Is Bitcoin a Security?


You may have noticed that I focus on SEC actions against real estate companies. At the core of that interest is a look at whether the Securities and Exchange Commission has jurisdiction. The SEC is limited to securities. Commodities get covered by the CFTC and real estate gets covered by …..

Bruce Carton pointed to another item in the news that also addresses the realm of what is and is not a security: Bitcoin.

The SEC brought charges against Trendon T. Shavers, who is the founder and operator of Bitcoin Savings and Trust (BTCST). The SEC alleged that he was running a Ponzi scheme based on a “virtual currency” arbitrage on Bitcoin. Shavers apparently used the handle Pirateat40.

Beginning in November of 2011, Shavers began advertising that he was in the business of
“selling Bitcoin to a group of local people” and offered investors up to 1% interest daily “until
either you withdraw the funds or my local dealings dry up and I can no longer be profitable” Shavers obtained at least 700,467 Bitcoin in principal investments from BTCST investors, or $4,592,806 in U.S. dollars, based on the daily average price of Bitcoin.

Shavers argued that the BTCST investments are not securities because Bitcoin is not money, and is “not part of anything regulated by the United States. Shavers also contends that his transactions were all Bitcoin transactions and that no money ever exchanged hands.

The SEC argued that the BTCST investments are both investment contracts and notes, and therefore are securities. The SEC said that Shaver returned about 500,000 Bitcoins to investors, but made off with another 200,000

Bad news for Shavers. A decision in the case this week ruled that BTCST investments meet the definition of investment contract, and as such, are securities. The court concluded that it had subject matter jurisdiction to hear the SEC’s case.

15 U.S.C. § 77b of the U.S. Code defines “security” as “any note, stock, treasury stock, security future, security-based swap, bond…[or] investment contract…”  Under the Howey line of cases, an investment contract is any contract, transaction, or scheme involving (1) an investment of money, (2) in a common enterprise, (3) with the expectation that profits will be derived from the efforts of the promoter or a third party.

Investment of money

Bitcoin can be used to purchase stuff. The only limitation (and its a big one) is that it is limited to places that accept it as currency. Bitcoin can also be exchanged for conventional currencies, such as the U.S. dollar. It was that recent spike in the exchange rate between Bitcoin and the US dollar that attracted so much attention.

Common enterprise

A common enterprise requires interdependence between the investors and the promotor, for example where the investors colelctively rely on the promotor’s expertise. The investors were giving Shaver their bitcoins and he was supposed to trade them and get more value back them.

Expectation of profits from efforts of others

In this case, the investors were not taking an active role in the investment. They were relying on Shavers.

The court’s finding that it has subject matter jurisdiction means that the SEC’s case against Shaver can  move forward. The SEC still has not proven fraud and will likely face another round of arguments on jurisdiction.  The SEC still has to prove fraud.

The interest rate Shavers gave to investors was a staggering 7% per week for large investments. That smells like a Ponzi scheme. Personally, I don’t think I’d hand any money, bitcoin or US dollars, to someone named “Pirate.”