCs Sequoia, Accel and T. Rowe Price — will continue to control a majority of the combined voting power, and therefore be able to control all matters submitted to stockholders for approval. This concentrated control will limit or preclude the Series A holders from having an influence over corporate matters for the foreseeable future, including the election of directors, amendments of the certificate of incorporation and by-laws and any merger, sale of all or substantially all the assets or other major transaction requiring stockholder approval. The concentration of voting power may also discourage unsolicited acquisition proposals.

The concentration of power in the Dropbox founders will likely only grow over time. Under an automatic conversion feature, future transfers of Class B shares will generally result in conversion into the lower voting Class A shares, subject to limited carve-outs for estate planning transfers and transfers between co-founders. The conversion of Class B shares to Class A will have the effect, over time, of increasing the relative voting power of those Class B holders who retain their shares.  Moreover, any future offerings of Class C shares will increase the concentration of ownership and control by the founders even further than would be the case in an offering of A shares because the C shares carry no voting rights at all (except as otherwise required by law). Consequently, the cumulative effect of the disproportionate voting power of the B shares, the automatic conversion feature upon transfer of B shares and the possibility of issuance of C shares is that the founders may be able to elect all of Dropbox’s directors and to determine the outcome of most matters submitted to a stockholder vote indefinitely.

Dual-class structures have been the subject of a great deal of controversy.  Some stock exchanges had banned them, only to reverse course because of stiff competition for listings. See here for case in point regarding Hong Kong, the NYSE and Ali Baba.  Investors have loudly objected to this structure, both through the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee and the Council of Institutional Investors.  As a result of that opposition, FTSE Russell and Standard & Poor’s announced last year that they would cease to allow most newly public companies utilizing dual or multi-class capital structures to be included in their broad stock indices. Affected indices include the Russell 2000 and the S&P 500, S&P MidCap 400 and S&P SmallCap 600.  Consequently, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds and other investment vehicles that attempt to passively track these indices will not be investing in the stock of any company with dual-class shares. Although it’s too early to tell for sure what impact, if any, these new index policies will have on the valuations of Dropbox and other publicly traded companies excluded from the indices, it’s entirely possible that the exclusions may depress these valuations compared to those of similar companies that are included in the indices.  Interestingly, just two weeks ago, SEC Commissioner Robert J. Jackson Jr. gave his first speech since being appointed, entitled “Perpetual Dual-Class Stock: The Case Against Corporate Royalty“, in which he expressed his opposition to index exclusions despite his serious concerns regarding dual-class stock, calling index exclusion a blunt instrument and worrying that “Main Street investors may lose out on the chance to be a part of the growth of our most innovative companies”.

And how do companies like Dropbox defend dual-class structures? They would assert that weighted voting rights enable management to make long term decisions that are in the best interests of the company and to resist the short-termism that typically results from pressure brought by major stockholders to maximize quarterly results which often means sacrificing long term interests and performance.  They would further argue that efforts to exclude companies with weighted voting rights from stock indices are counter-productive because they serve to discourage those companies from going public in the first place, thus denying public company investors the opportunity to invest in innovative, high growth companies.

Perhaps the sensible compromise here would be sunset provisions, under which dual-class structures would sunset after a fixed period of time, such as five, ten or fifteen years, unless their extension is approved by stockholders unaffiliated with the controlling group.  Snap’s muti-class structure has no sunset provision; the only way the two founders could ever effectively lose control of Snap is if both died.  By contrast, Google has a sunset provision on its dual-class shares. The Council of Institutional Investors sent a noisy letter to Blue Apron just before its IPO last year urging the company to adopt a five-year sunset.  And Harvard Professor Lucien Bebchuck published a paper last year called “The Untenable Case for Perpetual Dual-Class Stock”, arguing that the potential advantages of dual-class structures tend to recede, and the potential costs tend to rise, as time passes from the IPO, and advocating for finite-term dual-class structures.

A recent report on the state of Regulation Crowdfunding published by a major crowdfunding advisory firm is cause for both celebration and renewed reform efforts. The $100 million aggregate funding milestone and the prorated year over year growth data indicate that the market, while still in its infancy, is growing at a nice pace. Nevertheless, a closer look at the data suggests that Regulation Crowdfunding in its current framework is not reaching its potential and remains in serious need of reform.

The Report

The 2017 State of Regulation Crowdfunding, published by crowdfunding advisory firm Crowdfund Capital Advisors, contains several helpful points of data and analysis. The data in the report were retrieved from the various forms that are required to be filed by issuers in Regulation CF equity crowdfunding transactions under Title III of the JOBS Act, which are publicly available on the SEC’s EDGAR website. These include offering statements on Form C, amendments to those statements on Form C/A, offering progress updates on Form C-U and annual reports on Form C-AR.

