Is the ICO party over?

not another 'i told you so' post


  • The question on everyone’s mind this week after Friday’s SEC statement: are ICOs dead? Yes and no. Gone are the days where anything goes and token offerings operate in the "wild wild west” of regulatory uncertainty. (Which, honestly, was not very uncertain at all in the past year and a half.) The problem has always lied in the way the tokens were structured and sold. There is still space for compliant token sales, but it won’t be an easy path back to 2017 activity.

The SEC’s big year in crypto regulations: are ICOs dead?

(Reminder before reading another word, that I am not an attorney, and most definitely not your attorney.)

The SEC has had an active month. It kicked off November with an enforcement action against the founder of a decentralized exchange, EtherDelta, and followed up on Friday with two more jabs against Airfox and Paragon, two tokens who completed sales in late 2017 “after the SEC’s DAO report.” And then the final upper cut dropped: a statement on digital asset securities issuance and trading. 

The details of what happened in those cases are well covered online by many legal commentators in the crypto space (some good ones here, here, and here), but the gist is that Airfox and Paragon conducted ICOs in which they a) sold tokens b) at a discount to early private investors, c) to fund the build-out of their products, and d) which had no use at the time of sales. And the companies did not register those token sales as securities with the SEC. 

Nothing super surprising. Both token sales pushed the securities law envelope hard.

It was the SEC’s full statement and takeaways later in the day, however, that are worth spending time dissecting.

The skinny: if you're dealing with what the SEC deems to be a security, security laws will apply to you. In the SEC’s eyes, there’s nothing “retroactive” about that treatment, as securities issuers should be knowledgeable of existing law. As should investment advisers, broker-dealers, exchanges, alternative trading systems, or any other entity that touches securities and is subject to the giant umbrella of securities law. 

Regulators — since they do not make laws— know how to make existing frameworks work even with new paradigms of fundraising like token sales.

I’m not sure that regulatory uncertainty has even particularly ambiguous in the past year, many teams and their lawyers simply ignored SEC guidance and precedent. I went and looked up all of the public statements, speeches, orders, releases, and actions by the SEC in the past year and a half, and there’s a consistent narrative. 

With the DAO investigative report, the SEC charged onto the crypto scene in July 2017 rather aggressively and issued a report and two investor guideline/ bulletins around how and when ICOs would likely be deemed securities. This is also when we all started hearing about the “Howey Test,” which I’m sure you may recite by heart. (An a) investment of money in b) a common enterprise with c) a reasonable expectation of profit, from d) the work of others is a security.)

Since that first report, the SEC has put out numerous statements warning i) they are paying attention; ii) the way that most token sales have been structured to date are in fact securities (even if they are domiciled overseas); and iii) they intend to regulate the ICO space by applying securities law frameworks.

[TBI Note: Now we finally have the full realization of what to expect in the months ahead: an onslaught of enforcement actions and settlements against projects that raised money at the right time, but in the wrong way. The forced return of principal to ICO investors (plus penalties) will likely bankrupt many of the projects that went the token route in the first place. The little fish will settle. The big fish will use their 8-10 figure war chests to fight this out in court.]

Anecdotally, I have friends at law firms who have been approached in 2017 and 2018 by various token issuers to write legal opinions stating that those token offerings are not securities. Those law firms and lawyers who stood their grounds and turned away easy clients and profits are today largely vindicated. Those who played fast and loose with the law and had a role in facilitating egregious activity may face financial penalties. 

So is the ICO party really all over?

Yes and no. 

Perhaps the most significant component to Friday’s actions? Enforcement actions are no longer reserved for the most egregious actors. Neither the Paragon nor Airfox orders had fraud components to them. Rather, the SEC went after them on purely civil grounds, because neither project registered their token sales as securities. 

Now we wait to see where the next shoe will drop, and whether there will be an exodus of projects to friendlier climates than the U.S. 

This doesn’t spell the end for tokens or cryptonetworks. Just sloppily constructed ones. And that is, by and large, a good thing.

In the meantime? Stop getting your legal advice from twitter and call up real securities law lawyers to handle issues that you’re facing.

