SEC official urges caution on ICOs

  • A top SEC enforcement official says many so-called initial coin offerings launching new cryptocurrencies are securities offerings in disguise, which could be putting investors at risk.
  • "They're raising a lot of money, but they're not complying with the rules that are in place to protect investors," says Valerie Szczepanik, SEC assistant director of enforcement and head of the agency's working group on cryptocurrencies.
  • Roughly $9.8 billion has been raised through ICOs since 2016, according to financial research firm Autonomous Next.
Digital cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin, Ripple, Ethernum, Dash, Monero and Litecoin.
Chesnot | Getty Images
Digital cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin, Ripple, Ethernum, Dash, Monero and Litecoin.

A top enforcement official with the Securities and Exchange Commission says many so-called "initial coin offerings" launching new cryptocurrencies are, in fact, securities offerings in disguise. And that could be putting investors at risk.

"They're raising a lot of money, but they're not complying with the rules that are in place to protect investors," said Valerie Szczepanik, SEC assistant director of enforcement and head of the agency's working group on cryptocurrencies.

Szczepanik spoke at a conference in New York on "The Future of Financial Fraud," staged by the University of California-Berkeley's Center for Law and Business.

Roughly $9.8 billion has been raised through ICOs since 2016, according to financial research firm Autonomous Next. About $3.5 billion was raised in the first three months of 2018 alone.

While Szczepanik did not single out any specific ICO, she said all too many are designed not to launch the currency but to raise money for the company behind it and allow investors to speculate — the very definition of a security under the law.

"What we're seeing is the issuance of these tokens before a platform is built," she said.

Yet she said they are not providing some of the basic transparency and disclosure required under the law.

As a result, she said, the commission is looking closely at the offerings and is already taking aggressive action to rein them in.

But the founder of a company that invests in digital currency platforms, appearing on the same panel, argued that securities laws in place since the Great Depression may need to be updated to take the rise of cryptocurrencies into account.

"Digital currency is here to stay," said Barry Silbert, CEO of Digital Currency Group. "Money is becoming digital."

But even Silbert acknowledged that ICOs are risky, which is why his company only invests in platforms as opposed to the currencies themselves.

"People are going to lose a lot of money (on ICOs)," he said.

Proponents of the currencies say the blockchain technology behind the digital currencies, if properly used, can actually combat fraud, since it creates a virtual ledger with every transaction.

"This technology enables a huge amount of transparency that is unprecedented in financial markets," said panelist Jonathan Levin, chief operating officer of Chainalysis, which helps companies identify the sources of funds behind the coin offerings.

Szczepanik said the SEC is trying to strike a balance between protecting investors and facilitating the emerging technology.

"We do not want to chill the markets," she said. "The promise of blockchain technology is not one that we want to ignore," she said.

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