Before you launch your next crypto token, you should see if you can pass the test.
It is not the smell test with investment bankers.
The Howey test will help you understand if your crypto is one of many digital securities which would present more legal responsibilities, such as disclosure and registration requirements.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) v. W.J. Howey Co. was a 1946 Supreme Court decision about citrus grove buyers in Florida. The Howey Company sold citrus groves to investors who leased the land back to Howey. The company’s employees managed the groves and sold the fruit on behalf of the investors. Both the company and the investors profited from the venture.
The investors only needed to supply capital to the arrangement, while others took care of all the other details. An investment contract is what you get when your transaction passes the Howey test.
Of course, this concept impacts things beyond citrus fruit. It is also applicable to the cryptocurrency market. In fact, there are four factors to consider which separate a security from a commodity:
- An investment
- A common enterprise
- A profit expectation
- Generated from the work of third-parties
In the U.S., the SEC has deemed bitcoin not to be a security. The issuer, an anonymous Satoshi Nakamoto, released all 21 million tokens at once as part of a contract. None of the tokens went to him or a company treasury. When the tokens were released, they had no value, and when they gained value, Nakamoto did not receive any benefit.
In effect, he removed any possible connection between “common enterprise” from the other factors, which disqualifies the venture as a security under the Howey test.
SEC Chair Gary Gensler said, “at the core, these (altcoin) tokens are securities because there’s a group in the middle and the public is anticipating profits based on that group,” during an interview with New York Magazine.
However, Rostin Behnam, the chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), said Bitcoin is not the only commodity. He called another crypto coin—Ethereum—a commodity during a hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee. In fact, Ethereum has been listed on CFTC exchanges for some time.
An interagency council comprised of state and federal banking officials, as well as commodity, securities and consumer protection groups, agreed in a report that there is not a comprehensive regulatory framework for digital assets. Hence, the reason for differing stances within the industry.
Right now, asset classification dictates how digital assets are regulated. If it is a payment, then it falls under the purview of Money Services Business and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Likewise, CFTC oversees commodities, and the SEC has jurisdiction over securities.
Recently, the SEC has filed a complaint against Binance and Coinbase, alleging that they are selling unregistered securities. The complaint mentioned several coins that could be viewed as securities: Polygon, Cardano and Solana. Soon after the announcement, Robinhood—another crypto exchange—delisted the three mentioned coins.
Binance.US has decided to become a crypto-only exchange, ending US dollar deposits and withdrawals. The SEC wants a federal judge to freeze the exchange’s assets, including $2.2 billion in crypto and $377 million held in dollars.
Either the Coinbase case or the Binance case could make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could in effect create the path for industry regulation with its ruling. As part of a possible outcome, the High Court could also rewrite the Howey test or revise it in relation to digital assets.
At the 2023 Global Exchange and Fintech Conference, Gensler said congressional action is not needed because the laws are already on the books. “Not liking the law, not liking the rules is different than not hearing it or not getting it,” he said. However, this view fails to recognize that the current regulatory framework is not black and white for investors and institutional players.
Under federal securities laws, a company must register with the SEC before offering or selling securities. As part of the registration process, an issuer must disclose financial statements that have been audited by a public accounting firm. These documents provide important information that helps investors make informed decisions about their investments.
As the digital financial assets space grows, more large corporations can be found with crypto on their balance sheets. A 2022 Deloitte Global Corporate Treasury Survey found that 40% of interviewed finance executives said they have already implemented blockchain or they are considering it.
In the short term, issuers will need to work with a law firm with expertise in crypto and digital currencies to navigate the impact of the courtroom rulings and the subsequent new era of regulation on their business.
Make sure your company will be able to pass the test in the evolving legal landscape.
(Joseph M. Pastore III is chairman of Pastore, a law firm that helps corporate and financial services clients find creative solutions to complex legal challenges. He can be reached at 203.658.8455 or email@example.com.)