Today, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued an investor bulletin and an investigative report. The investigative report found that companies involved in sales of digital assets via distributed ledger or blockchain technology may be engaged in conduct subject to federal securities laws. While this report is the first of its kind to address initial coin offerings (“ICO”) or token sales and securities regulation, companies looking to launch their own ICOs can learn from the unique circumstances addressed in today’s report.
The SEC began investigating token sales in light of The DAO hack last summer. The DAO and related entities are a “virtual” organization running on blockchain technology. To fund its own development, The DAO developed DAO Tokens, which were then issued to investors through an initial token sale. This sale gave customers a chance to invest in the company by spending their Ether, an Ethereum, blockchain-based cryptocurrency, to purchase DAO Tokens. The revenues from the coin sale funded various projects at The DAO, and investors could make money if their projects were profitable. Additionally, investors could resell their DAO Tokens on secondary platforms. These activities came to the SEC’s attention after a hack caused The DAO to lose a third of its investments (although this was ultimately recovered via a technological solution that reversed the blockchain of The DAO, which was permissible because a majority of the DAO Token holders voted in favor of the reversal).
In its investigative report, the SEC concluded that the DAO Tokens were subject to SEC regulations, even though it chose not to file charges at this time. Specifically, the Commission concluded that all elements of a security, as defined in federal securities law, were met in the sale of the DAO Tokens: (1) Investors used money – in the form of Ether – to invest in The DAO, (2) with a reasonable expectation of profit, (3) that was derived from the managerial efforts of others.
The management of The DAO appears to have been a central concern in the SEC’s evaluation. The DAO was run by others and subject to their oversight. Those people were referred to as “Curators,” and they had a significant amount of control over the projects that would be funded by The DAO. Token holders could only vote on projects that the Curators pre-approved. Further, on top this management problem, the SEC expressed concerns that given the pseudonymous purchases of DAO tokens, the ability of investors to organize to “effect change or to exercise meaningful control.”
At this time and presumably because the ICO industry is new and developing, the SEC has declined to pursue an enforcement action against The DAO and related entities. However, it has used The DAO matter as a case study to examine this novel issue and provide guidance to others involved in ICOs and blockchain-based investments.
This is an innovative and developing area, as noted by SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, who stated today: “The SEC is studying the effects of distributed ledger and other innovative technologies and encourages market participants to engage with us. We seek to foster innovative and beneficial ways to raise capital, while ensuring – first and foremost – that investors and our markets are protected.” (In addition to the report, the SEC also published an investor bulletin on ICOs.)
Companies interested in funding their ventures through ICOs must take note of this opinion. While the final report notes that the applicability of laws to a token sale “depend[s] on the particular facts and circumstances,” this SEC investigative report should serve as official notice to all companies working in this emerging field that federal securities laws may apply to them. However, the DAO situation is unique and the SEC’s findings are quite narrow, so this report won’t be controlling precedent for every ICO in the future. Because The DAO’s coin sale was purely for investment, denying investors meaningful input into the company, DAO Tokens were classified as securities under the applicable federal laws. In contrast, a company offering coins in a less centralized system where investors have more freedom to manage their coins would avoid being classified as a security.
The Chairman’s statement makes clear that the Commission is still in the learning phase and open to guidance from industry experts. Leaders must take this opportunity to not only educate the regulators, but also to listen to and adapt to regulatory concerns. This is not at all a fatal blow to the market, but companies must ensure their offerings comport with federal securities law while also providing attractive, innovative options to new investors.
In January 2017, the Obama Administration will transfer power to the incoming Trump Administration, and Congress will convene with a Republican majority in both houses. Predictions abound as to what legislative and regulatory changes will transpire under the new administration. Earlier this month, WSJ Pro hosted a live video event to discuss how the election will impact financial regulation. Financial Regulation Editor Jacob Schlesinger moderated the discussion with two Washington financial-policy analysts: Brian Gardner of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, and Ian Katz of Capital Alpha Partners. Both analysts expect aggressive deregulation of the financial sector according to the President-Elect’s promises during the campaign. Among the many topics covered, Gardner and Katz emphasized (i) potential changes to the Dodd-Frank Act, (ii) personnel changes at various agencies, including the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and (iii) a more lenient approach to enforcement.
