Just about 2 years ago I wrote a blog article about the first Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) enforcement action involving equity crowdfunding, SEC. v. Ascenergy. The SEC action against Ascenergy highlighted the need for the crowdfunding industry to step up and protect the investors from fraud. That made good common sense because the crowdfunding industry needs investors to survive.
Notwithstanding, most of the crowdfunding industry ignored that enforcement action. It still largely refuses to carefully vet the offerings that are put on the platforms for investors’ consideration or conduct meaningful due diligence to verify that what the companies are telling investors is true.
Recently the SEC brought what is considered its first action against an Initial Coin Offering (ICO), SEC. v. Munchee Inc. An ICO is essentially a sub-set of crowdfunding and each offering should be governed by the JOBS Act and the anti-fraud provisions of the securities laws.
A lot of people in the ICO industry will disagree because they believe that they can construct an ICO offering that is not selling securities. The SEC has been clear that it has not seen an ICO that was not a securities offering. Most good securities lawyers agree with the SEC.
Accepting that simple truth would put many people in the ICO industry out of business. I am referring to the many ICO consultants who charge a lot of money for bad advice. Some of the people who advised Munchee are well known in the crypto industry. Anyone want to bet that they will never mention their participation in the failed, non-compliant and illegal Munchee offering when someone asks about their track record?
On the same day as it announced the Munchee Cease and Desist Order, SEC Commissioner Jay Clayton issued a statement about how the Commission will likely view ICOs. Much of the commentary since has focused on the Commissioner’s statement and not on the enforcement action. That is a mistake.
The Commissioner’s statement covers more ground and speaks in somewhat general terms. It represents the view of the most important regulator in the ICO world, but it is still a statement about generalities that is open to some interpretation.
The enforcement action actually gives more of the “meat” of what the SEC deems illegal conduct. A cease and desist order may become the subject of litigation or appeal. The SEC staff tends to choose its words carefully. It sets forth the facts and the offending conduct, the jurisdictional basis for the action and the reasons why the conduct violates the law. It is a road map of how not to conduct an ICO offering and everything in it should be scrutinized carefully.
So what, exactly, did Munchee do wrong?
Munchee claimed it was offering “utility” tokens and not securities. It claimed to have performed an analysis of the offering using the test denoted in SEC v. Howey case. I suspect that it did not. The Munchee white paper lists a dozen officers and advisors not one of whom is an attorney. It provides links to a half dozen PR pieces about the offering but not the attorney’s analysis that these tokens were not securities. The failure to provide a copy of that evaluation was not lost on the SEC staff. They mention that fact specifically in the order.
If an attorney had done the analysis Munchee would set forth the attorney’s name or provided a copy of the evaluation. “Advice of counsel” can be a defense to an SEC action such as this one and Munchee declined to set forth that defense.
A lot of people claim to understand Howey and a lot of articles have been written by people who are not qualified securities lawyers and are claiming to explain it. An evaluation of the offering under the Howey test involves a lot more than just reviewing Howey.
The Order in Munchee refers to Howey and also the SEC’s July 2017 Dao Report. That report reviews over 30 other cases that have applied the Howey test to various investment offerings. The Order specifically refers to several of those cases which are important to any discussion of this subject.
A lot of people seem to think that if you can use the token for some commercial purpose it is a “utility” token. The Order in Munchee should dispel that idea once and for all.
Purchasers of a Munchee token (MUN) would join a network of people writing reviews of various restaurants. Munchee would pay users in MUN for writing the reviews and would sell both advertising to restaurants and “in app” purchases to app users in exchange for MUN tokens.
Munchee also said it would work with restaurant owners so diners could buy food with MUN tokens and so that restaurant owners could reward app users–perhaps those who visited the restaurant or reviewed their meal in MUN tokens. As a result, MUN tokens would increase in value.
Howey defines a security as an investment premised on a reasonable expectation of profits to be derived from the entrepreneurial or managerial efforts of others. The argument here might have been that MUN owners might get a profit based upon their own efforts.
But Munchee intended to do much more. It intended to cut off the number of MUN at a fixed amount. It intended to facilitate a secondary market where people could buy and sell MUN. Because you could buy MUN, not use them or do anything and later sell your MUN for an appreciated price, it should be abundantly clear that your expectation of profits had nothing to do with you and must therefore be derived from the efforts of others.
Let me offer a simple example: You can purchase a membership in COSTCO. The membership allows you to shop in their stores and buy goods in bulk at a discount. You also get free snacks and inexpensive hot dogs. The membership is recorded on the company’s records and you get an ID card with your picture that is checked every time you enter the store so it cannot be transferred to anyone else. No one would think that a COSTCO membership is a security. But the SEC has declared some other memberships to be securities.
If COSTCO decided to cut off the number of memberships and allow them to be transferred, it might be fair to assume that the price would appreciate. That alone might make them into securities. Transferability, or the lack of it, is not itself the only indicator. A lot of unregistered securities cannot be freely transferred. But once your token can be transferred at a potentially appreciated price, you should certainly consider that you have crossed the line.
The other big issue raised by the SEC staff in the Munchee Order was the way in which the MUN were sold. Munchee posted information about the offering and the MUN White Paper through posts on the Munchee Website, and on a blog, Facebook, Twitter, and Bitcoin Talk.
This type of general solicitation is specifically permitted by the JOBS Act and is the type of marketing that is needed when a company is trying to raise $15 million without a brokerage firm selling the securities for them. If Munchee had accepted the fact that these were securities, this would not have mattered as long as they did not exaggerate the facts or the potential return.
At the same time, Munchee did not advertise the offering of MUN tokens in restaurant industry media to reach restaurant owners and promote how MUN tokens might let them advertise in the future which is what you might expect if the tokens were being sold for their “utility”. The SEC staff picked up on that fact.
Instead, Munchee and its agents promoted the MUN token offering in forums aimed at people interested in investing in Bitcoin and other digital assets. Munchee made public statements or endorsed other people’s public statements that touted the opportunity to profit, not necessarily the opportunity to use the MUN.
The Order states: “MUN tokens were to be available for purchase by individuals in the United States and worldwide.” It notes that Munchee intended to use “10% of the offering proceeds ($1.5 million) to make sure Munchee is compliant in all countries.” While that sounds fairly innocuous, as I said, the SEC staff chooses the language it puts into these orders carefully.
There are countries where no crypto-currency or tokens can be sold, so saying it can be sold “worldwide” indicates that the offering is a scam. In a securities offering, it is common for the offering materials to set forth the countries where the offering is being made. Most telling is the fact that you need to be certain that you are “compliant” before you make the offering, not after. The Howey test does not apply anywhere except the US.
The simple truth is that I would have been happy to help this company raise $15 million for a lot less than $1.5 million in full compliance with securities laws. I would have advised them to sell stock in the company and then memberships separately. They would have had a successful offering and money to market and sell memberships at a lower, more reasonable price where many more people might have joined.
The lesson here should be obvious. If you are claiming to offer a utility token, demonstrate its utility and sell it to people who may want to use it. If you are seeking investors, then stop telling yourself you are not selling a security. Hire lawyers and comply with the rules.
The time, effort and expense that the founders of Munchee expended developing their app and their business, went nowhere. With the JOBS Act the opportunity for funding a small business has never been greater. If you want money from investors, stay between the white lines.