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Private Equity Litigation

Last week, former CFTC Chairman Gary Gensler explained in remarks at M.I.T. that he believes the second and third most widely used virtual currencies—Ether and Ripple—may have been issued and traded in violation of securities regulations.  This comes on the heels of a crackdown on cryptocurrency-related securities by the SEC, which is particularly focused on initial coin offerings (ICOs).  For fund managers, we believe the increased regulatory pressure will be felt in some expected, and some not-so-expected, ways.

ICO enforcement is trending: The SEC’s Cyber Unit has ramped up enforcement pressure, issuing dozens of subpoenas and information requests to technology companies and advisers involved in the ICO market.  The requests have sought information about the structure for sales and pre-sales of ICOs.  This uptick in enforcement pressure isn’t surprising, especially given Chairman Clayton’s repeated warnings that participants in the ICO space are not complying with the required securities laws (for example, notably stating that he has yet to see an ICO that “doesn’t have a sufficient number of hallmarks of a security.”)  There are no signs the SEC will slow down its scrutiny of crypto-related assets.  The SEC has already indicated that it will devote significant resources to policing the ICO market. 

In his recent remarks at the Securities Regulation Institute, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton had some stern words for market professionals, especially lawyers, involved in initial coin offerings (ICOs).  He expressed concern that lawyers in the space “can do better” in their role as gatekeepers to the securities markets, particularly in advising clients whether the “coin” being offered is a security requiring registration.In particular, he noted situations where lawyers may have helped to structure an ICO with many of the hallmarks of a securities offering, but have taken the position that the coin is not a security.  Second, he noted situations where attorneys have apparently stepped back and provided “equivocal advice” rather than counseling clients that the ICO being promoted would likely require registration.  In his view, these approaches are inappropriate in light of SEC guidance indicating that ICOs are likely to qualify as securities under the long-standing Howey test for investment contracts.

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