“Can a digital asset that was originally offered in a securities offering ever be later sold in a manner that does not constitute an offering of a security?”

Such was the question posed by William Hinman, Director of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Corporation Finance, in his speech at the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit: Crypto event in San Francisco on June 14. Hinman’s answer: a qualified “yes” where there is no longer any central enterprise being invested in or where the digital asset is sold only to be used to purchase a good or service available through the network on which it was created. This may be the most positive guidance yet from the SEC on when a digital asset might be deemed not to be a security under the Howey test. It may help create a pathway for blockchain startups to sell without registration or exemption digital tokens that had previously been sold in securities offerings, and should provide a measure of comfort to past and future issuers of SAFT-based ICOs.

After making his overarching point that a digital asset originally offered in a securities offering could be later sold in a manner that does not constitute an offering of a security when there is no longer any central enterprise being invested in or where the digital asset is sold only to be used to purchase a good or service available through the network on which it was created, Hinman went on to describe the circumstances under which he believes that could occur. In doing so, Hinman concentrated primarily on the last prong of the Howey test, namely whether an expectation of profit derived through the efforts of others, and suggested that the inquiry should focus on two areas: (i) who are the participants, and (ii) how is the digital asset structured?

Who are the Participants?

When determining whether a digital asset should be deemed to be an investment contract, Hinman stated that one should “consider whether a third party – be it a person, entity or coordinated group of actors – drives the expectation of a return.”

He suggested that this question will always depend on the particular facts and circumstances of a transaction, and offered the following non-exhaustive list of factors:

  • Promoter’s efforts play a significant role in the development and maintenance of the digital asset and its potential increase in value.
  • Promoter retains a stake or other interest in the digital asset such that he would be motivated to expend efforts to cause an increase in its value, particularly where purchasers are made to reasonably believe such efforts will be undertaken.
  • Amount raised in the ICO exceeds amount needed to establish a functional network and use of proceeds includes supporting the token’s value or increasing enterprise’s value
  • Promoter continues to expend funds from proceeds or operations to enhance functionality and/or value of system within which the tokens operate.
  • No persons or entities other than the promoter exercise governance rights or meaningful influence.

How is the digital asset structured?

Hinman then pointed to the existence of contractual or technical methods to structure digital assets so they function more like consumer items and less like a security, including the following:

  • Is token creation commensurate with meeting the needs of users or, rather, with feeding speculation?
  • Are independent actors setting the price or is the promoter supporting the secondary market for the asset or otherwise influencing trading?
  • Is it clear that the primary motivation for purchasing the digital asset is for personal use or consumption, as compared to investment? Have purchasers made representations as to their consumptive, as opposed to their investment, intent? Are the tokens available in increments that correlate with a consumptive versus investment intent?
  • Are the tokens distributed in ways to meet users’ needs? For example, can the tokens be held or transferred only in amounts that correspond to a purchaser’s expected use? Are there built-in incentives that compel using the tokens promptly on the network, such as having the tokens degrade in value over time, or can the tokens be held for extended periods for investment?
  • Is the asset marketed and distributed to potential users or the general public?
  • Are the assets dispersed across a diverse user base or concentrated in the hands of a few that can exert influence over the application?
  • Is the application fully functioning or in early stages of development?

Information Asymmetry

Director Hinman also pointed out that one of the rationales for the securities laws is to remove the information asymmetry between promoters and investors by mandating adequate disclosure to address that asymmetry. That disclosure regime is needed when a token purchaser relies on a token seller’s efforts to develop a network and generate a potential return on investment for the token purchaser.

Conversely, when the promoter’s efforts are no longer an important factor in determining the enterprise’s success, “material information asymmetries recede” and the protections of the securities laws may no longer be necessary. Moreover, as a practical matter, when a network becomes decentralized, the ability to identify a promoter to make the mandated disclosures “becomes difficult, and less meaningful.”

Implication for SAFTs

The Simple Agreement for Future Tokens or 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.

In a SAFT-based ICO, the SAFT itself is generally acknowledged to be an investment contract and thus a security, and sold to accredited investors under Rule 506(c) of Regulation D. A quick search on EDGAR reveals there have been 37 Form D filings identifying the type of security offered as a SAFT. No court or regulator has interpreted the SAFT framework and whether or not the tokens to be ultimately issued are securities.

Director Hinman’s view that certain tokens initially issued by blockchain startups as securities may have the potential to become part of a decentralized network and no longer bear the attributes of securities may give legitimacy to SAFT-based ICOs. Interestingly, the only place where the word SAFT appears in the speech is in footnote 15 of the written version. In that footnote, Hinman states that although nothing in his remarks should be construed as opining on the legality of a SAFT (because the analysis of a particular SAFT must turn on the economic realities of the particular case), “it is clear from [his speech that he believes] that a token once offered in a security offering can, depending on the circumstances, later be offered in a non-securities transaction.”