The report could be downloaded for free here. Some of the key findings are as follows:

  • The number of unique offerings increased 267% from 178 in 2016 to 481 in 2017.
  • Proceeds increased 178% from $27.6 million in 2016 to $49.2 million in 2017.
  • As of today, there are $100,072,759 in aggregate capital commitments.
  • The number of successful offerings increased 202% from 99 in 2016 to 200 in 2017
  • The total number of investors in Reg CF investments increased 158% from 28,180 in 2016 to 44,433 in 2017.

The foregoing data need to be put into some context. First, Reg CF only went live on May 16, 2016, and so the year against which 2017 is compared is only slightly over one-half of a calendar year; data from that year should be annualized to reflect the fact that deals were only happening for approximately 65% of the year. Also, on the advice of funding portals, issuers are setting extremely low target offering amounts, in some cases as low as $10,700 (1% of the maximum allowed in any rolling 12-month period). Accordingly, the above data on successful offerings may need to be viewed somewhat skeptically to the extent “successful offering” is determined based on whether or not an issuer exceeded its own stated targeted offering amount.

The report also offers the following points of analysis:

  • The market is growing at a rapid pace.
  • The pace of capital into funded offerings appears to be steady without showing signs of abnormal activity or irrational investor behavior.
  • The rapid increase in the number of offerings and investors proves that there is appetite for Reg CF from both issuers and investors.
  • Given the lack of irregularities or fraud, Reg CF (and the structure under which it provides for transparency) should be advocated by policy makers and government organizations.

The report does not offer data to support the premise of that last point, i.e., that there exists a lack of irregularities or fraud.

But We Still Need Further Reform

While the $100 million milestone should be cheered, there are objective reasons to believe that Reg CF is grossly underperforming as a capital raising pathway and failing to meet its potential. It was intended to democratize startup investment, to enable hundreds of millions of people who were effectively shut out of private offerings because of their lack of accredited investor status to invest in these deals for the first time. It’s believed that over 90% of the U.S. population would fall into that category and that there’s an estimated $30 trillion socked away in their savings accounts. If only 1% of that were to be reallocated to Reg CF deals, we’d be seeing a market of $300 billion dollars, which would dwarf the $72 billion in U.S. VC investment in 2017.

Which leads me to the need for further reform. Much has already been said about the low $1.07 million cap on issuers. Although the cap should certainly be raised to balance out the amount raised with the disclosure, filing and other burdensome requirements as well as to make Reg CF more competitive with other available pathways, the reality is that most Reg CF offerings are not even reaching the existing cap. That suggests that there must be other impediments in the rules that should be addressed to help companies raise permissible amounts.

Chief among these impediments in my view is the exclusion of investment vehicles from Reg CF. Many accredited investor crowdfunding platforms like AngeList and OurCrowd operate on an investment fund model, whereby they recruit investors to invest in a special purpose vehicle whose only purpose is to invest in the operating company. Essentially, a lead investor validates a company’s valuation, strategy and investment worthiness. Traditionally, angel investors have operated in groups and often follow a lead investor, a model which puts all investors on a level playing field. The additional benefit to the portfolio company from this model is that the company ends up with only one additional investor on its cap table, instead of the hundreds that can result under current rules. I suspect that many companies are shying away from Reg CF or not reaching potential raise targets because of this reason alone.

Reg CF should also be reformed to raise the investment caps for investors. Currently, investors are capped based on their income or net worth, with a separate hard cap irrespective of net worth or income. At a minimum, there should be no hard cap for accredited investors. Makes no sense that Mark Zuckerberg be capped at $107,000.

Finally, under current rules, any Reg CF funded company that crosses a $25 million asset threshold would be required to register with the SEC under the Securities Exchange Act and become an SEC reporting company. This would have the potential to create a perverse incentive for a company not to grow, and seems inconsistent with the spirit of Reg CF, which for the first time allows companies to fund their growth by offering securities to the public without registering with the SEC. The asset threshold triggering Exchange Act registration should either be raised or eliminated.

Although Reg CF is still in its infancy and the data in the report could be read to indicate steady growth in a seemingly healthy emerging market, there is also reason to believe that the market has not even begun to tap its potential, a potential that may never be realized if perceived impediments are not mitigated or removed.

