Category Archives: Blockchain

Utility tokens are not a “bad idea”

In his February 8, 2018 opinion piece, Santander’s Julio Faura suggests that “utility tokens are a bad idea” because it would be a “lie to ourselves” to suggest ICOs were not actually selling securities.  Rather, in Mr. Faura’s opinion “we should collectively work on a framework to build a clearly defined scheme for ICOs, recognizing from the very beginning that they are securities.”  And, this “ICO process should be designed in collaboration with regulators to comply with securities law.”  Mr. Faura’s opinion piece does not exist in a vacuum.  In a report dated February 5, 2018, Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s global head of investment research suggests that investors in ICOs could possibly lose their entire investments – which ties to Mr. Faura’s underlying premise that ICOs should be regulated “to protect investors”.

It is not clear how his proposed hybrid solution would ever get implemented given it requires complete buy-in from capital markets and regulators so would be a non-starter from day one – why would existing financial institutions and regulators scuttle existing methods of raising capital or attempt to squeeze ICOs under traditional securities law even if considered a sale of securities?  Answer:  They would not.  Ripple – a company partially funded by Santander InnoVentures, offers a glimpse on how traditional financial markets will compete using blockchain technology.

Mr. Faura paints all sales of cryptocurrencies with the same brush by claiming each one of them actually offers securities subject to SEC scrutiny.   That is simply not the case.  Indeed, does Mr. Faura wonder why the SEC has not knocked on Ripple’s XRP “digital asset” door even though it trades on numerous exchanges?  Even though there was no formal ICO to launch that centralized token, it now trades on 18 platforms where “individual purchases” of the XRP coin can be made.  Indeed, after raising over $93 million by September 2016, no ICO was needed.

One ICO left untouched by the SEC was “gate keeped” by Perkins Coie and involves an ICO for a utility token that raised $35 million in under a minute’s time.   This “BAT utility token” creates a digital advertising ecosystem tied to consumer attention – which is why it is the “Basic Attention Token”.  Such ecosystem would certainly be an upgrade from the current digital advertising scheme wedded to the Web ecosystem of 1995.

All told, it seems that the SEC and other regulatory bodies have actually taken a very measured approach in this area – aggressively focusing on obvious fraudsters first in order to deter subsequent fraudsters while letting the technology play out a bit in the wild.  Not surprisingly, the plaintiff’s bar has been doing a good job picking up the slack in those instances when the SEC has not yet moved.   See Davy v. Paragon Coin, Inc., et al., Case No. 18-cv-00671 (N.D. Cal. January 30, 2018) and Paige v. Bitconnect Intern. PLC, et al., Case No. 3:18-CV-58-JHM (W.D. Ky. January 29, 2018).

Recent public SEC statements seem to back this interpretation of their ICO position. On February 6, 2018, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton recently testified that the potential derived from blockchain was “very significant” – his co-witness, CFTC Chairman Christopher Giancarlo, went so far as to say there was “enormous potential” that “seems extraordinary” for blockchain-based businesses.  Yet, during his testimony, Chairman Clayton said the SEC would continue to “crack down hard” on fraud and manipulation involving ICOs offering an unregistered security.  This is consistent with prior messaging given that Chairman Clayton requested on December 11, 2017 that the SEC’s Enforcement Division “vigorously” enforce and recommend action against ICOs that may be in violation of the federal securities laws.  The fact some 2017 ICOs raising hundreds of millions of dollars were not addressed by the SEC, however, provides a clear “nudge wink” that not all ICOs come under SEC regulatory control.

As with BAT, in the future, there will likely be many more utility tokens built on disruptive blockchain initiatives that escape SEC scrutiny given they are not perceived as securities.  The fact that the SEC has not yet moved on them – despite moving against Munchee, Inc. weeks after the Munchee MUN offering, signals the SEC will temper its enforcement activities when faced with a disruptive blockchain initiative that begets true intrinsic value.   In other words, utility tokens may very well be a good idea after all.

Do ICOs have any future?

On February 6, 2018, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs met in open session to conduct a hearing entitled, Virtual Currencies: The Oversight Role of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission.  The Honorable Jay Clayton, Chairman, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and The Honorable J. Christopher Giancarlo, Chairman, U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission provided lengthy and thoughtful prepared statements.  In his statement, Chairman Clayton explained why the SEC was devoting significant resources to ensure ICO founders do not skirt SEC’s regulatory oversight of security offerings and Chairman Giancarlo reaffirmed that the CFTC will similarly enforce its regulations on commodities.

