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Between Bridges by Gary DeWaal: March 30, 2020 (Unregistered Digital Securities Offering; Risk Management Breakdown; COVID-19)

Last week a federal district court ruled that a social media company’s initial fundraising to build a blockchain application as well as its later, proposed distribution of digital tokens to serve as virtual currency and for other legitimate purposes on the blockchain constituted an integrated unlawful offering of securities without a registration statement and granted a preliminary injunction banning the distribution as requested by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Separately, a futures commission merchant was sanctioned by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange as a result of a purported operational breakdown that enabled it to accept trades “far beyond” risk limits that should have been in place for the relevant account. As a result, the following matters are covered in this special edition of Between Bridges:

  • US Court Rules in Favor of SEC in Telegram Lawsuit; Holds That “Grams” Digital Assets Promised as Part of Private Offering Constituted Securities (includes My View);

  • FCM Sanctioned US $150,000 by CME for Alleged Risk Management System Breakdown Permitting Excessive Customer Trading (includes Compliance Weeds);

  • CFTC, SEC and Other Regulators Continue to Address Extraordinary Circumstances Prompted by COVID-19 Pandemic (includes My View); and more. ​

Briefly:

  • US Court Rules in Favor of SEC in Telegram Lawsuit; Holds That “Grams” Digital Assets Promised as Part of Private Offering Constituted Securities: On March 24, a federal court in New York granted a motion by the Securities and Exchange Commission for a preliminary injunction against Telegram Group Inc. and Ton Issuer Inc. precluding the defendants from distributing “Grams” digital tokens to purchasers of investment contracts related to the cryptoasset. The court held that the distribution of Grams to the purchasers “who would resell them into the public market” would constitute the “completion of a public distribution of a security without a registration statement” in violation of applicable law. (Click here to access 15 U.S.C.§ 77e(a).)

In October 2019, the SEC filed a complaint and obtained a temporary restraining order against defendants from delivering and making available Grams digital tokens to US persons. The SEC charged that, in early 2018, the defendants raised US $1.7 billion from 175 purchasers, including $424.5 million from 39 US persons, to fund the development of a proprietary blockchain – the Telegram Open Network – as well as their mobile messaging application, Telegram Messenger. In return for their investment, initial purchasers were expected to have received 2.9 billion Grams by October 31, 2019. The SEC claimed that the defendants’ offer and sale of Grams to US persons constituted an unregistered securities offering, and that Grams were securities because initial purchasers and subsequent investors expected to profit through Telegram’s efforts to develop TON, including to attract sellers and developers to use the blockchain and to promote Grams generally. 

Defendants conceded that their agreements with the initial purchasers were securities, but claimed they were issued pursuant to a lawful exemption from registration as they were sold in the US solely to highly qualified persons. However, defendants denied that their proposed distribution of Grams in October 2019 would have been part of an illegal securities offering because, when issued, Grams would have constituted a virtual currency and/or a commodity and not a security under federal law. The initial offering and the subsequent distribution should be viewed as two distinct transactions, claimed the defendants. (Click here for further details in the article “SEC Obtains TRO Against ICO to Support Social Media and Blockchain Platforms After Telegraphing Warnings” in the October 13, 2019 edition of Bridging the Week.)

The court rejected defendants’ argument, saying that the initial offering had to be viewed in the context of a “single scheme” to distribute Grams into a secondary public market supported by Telegram’s ongoing efforts. As a result, the court concluded that “the appropriate point at which to evaluate this scheme to sell and distribute Grams is at the point at which the scheme’s participants had a meeting of the minds, i.e., at the time of the 2018 sales, rather than the date of delivery.” Examined in this light, the court said the initial offering was a “disguised public distribution” requiring a registration statement.

Previously, defendants had voluntarily agreed to postpone distribution of Grams until resolution of the SEC’s motion. (Click here for background in the article “Defendants Formally Stipulate to a Delay in Digital Asset Distribution That SEC Alleged Constituted an Unregistered Offering” in the October 20, 2019 edition of Bridging the Week.)

In other legal and regulatory developments impacting cryptoassets:

  • Retail Purchaser Possession and Control Critical to Actual Delivery Says CFTC in Final Guidance on What Constitutes Actual Delivery of Virtual Currencies: The Commodity Futures Trading Commission issued final interpretive guidance opining that “actual delivery” of virtual currencies to a retail person who might purchase such cryptoassets on a leveraged, margined or financed basis occurs only when the person secures full possession and control of the entire quantity of cryptocurrencies within 28 days of initial sale and the offeror or counterparty and related persons do not retain any interest in or control over the digital assets following the 28-day period. Delivery to the customer’s wallet on the blockchain of the virtual currency or to a third-party custodian for the sole benefit of the customer without any liens or other encumbrances by the offeror, counterparty or related parties would evidence the customer’s requisite possession and control. Offset of positions prior to 28 days would defeat the requirement of actual delivery.