President-Elect Trump campaigned on a promise to get rid of the Dodd-Frank Act. Enacted in the wake of the 2008 recession, Dodd-Frank sought to limit the risks that banks can take and provided for consumer protection through the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). However Gardner and Katz agree that wholesale repeal of Dodd-Frank is unlikely, partly because Republicans will have a slim majority in the Senate and, thus, may lack the sixty votes needed to end a filibuster. If Senate Democrats unite in their opposition to repeal, they can prevent a vote altogether. Gardner and Katz think it more likely that the administration will modify Dodd-Frank at the margins.
Katz expects targeted efforts in that regard. For example, he predicts that the CFPB will be weakened, but not abolished. The new administration can weaken the Bureau by replacing its current single director with a Republican appointee, or by changing its structure to that of a commission with no more than three of five commissioners from either party. Given the President-Elect’s populist message, efforts to abolish the CFPB would be politically risky: the Bureau was established to protect consumers.
The administration could also target CFPB regulations. Gardner notes that promulgated rules will likely survive, but non-final rules may be withdrawn and rewritten. For example, in June 2016, CFPB proposed new restrictions on payday lending, but they have not yet been finalized. If the proposed rules are still pending in January 2017, the new administration may scrap them in favor of less onerous restrictions.
In addition to these modifications related to Dodd-Frank, Gardner and Katz discussed personnel changes at various agencies, including the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). Although President-Elect Trump campaigned on a promise to “drain the swamp,” leaks from his transition team suggest he will rely to a great extent on veterans of past Republican administrations. Heading the efforts for independent regulators like the SEC, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), and the Federal Reserve is Paul Atkins, an ex-SEC Commissioner who disfavors regulation. Atkins almost certainly is looking for potential appointees who share his view. Gardner does not anticipate major shifts in the regulatory environment but, as Katz notes, individuals appointed to lead these agencies will set the tone and influence each agency’s enforcement priorities. Codified rules likely will remain, but agencies faced with close questions or grey areas of the law will probably resolve them in favor of industry.
All that said, President-Elect Trump’s candidacy did not unfold as many predicted. It will be interesting to see whether and how these expected changes to financial regulation materialize under the new administration.
In the age of handheld banking apps, private funds transfer systems, and digital currencies, ensuring that new products are fair to consumers and compliant with existing – and sometime archaic – regulations are difficult tasks. The Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection (“CFPB”) recently finalized a new policy for providing “no-action letters” (“NALs”) to companies seeking to introduce new consumer finance products and technologies. Although the CFPB’s stated goal was to ensure transparent and efficient markets that “facilitate access and innovation,” it has failed to hit that target. The CFPB’s new policy is a step in the right direction, but the benefits of the new policy are limited and applicants will run commercial and legal risks in seeking the limited shelter offered by the agency.
Not only will NALs offer limited protection, they will be available only in exceptional circumstances where there is both regulatory confusion and a new product. The CFPB said that it is devoting only limited resources to this program and expects to issue only two or three NALs per year. The restrictive nature of this policy will minimize the value of the agency’s much-needed guidance. The limited scope of the new policy stands in contrast to the SEC’s no-action policy, where NALs are important tools for market participants and their counsel in conducting business. Although NALs are rare in the bank regulatory context, the SEC has recognized that many issuers and securities law practitioners closely monitor such letters, and often view them as “the most comprehensive secondary source on the application of [the federal securities] laws.” (1)
There is considerably less guidance as to CFPB regulations and a more robust no-action policy would provide much needed clarity for market participants and innovators. Under the new policy, market participants considering bringing a new product to market may request a “no action letter” (“NAL”) from the agency. The request for a NAL must contain 15 categories of information, including: a description of the new product (including how it functions); the product’s timetable, an explanation of its substantial benefit to consumers; a “candid explanation” of the potential consumer risks posed by the product; an explanation of the source(s) of the regulatory uncertainty to be addressed by the NAL; and a promise to share data about the product’s impact on consumers. Examples of products that might qualify for a NAL include the early intervention credit counseling program proposed by Barclays PLC and Clarifi (a consumer credit counseling service), which was an early CFPB Project Catalyst research pilot.
The benefit from any NAL issued by the CFPB will be limited. The proposed relief offered is a statement that the CFPB “staff has no present intention to recommend initiation of an enforcement or supervisory action against the requester in respect to the particular aspects of its product…” This amounts to “we won’t take action – unless we do.” While the CFPB is unlikely to take enforcement action with respect to a new product shortly after issuing a no-action letter, the proposed letters are in no way binding and offer little more protection than the existing process of informal consultation. This weakness may be ameliorated over time as courts have an opportunity to weigh in on the impact of CFPB no-action letters and the agency develops a track record for its handling of these issues.