Their testimony provides helpful insight regarding the enforcement direction these agencies will take in the coming months.  According to Chairman Clayton, in 2017 there was $4 billion raised in ICOs -with an unknown amount being sold in the US.   He was generally “very unhappy with ICOs” and mentioned that the SEC was “working the beat hard” to crack down on them.  Accordingly, ICOs are in the “crosshairs of enforcement” and tellingly he testified that “every ICO [he has] seen is a security” subject to enforcement.  This testimony is consistent with prior SEC pronouncements given that  Chairman Clayton previously requested that the SEC’s Enforcement Division “vigorously” enforce and recommend action against ICOs that may be in violation of the federal securities laws.   During his testimony, Chairman Clayton repeated several times that the SEC would continue to “crack down hard” on fraud and manipulation involving ICOs offering an unregistered security.

According to Chairman Clayton, the definition of a security is broad and will turn on whether someone can profit from efforts going forward by buying the token and then trade it with someone else for further profit.  Both Chairmen recognized that no one agency has any direct oversight of virtual currencies and welcomed efforts from Congress to draft new legislation that would help with their coordination efforts.

In probably the most interesting exchange during their two-hour testimony, Senator Mark Warner of Virginia recognized that the SEC went after certain ICO promoters but not others so directly asked Chairman Clayton whether the SEC “will go back [to scrutinize prior ICOs]?”  Correctly avoiding that question – given it requests insight as to future SEC enforcement efforts, Chairman Clayton instead offered that the SEC is counting on lawyers and accountants to also act as “gatekeepers” for future ICOs.

Chairman Clayton’s testimony came on the heels of the SEC’s Cease and Desist Order in the Munchee, Inc. matter that may have closed the lid on many planned 2018 ICO’s given the stringent standard set forth in that SEC Order.  By way of background, Munchee created an iPhone application for people to review restaurant meals.  In October and November 2017, Munchee offered and then sold purported utility tokens issued on the Ethereum blockchain.  “Munchee conducted the offering of MUN tokens to raise about $15 million in capital so that it could improve its existing app and recruit users to eventually buy advertisements, write reviews, sell food and conduct other transactions using MUN.”  Order at 1.

In deeming the MUN utility token a “security” subject to SEC oversight, the SEC made the following finding of fact in its December 11, 2017 Order:

Purchasers had a reasonable expectation that they would obtain a future profit from buying MUN tokens if Munchee were successful in its entrepreneurial and managerial efforts to develop its business. Purchasers would reasonably believe they could profit by holding or trading MUN tokens, whether or not they ever used the Munchee App or otherwise participated in the MUN “ecosystem,” based on Munchee’s statements in its MUN White Paper and other materials. Munchee primed purchasers’ reasonable expectations of profit through statements on blogs, podcasts, and Facebook that talked about profits.

Order at 5.

There remains hope for future ICOs given that the SEC is certainly not going after them all.  One ICO left untouched by the SEC was “gate keeped” by Perkins Coie and involves an ICO for an Ethereum utility token that raised $35 million in under a minute’s time.   See FAQ (“We and our counsel at Perkins-Coie are confident that the Basic Attention Token is properly classified as property with utility on the platform we are building, and not a security.”).  Given the subsequent Munchee C&D Order, it is unclear why the SEC does not “go back” to this ICO as suggested by Senator Warner.

The founders of Brave Software launched the “Basic Attention Token” in May 2017 seeking to improve on the current digital advertising ecosystem:   “Digital advertising is broken [with] unprecedented levels of malvertisements and privacy violations.”  The BAT token looks to fix this broken system by creating an ecosystem tied to consumer attention – which is why it is called the “Basic Attention Token”.  Such ecosystem would certainly be an upgrade from the current digital advertising scheme based on the Web ecosystem of 1995.  BAT tokens can only derive long term value by way of the Brave® Browser.   As set forth by a marketing blogger, “If Brave isn’t adopted, the new advertising structure won’t work.”

By successfully obtaining registered trademark No. 5,362,328 for BRAVE – a mark used to distinguish Brave Software’s “web browser software”, the founders of the BAT token demonstrate ownership rights in the Brave browser, that they are the source of such product, and that they will be the direct cause of the browser’s success.  In other words, buyers of the BAT ICO would necessarily profit from the efforts of Brave Software, Inc.   On the other hand, there remains utility to the BAT token.  Moreover, a utility token will likely always be at least remotely tied to the efforts of its founders – there is little reason to believe a token left in the wild would hatch into anything of value.  The fact that the SEC has not scrutinized the BAT ICO is actually an encouraging sign the SEC will temper its enforcement actions when faced with a disruptive blockchain initiative that begets true intrinsic value in the token.

State and Private Enforcement of ICO schemes

In addition to existing federal enforcement, state agencies are also cracking down on ICOs.  For example, on January 17, 2018, the Massachusetts Securities Division filed an administrative complaint against a Cayman Islands company given that the company operated out of Massachusetts and its ICO offered for sale “a security without such security being registered or exempt from registration.”  Complaint at 2.