Although the CFTC does not typically regulate spot transactions involving retail clients, retail commodity transactions on a leveraged or margin basis, or financed by the offeror, the counterparty or a person acting in concert with such persons on a similar basis may implicate certain Commission requirements – namely registration requirements by the offeror and a requirement that the products be traded on or subject to the rules of a designated (e.g., licensed) contract market. (Click here to access 7 U.S.C. § 2(c)(2)(D)(i).) The key is whether actual delivery of the commodity has occurred within 28 days of the transaction. If yes, CFTC registration and other requirements are not implicated. If no, CFTC registration and other requirements are implicated.

The CFTC initially proposed its interpretive guidance in December 2017. (Click here for background in the article “CFTC Proposes Interpretation to Make Clear: Retail Client + Virtual Currency Transaction + Financing + No Actual Delivery by 28 Days + No Registration = Trouble” in the December 17, 2017 edition of Bridging the Week.)

The final guidance is materially identical to its proposal except that it authorizes an offeror of virtual currency to a retail person to custody the digital asset at an affiliated depository provided the separate legal entity is: a financial institution that is predominantly operated to provide custody services and licensed to provide custody services, among other conditions. The final guidance, as did its proposal, provides five hypothetical examples of when actual delivery may or may have not occurred.

  • IOSCO Posits Hypothetical Stablecoin Scenario to Inform International Regulators How Standard Principles of Oversight Might Apply: The International Organization of Securities Commissions published an overview of existent regulatory principles that might apply to a privately issued global stablecoin. 

Although IOSCO acknowledged that stablecoins might be very different in construction and could reference disparate assets including fiat currencies, other real-world assets and other crypto-assets, or be algorithmically controlled, it designed a hypothetical stablecoin similar to Facebook’s proposed Libra digital coin that would be backed by a reserve fund of low volatility currencies, bank deposits and sovereign debt instruments to base its analysis. It proposed that for its studied stablecoin, a host of intermediaries would be involved in creating and redeeming the cryptoasset as well as making deposits to and receiving payments from the reserve fund. (Click here for details regarding Libra in the My View commentary to the article “Global AML Standards Setter Says Countries Should Require Virtual Asset Service Providers to Obtain and Transmit Certain Information Regarding Senders and Recipients for All Virtual Asset Transfers” in the June 23, 2019 edition of Bridging the Week.)

IOSCO concluded that its hypothetical stablecoin might implicate its principles governing systemic financial market infrastructures (FMIs), as well as principles, policies and/or recommendations related to money market funds, the protection of client assets, exchange-traded products, cryptoasset trading platforms, financial benchmarks, commodities derivatives markets, cooperation and mitigating market fragmentation and cyber resilience for FMIs, as well as other guidance. 

IOSCO indicated, however, that in considering how any particular stablecoin might touch existing principles and recommendations, the stablecoin “should be viewed holistically, considering its substance over its form, and considering the economic realities of the proposal.”

My View: Oranges are not securities, even under the 1946 Supreme Court decision, SEC v. WJ Howey, where initial purchasers bought contracts of sale coupled with service contracts for the growing of oranges that were intended to be sold to third parties. (Click here to access the decision in Howey). The Supreme Court held that the initial contracts of sale were investment contracts (and thus securities) because of the scheme that ultimately led to the sale of the oranges, but never intimated that the oranges themselves were by law, through alchemy or otherwise transformed from commodities into securities.

However, the court in Telegram adopted a different principle of transmutation in holding for the SEC. Not only were the initial contracts to support the creation of the TON Blockchain and Grams securities, ruled the court, but so were the Grams themselves, even though they were intended solely to function as a medium of exchange and other legitimate purposes on the TON Blockchain – i.e., as a commodity – and would only be distributed after the blockchain was entirely functional.

This magic might be attractive to Harry Houdini and his protégées, but it very well could sound the death knell of fundraising through exempt securities offerings to support the development of creative decentralized blockchain applications that rely on ancillary digital assets for legitimate on-chain purposes. Hopefully the court’s decision in Telegram engenders momentum for the SEC to consider adopting a rule proposed by Commissioner Hester Peirce in February this year to provide developers of digital networks, such as a blockchain or distributed ledger, a three-year grace period to develop the functionality or decentralization of the platform without implicating registration requirements of securities laws, provided certain conditions were satisfied. However, I am not optimistic.

