Why fungible crypto assets are not securities

The Owl
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Why fungible crypto assets are not securities

Why fungible crypto assets are not securities

The speakers at our Owl Explains Hootenanny last week are co-authors of the most thorough analysis to date of the burning question of whether fungible crypto assets are - or are not - securities. (Spoiler alert – mostly they are not.) Lewis Cohen, Freeman Lewin and Sarah Chen from DLX law firm have analysed the US Securities Acts, the ‘Howey test’ on investment contracts (more on that below) and 266 pieces of case law where the Howey test was applied to different scenarios. The resulting paper is 180 pages long. But fear not! This owl has served up this pithy appetiser to whet your appetite for the full feast which you can find here

So what’s this all about?

The flurry of Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) a few years ago has led some regulators to conflate the token sales in an ICO and the crypto assets involved in them and seek to apply US securities laws to both.  The authors of this paper do not dispute that the fundraising activity of an ICO – inviting investors to purchase crypto assets in a fledgling project with the hope of making a profit – might indeed involve an investment contract and that securities law would often apply. What they dispute is whether and when the crypto assets themselves qualify as ‘securities’ according to current laws and regulations. Just as oranges, chinchillas, whiskey barrels and stamps can form part of an investment contract but are not themselves securities, the same goes for crypto assets.  (This owl particularly enjoyed the bit about how chinchillas are not securities – of course they aren’t – they’re lunch).  They also challenge the notion that ‘once a security, always a security’ that continues to classify a crypto asset as a security well beyond the context of an ICO when the crypto asset may be performing all manner of other functions that do not involve an investment contract.

So what should regulators do instead?

The co-authors recommend that the status of a crypto asset can only be determined by first understanding the true nature of the crypto asset – and then by understanding and applying case law and legal scholarship on investment contract transactions. And that is exactly what the article does – exploring first the nature of crypto assets and then delving into case law and legal scholarship to explore when an investment contract does and does not exist.

Why does this matter?

It matters more than ever right now as policy makers and regulators, particularly in the US, are leaning towards deeming many, even all, crypto assets to be securities without going through this exercise of interrogating the nature of the asset and the transaction.  And that matters because if all crypto assets are treated as securities even if they represent things that clearly are not – and even when they are clearly not part of an investment contract - regulators risk not only strangling with red tape the innovation and promise of Web3, but also causing confusion for all manner of items like the aforementioned chinchillas.

So when is a crypto asset a security?

A crypto asset is a security either by its very nature (e.g., a stock or bond on blockchain). When it is part of an investment contract according to the Howey Test, well, the crypto asset is not a security but the investment contract is. Clearly crypto assets cannot be assumed to be securities by their very nature – because a crypto asset can represent literally anything at all. They may occasionally be – but equally (and more often) they may not be.  So where the asset is not a security by nature, we have to assess whether they might be part of an investment contract as defined by the Howey Test. Still not a security, but the subject of an investment contract.

So what is the Howey Test?

The Howey test says that an investment contract transaction exists when a “contract, transaction or scheme” involves 

  1. an investment of money

  2. in a common enterprise

  3. with an expectation of profits to come

  4. solely from the efforts of the promoter or a third party.

So the Howey test defines correctly that fundraising by selling crypto assets as part of an ICO might be an investment contract that the securities laws apply to. And while crypto assets are part of that investment contract, they are not themselves securities.  But what happens when the fundraise is complete and the crypto assets are being used for other purposes where Howey tells us clearly there is no investment contract? An example could be when they are merely validated, delegated or staked. Or when they are performing as a utility token intrinsic to the functioning of a blockchain. The article does not shy away from the complexity of all this. In fact it opens with a quote from Homer’s The Odyssey where the old man of the sea changes himself ‘first into a lion with a great mane, then all of a sudden he became a dragon, a leopard, a wild boar; the next moment he was running water and then again directly he was a tree’  Why? Because crypto assets can also shape shift in that different circumstances can affect whether a cryptoasset should be treated as a security or not.  With this mercurial nature then, regulators and practitioners need to consider each and every transaction and activity concerning a crypto asset on a case by case basis to determine whether there is a security or not.  But this isn’t always possible because the information needed to make that assessment is private.

So what is the solution?

A new law and more engagement from and between the SEC, FTC, CFTC, Department for Justice and state attorneys general.

So you mean regulation?

Yes. Fundamentally the co-authors call for regulation based on the kind of thorough understanding and legal analysis of crypto assets that this paper provides.

Other resources

Our wise owl Lee Schneider has written a few essays that talk about these issues and are available here and here.


token classification notes
Mar 27, 2024

Understanding and Classifying Blockchain Tokens

As seen in The International Journal of Blockchain Law (2024) by the GBBC.

The Owl
By and The Owl
Untitled design (3)

