The SEC suffered a significant loss last week in its ongoing legal battle with Ripple over the XRP digital token. While the District Court held that Ripple’s initial sales of XRP to institutional investors constituted the sale of unregistered securities, it was a Pyrrhic victory as the court held
In late October, a New York district court refused to dismiss the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) indictment against defendant Nathaniel Chastain, who was charged with wire fraud and money laundering relating to his using insider knowledge to purchase non-fungible tokens (NFTs) prior to them being featured on OpenSea, an online NFT marketplace, and later selling them at a profit. (U.S. v. Chastain, No. 22-cr-305 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 21, 2022)). Despite the headlines and the fact that the DOJ’s press release labeled this enforcement as charges brought in “the first ever digital asset insider trading scheme,” the Chastain indictment was not actually based on the typical insider trading statutes involving securities law violations, but instead the federal wire fraud statute. Indeed, despite having an insider trading flavor, the word “security” does not appear in the indictment and the court, in refusing to dismiss the DOJ’s wire fraud claim, ruled that the Government’s wire fraud claim does not require the presence of a “security.”
Back in 2013, the first cryptocurrency matter hit our desks. That was the beginning of the exponential growth of our digital assets practice. Recognizing the importance of the area, we launched this blog, Blockchain and the Law. In our first cluster of posts, we covered topics such as cryptocurrency taxation, blockchain and privacy, and issues surrounding initial coin offerings (or ICOs), one of the hottest issues at that time and a practice that still garners SEC scrutiny in 2022 (interestingly, there is still no consensus around when a digital asset, outside of Bitcoin, which is considered a commodity, is a “security”).
Today, blockchain-based innovations continue apace, continuously offering new opportunities (and raising challenges). In the push toward Web3 – with its decentralized, permissionless, tokenized core – there are a variety of new technologies and innovations, from DeFi to DAOs to NFTs to fan tokens to the Merge to the metaverse. We have been privileged to work with many of the most dynamic clients in helping them build businesses around these advances.
We were thrilled to host a three-day symposium from September 19-21, 2022 to highlight some of the hottest legal and business issues affecting digital assets, featuring a full slate of discussions among our attorneys and guests from the industry. At the symposium, we programmed virtual panels across a range of topics: SEC enforcement and securities regulation of digital assets, asset manager considerations surrounding digital assets, employee compensation and benefits issues, cryptocurrency AML considerations, digital assets in bankruptcy, decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), and sports and media trends and issues in Web3. The final day of the event culminated in an in-person reception and a “Voices from the Industry” panel featuring an eclectic group of executives from across the digital asset space talking about issues that are top of mind. In the span of a few days, we learned a lot.
With the enduring popularity of certain NFTs and the promise of their use in the Metaverse and beyond, the hype around the new technology has been accompanied by rising concerns over NFTs being the centerpiece of traditional financial crimes like money laundering and wire fraud. For example, on June 30th, 2022 the Justice Department indicted six individuals in four separate cryptocurrency fraud cases, which altogether involved over $130 million of investors’ funds. These indictments include allegations of a global Ponzi scheme selling unregistered crypto securities, a fraudulent initial coin offering involving phony associations with top companies, a fraudulent investment fund that purportedly traded on cryptocurrency exchanges, and the largest-known Non-Fungible Token (NFT) money laundering scheme to date.
Kryptonite is a fictional substance that causes the mighty Superman to lose all his strength. According to a recent release from the U.S. Department of Labor Employee Benefits Security Administration (“DOL”), cryptocurrency might carry similar dangers for otherwise strong and healthy 401(k) plan accounts. That is, in DOL’s view, the benefits of cryptocurrency in 401(k) plans may prove to be just as fictional as kryptonite, thereby causing significant risks of losses for retirement security.
On March 10, 2022, DOL issued Compliance Assistance Release No. 2022-01 (the “Release”) to caution plan fiduciaries to exercise extreme care before considering whether to include investment options like cryptocurrency as part of a 401(k) plan’s investment menu. In so doing, DOL raised five key concerns associated with offering these types of investment options.
On March 9, 2022, the President issued an Executive Order (the “E.O.”) that articulates a high-level, wide-ranging national strategy for regulating and fostering innovation in the burgeoning digital assets space. The strategy is intended to encourage innovation yet still provide adequate oversight to control systemic risks and the attendant investor, business, consumer and environmental concerns.
The E.O. is very broad in scope. It focuses on the myriad of issues associated with “digital assets,” a term defined in a way to capture a wide variety of existing and emerging “crypto” implementations. Specifically, the E.O. defines digital assets to include “all central bank digital currencies (CBDCs), regardless of the technology used, and to other representations of value, financial assets and instruments, or claims that are used to make payments or investments, or to transmit or exchange funds or the equivalent thereof, that are issued or represented in digital form through the use of distributed ledger technology.” Significantly, the E.O. does not make an attempt at defining the regulatory status of digital assets and notes a digital asset “may be, among other things, a security, a commodity, a derivative, or other financial product.”
While the E.O. itself doesn’t really set forth any new requirements, it puts into motion a process that may yield specific regulatory approaches to digital assets. Of course, this process is happening in parallel with other initiatives by the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and Congress itself and thus, there is a possibility that the E.O will result in approaches that are in ways inconsistent with other ongoing regulatory developments. For example, in January 2022 the SEC released a proposal that would enhance investor protections and cybersecurity for alternative trading systems that trade Treasuries and other government securities. The proposal prompted a dissenting statement from SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce (often referred to as “Crypto Mom” for her advocacy of the industry), who objected to the speed and breadth of the January 2022 proposal. The E.O. sidesteps some of the controversial issues addressed in the SEC proposal, such as how “exchanges” should be defined, as well as the greater issue of how different digital assets should be classified (and therefore, which financial regulatory agencies have jurisdiction over various digital products and platforms). At the same time, there seems to be some amount of bipartisan interest in Congress to pass its own legislation regulating certain aspects of cryptocurrency and related technologies (e.g., in the stablecoin area), Whether or not that legislation would be consistent with the results of the E.O.-driven processes is also hard to tell.
Gary Gensler, Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), attracted a lot of attention following his remarks at the Aspen Security Forum earlier this month, asking Congress for more authority “to write rules for and attach guardrails to crypto trading and lending” and opining that for the “volatile” industry to truly prosper it needs more investor and consumer protections. But make no mistake: Gensler is not waiting around for Congress to act. In his remarks, Gensler highlighted various areas where the SEC currently has jurisdiction and emphasized that “we have taken and will continue to take our authorities as far as they go.”