And, to the extent state regulatory oversight may be lacking, states will try and enlarge regulatory reach by enacting new laws.  For example, California introduced a year ago the Virtual Currency Act (A.B. 1123), which would have required those involved in a “virtual currency business” within the state to register with California’s Commissioner of Business Oversight.  Even though this attempt at regulating cryptocurrencies died on January 31, 2018 due to political pressure, it may come back in a different from.    Interestingly, there was a carve out in the bill for any “virtual currency business” when it uses “[d]igital units that are used exclusively as part of a consumer affinity or rewards program”.

Class action counsel has also impacted ICOs by directly suing ICO founders in order to recoup millions for class participants.  One recent case is Davy v. Paragon Coin, Inc., et al., Case No. 18-cv-00671 (N.D. Cal. January 30, 2018).  Plaintiff class counsel sued Paragon based, in part, on the Paragon white paper characterizing its PRG token as potentially increasing in value simply based on the reduction of supply and an increase in demand.  Moreover, the paper suggests that “PRG is designed to appreciate in value as our solutions are adopted throughout the cannabis industry and around the world.”  Id. at 31.  In other words, the efforts of the founders would directly generate a more profitable investment result from the ICO.

Another ICO class action fraud case was filed in Paige v. Bitconnect Intern. PLC, et al., Case No. 3:18-CV-58-JHM (W.D. Ky. January 29, 2018).  The plaintiff’s claim of a Ponzi scheme was so strong it resulted in a TRO from the Court a day after filing suit.  Any future ICO that results in a loss in value to “investors” will likely trigger class counsel to spring into action.

The future of ICOs remains viable

Where does this trifecta of enforcement efforts – federal, state and private, leave ICOs?  If bankers are to believed, there is currently not much “there”, there.   In a report dated February 5, 2018, Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s global head of investment research suggests that investors in ICOs could possibly lose their entire investments.  Goldman’s Steve Strongin said that while he did not know a timeframe for total losses in existing coins and tokens, he ruminated:  “The high correlation between the different cryptocurrencies worries me. . . Because of the lack of intrinsic value, the currencies that don’t survive will most likely trade to zero.”

Given the disruptive nature of ICOs on the IPO and private equity markets, it is not surprising that the global head of Goldman downplays the future of ICOs – even if he is correct in pointing out  the lack of intrinsic value in most every utility token and coin offered in an ICO.  Notwithstanding current enforcement actions and competition from traditional markets, the future for ICOs should remain viable.  Moving forward, the key to a viable and “compliant” ICO will be whether the ICO is conducted for a utility token having  demonstrated intrinsic value connected to the activities of those other than merely the ICO’s founders.

Blockchain in 2018 and beyond

Buoyed by Bitcoin’s latest price and a steady supply of Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), the blockchain ecosystem in 2018 resembles the Web ecosystem of 1995 – an ecosystem that eventually disrupted advertising and marketing models by having companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook outplace traditional retail sales and marketing companies.  This time around, however, the financial levers presently held by banks and related financial services firms will be retooled – as well as the present centralized server model so very important to the same companies who previously benefited from the Web ecosystem, namely Amazon, Google and Facebook.

Speculation vs. Utilization

in September 2017, Bitcoin was famously derided by the financial titan Jamie Dimon as “a fraud”.  The JPMorgan CEO went so far as to say he would fire anyone on his trading team who bought Bitcoin.  His gratuitous digs at Bitcoin did not temper the rise of Bitcoin and became noteworthy – and a likely source of friction with his traders, because the Bitcoin cryptocurrency went on to increase in value over three-fold a mere 1Q after Dimon’s public derision.   As of December 31, 2017, Bitcoin sits at a price of near $14,000 whereas when Mr. Dimon’s bold pronouncements were made Bitcoin “only” had a price of $4,115.

Similarly, another banker – Vitor Constancio, the vice president of the European Central Bank, said in July 2017 that Bitcoin “is not a currency but a mere instrument of speculation” – comparing it to tulip bulbs during the 17th century trading bubble in the Netherlands.

In the same way that the World Wide Web was never defined solely by Pets.com, the benefits of blockchain technology should never be defined solely by the latest price of Bitcoin.  Even Mr. Dimon acknowledges as much given during his tirade against the speculative nature of Bitcoin he also said “he supported blockchain technology for tracking payments.”

By way of background, a blockchain is nothing more than an expandable list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography, namely cryptographic hashes that point to each prior block and result in an unbreakable “chain” of hashes surrounding the blocks.  More accurately referred to as a distributed ledger of accounts, a blockchain ecosystem will disrupt more than one industry beginning in 2018.

