Do ICO’s Seek an Expectation of Profit Solely from the Efforts of Others?

In our most recent blog post, we discussed the second prong of the Howey test – a “common enterprise” – and the US Circuit Courts’ fragmentation on the issue and lack of uniform definition. In this third and final part of our series pulling apart the Howey Test, we’re looking at the third and fourth prongs of the Test. These final two prongs, typically read together, are (collectively) “with an expectation of profits solely from the efforts of others”. The expectation of profits element focuses on the type of return that the investor seeks on their investment. This return inquiry is easily satisfied by an increase in capital or participation in earnings on invested funds. As mentioned, however, the return or profit must depend on the “efforts of others”, which goes to the passive nature of the investment return. Remember, the Howey company was selling plots of land on its citrus grove to people who had no intention of farming the land and depended on the Howey company to produce profits. These investors were expecting a passive return with no intention of consuming the oranges produced (i.e., this was not a pre-sale for the underlying future oranges which goes to consumptive use v. speculative use).

 

The SEC Wants to Talk About Your Control Issues

 

The “solely from the efforts of others” inquiry is a fact-specific analysis of the economic realities of the transaction. In sum, the more an investor controls the business operations of the project, the less likely an investment contract exists. The critical question to ask is whether the efforts of individuals other than the investor are “the undeniably significant ones, those essential managerial efforts which affect the failure or success of the enterprise”. In determining an investor’s control over the profitability of the investment, a court may look at:

  • the investor’s contribution of time and effort to the success of the project;
  • the investor’s rights under the investment agreement;
  • the investor’s access to information about the project; and
  • and the investor’s level of sophistication.

This analysis brings into focus the timing of the investment. If promoters promoted the investment and then made no further efforts after the investment, it is likely that no investment contract exists.

In the modern context of security ‘token’ sales that we have been examining, an appreciation in value via secondary market trading, in theory, should not be used as weighing in favor of the token being an investment contract. Additionally, a court may consider the adequacy of financing of the investment as well as the level of speculation and the nature of the risks in the transaction.

 

Getting Over Control Issues

 

With respect to securitized token offerings, it’s fun to talk about monetary gains, decentralization, openness, lambos, etc., but more time needs to be spent around architecting the proper token governance schemes. Because this is a fact-specific analysis, each token project must think granularly in terms of why a token is necessary; what does the token do; what is a token purchaser receiving (voting rights, effectively a license to use the network, ability to contribute to the network, etc.); how is this information being communicated (i.e., Telegram, Reddit, Twitter, Slack, Medium, YouTube, Podcasts, etc.); and how knowledgeable are the pre-functional platform investors (accredited investors, professional knowledgeable investors, ordinary public investors).

Unfortunately, there is no bright-line rule, and there is likely not going to be one for some time. In the decade since cryptocurrency has existed, only two cryptocurrencies (Bitcoin and Ethereum) have been declared not securities.

 

Exploring the Other Side

 

We have talked in this series of posts, in some detail, about transparency from the team building the network, but next, we should finish by focuses on how traditional finance disclosures work for large, private investors.

Meltem Demirors, a prominent cryptocurrency investor, has openly talked about the notion of this “shitcoin waterfall”. The shitcoin waterfall is when an ICO raises a pre-pre-sale round from VCs at a very steep discount. Then, the project raises a pre-sale where the initial investors now have tokens that are valued at 50-100x more than the previous round. The white paper is likely then revised with “crypto-famous” investors listed as advisors, and the white paper reads like any other marketing brochure. Next, the project does an ICO followed by an exchange listing for the general public. Coinciding with the exchange listing, these early investors are dumping their heavily discounted tokens on the average consumer. Meanwhile, most ICOs fail within four months.

Should large, early investors in an ICO be subjected to disclosures about token exits? Such disclosures would help regulators evaluate whether or not these early investors are pumping and dumping coins on the average retail investors. The same is true with self-dealing issues in respect to projects and team members contributing back into their ICO for more of their tokens, thereby inflating the ICO raise. While we share in the enthusiasm and promises of cryptocurrency, current ICO practices are less than noble or open to everyone despite what is propagated at overpriced conferences. As more empirical data comes to light, the legal landscape will begin to adjust for these projects.

 

Series Post-Script

 

The broad variables discussed throughout this series of blog posts on the Howey test offers arguments on why some tokens are considered securities and the gaps in the legal knowledge that need to be overcome. As noted in Coin Center’s recent Framework for Securities Regulation of Cryptocurrency, “the Howey test happens to also be an effective guide for determining whether a token possess heightened risks to users. The more a given token’s software and community variables allow it to fit the definition of a security, the more need there may be to protect its users with regulation.”. In theory, the more decentralized and transparent the network, the less risky it is to hold the token as it functions more like a commodity as price fluctuation is due to the market rather than one entity behind the project.