Last month, Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts William Galvin made good on his promise to conduct an exam sweep of ICOs in Massachusetts.  On January 17, the Enforcement Section of the Massachusetts Securities Division brought its first ICO related enforcement action, an administrative complaint against a company called Caviar and its founder Kirill Bensonoff for violations of state securities laws in connection with Caviar’s ICO. The complaint likely portends increased willingness on the part of state securities administrators to bring enforcement actions against ICO sponsors.  It also offers important lessons about how to conduct offshore ICOs so as to minimize the risk of offers and sales being deemed to be made to U.S. residents.

The complaint tells us that Caviar is a Cayman Islands company that has no actual place of business there, operating instead principally in founder Bensonoff’s home in Massachusetts.

The Caviar token offered in the ICO (CAV) was clearly a securities token; no pretense of a utility token here. Proceeds from the ICO were to be pooled and used to finance the acquisition of a portfolio of various cryptocurrencies, and also to finance short term “flips” of residential real estate properties. Purchasers of CAV tokens were told they would receive quarterly dividends equal to their pro rata share of 75% of the combined profits from this pooled investment fund of cryptocurrencies and real estate debt. Basically, Caviar was a virtual hedge fund and its tokens had key attributes of limited partnership or membership interests, i.e., they were securities.

The real interesting issue in this dispute would seem to be whether the offering was properly conducted offshore as intended and thus outside the jurisdiction of Massachusetts’ Securities Division (or any other securities regulators in the U.S.). Caviar’s argument would seem to be that the offering was made offshore and that they employed safeguards to ensure that no offers and sales were made to United States persons. Caviar’s ICO white paper states that United States persons (within the meaning of Rule 902 of Regulation S) are excluded from the offering and are explicitly restricted from purchasing CAV.

Before the complaint was filed, investors apparently had been purchasing CAV by visiting Caviar’s website at www.caviar.io (after the complaint was filed, the site was modified to greet U.S. persons with the following message: “It appears you are accessing caviar.io from United States of America.  Unfortunately, this website is not available in the United States of America.”).  To register for the offering, prospective investors were asked to provide an e-mail address and check two boxes. The first box indicated “Not U.S. person”, and the second box stated that the investor consulted with an experienced lawyer who advised the investor that he or she is eligible to invest. Caviar retained the services of an independent third party to screen out ineligible persons based on internet protocol addresses, i.e., numeric labels assigned to users or devices by internet service providers. If an individual was identified as a potentially prohibited purchaser, he or she would be prompted to upload copies of a government-issued photo identification. In sworn testimony given by Bensonoff before the Securities Division in this matter, he stated that “as far as [he knows], there’s not a single U.S. investor who has contributed.”

In the complaint, the Securities Division asserts that Caviar’s procedures to prevent the sale of CAV to U.S. investors are inadequate because Caviar’s identity verification procedures were relatively easy to circumvent. To prove the point, it had one of its investigators apply to participate in the Caviar ICO using the name of a “popular cartoon character”. The complaint doesn’t identify the cartoon character, perhaps in an effort to protect the Securities Division’s sources (if not its methods). When prompted to upload a photo ID (apparently because the investigator’s IP address indicated he was located in the U.S.), the investigator uploaded a photo of a government-issued photo ID obtained using a Google Image search. But the name, address, and date of birth listed on the submitted ID image didn’t match the personal information provided earlier by the investigator. Nevertheless, the investigator’s identity was “verified,” and the investigator was approved to participate in the Caviar ICO.

The complaint brought by the Massachusetts Securities Division offers some useful lessons for properly conducting an offshore ICO.  First, investor check-the-box self-certification will not suffice in the absence of effective verification measures by the sponsor to screen out ineligible persons. Second, inasmuch as it’s possible to identify applicants’ approximate geolocation based on internet protocol addresses, offshore ICO sponsors should carefully monitor the IP addresses of online investor applicants. Third, all applicants should be prompted to upload a copy of a government-issued photo ID, which should be carefully checked by the sponsor (either directly or through independent third parties) against other personal information provided by the investor.  Fourth, any attempt emanating from a U.S. IP address to open a link to an offshore ICO site should be directed to an alternate dead-end page that states nothing more than that the person seeking access appears to be in the U.S. and that the website is not available in the U.S.  Finally, a sponsor’s culpability will not be mitigated by lack of actual knowledge of any U.S. person purchases.

What happens when corporate directors approve their own awards under an equity incentive plan? Under Delaware law, so long as the plan is approved by a majority of the fully informed, uncoerced and disinterested stockholders, the awards will generally be protected by the business judgment rule and judges will not second guess them. Or will they?

