U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission

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U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission
Founded 1934
Headquarters Washington, D.C.
Key People Jay Clayton, Chair; Valerie Szczepanik, Senior Advisor for Cryptocurrency; Hester M. Peirce, Commissioner, notable cryptocurrency proponent
Products U.S. government securities regulation
Twitter @SEC_news
Facebook secenforcement
Website SEC.gov
Releases Company News

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is the U.S. regulatory agency charged with the oversight of securities markets and market participants in the U.S. Its mission is to protect investors, to maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and to facilitate capital formation.

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The SEC and Cryptocurrency

The SEC is also one of the main U.S. government institutions tasked with the regulation of cryptocurrency issuance and trading, along with the CFTC. In June 2018, the SEC appointed Valerie Szczepanik as associate director of the Division of Corporation Finance and senior adviser for digital assets and innovation.[1]

Starting in 2013, the SEC has alerted the investing public about some of the risks associated with cryptocurrency investments and investment schemes.[2][3]

In December 2018, Szczepanik said at a New York event hosted by Wall Street Blockchain Alliance (WSBA) that some digital token projects, such as initial coin offerings (ICOs) could possibly bypass SEC regulations by obtaining "no-action" letters from the SEC. This would require the SEC to examine their project and verify that their offering is not a security.[4]

Exchange Traded Bitcoin Products and Funds (Bitcoin ETF)

Cboe's Bats BZX Exchange applied to the SEC in June 2016 to list shares in the Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust. Under delegated authority the SEC's Division of Trading and Markets disapproved the application in March 2017. Shortly thereafter, Bats requested a review by the commissioners. The Commissioners disapproved the application in July 2018 noting that the record presented by the application and the record before them did not demonstrate that bitcoin and bitcoin markets are "uniquely resistant to manipulation." Commissioner Hester M. Peirce dissented.[5]

Acting under authority delegated by the Commission, on August 22, 2018 the SEC's Division of Trading and Markets disapproved another application from VanEck for the BZX Exchange to list bitcoin-based ETFs. These were to be tied to bitcoin futures contracts traded on the affiliated Cboe Futures Exchange and the CME Group instead of to bitcoins themselves. In accordance with the SEC's guidance on the Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust ETF proposal, BZX asserted that it would have access to the necessary surveillance information from those CFTC-regulated exchanges through all of their memberships in the Intermarket Surveillance Group. In this case, the SEC's disapproval was based on the inadequate size of the bitcoin futures market relative to the markets for bitcoin itself.[6] On the same date the SEC also disapproved proposals from Intercontinental Exchange Group Inc.'s NYSE Arca Exchange for the same reason - that the record did not demonstrate that the futures markets were of significant size relative to bitcoin.[7][8] On August 23, 2018 the SEC informed both BZX and Arca that the disapprovals were to be reviewed by the full Commission.[9] Commissioner Peirce announced the review on her Twitter feed the same day.[10]

In September 2018, the SEC began seeking public feedback about a bitcoin ETF, and cryptocurrency regulation in general. Naeem Aslam, an analyst at ThinkMarkets U.K., wrote in October that bitcoin "needs some sort of blessing" from regulators in order for cryptocurrency markets to rally. He went on to say that the SEC seeking public opinion about a bitcoin ETF is a "positive sign," saying that he believes the commission is attempting to accurately assess the cryptocurrency markets landscape while respecting public opinion.[11]

In late November, the SEC's chairman, Jay Clayton, said at a conference in New York City that the SEC is unlikely to approve of a bitcoin ETF any time soon. Clayton said the main reason for this is the lack of safeguards in the cryptocurrency space protecting users from hacking attacks or price manipulation.[12]

On January 23, 2019, the SEC announced that Cboe had withdrawn its proposal for a rule change that would have allowed it to list and trade shares of a bitcoin ETF - specifically, the VanEck SolidX Bitcoin Trust. Cboe said in an email statement that the plan was related to the effects of the U.S. government shutdown occurring at the time. Cboe also said that the company planned on refiling a similar proposal at a later date with the SEC.[13][14]

A week later, on January 31, VanEck digital asset strategy director Gabor Gurbacs announced that the firm, as well as Cboe and SolidX, had re-filed the request with the SEC.[15]

In February 2019 Reality Shares ETF Trusts, a division of Blockforce Capital, submitted a proposal to the SEC for an ETF that would have been tied to Cboe and the CME Group's bitcoin futures products. They withdrew that proposal a few days after submitting it.[16] Around the same time, Bitwise filed a proposal for a bitcoin ETF, joining VanEck/SolidX's proposal.[17]

Cryptocurrencies as Securities

In July 2017 the SEC issued an investigative report about the DAO, in which it clarified its views on the rapidly developing markets for ICOs, which were gaining widespread investor attention at the time.[18] The DAO was a German cryptocurrency-based venture capital fund which failed shortly after its launch in May 2016. According to the report, almost any cryptocurrency that results from an ICO would be viewed as a security in accordance with the "Howey Test." Subsequently, the SEC and its chairman, Jay Clayton, made a number of statements and issued warnings to the public regarding ICOs.[19][20] In May 2018, to alert the public to the risks of the ICO market, the SEC launched a "Potemkin Village" website, called HoweyCoins.com, in order to caution potential traders and demonstrate the ease with which an investor scam can be deployed.[21]

The director of the SEC Division of Corporation Finance, William Hinman, advised in a speech on June 14, 2018 that the great majority of digital and cryptocurrencies were probably securities under the Howey test. While ether might have been originally issued as a security, Hinman expressed the view that both bitcoin and ether likely did not function as securities in the current marketplace, removing them from SEC jurisdiction.[22]