The reason we started the blog series with the facts of Howey was because the facts are easily substitutable. However, there is a mental shift around digital things that must be explained to regulators and token issuers in order to advance the ecosystem. Sometimes, acting and failing to act can have the same consequences; a didactic that the SEC already knows very well in its views on disclosure. For now, an understanding of the past and careful self-regulation based on our understanding of prior law will have to do.

 


Commentary by Stan Sater
 & Jeffrey Bekiares, Esq.  Jeff is a securities lawyer with over 8+ years of experience, and is co-founder at both Founders Legal and SparkMarket. He can be reached at [email protected]

jeff

What is a Common Enterprise and is Bitcoin or Ethereum one?

In our most recent blog post, we discussed the first prong of the Howey test – an “investment of money” – through the lens of so-called ‘airdrops’. Moving on to the second prong – a “common enterprise” – requires us to take a step back and consider multiple angles. While courts, generally, have been quick to find a common enterprise despite the U.S. Courts fragmentation on the test, new cryptocurrency based projects, as open-source, add a level of consideration that is worth exploring.

 

Not Split – Fragmented

The circuits are fragmented in evaluating the “common enterprise” element, and we are left with three approaches: (1) horizontal commonality, (2) broad vertical commonality, and (3) narrow vertical commonality.

The horizontal commonality test is relatively straightforward. The test requires a pooling of funds in a common venture and a pro rata distribution of profits. The test is not worried about any promoters (which, in this context, means the issuer and its principal(s)). Thus, an investor’s assets must be joined with other investors where each investor shares the risk of loss and profits according to their investment. To date, the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal that follow the horizontal commonality test include the First, Second, Third (affirmed, but no opinion by the Third Circuit Court), Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits. Note – We have only include the circuit courts because these courts are one tier below the U.S. Supreme Court regarding what decisions hold the most weight in the U.S. legal system.

Vertical commonalty focuses on the vertical relationship between the investor and the promoter. Under this test, a common enterprise exists where the investor is dependent on the promoter’s efforts or expertise for investment returns. There are two approaches the vertical commonality:  (1) broad vertical commonality, and (2) narrow vertical commonality.

The only requirement under broad vertical commonality test is that “the investors are dependent upon the expertise of efforts of the investment promotor for their returns”. This test is perhaps the easiest to satisfy because there is typically always an information asymmetry between the promoter and the investor. The key question to ask, therefore, is does the investor rely on the promoter’s expertise? Both the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits follow the broad vertical commonality test.

The narrow vertical commonality test only finds support from one circuit – the Ninth Circuit. Under this test, the court only looks at whether or not the investor’s profits are linked with the profits of the promoter. Put another way, a common enterprise exists if the investor’s success or failure is directly correlated with that of the promoter’s.

 

Where Does That Leave Us?

When we look at Bitcoin and Ethereum, we have to ask who exactly are the ‘promoters’? One of the primary concerns in regulating securities is information asymmetries that lead to investors being taken advantage of by promoters. Remember, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has a three-part mission:  (1) protect investors; (2) maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets; and (3) facilitate capital formation. Therefore, companies offering securities must tell the truth about its business, what securities they are selling, and the risks involved in investing in the company’s securities.

Evaluating Bitcoin and Ethereum under the same test, a central organization, clearly, does not exist. For Bitcoin, there was no ICO and has perhaps been sufficiently decentralized since its inception according to the SEC. For Ethereum, perhaps at the ICO stage, a central entity existed that investors relied on, making it (possibly) a security. However, we are now three years removed from that, and Ethereum has been, to all intents and purposes, deemed to be not a security. In the current state, anyone can write proposals on GitHub, fork the code, contribute upstream to Ethereum, etc. In truly permissionless, decentralized systems, has everyone become a ‘promoter’? The investment of money is not in a common enterprise, but rather an investment of money for tokens to participate in the growth of a network or base protocol. Unlike the familiar examples above, however, the issue with most ICOs is that the platforms are not built and there is a core team that is developing the software pre-release in a silo. Therefore, the investor is dependent on the team for the network to be built, and the funds from the ICO are going towards the team to continue the development of the network.

Many people in cryptocurrency are expecting the next big announcement to come from the SEC or the CFTC. We believe, however, that the next large moment of legal clarity will come, rather, from the courts via the numerous civil lawsuits developing. The U.S. Supreme Court has, to date, declined to take on this circuit court fragmentation directly. Perhaps this is because the facts and circumstances of the prior cases do not warrant a novel decision around the commonality question. However, the way we have seen cryptocurrency evolving and expect it to continue evolving, the time has come to settle the issue of what is a common enterprise.


Commentary by Stan Sater
 & Jeffrey Bekiares, Esq.  Jeff is a securities lawyer with over 8+ years of experience, and is co-founder at both Founders Legal and SparkMarket. He can be reached at [email protected]

jeff