  • FCM Sanctioned US $150,000 by CME for Alleged Risk Management System Breakdown Permitting Excessive Customer Trading: Macquarie Futures USA LLC, a CFTC-registered futures commission merchant, agreed to pay a fine of US $150,000 to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange as a result of a purported breakdown in its operational systems on June 29, 2017, that allowed a customer with an account at an affiliated Macquarie entity to place trades through the FCM “far beyond” risk limits that should have been in place for the account. According to CME, this breakdown occurred because of a “large import” of trades into the FCM’s processing system that caused delays in its risk management system that caused the FCM not to identify the excessive trades in real time. According to CME, the FCM’s “lack of oversight allowed the [customer] to access CME Group markets with inadequate risk limits and credit limits well in excess of the funds available in the account.” There was no suggestion in the exchange’s Notice of Disciplinary Action that the firm or its customers were harmed by the breakdown.

Virtu Financial Global Markets LLC also agreed to pay a fine of US $65,000 to the New York Mercantile Exchange for purported system glitches that, on two occasions, caused a large volume of non-actionable messages to be sent to a market segment gateway used for the exchange’s energy futures products, causing latencies for other market participants of over one second. The first incident occurred on June 12, 2018, and was allegedly caused by an error in a modified version of an existing application installed a few days earlier, while the second incident occurred on June 18, 2018, purportedly when the firm was installing a fix to address the first incident, claimed NYMEX.

Additionally:

  • Block Trade Reporting: GFI Securities LLC agreed to pay a fine in aggregate of US $40,000 for allegedly submitting multiple block trades to the Commodity Exchange, Inc. and NYMEX with inaccurate exaction times from December 1, 2017, through March 31, 2018, and not adequately training its staff regarding applicable requirements.

  • Trade Practices: John Dudek consented to a sanction of US $30,000 by COMEX for purportedly engaging in multiple trades involving copper futures between accounts with common beneficial ownership in July and August 2018. COMEX alleged that the purpose of the transactions was to move positions from a dormant account to an active account. Mr. Dudek also agreed to a 20-business-day access suspension across all CME Group exchanges as part of his settlement. Dauren Badayev similarly agreed to a fine of US $5,000 to COMEX and CME combined and a one-year access suspension across all CME Group exchanges to settle charges that from November 20 through December 14, 2017, he engaged in multiple round-turn transactions between four accounts of his employer to transfer over US $11,000 from individual accounts to accounts in his wife’s name, and for entering one order using a Globex ID other than his own.

  • Disruptive Trading/Spoofing: Roman Banoczay was charged by NYMEX for allegedly engaging in disruptive trading through spoofing transactions between January 18 and February 12, 2018, involving crude oil futures contracts. Mr. Banoczay allegedly placed orders on one side of the market to induce market participants to transact against his smaller resting orders on the other side of the market. Mr. Banoczay cancelled his inducing orders once his resting orders were executed. According to NYMEX, Mr. Banoczay failed to provide information requested by Market Regulation when requested and failed to answer charges brought against him. Mr. Banoczay was assessed a fine of US $100,000 by NYMEX, ordered to disgorge profits of US $118,599 and permanently barred from accessing any CME Group exchange.

Compliance Weeds: In March 2016, staff of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s Division of Swap Dealer and Intermediary Oversight issued an advisory providing guidance regarding elements of an effective risk management program (RMP; click here to access the relevant CFTC advisory). 

Pursuant to applicable CFTC rule, futures commission merchants are required to establish, maintain and enforce risk management policies and procedures designed to monitor and manage the risks associated with their business (click here to access CFTC Rule 1.11). Among the risks FCMs should address in their RMP are market, credit, liquidity, foreign currency, legal, operational, settlement, segregation, technological and capital risks. Each FCM’s RMP must be administered by a risk management unit (RMU) that is independent of the firm’s business unit (BU) and reports directly to the FCM’s senior management. 

In the advisory, staff made specific recommendations or provided observations regarding elements of what it considers effective RMPs. Among other items, staff suggested that FCMs may want to include in their RMPs a description of how independence of the RMU is maintained from the BU; how often an FCM considers the adequacy of resources of the RMU; and a description of risk tolerance limits, including, for each risk type, the methodology to determine the limits and the procedure to ensure quarterly review and approval by senior management as well as annual approval by the FCM’s governing body.