The inevitable changes that will occur in 2018 spring from several unique attributes of the blockchain ecosystem.  First, because a blockchain ledger is distributed it takes advantage of the vast amount of compute power available in most every computer device.  Similar to how the Mirai botnet distributed denial of service (DDos) attack became the largest DDoS attack by simply using unsecured IoT access, blockchain technology harnesses secure unused compute power in powerful and productive new ways.  Our new IoT ecosystem – which itself is an outgrowth of the Web ecosystem, will only feed into that result.

Secondly, blockchain ledger transactions are the closest thing to an immutable form of transaction accounting we have given the transactions have been verified and cannot be changed once written to the blockchain without evidence of obvious tampering – which was always the reason Bitcoin derived any actual intrinsic value.  In other words, the promise of blockchain coupled with pure speculation has solely driven Bitcoin pricing.  By buying Bitcoin and other cybercurrencies, it is almost as if people were given a chance to turn back the clock and bet on the Web ecosystem in 1995.  Without usage for its intended purpose, namely being a trusted and immutable listing of Bitcoin transactions, Bitcoin would most certainly go to the zero valuation postulated by Morgan Stanley.  The logic is pretty straight forward – without an actual intrinsic store of value, there is no actual intrinsic store of value.  And, without some sort of intrinsic store of value there is no reason to consider Bitcoin an asset.  Accordingly, unless utilized by choice or forced to be used by a government, speculation will never be a sustainable impetus for the pricing of Bitcoin – or any other cryptocurrency for that matter.  Without utilization, tokens/app coins/cryptocurrencies will all die on the vine given external utilization will always be needed to create a store of value.

Utilization under the Ethereum protocol

Disregarding the unlikely scenario of governmental adoption, the future of any blockchain/cryptocurrency ecosystem necessarily ties directly to utilization.  Even though there are several protocols with smart contracts amendable to utilization, there is only one founded by a visionary who understands the issue of scalability and why scalability is the sine qua non of a successful blockchain ecosystem – in the same way a non-scalable Web ecosystem was always a non-starter.  An early December 2017 presentation given by that visionary – Vitalik Buterin,  talks to scalability as being the most important new initiative of Ethereum going forward in 2018.   Mr. Buterin – who will likely take the blockchain ecosystem where Gates took the PC ecosystem and Bezos took the Web ecosystem, suggests that “sharding” using a Validator Manager Contract –  a construct that maintains an internal proof of stake claim using random validators, will eventually solve the problem of scalability.  Simply put, not all blocks/shards will need to be placed under the main chain.  This is a natural evolutionary progression given as it stands now everyone seeking an Ethereum wallet needs to download Ethereum’s entire trove of over four million blocks – hardly a scalable solution for the many app tokens or coins running the Ethereum protocol.  Moreover, each Ethereum block currently also takes about 14.70 seconds to promulgateIn 2014, Buterin anticipated the feasibility of a 12 second block time so has certainly been moving in the right direction.  Given security and propagation issues, work on this remains in the infancy stage with a great deal of work necessary in 2018.  Nevertheless, in 2018 and beyond, smart contracts such as those available under Ethereum will allow for the utilization necessary for the blockchain ecosystem to thrive.

Adoption by financial markets and the Ripple Effect

Ripple/XRP surged at the very end of 2017 and quickly became a rumored stealth initiative by the regulated banking industry to combat unregulated cryptocurrencies.  Ripple promises “end-to-end tracking and certainty” for those banks using its RippleNet closed-loop network.  More than anything, this initiative demonstrates that unregulated ICOs and unregulated “currencies” may have spooked the world’s financial markets sufficiently to justify taking sides by investing in a Ripple contender – a “blockchain-like” service seeking to displace existing cryptocurrency mindshare.  Indeed, Ripple just replaced ETH/Ethereum as the second largest market cap cryptocurrency.   Even though only three financial institutions are listed as investors, that does not mean other financial institutions would not want to prop up use of this “currency” on the open market – the list of “advisory board members” is telling in that regard.  This bank-sponsored cryptocurrency certainly looks like it has more legs than most given there exists budding utilization – banks are currently already using the RippleNet network, coupled with massive speculation given its ballooning market cap.

In 2018, acceptance of blockchain technology by the financial industry will be indelible proof those mistakes of 1995 made by retail sales and marketing companies will not be repeated by the financial industry or even the server sector represented by the likes of Google – who has invested in Ripple.  More than likely, upcoming technology developments under the Ethereum protocol will beget future tokens with smarter utilization and even greater potential upside than either Bitcoin or Ripple.  In other words, the blockchain ecosystem in 2018 will be no different than the Web ecosystem as it existed in 1995.