Submitting a request for a NAL could create commercial or regulatory risk for an applicant. From a cost standpoint, preparation of such an application will be a significant undertaking, especially for smaller companies. Because the process is only available for products that are close to market ready, potential applicants will have invested significant sums to prepare their new product. A company in this position may not want to run the risk that the CFPB denies the NAL request, which might delay or prevent it from bringing the new product to market altogether. The publication of the NAL might also give competitors a chance to duplicate or improve on the innovation before or shortly after it reaches the market.
The process also entails legal risks. The NAL application process requires the company’s lawyers to explain why they think the legality of the proposal is “substantially uncertain” but nonetheless should be resolved in the company’s favor. If the CFPB determined that the product is not in compliance with any pertinent law or regulation, the application effectively will be converted to an admission of wrongdoing that would bar the product from the market. (2)
Because the CFPB will publish each NAL that it issues, the non-binding letters also may highlight potential compliance issues to other regulators (and potential consumer litigants), none of which will be bound by the NAL.
By creating such a restrictive process, the CFPB has offered innovators little opportunity to save costs if their product is deemed non-compliant, and no real protection if it is. In many instances, it is questionable that the new no-action policy offers substantially more comfort to a market participant than they could already obtain through informal discussions with the agency. But because there is little existing guidance on CFPB regulations, the new process is welcome, even if limited. The new policy will be particularly useful for companies introducing products at the edge of current law. Deciding whether to seek a NAL will require careful consultation with a company’s lawyers to navigate the potential legal and business risks.
(1) Expedited Publication of Interpretative, No-Action and Certain Exemption Letters, Securities Act Release No. 6764, [1987-1988 Transfer Binder] Fed. Sec. L. Rep. (CCH) 84,228, at 89,053, 89,054 (Apr. 7, 1988). 10 Thomas P. Lemke, The SEC No-Action
(2) The CFPB limited its new policy to new services and technologies. It would make little sense to seek guidance for existing products where the application itself could be seen to be an admission of wrongdoing.
If you didn’t know any better, you might have gotten pretty fiery over for-profit education after reading one of the front page stories of Tuesday’s New York Times. The lengthy article titled “For-Profit Colleges Fail Standards, but Get Billions” is all about accusations of greedy institutions bilking taxpayers and taking advantage of students through fraud and other deceptive practices. Why the story ran on page one of the paper is anybody’s guess: the only timely element in the piece appeared toward the end of the article, where the author mentioned the Defense Department’s recent decision to bar the University of Phoenix from its tuition assistance program. By the time you got to that part of the article, you might have cheered the DOD’s decision to cut the educator off, despite the fact that the decision appears premature, based on allegations as opposed to findings (meaning they are meting out punishment before a full investigation or review).
The New York Times piece seems narrowly focused on denigrating an industry that has become the bastard-stepchild of higher education. Ever since U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin decided to take on for-profit education, the industry has been under intense scrutiny from state and federal regulators as well as partisan research and advocacy groups. The article would have readers believe that all the negative attention is the equivalent of substantiated claims that for-profit education is a fraud on federal student loan programs. Thirty-seven state attorneys general, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Department of Justice, and the Federal Trade Commission are all investigating for-profit schools. These schools must be horrible, right? But what the article lacks are legal holdings or findings of fact.
That several agencies are investigating industry participants is not tantamount to guilt: it is more reflective of the fact that regulators take their cues from other regulators. Once an industry becomes unpopular, everyone wants to jump in and get their piece of the pie … or the felled lion. For-profit education is now an obvious target. But, again, that does not make the industry per se bad.
Nor does the fact that many for-profit educators have settled with regulators mean they are guilty: people and companies alike perform a cost-benefit analysis when it comes to whether to fight or stand down. It often makes economic sense to settle out with regulators rather than stay the course through potentially lengthy costly litigation.
What is troubling is the undercurrent – and application – of guilt before innocence, both by the New York Times article and by regulators. What is missing is a comparison of how much for-profit education costs per student versus how much other schools cost, or what dropout rates and post-graduation employment rates look like across schools for single parents and the poor (the types of individuals typically enrolled in for-profit colleges). For instance, studies have shown that community colleges are costing taxpayers billions of dollars for uncomfortably high drop out rates. Other studies identify taxpayer subsidies covering significant amounts of college operating costs.