OCC Symposium Explores Tokenization of Real-World Assets and Liabilities

In February 2024, the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) hosted its Symposium on the Tokenization of Real-World Assets and Liabilities. The OCC is one of three prudential banking regulators in the United States, overseeing national banks and federal savings associations. Its role in ensuring the safety, soundness, and fairness of the banking system means it is imperative for the regulator to assess how the entities it supervises are planning to leverage distributed ledger technology (DLT) to provide new and enhance existing products and services. The tokenization of real-world assets and liabilities, such as commercial deposits, real estate, commodities, or art, involves converting the ownership rights of these assets and expressing them as digital tokens that can be traced on DLT. This process has the potential to revolutionize the way assets are bought, sold, and managed, offering increased liquidity, transparency, and accessibility. However, it also presents new regulatory queries, particularly in terms of ensuring compliance with existing financial regulations, safeguarding against money laundering and fraud, and protecting investor rights. As tokenization of real-world assets and liabilities becomes further integrated in the financial system, the OCC's role and regulations will likely influence how other regulatory bodies, both domestically and internationally, approach tokenized assets’ oversight. Importantly, and excitingly, many of the themes discussed during the event fall under the five branches of the Tree of Web3 Wisdom.  The Tokenization Symposium began with remarks from Acting Comptroller Michael Hsu, where he defined tokenization as “process of digitally representing an asset’s liability, ownership, or both, on a programmable platform,” and called on event attendees to understand the technology. He set as the “north star” for the event, identifying problems and proposing solutions accordingly, as opposed to developing solutions in search of a problem.  Panel 1: Legal Foundations for Digital Asset Tokens consisted of members of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) drafting committee and others who were supportive of the UCC, a comprehensive set of laws governing commercial transactions in the United States, including sales, leases, negotiable instruments, and secured transactions. The panel argued that amending the UCC to include digital assets benefits token holders because it provides statutory protection compared to enforcing rights through suing over contract rights, and this is particularly important in situations such as bankruptcy, where there is a legal process for asserting claims to recover funds. The panel discussed how the United States has the most advanced body of rules for commercial law, given efforts to amend the UCC to recognize use of DLT, as opposed to other jurisdictions where the common law is still developing. During the discussion, the panelists discussed how it is important to take into consideration the sensible classification of tokens, comparing the concept of tokenization to using paper as a medium for recording rights and liabilities.   Panel 2: Academic Papers on Tokenization explored three academic papers: 1) how the acceptance and usage of digital payments leads to increased financial inclusion; 2) the use of payment stablecoins for real-time gross settlement; and 3) a study on the economics of NFTs. The panelists in their presentations discussed thinking globally with respect to how tokenization is occurring across the world and how it can facilitate cross-border payments and support financial inclusion objectives.   Panel 3: Regulator Panel featured staff of the innovation offices from the OCC, Federal Reserve (the Fed), Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Each office discussed how they are seeing tokenization of real-world assets and how they interact with other aspects of DLT such as smart contracts. The regulators discussed opportunities for tokenization within the banking sector, such as tokenization of deposits, tokenized money market fund shares, and the benefits they can provide in areas such as correspondent banking, repo transactions, and post-trade processes. One area they flagged as an opportunity is increasing the accuracy of systems under the Bank Secrecy Act to monitor for money laundering, terrorist financing, and sanctions screening more efficiently. Interoperability is one challenge they are seeing with respect to tokenization. The panelists discussed throughout how regulation of digital assets should be context-appropriate.  Panel 4: Tokenization Use Cases featured representatives from the Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation (DTCC), Mastercard, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The panelists discussed exciting use cases that tokenization and DLT are enabling such as T+1 settlement and tokenization for private markets, multi-rail payments that support complex types of payments that enable increased coordination, reduce counterparty risk, and enable greater fraud controls. The panelists also touched on how policymakers and innovators should beware of misconceptions when assessing the various use cases. Some themes that echoed from previous panels included challenges around interoperability, developing solutions based on need, and carefully developing regulations based on the use cases.   Panel 5: Risk Management and Control Considerations also explored various tokenization use cases and areas where tokenization can make a big difference, such as markets where capital is freed up and markets become more liquid. The panelists discussed the perspective regulators should use when approaching risk management and developing standards to minimize risk. They also discussed the role of intermediaries in tokenization and how industries have evolved and become more "dis-intermediated" over time. In their closing statements, the panelists called for regulators and policymakers to understand the technology and experiment more with it to better understand its implications.     The Symposium ended with a keynote speech featuring Hyun Song Shin (Economic Advisor and Head of Research at the Bank for International Settlements) regarding how tokenization can help propel innovations in the monetary system similar to money and paper ledgers. He discussed various concepts involving tokenization such as improved delivery versus payment, central bank digital currency, the “singleness of money” with respect to tokenized deposits and stablecoins, and the "tokenisation continuum" that maps out different use cases ranging from wholesale payments to land registries.  In conclusion, the OCC Symposium on the Tokenization of Real-World Assets and Liabilities underscored the need for careful consideration, collaboration, and continuous innovation. The diverse perspectives shared across legal foundations, academic research, regulatory insights, use cases, and risk management considerations have collectively woven a narrative of both promise and challenge. Moving forward, it is clear that embracing the digital evolution calls for a harmonious blend of regulatory adaptability, technological exploration, and a shared commitment to understanding the profound impact tokenization can have on the global financial ecosystem. 

The Owl
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Blockchain Analysis & Investigations

Blockchain Analysis & Investigations

Definition: The process of inspecting, identifying, clustering, modeling and visually representing data on a blockchain. Blockchain analytics can involve the use of software tools and open source information (OSINT) to analyze data on blockchain networks. These tools scrutinize transaction patterns, wallet addresses, and other data points on a blockchain to provide insights into the activities occurring on the network. Blockchain analysis is done for a variety of reasons from market analysis to investigating illicit activity. Blockchain investigations are commonly conducted to uncover illicit activities such as money laundering, fraud, and the use of cryptocurrency in criminal enterprises. Investigations leverage analytics tools to track and identify this activity on-chain. The transparent nature of the blockchain allows for investigators to follow the flow of funds on the public ledger. How it Works: Data Aggregation: collecting, compiling and summarizing information from various sources across blockchain networks Pattern Recognition: identifying and interpreting behaviors and trends within the aggregated data Forensic Analysis: systematically interpreting the aggregated data and recognized patterns to come to investigative conclusions Purposes (not an exhaustive list): AML compliance and regulatory reporting Fraud detection Security analysis Market analysis Enhance security and trust in blockchain networks Aiding law enforcement to catch 'bad actors'

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