Last month, the Delaware Supreme Court in In re Investors Bancorp, Inc. Stockholder Litigation ruled that awards made by directors to themselves under equity incentive plans approved by the stockholders should nevertheless be subject to the more demanding entire fairness standard, requiring the directors to prove that the terms are fair to the corporation, if the plan lacks fixed criteria and gives the board discretion in granting themselves awards. The ruling represents a departure from an earlier line of Delaware cases that held that the ratification defense would be available and the business judgment rule would protect grants to directors so long as the plan approved by the stockholders contained meaningful limits on awards to directors. After Investors Bancorp, director awards under stockholder-approved equity incentive plans will only benefit from the business judgment rule if the plan gives directors no discretion in making awards to themselves.

Delaware law authorizes a board of directors to determine its own compensation. Because directors are necessarily conflicted when compensating themselves, however, such decisions generally fall outside the protection of the business judgment rule and instead are subject to the entire fairness standard, meaning that if properly challenged as a breach of fiduciary duty the directors must prove those compensation arrangements are fair to the corporation. Depending on the circumstances, however, conflicted director transactions can generally avoid application of the entire fairness standard through stockholder ratification.

Courts have traditionally recognized the ratification defense in three situations involving director awards: (i) when stockholders approve the specific director awards, (ii) when the plan is self-executing (meaning the directors have no discretion in making the awards), and (iii) when directors exercise discretion and determine the amounts and terms of the awards after stockholder approval. The first two scenarios present no real substantive problems. The third scenario is more challenging, and was the issue addressed in Investors Bancorp.

Stockholders of Investors Bancorp approved an equity incentive plan that gave discretion to the directors to allocate up to 30% of all option or restricted stock shares under the plan to themselves, but the number, types and terms of awards to be made pursuant to the plan were subject to the discretion of the board’s compensation committee. After the Investors Bancorp stockholders approved the plan, the board granted just under half of the stock options available to the directors and nearly thirty percent of the shares available to the directors as restricted stock awards.

The plaintiffs argued that the directors breached their fiduciary duties by granting themselves these awards because they were unfair and excessive. According to the plaintiffs, the stockholders were told the plan would reward future performance, but the board instead used the awards to reward past efforts which the directors had already accounted for in determining their compensation packages. Also, according to the plaintiffs, the rewards were inordinately higher than those at peer companies. The court ruled that the plaintiffs properly alleged that the directors acted inequitably in exercising their discretion and granting themselves unfair and excessive awards, and, because the stockholders did not ratify the specific awards under the plan, the affirmative defense of ratification was unavailable.

There are two key takeaways here. First, inasmuch as director grants under discretionary plans will no longer benefit from stockholder ratification after Investors Bancorp, companies contemplating adoption of equity incentive plans should think seriously about making sure those plans are self-executing and contain no discretionary elements as to grants to directors. An example of a self-executing plan would be one in which each director is granted an option to purchase “x” shares upon election to the board and an additional “y” shares on the anniversary of his or her election. Second, existing equity incentive plans should be carefully reviewed to determine whether or not they are discretionary, and any proposed grants under discretionary plans, even if ratified by the stockholders, should be carefully vetted to ensure they are consistent with information disclosed to stockholders at the time of plan approval and reasonable under objective standards such as in relation to a peer group.

December 11, 2017 was a day of reckoning for entrepreneurs conducting or contemplating initial coin offerings, and for securities professionals who advise them.  First, a company selling digital tokens to investors to raise capital for its blockchain-based food review service abandoned its initial coin offering after being “contacted” by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and agreed to a cease-and-desist order in which the SEC found that its ICO constituted an unregistered offer and sale of securities. On the same day, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton issued a “Statement on Cryptocurrencies and Initial Coin Offerings”, warning “Main Street” investors and market professionals about investing and participating in ICOs, and reiterated the SEC’s determination to apply the securities laws to transactions in digital tokens. These two actions are the latest in a series of steps by the SEC to send a clear message that it intends generally to enforce the securities laws with respect to ICOs that emphasize the profit potential of tokens where such profit derives from the efforts of the entrepreneurs of the underlying project.

Cease and Desist Order

Munchee Inc. is a California-based company that developed an iPhone app for people to review restaurant meals. In October and November 2017, Munchee offered and then sold digital tokens it called “MUN” to be issued on a blockchain, seeking to raise approximately $15 million to improve the app and recruit users to eventually buy ads, write reviews, sell food and conduct other transactions using MUN. On or about October 31, 2017, Munchee started selling the MUN tokens. The next day, Munchee was “contacted” by the SEC staff, probably threatening cease and desist proceedings. The message was communicated loud and clear, because within hours Munchee stopped selling MUN tokens and promptly returned to purchasers the proceeds that it had already received. In anticipation of the institution of cease and desist proceedings, Munchee submitted an offer of settlement and consented to entry of the cease-and-desist order.