Staff also made observations regarding the quarterly risk exposure reports that must be made to an FCM’s senior managers and governing body and provided to the CFTC. Among other things, staff observed that some FCMs disclose actual risk exposures for each period for each risk metric rather than just discuss breaches. According to staff, “[f]or example, the maximum, minimum, median and standard deviation for risk exposures could be provided or shown graphically over the course of the quarter.” 

Additionally, an FCM must broadly evaluate its risks when designing its RMP. An FCM must consider risks posed by affiliates, all lines of the FCM’s business, all other FCM trading activity and “must describe in detail how the RMP has been integrated into risk management at the consolidated entity level.” (Click here for further CFTC guidance on RMPs in the Federal Register release adopting CFTC Rule 1.11 (pgs. 68517 – 68521).)

Although the staff’s guidance was expressly limited to the application of its risk management program requirements to FCMs that handle customer funds, a similar requirement to maintain RMPs applies to swap dealers and major swap participants (click here to access the relevant CFTC Rule 23.600). Staff indicated that similar guidance might be issued to SDs and MSPs later; however, this has not happened yet. As a result, this FCM guidance should be considered by SDs and MSPs, by analogy, to evaluate the adequacy of their own RMPs. 

  • CFTC, SEC and Other Regulators Continue to Address Extraordinary Circumstances Prompted by COVID-19 Pandemic: Within the last two weeks, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Financial Conduct Authority, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, the National Futures Association and other international regulators and self-regulatory organizations established subsections of their ordinary websites addressing particularized guidance and/or relief granted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of this and extensive timely coverage provided by other publications, including by Katten (click here to access), I will not repeat coverage in Between Bridges blogs. However, I will highlight some less than obvious related developments I have not seen widely covered elsewhere:

  • FINRA Issues Alert Addressing Unique Cybersecurity Concerns Arising From Conducting Business From Remote Locations: The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority issued a helpful checklist of good practices for members and their employees to address cybersecurity risks of employees working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially from their homes. Among other suggestions were that such persons should:

    • change default usernames and passwords on home networking devices such as Wi-Fi routers;

    • ensure that all operating system and other software updates and patches are installed;

    • ensure compliance with their firm’s policy regarding storage and backup of personally identifiable information regarding customers. (Firms should be addressing this in their business continuity plans dealing with operations from remote offices.); and

    • beware and not fall for phishing scams referencing COVID-19.

Other suggestions applied to member firms. These suggested good practices are useful and practical for all firms involved with financial services, whether FINRA members or not.

  • Block Trade Guidance Issued by ICE Futures U.S.: ICE Futures U.S. issued guidance for floor brokers and other intermediaries, including futures commission merchants, introducing brokers and equivalent foreign brokers, that might experience delays in reporting block trades because of remote working. IFUS indicated that firms should report such block trades as in the normal course but indicate the reason for the delay in the “Transaction Detail” section of the relevant trade entry ticket.

  • NYDFS Requires Regulated Virtual Currency Firms to Advise It of COVID-19 Preparedness Plan by April 9: On March 10, the New York Department of Financial Services issued guidance to entities regulated as virtual currency businesses requiring them as soon as possible but by no later than April 9 to submit to DFS a description of their “plan of preparedness” to manage the risk of disruption arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. DFS made clear it was not expecting a one-size-fits-all response, but a plan that reflected an entity’s size, complexity and specific activities and addressed 12 enumerated elements dealing with operational and financial matters.

    My View: This is a particularly challenging time for those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 or who are impacted personally either because of their own or their family members', friends' or colleagues' contraction of the virus. It is also a terribly difficult time for members of our communities who have lost their jobs and must daily address the uncertainties ahead let alone of each passing day, as well as for medical and other professionals on the front line helping others who are dealing with the pandemic. So many others are detrimentally impacted too.

Our financial services industry is experiencing unprecedented volatility and derivative fall-out as well as difficulties occasioned by our working remotely. However, as challenging as our circumstances may be they are no match for the challenges of so many others.

The COVID-19 pandemic will pass, and at some point, we all will return to normalcy, although we cannot predict today what the new normal will look like. However, for some of our community, the challenges of our current times will have a longstanding impact. Let's not forget those persons.

