Initial Coin Offerings and the Securities Laws

Regulators have been trying to figure out what to do with the new currencies coming to the marketplace. Bitcoin was the vanguard, bringing its blockchain technology into the public’s view. The Securities and Exchange Commission has issued a Report of Investigation that provides some insight into when these currencies and their rollouts are going to violate securities law.

I find Bitcoin’s distributed ledger technology called the blockchain to be intriguing. Bitcoin as a currency has its problems. The wild swings in its conversion rate make it look more like a commodity than the steady values expected of a currency. In the US we have distinct regulatory structures between commodities and securities.

(Speaking of currency, if you have some extra currency then use it to fight cancer. Support my Pan-Mass Challenge Ride.)

The SEC took a close look at the initial coin offering of DAO Tokens to see if it violated securities laws. The first test was whether the DAO Tokens were securities. The short answer is yes.

The hurdle with rolling out new virtual currencies is getting enough into circulation at launch to make them useful of enough to act like a currency. Bitcoin has been out long enough and is widely used enough that it has passed this hurdle. But the first person with a Bitcoin couldn’t do much with it.

I think it’s important to note that the DAO Tokens that are the subject of the report are not the virtual currency. The DAO Tokess were used to fund the enterprise that was intended to fund projects involving the Ether currency and the Etherium blockchain.

The DAO was essential a venture capital organization and the DAO tokens were the capital commitments. Fund managers will tell you right off the bat that the partnership interests in a venture capital fund are securities.

In looking at the DAO tokens, the SEC went right to the Howey test.

Participants invested money. Of course, cash is not the only way to invest. For the DAO tokens, the investors used Ether which has value and easily meets this prong of the test.

Participants had a reasonable expectation of profits. The DAO organization was set up as a venture capital endeavor and explicitly stated that DAO token holders would share in profits from any of the projects that generated revenue.

The difficult part of the prong was the “managerial efforts of others.” DAO token holders had voting rights but the promoter,, was key to moving the enterprise forward according to the SEC. DAO would have “Curators” instead of managers who would chose the projects for voting by the DAO token holders. chose the initial batch of Curators.  Token Holders could vote to replace a Curator. But the decision to send the proposal to a vote is subject to approval of the Curators.  Curators had the responsibility and power to “(1) vet Contractors; (2) determine whether and when to submit proposals for votes; (3) determine the order and frequency of proposals that were submitted for a vote; and (4) determine whether to halve the default quorum necessary for a successful vote on certain proposals. Thus, the Curators exercised significant control over the order and frequency of proposals, and could impose their own subjective criteria for whether the proposal should be whitelisted for a vote by DAO Token holders.”

The SEC went on further to conclude that the DAO Token voting rights are closer to those of corporate shareholder, than an active participant in the management.

If the DAO Tokens are securities then the whole securities law regulatory regime applies unless there is an exemption for the offering of the DAO Tokens. The sponsors took no steps to limit the offering in a manner consistent with a offering exemption.

In the end, it was not the initial coin offering that was a problem, it was the offering of interests in the organization behind the coins that was a problem.


The Pan Mass Challenge has many choices for those looking to participate and raise money to fight cancer. I have a friend who is a virtual rider. Due to injuries she is not ready to spend hours on a bike. I’m not a virtual rider. Not only am I riding the two days of the Pan Mass Challenge, I’m adding an extra Day Zero and riding 75+ miles just to get to the start of the Pan Mass Challenge.

Help me fight cancer by donating your real currency through one of the links below.

Thank you,