Despite Munchee holding itself out as offering a utility token that is not a security, the SEC’s position was that the MUN token was a security because the totality of Munchee’s efforts relating to the ICO resulted in a purchasers’ reasonable expectation of profits from the entrepreneurial efforts of Munchee’s management team. Interestingly, Munchee’s white paper included a three page legal disclaimer stating that it conducted a Howey analysis with the assistance of counsel and concluded that its MUN utility token didn’t pose a “significant risk of implicating federal securities laws”. As the order notes, however, the white paper did not set forth the actual analysis.

The SEC’s case that Munchee’s ICO of MUN tokens was a securities offering rests largely on the following arguments:

  • Token purchasers were led to believe that efforts by Munchee would result in an increase in value of the tokens.
  • Increase in value of the MUN tokens would occur whether or not purchasers ever used the Munchee restaurant app or otherwise participated in the MUN “ecosystem”.
  • Munchee emphasized it would take steps to create and support a secondary market for the tokens.
  • Promotional efforts included blatant predictions of increase in value of the token.
  • The ICO targeted digital asset investors, as opposed to targeting current users of the Munchee app or restaurant owners regarding the utility of the tokens.
  • ICO was promoted in worldwide publications, despite the app only being available in the United States.
  • Munchee paid people to translate offering documents into multiple languages, presumably to reach potential investors in other countries where the Munchee app was unavailable.

The order asserts that in the course of the ICO, Munchie and its promoters emphasized that investors could expect that there would be an increase in value of the MUN tokens resulting from efforts by Munchie, including paying users in MUN tokens for writing food reviews, selling both advertising to restaurants and “in-app” purchases to app users in exchange for MUN tokens, and working with restaurant owners so diners could buy food with MUN tokens and so that restaurant owners could reward app users in MUN tokens.

Munchee also emphasized in the ICO that it would take steps to create and support a secondary market for its tokens, including potentially burning (i.e., taking out of circulation) a small fraction of MUN tokens whenever a restaurant pays Munchee an advertising fee and buying or selling MUN tokens using its retained holdings in order to ensure there was a liquid secondary market for MUN tokens.

The SEC chose not to impose a civil penalty here, largely because of the remedial acts promptly undertaken by Munchee and the cooperation it afforded to the SEC staff.  Instead, the SEC ordered Munchee to cease and desist from committing or causing any violations and any future violations of Sections 5(a) and (c) of the Securities Act.  This is no slap on the wrist, however, inasmuch as it disqualifies Munchee from engaging in the next five years in an offering exempt under Regulation A or Rule 506 of Regulation D, the two likely securities exemptions for ICOs.

Chairman Clayton’s Statement

On the same day as the Munchee cease-and-desist order, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton issued a “Statement on Cryptocurrencies and Initial Coin Offerings” directed principally at “Main Street” investors and market professionals (including broker-dealers, investment advisers, exchanges, lawyers and accountants). The Statement asserts that in the aftermath of the SEC’s July 2017 investigative report applying securities law principles to demonstrate that the DAO token constituted an investment contract and therefore was a security, certain market professionals had attempted to highlight utility characteristics of their proposed tokens in an effort to claim that the tokens were not securities. “Many of these assertions appear to elevate form over substance”, Chairman Clayton noted, and that “replacing a traditional corporate interest recorded in a central ledger with an enterprise interest recorded through a blockchain entry on a distributed ledger may change the form of the transaction, but it does not change the substance”.

Particularly chilling for me as a securities lawyer was the following admonition by Chairman Clayton:

“On this and other points where the application of expertise and judgment is expected, I believe that gatekeepers and others, including securities lawyers, accountants and consultants, need to focus on their responsibilities. I urge you to be guided by the principal motivation for our registration, offering process and disclosure requirements: investor protection and, in particular, the protection of our Main Street investors” (bold appears in original Statement).”

