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.
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”.