One of the major reasons why for-profit education has high drop-out rates and poor post-grad employment rates is that they are reaching individuals who otherwise may not have access to degree programs, such as single parents or people in economically depressed areas. These individuals have other complications in their lives that can make completing a degree or finding gainful employment more challenging (e.g., scheduling, transportation). These challenges are not the schools’ fault, but a reflection of external factors. Punishing the schools and taking away educational opportunities does not seem like the most thoughtful decision, but it’s the one that partisan groups, partisan journalists, and regulators seem to be angling for.
Instead of celebrating the Defense Department’s decision to cut off the University of Phoenix from its tuition assistance program, we should be troubled that it is doing so before completing an investigation. In a statement, the University noted that: “It is troubling that DoD has used requests for information from other governmental agencies as grounds for placing the university’s DoD MOU in a probationary status.”
For-profit education does have, and has had, its bad actors… as does every industry. But the all-out slam against the sector, the fight for its demise, is unfair and shortsighted. In the end, the greatest losers will be historically underserved populations who will be denied education opportunities.
Herbalife Hit with Civil Investigative Demand – Is the FTC Finally Turning up the Heat on Multi-Level Marketers?
For many, the announcement two weeks ago that the Federal Trade Commission has commenced a formal investigation into Herbalife was not terribly interesting. After all, nutritional supplement company Herbalife has been the focus of intermittent media attention since December 2012 when Wall Street hedge fund manager Bill Ackman claimed that it was an illegal pyramid scheme, and its business practices have already drawn the scrutiny of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
On the other hand, because the FTC focuses on deceptive trade practices, its investigation into Herbalife– and the allegation that it constitutes a pyramid scheme – may offer a valuable opportunity for the FTC to clarify its rules on what constitutes a pyramid scheme and what a multi-level marketing (MLM) company can or must do to protect itself from the accusation.
The MLM industry has been an established networking sales model for several decades. The FTC defines “multi-level marketing” as networking that uses individuals to sell products by word of mouth or direct sales where distributors typically earn commissions not only for their own sales, but for sales made by the people they recruit. MLM has become increasingly popular in recent years – and for good reason given that it has become extremely profitable: A 2012 study reported the MLM industry was worth approximately $30 billion.
The sole FTC guidelines for MLM arose from litigation in 1979 when the FTC accused the MLM Amway of operating an illegal pyramid scheme. (Amway ultimately prevailed four years later.) The case gave rise to what is known as the “Amway Safeguard Rules”– a set of rules relating to distributors that Amway had in place that protected itself from the FTC accusation that the company was a pyramid scheme. As described in the administrative law judge’s decision, these three critical criteria provided an “umbrella of legal protection”:
1. Amway required its representatives to engage in retail selling, under the “ten retail customer police,” which appeared in the agreement that representatives signed upon enrollment. This rule required that representatives make 10 sales to retain customers as a qualification for eligibility to receive commission and bonuses on sales/purchases made by other representatives in their personal sales organization.
2. Amway required its representatives to sell a minimum of 70 % of previously purchased products before placing a new order. (Amays’ rules recognize “personal use” for purposes of the 70% rule.)
3. Amway had an official “buy-back” policy for unsold, unopened inventory. This policy had some reasonable restrictions, including a specified maximum length of time since the item was originally purchased by the representative and that the item was still current in the company’s product offerings to consumers. The policy also included a minimal “restocking” fee. (Buy-back policies are significant especially for protection of representatives who choose to terminate their affiliation with a company, and do not want to be “stuck” with unsold inventory.)
By adhering to these rules, MLM companies gain some protection from pyramid scheme accusations. And, aside from a staff advisory opinion in 2004, the FTC has offered little or no further guidance on what it perceives as a pyramid scheme and what companies can or must do to show that their businesses are legitimate and legal.
Will the FTC use the Herbalife investigation to provide greater guidance for MLM companies? To do so would be in the interests of MLM companies, the regulators themselves, and those in the financial services industry who have taken great interest – and large financial positions – in MLM companies.