In the Statement, Chairman Clayton presents interesting hypothetical contrasting business models for the distribution of books to illustrate the difference between a utility token and a securities token. An example of what would be characterized as a utility token that’s not a security would be a book-of the-month club selling tokens representing participation interests in the club as simply an efficient way for the club’s operators to fund the future acquisition of books and facilitate the distribution of those books to token holders. In contrast are interests in a yet-to-be-built publishing house where the token purchasers have a reasonable expectation of profit through the entrepreneurial efforts of the founders to organize the publisher’s authors, books and distribution networks. Chairman Clayton added that an additional circumstance contributing to a conclusion that a utility token is a security would be when promoters tout the secondary market trading potential of their tokens and the potential for the tokens to increase in value, which are “key hallmarks of a security and a securities offering”.

There should be no doubt about the seriousness with which Chairman Clayton is approaching the issue.  Toward the end of the Statement, he states that he has “asked the SEC’s Division of Enforcement to continue to police this area vigorously and recommend enforcement actions against those that conduct initial coin offerings in violation of the federal securities laws”.

Bloomberg reported on October 16 that over $3 billion dollars have been raised in over 200 initial coin offerings so far this year. It remains to be seen whether the pace of ICOs will slow down in the face of regulatory headwinds such as the outright ICO bans in China and South Korea. Here in the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission has been sounding alarm bells. On July 25, the SEC’s Division of Enforcement issued a Report of Investigation finding that tokens offered and sold by a virtual organization known as “The DAO” were securities and therefore subject to the federal securities laws. I blogged about it here. On the same day the SEC issued the report, its Office of Investor Education and Advocacy issued an investor bulletin to make investors aware of potential risks of participating in ICOs.  Then on September 29, it charged a businessman and two companies with defrauding investors in a pair of ICOs purportedly backed by investments in real estate and diamonds. And on November 1, it issued a “Statement on Potentially Unlawful Promotion of Initial Coin Offerings and Other Investments by Celebrities and Others”, warning that any celebrity or other individual who promotes a virtual token or coin that is a security must disclose the nature, scope, and amount of compensation received in exchange for the promotion.

Needless to say, the days of ICOs flying below the SEC’s radar are over, and developers conducting token sales to fund the development of a network need to be aware of the securities law implications of the sale.  In its Report of Investigation, the SEC made clear (what most of us suspected all along) that the traditional Howey test for determining whether a funding mechanism is an ”investment contract” and thus a “security” applies to blockchain based tokens. I won’t go into a deep dive here. For those wanting to jump into the weeds, Debevoise has done a pretty good job on this. But the basic test under Howey is that an agreement constitutes an investment contract that meets the definition of a “security” if there is (i) an investment of money, (ii) in a common enterprise, (iii) with an expectation of profits, (iv) solely from the efforts of others.

It’s useful to consider that blockchain tokens fall generally into two broad categories. “Securities tokens” are basically like shares in a corporation or membership interests in a limited liability company where the purchaser receives an economic right to a proportional share of distributions from profits or a sale of the company. On the other hand, “utility tokens” don’t purport to offer purchasers an interest or share in the seller entity itself but rather access to the product or service the seller is developing or has developed. Unfortunately, there exists virtually no SEC or case law guidance on securities law aspects of utility tokens. The token at issue in the SEC’s investigative report on The DAO was a securities token. The DAO was a smart contract on the Ethereum blockchain that operated like a virtual venture fund. Purchasers would share in profits from the DAO’s investments and so the tokens were like limited partnership interests.

The question of whether utility tokens are securities may turn on whether the blockchain network for which the tokens will function is fully functional or still in development, and an interesting debate has emerged as to whether there should be a bright line test on that basis.

One side of the debate, advanced by Cooley (Marco Santori) and Protocol Labs (Juan Batiz-Benet and Jesse Clayburgh), is that purchasers of utility tokens prior to network launch and before genuine utility necessarily rely on the managerial and technical efforts of the developers to realize value from their tokens. Accordingly, agreements for the sale of pre-functional tokens meet the “expectation of profit” and “through the efforts of others” prongs of Howey and should be characterized as securities. On the other hand, fully functional utility tokens should not be considered securities because they fail the “through the efforts of others” prong of Howey and maybe even the “expectation of profit” prong.  Purchasers of fully functional tokens are likely to be people seeking access to the seller’s network as consumers or app developers with any expectation of profit from appreciation of the tokens being a secondary motivation, so the expectation of profit prong of Howey fails as to those purchasers. The same conclusion should apply even as to the other type of purchaser who is motivated primarily by the prospect of a token resale for profit because the profit that is hoped for is not expected to come through the managerial or entrepreneurial efforts of the developers, but rather through the many different independent forces that drive supply and demand for the tokens. There is a line of cases involving contracts for the purchase of commodities holding that they are not securities because the expectation of profit was solely from fluctuations in the secondary market, and not from any efforts on the part of the producer. Fully functional tokens are analogous to commodities in that the token developers have completed development of the network, and so there should not be any expectation that profit will result from any further efforts by the seller.