More Briefly:

  • KOSPI 200 – Non-US Broad-Based Stock Index Futures Today, Security Futures Contracts Tomorrow: The Commodity Futures Trading Commission is expected to withdraw its certification of the KOSPI 200 Index Futures Contract traded on the Korean Exchange, and the Mini-KOSPI 200 Index Futures Contract traded on EUREX, as eligible for trading by US persons as an approved non-US stock index futures contract on April 1. As of that day, the underlying index to both contracts will be deemed narrow-based, and sale of futures contracts based on the index to US persons will be subject to both CFTC and Securities and Exchange Commission requirements. (Click here for general background on security futures and how futures contracts based on stock indices can morph from being a futures contract one day to a security futures contract the next in the August 8, 2013 SEC Report of Investigation Pursuant to Section 21(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934: Eurex Deutschland ).

As of February 28, 2020, KOSPI 200 index’s largest constituent, Samsung, increased to 33.16 percent of the index’s weighting. Under applicable law a narrow-based security index includes an index “in which a component security comprises more than 30 percent of the index’s weighting.” (Click here to access 7 U.S. Code § 1a(35).)

  • Cboe Transfer Trade Rules' Amendments Approved by SEC: The Securities and Exchange Commission approved an amendment to an existing Cboe rule authorizing off-exchange transfers of listed options under four additional circumstances. These are:

    • transfers to correct bona fide errors or to transfer positions in another account; 

    • transfers between accounts with identical ownership subject to certain restrictions;

    • consolidations of accounts with identical ownership; and

    • transfers because of death, bankruptcy or other operations of law.

Additionally the SEC approved Cboe’s codification of prior guidance that off-floor transfers cannot net against other positions and no position may result in preferential haircut treatment or better margin treatment. Other codification of interpretations and rule amendments were also approved, including that approved transfers should be non-routine and non-recurring. (Click here to access Cboe Rules 6.7 and 6.8.)

  • ICE Clear Europe Proposes Rule Amendments to Accommodate Default Insurance: ICE Clear Europe proposed amendments to its rules to authorize it to obtain default insurance and to set forth how the proceeds of any successful claim would be applied under the clearinghouse’s default waterfall process. Currently, the clearinghouse is a named insured under a US $75 million default insurance policy. Comments regarding the Clearing House’s proposal will be accepted through April 7.

For further information

Amended Cboe Transfer Trade Rules Approved by SEC

Block Trade Guidance Issued by ICE Futures U.S.

Cboe Transfer Trade Rules' Amendments Approved by SEC

CFTC, SEC and Other Regulators Continue to Address Extraordinary Circumstances Prompted by COVID-19 Pandemic

FCM Sanctioned US $150,000 by CME for Alleged Risk Management System Breakdown Permitting Excessive Customer Trading

FINRA Issues Alert Addressing Unique Cybersecurity Concerns Arising From Conducting Business From Remote Locations

ICE Clear Europe Proposes Rule Amendments to Accommodate Default Insurance

IOSCO Posits Hypothetical Stablecoin Scenario to Inform International Regulators How Standard Principles of Oversight Might Apply

KOSPI 200 – Non-US Stock Index Futures Today, Security Futures Contracts Tomorrow

NYDFS Requires Regulated Virtual Currency Firms to Advise It of COVID-19 Preparedness Plan by April 9

Retail Purchaser Possession and Control Critical to Actual Delivery Says CFTC in Final Guidance on What Constitutes Actual Delivery of Virtual Currencies

US Court Rules in Favor of SEC in Telegram Lawsuit; Holds That “Grams” Digital Assets Promised as Part of Private Offering Constituted Securities

The information in this article is for informational purposes only and is derived from sources believed to be reliable as of March 27, 2020. No representation or warranty is made regarding the accuracy of any statement or information in this article. Also, the information in this article is not intended as a substitute for legal counsel, and is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, a lawyer-client relationship. The impact of the law for any particular situation depends on a variety of factors; therefore, readers of this article should not act upon any information in the article without seeking professional legal counsel. Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP may represent one or more entities mentioned in this article. Quotations attributable to speeches are from published remarks and may not reflect statements actually made. Views of the author may not necessarily reflect views of Katten Muchin or any of its partners or employees.

©2020 Katten Muchin Rosenman LLPNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 91
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About this Author

Gary DeWaal, Securities Attorney, Katten Law Firm, New York
Special Counsel

Gary DeWaal focuses his practice on financial services regulatory matters. He counsels clients on the application of evolving regulatory requirements to existing businesses and structuring more effective compliance programs, as well as assists in defending and resolving regulatory disciplinary actions and enforcement matters. Gary also advises buy-side and sell-side clients, as well as trading facilities and clearing houses, on the developing laws and regulations related to cryptocurrencies and digital tokens.

Previously, Gary was a senior...

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