Can’t get enough SEC action? I have been collecting a timeline of all of the SEC actions/ orders/ statements/ speeches/ announcements in the crypto space thus far which you can review here.


P.S. Share. Subscribe. Spread the (rational) crypto love. Tweet at me or Messari for requests, feedback, comments, or questions.

News & Analyses

Messari Compression Algorithm

Content and thoughts from around the web as summarized by the Messari team.

🤔 [Analysis] Cryptonetworks are not companies – Chris Burniske

Emerging cryptonetworks use a protocol in place of the government, specialize in a single (digital) service, and are capable of global scale from inception. Out of them, only services that thrive off decentralization will successfully organize and incentivize human activity using the architecture of cryptonetworks.   Both cryptonetworks and companies will generate large amounts of wealth in cryptoland, one doing so through a cryptoasset and the other via equity. With cryptonetworks, the winners will be fewer but with returns greater than any other asset class from this time period, while with companies there will be a higher number of more modest winners. (Messari | Source)

🎈 [Analysis] Airdrops are a marketing play (and that's ok) – Michael Casey

Michael Casey argues that airdrops can be viewed as a marketing expense in the service of promoting community adoption as adoption requires some level of marketing. A currency is nothing if it is not widely used. And that can’t be achieved unless people make some cost-incurring effort to encourage widespread usage. If you level charges of a scam, it isn’t enough to just point out asymmetric payoffs, which are simply the reality of the adoption curve. Assessing such situations requires nuance. Michael cautions against quickly jumping to condemn particular community development undertakings, including airdrops. These are not cut-and-dry issues. (Messari | Source)

Quick Bits (Don't read that, I read it for you)

Choke Points (Exchange News)

  • 🇷🇺 Huobi, the third-largest crypto exchange by trading volumes has opened an office in Moscow, the first major crypto trading platform to have a physical presence in the country. Huobi’s ambitions go further, into lending and renting space for Russian miners, shaping the country’s regulations and training local blockchain talent. (Messari | Source)

  • 🚀 The Intercontinental Exchange Inc. (ICE) has announced that Bakkt Bitcoin USD daily futures contracts will start trading on Jan. 24, 2019. The contract will be physically settled with Bitcoin help by Bakkt and clearing performed by ICE. Each contract calls for the delivery of one BTC from Bakkt and trading will be conducted in U.S. dollar terms. (Messari | Source)

Startup Signals (ICOs, Cryptos, and Startups)

  • 💪 According to figures from jobs site, searches for roles involving bitcoin, blockchain, and cryptocurrency dropped by 3.1 percent year over year in October. However, the number of job postings increased by 25.5 percent over the same period. (Messari | Source)

  • 🚦 The world’s first crypto exchange traded product (ETP) will start trading next week on Europe’s fourth biggest exchange, SIX Swiss Exchange, with a market capitalization of $1.6 trillion. A crypto startup, Amun AG, was given the green-light to list an index fund on a traditional stock exchange. (Messari | Source)

The Powers That Be (Legal/Reg/Policy)

  • 🇺🇸 The U.S. Federal Election Commission (FEC) has released a new draft opinion that clears the way for people to mine cryptocurrencies as a way to support their preferred candidates. Attorneys with the FEC were responding to a proposal submitted in September by OsiaNetwork LLC, which at the time asked if individuals would be able to provide their computers’ processing power to mine cryptocurrencies. (Messari | Source)

Did I miss something?

Send me the link, your twitter handle and your best imitation compression algorithm write up. If I like it, I’ll include your bit next issue (with attribution).

Podcast Recap

🎧 ICYMI on the Messari podcast, Katherine sits down with MyCrypto’s Taylor Monahan to talk product design. Taylor highlights the vast difference between intentions and outcome in product design vs. user experience and shares some of her experiences in building tools for crypto users. Katherine also discusses the recent Bitcoin Cash fork and reflects on the recent market volatility. (19 min for your lunch break)

BONUS: Qiao swung by Jeffrey Tong’s “Smartest Contract” podcast to chat all things crypto, and provide some updates on what we’re working on at Messari.

Listen and subscribe to all of our podcasts— on Apple Podcasts here, Spotify here, and Google play here.

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