Things look a bit bleak for the for-profit education industry: it seems like every other day a new federal or state agency is launching an investigation or proposing new regulations. The latest news is that a coalition of 32 state attorneys general, along with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is expanding a probe into lending practices at for-profit colleges. This news follows pronouncements by the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission of stepped-up initiatives to combat alleged predatory practices by for-profit colleges. In the midst of this full frontal assault, the industry is facing a major new regulatory scheme under the Department of Education’s impending Gainful Employment rule. What the new regulatory scheme will cover and require remains to be determined, but the released drafts of the rule portend extensive record keeping and reporting requirements. With mounting investigations and regulatory scrutiny, no wonder shares in for-profit education have been on the decline: how can these companies turn a profit in the midst of all this costly government intervention?
But the CFPB and the 32-state coalition could (unwittingly) be the industry’s knights in shining armor. The enforcement agencies’ expanded probe – along with action by the SEC, DOJ, FTC and the FCC – could provide a good argument for why the Education Department’s impending Gainful Employment rule may be redundant. Since there is so much disagreement over the Gainful Employment rule, not only over the prospective text,but also over the rule’s utility in the first place,it may be time to follow the cues of some in Congress who advocate abandoning the rule when the Higher Education Act is next up for re-authorization (this year).And if Congress could be persuaded to nix the rule, educators could allocate more resources to growth that would otherwise need to be focused on compliance with complex new regulations.
This argument initially may sound like a stretch, but consider some of the following points: (1) congressional infighting about the possible effects of the rule, (2) rule making failures as interested parties cannot come together on regulatory language, and (3) current law and enforcement actions that already address the goals of the prospective rule. There are only so many ways to skin a cat, and you can only have so many cat-skinners (poor analogical cat!).
(1) Congressional Democrats are split on whether the Gainful Employment rule would protect students or negatively impact students. Thirty Democratic members of Congress recently wrote a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan voicing concerns over the adverse effects a Gainful Employment rule could have on students. At the same time, 31 Democratic members wrote a letter in support of the prospective rule. During the back and forth on the Democratic side, many Republicans are advocating abandoning the rule, concerned that it would ultimately hurt students.With so much uncertainty, why press forward with a rule that has been lingering in limbo for years?
(2) While Congress members deliberate the rule’s ultimate utility, the Education Department and its panel of negotiators have slogged through several sessions of a statutorily mandated negotiated rule making. They have been unable to reach any consensus on what types of metrics to incorporate into the rule, let alone what metric ranges to use. After several months, three rounds of negotiations, and three very different drafts of the prospective rule, the Education Department is no closer to final language. The third and final round of negotiations, which occurred mid-December, highlighted the extent to which opposing sides remained polarized.
(3) The Education Department has stated that its goals for the Gainful Employment rule are to:
- Define what it means for a program to prepare a student for gainful employment in a recognized occupation and construct an accountability system that distinguishes between programs that prepare students and those that do not;
- Develop measures to evaluate whether programs meet the requirement and provide the opportunity to improve program performance;
- Protect students and taxpayers by identifying GE programs with poor student outcomes and end taxpayer support of programs that do not prepare students as required; and
- Support students in deciding where to pursue education and training by increasing transparency about the costs and outcomes of GE programs.
These goals are already being addressed in current regulations and current enforcement actions. For instance, in November the FTC released marketing guidelines directed toward for-profit colleges, advising colleges against misrepresenting, for instance, their job placement and graduation rates, graduate salaries, credit transferring, etc. The announcement was accompanied by guidelines for prospective students on choosing a school. The FTC’s guidelines send a message to the for-profit education industry: ensure integrity in your marketing and advertising or face the consequences of regulatory action. A new FCC rule, which took effect last October, restricts how for-profit educators can make recruiting calls to past, current, and prospective students.The SEC and CFPB are investigating student recruitment and private lending at various for-profit colleges for possible violations of, for instance, the Dodd-Frank Act (which prohibits violations of federal consumer financial laws and unfair, deceptive or abusive acts or practices), TILA and Regulation Z. And numerous states attorneys general have been actively investigating the industry under state laws.
The expanded probe that the CFPB and state attorneys general coalition is but a continuation of the panoply of government actions and initiatives directed at the for-profit education sector. But the probe provides an excellent basis for reconsidering the necessity of the Gainful Employment rule. The for-profit industry is not shy of regulatory oversight. All the new regulation would achieve is more cost to industry and taxpayers in compliance and compliance reviews.