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.