On the other side of the debate is Debevoise, which advocates for a facts and circumstances approach, rejects the bright line test of whether or not a utility token is fully functional and offers several arguments. The determination of whether an agreement is an investment contract and thus a security has long been based upon a facts and circumstances analysis. A blockchain token is not a homogenous asset class; a token could be a digital representation of an equity or debt security but it could also represent things like hospital records or a person’s identity, and that particular character of the token is unaffected by whether the network is or is not fully functional. Also, there is an implicit recognition in the JOBS Act that pre-order sales on non-equity crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are not sales of securities, and that pre-functional utility token sales should be analyzed the same way.  It also questions whether agreements by a mature company to presell a new product in development would automatically be deemed an investment contract. Finally, there’s the difficulty of determining when exactly a token is fully-functional given the complexity of software and network development.

Seems to me that the arguments on both sides of the utility token debate have merit.  I do think there’s a distinction, though, between pre-order sales of product by a mature company and a sale of pre-functional tokens, in that the tokens most likely can be sold on a secondary market, with any profit likely resulting from the entrepreneurial efforts of the developer.  I also think that until we have guidance from the SEC and/or judicial opinions on the issue, the better approach is to treat clearly pre-functional tokens as investment contracts and conduct their sale under an exemption from registration.

A recent Delaware Chancery Court decision provides important guidance on what types of defective corporate acts may be ratified under Section 204 of the Delaware General Corporation Law (the “DGCL”), and what types may not.  Paul Nguyen v. View, Inc. also underscores the importance of focusing on whether to opt out of the class vote required by DGCL Section 242(b)(2) for changes in authorized capital, which effectively gives the common stock a veto over future funding rounds.

The facts of the case are as follows. View, Inc. develops smart windows that allow the light, heat, shade and glare properties of the glass to be controlled manually or electronically, thus enhancing comfort and reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. After closing on a Series A round, View replaced its founder, Paul Nguyen, as CEO and CTO. While in mediation over the termination, View proposed a new Series B round of funding, which under Section 242(b)(2) of the DGCL required the consent of Nguyen as holder of a majority of the common. The parties then signed a settlement agreement in which Nguyen consented to the Series B, subject to a seven day revocation right. When Nguyen discovered the terms of the Series B would materially diminish his rights, he revoked his consent within the revocation period. Unbeknownst to him, View had already closed on the Series B. Nguyen then brought an arbitration proceeding against View, seeking a declaration that the revocation was valid and the Series B funding invalid. While the arbitration was pending, View closed on additional rounds C through F in an aggregate amount of over $500 million. After View filed two certificates of validation under DGCL Section 204 seeking to ratify the increase in authorized capital, Nguyen commenced the Chancery Court suit, which the parties agreed to stay pending the arbitrator’s decision on the validity of the consent revocation.

The arbitrator ruled that the revocation was valid and the Series B invalid. The ruling effectively meant that all of the related transaction documents were likewise invalid and void because Nguyen had not consented to them either. And since each of the subsequent rounds of financing rested on the Series B funding, the invalidation of the Series B effectively invalidated the Series C through Series F rounds as well, basically blowing up View’s capital structure. The Series A stockholders responded by seeking to resurrect the funding rounds through the ratification provisions of Section 204, initially by converting their preferred shares into common (thus becoming the majority holders of the class) and then by authorizing the filing of certificates of validation with the Delaware Secretary of State under Section 204.

The key issue in the case was whether an act that the holder of a majority of shares of a class entitled to vote deliberately declined to authorize, but that the corporation nevertheless determined to pursue, may be deemed a “defective corporate act” under Section 204 that is subject to later validation by ratification of the stockholders, an issue of first impression.

In 2014, the Delaware legislature created two alternative pathways for corporations to cure defective corporate acts. Section 204 provides that “no defective corporate act or putative stock shall be void or voidable solely as a result of a failure of authorization if ratified as provided [in Section 204] or validated by the Court of Chancery in a proceeding brought under Section 205.” Previously, acts deemed “voidable” could be subsequently ratified, but acts deemed “void”, such as the issuance of shares beyond what is authorized in a company’s charter, were deemed invalid. Prior to Sections 204 and 205, corporations had no way to remedy “void” corporate acts, even if the failure to properly authorize the act was inadvertent. The ability to cure defective acts is critical. Startups often need to clean up such acts prior to a funding round or acquisition, both to satisfy investor or acquirer due diligence issues and to enable counsel to issue opinion letters.