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.

In Part I of this two part series on model structures for seed rounds, I explained how the dramatic decline in the cost of launching an internet-based startup over the last 15 years primarily due to the disruptive effects of open source software and cloud computing has led to a surge in seed stage investing by angels and early stage VCs.  In Part I, I addressed seed rounds structured as equity, the two most common forms of which involve the issuance of modified versions of preferred stock designated as Series AA or Series Seed.

As I explained in Part I of this Series, the more complex, time consuming and expensive to negotiate deal documentation associated with Series A and later rounds can be justified when a company is raising several millions of dollars, but makes little sense for a seed round of a few hundred thousand dollars. The resulting pressure for deal document simplification has resulted over the last several years in innovative seed investment deal documents.  This Part II of the Series will address seed round structures fashioned as convertible notes or alternative instruments that functionally resemble convertible notes.

Convertible Notes

Convertible Notes advance the objective of deal document simplification and cost effectiveness even more than Series Seed and Series AA structures because they allow parties to defer negotiation of the thorniest issues to a next significant equity round.

Technically, convertible notes provide for payment of principal and interest on a maturity date of typically one to two years, but in reality these notes are not expected to be repaid.  Instead, the principal and interest is intended to get converted into the security issued in a next equity round meeting some minimum dollar amount, albeit typically at a discount to the next round’s pricing in an effort to reward the seed investors for the additional risk they’re assuming by investing at a more vulnerable juncture for the company.   In recent years, it has also become common for the valuation at which the seed investment is converted to be capped, in which case  the conversion price would be the lower of the discounted rate or the price based on the capped valuation.  Less sophisticated angels will focus on the interest rate and try to negotiate that higher; those more experienced in startup investing will understand that the conversion terms will have a far more significant impact on the value of their investment and thus focus on discount and cap.

Another way the practical reality departs from the technical is that if a qualified funding has not occurred and the note is not converted prior to maturity, the note is rarely paid at that point. Instead, a difficult conversation takes place between the company and the seed investor in which the company seeks to extend the maturity date.  The price for any such extension is usually in the form of more generous conversion terms for the investor.

Simple Agreement for Future Equity or “SAFE”

In 2013, the legendary accelerator Y Combinator introduced an alternative to theY Combinator convertible note which it called a Simple Agreement for Future Equity or “SAFE”. Although it looks like a convertible note in that it converts the investment amount into the next round’s security and typically features discounts and caps, it is not a promissory note for the simple reason that, unlike a note, there is no basic promise to repay the invested amount.  Essentially, a SAFE is a contract that provides for the type and amount of shares that will be issued in a qualified next round, if there is such a round, along with an option to receive either common stock or a return of the invested amount if the company is acquired prior to a qualified round.

The absence of a payment on maturity date feature is a major advantage to companies and a serious drawback for seed investors relative to convertible notes in that it removes an important source of leverage that the investor would otherwise have as a convertible noteholder if the company has been unable to raise a qualified next round before maturity. If that were to happen in the context of a convertible note, the note holder could demand payment and force the company into dissolution or bankruptcy.  That leverage would allow the investor to negotiate for an increase in the conversion discount or decrease in the cap.

The lack of a maturity date means that the SAFE is really only appropriate for a technology based startup that could scale quickly and achieve rapid growth. Conversely, a non-technology based startup could theoretically prosper and enrich its shareholders without the SAFE holder receiving anything for a long time, if ever.  In other words, a company may be able to grow organically without the need to do another significant raise, and may even be able to dividend out cash to its stockholders (not shared by the SAFE holders because they’re not yet stockholders), and the SAFE holders would not receive anything until the company gets acquired, if ever.

Keep it Simple Security or KISS

The Keep it Simple Security or KISS was created by another accelerator, 500 500 startupsStartups, in 2014, in reaction to resistance to SAFEs because of their lack of investor protections. KISSes more closely resemble traditional convertible notes, i.e., promise to pay on a maturity date, etc., and contain certain other important investor protections such as an option at maturity to convert into a newly created Series Seed (see my discussion of Series Seed in Part I of this two-part series), information rights and the right to participate in future funding rounds.  But inasmuch as the impetus for convertible note alternatives was a desire for simplification, cost effectiveness and time saving, it’s unclear whether the KISS, which actually contains a few more deal points to negotiate than convertible notes, will gain significant traction among seed stage companies and investors.