The court found that the Series B round was not a “defective corporate act” that is subject to ratification under Section 204 and ruled that View should not be allowed to invoke ratification to validate a deliberately unauthorized corporate act. As the holder of a majority of the outstanding common which was entitled to a class vote, Nguyen’s vote was required in order to authorize the Series B. The failure to obtain such authorization was not an oversight; it was the result of an affirmative rejection by Nguyen. Thus, the distinction here is between a defective corporate act that results from an oversight, which is curable under Section 204, and a defective corporate act resulting from an affirmative rejection by the stockholders, which is not curable under Section 204 (or 205).

One obvious takeaway is that companies should respect arbitrators’ rulings and should not proceed with a transaction, let alone a series of transactions, until stockholder authorization has been secured. View’s pursuit of the Series B round during the revocation period, and thereafter of the Series C through F rounds while the arbitrator’s ruling on the consent revocation was pending, was reckless to say the least. As the court put it, “[o]ne must presume that View understood that if the arbitrator found in favor of Nguyen on the consent issue, then the later rounds of financing that rested on the Series B Financing would collapse when that block was removed from the tower of blocks that comprised the Company’s preferred stock offerings”.  One can only presume further that it did so against the advice of counsel or despite counsel’s warning of the risk.

The other takeaway here is that companies should consider carefully whether to opt out of the class vote requirement under DGCL Section 224(b)(2) for changes in capital structure. Section 224(b)(2) requires any increase or decrease in authorized shares to be approved by holders of a majority of each class of stock entitled to vote, but allows corporations to opt out by providing as much in the charter. The National Venture Capital Association’s model amended and restated certificate of incorporation has an optional provision that states that the common and preferred will vote together as a single class on all proposals to increase or decrease the authorized capital, irrespective of the provisions of Section 242(b)(2). Failure to opt out effectively provides the common stockholders with a veto over future capital raises because each subsequent round requires an amendment to the charter not just to create the new series of preferred, but also to increase the number of authorized common to accommodate conversion of the preferred. Failure to eliminate the class vote requirement will force the company to have to seek the consent of holders of a majority of the common, providing them with unintended leverage in connection with a deal that’s presumably in the best interests of the company and its shareholders.

Cornell Tech celebrated a historic milestone today with the dedication of its new campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City. A collaboration of Cornell University (yes, my law school) and The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, the 12 acre applied science and engineering campus is one of the most significant additions to the NYC landscape in the last several decades and will help solidify the City’s claim as the number two technology hub behind only Silicon Valley.

Hard to believe it’s been six years since the splashy news conference in which Cornell and The Technion were introduced as the winners of what had become a grueling competition for who would build the new campus. That announcement was itself the culmination of a strategic process that started in 2008, when a study commissioned by then Mayor Bloomberg determined that the best opportunity to replace the thousands of jobs lost in New York City in the financial crisis was in the technology sector through the creation of startup incubators, accelerators and investment funds, and that the success of these initiatives depended on the recruitment and retention of talent. In response to the study’s recommendations, Mayor Bloomberg launched a competition to build an applied science campus in New York City with a focus on entrepreneurship and job creation, with the winner to receive $100 million (a mere fraction of the ultimate cost which turned out to be in the billions) and free land.

As would be expected, the campus has some of the most environmentally friendly and energy efficient buildings in the world.  And as Technion President Peretz Lavie said to me, “the campus is the most beautiful I have ever seen”.  High praise.

Cornell Tech’s mission is to create “pioneering leaders and technologies for the digital age, through research, technology commercialization, and graduate-level education at the professional masters, doctoral and postdoctoral levels.” The campus will undoubtedly have an enormous impact on the innovation ecosystem in the New York City area. It will serve as a tremendous pipeline for high end technology talent. Most tech startup founders would say that their single biggest challenge is recruiting and retaining talent. Many Cornell Tech graduates will be recruited into existing startups. Others will join big tech companies. Many others will be founders themselves, and it’s predicted that there will be 600 spinouts from the campus over the next three decades. Over 30 startups have spun out already in the digital technology space, spanning consumer applications, devices, medical, media and communications.

This is just the first stage of development of the campus, which is not expected to be completed until 2043. The current faculty of 30 tenured and 60 overall is expected to grow to four times as big, and the plan is to expand the student body, currently 300, to up to as many as 2,500.

The dedication ceremony can be viewed here.  And here‘s a cool interactive 360° presentation.