On September 11, 2018 U.S. federal district Judge Raymond Dearie in New York affirmed the SEC's jurisdiction over ICOs when he denied the motion by the defendant, Maksim Zavlavskiy, to dismiss the SEC's complaint. Zavlavskiy asserted that his ICO should be regulated as a currency not a security. This was the first legal test for the SEC's authority over the ICO market.[23]

In November, the SEC published a statement on their website called "Statement on Digital Asset Securities Issuance and Trading." The statement referenced the commission's recent crackdown on crypto-centric companies like TokenLot and AirFox, as well as the founder of EtherDelta, as examples of how U.S. securities laws will be enforced with cryptocurrency companies in the future.[24]

Trading Platforms

On March 7, 2018 the staff of the SEC's Divisions of Enforcement and Trading and Markets issued guidance to investors who might use unregistered platforms to trade cryptocurrencies and security tokens. The statement noted that many online platforms are called "exchanges" by their proprietors although they do not fulfill the requirements of a securities exchange or other SEC regulated platform.[25]

In July 2018, FINRA approved Coinbase's acquisition of three companies already registered as broker-dealers - Keystone Capital Corp., Venovate Marketplace Inc., and Digital Wealth LLC - which Coinbase says will enable it to offer security tokens legally, under SEC authority.[26]

Form D Exemptions

A popular practice for ICOs wishing to avoid punitive measures by the SEC is filing for a Form D exemption. This practice, which became popular among ICOs in 2018, involves filling out SEC Form D, which are notices filed by a company for an offering that is exempt from SEC registration requirements. Companies filing Form D have to do so within 15 days after the first sale of a securities offering, rather than before the sale. Form D notices require that only "accredited" investors can invest in this sale; accredited investors include individuals with a net worth exceeding $1 million, or have consistently made over $200,000 per year in income in the prior two years before the sale, or companies that have over $5 million in assets.[27][28]

Cryptocurrency Markets Surveillance

The SEC published a notice on January 31, 2019, requesting help from the private sector - specifically, Big Data firms - to find a way to "monitor risk and improve compliance" for the "most widely-used" blockchain ledgers by trade volume. The SEC also said that this tool should be in an "easily viewable" format.[29][30]

"Plain English" Guidance

In November 2018, William Hinman announced that he was heading up the development of a document that would provide "plain English" guidance for companies considering launching initial coin offerings. The document was published on April 3, 2019.

"We try to give an example of what might be a security and also what might not be," he told Coindesk the day the framework document was published. "We’re also trying to say that we recognize in certain cases the instrument is offered and sold for actual use...one thing we’re trying to make clear in this analysis is that not one of these factors is dispositive, you have to look at the whole mix.”[31] The document, which was entitled, "Framework for 'Investment Contract' Analysis of Digital Assets," emphasized the use of the Howey Test as a key tool for coin issuers and business owners who are unsure if their product could be considered a security. The document also firmly stated that companies offering securities products must be registered with the SEC before beginning the sale of digital assets that can be considered securities.[32]

The guidance document was widely criticized, some even going so far as to say that it felt like "an overt declaration of war" on cryptocurrencies. Common criticisms were that the document reaffirmed that bitcoin and Ether are not securities because they are decentralized, which could potentially spell regulatory trouble for newer blockchain projects. Some reacted to its treatment of "no-transferability" digital tokens as an unhelpful contribution to the broader discussion of cryptocurrency and blockchain regulation, because digital tokens that work in this way lack the "most valuable quality" of cryptocurrency.[33]

Enforcement Actions

In January 2018, the SEC sued Jared Rice Sr., CEO of the cryptocurrency platform AriseBank for issuing unregistered securities during an ICO. Stanley Ford, the co-founder of AriseBank, was sued on the same charges.[34]

After publishing its report on the DAO in July 2017, the SEC took enforcement actions against a number of entities for various violations of securities laws. Some of the most prominent ones involving ICOs are RECoin Group, PlexCorps, Munchee, AriseBank, Jon E. Montroll and BitFunder, CentraTech, Titanium, and Tomahawk, in which cases the SEC alleged fraud in addition to failure properly to register.[35][36] In April 2017, the commission moved against Longfin, a New York-based cryptocurrency firm, for fraud in connection with the issuance of new securities.[37]

According to the National Law Journal, 30 percent of ICO-related lawsuits filed in 2018 were filed by the SEC.[38]

In its first registration case against a trading platform, the SEC on November 8, 2018 announced that it had settled charges against EtherDelta for trading tokens without registering as a securities exchange. The SEC also settled charges against EtherDelta's founder, Zachary Coburn.[39][40]

On February 20, 2019, the SEC announced that cryptocurrency startup Gladius Network LLC had settled charges of running an unregistered securities offering through their ICO in 2017. The SEC said that this ICO was not only unregistered but did not qualify for any exemptions under current registration laws. The SEC also said they would not be imposing a penalty on the startup since Gladius self-reported its token sale and had "expressed an interest in taking prompt remedial steps," according to the SEC's official press relase on the matter.[41][42]

In April 2019, the U.S. SEC issued an official "no-action" letter to a U.S. company called TurnKey Jet, Inc., a company that plans to sell digital tokens to people who sign up for its membership program. According to TurnKey, these tokens can be used to charter a private jet, can only be traded among members of the program, and cannot be bought back for a premium. In the letter, the SEC stated that its "no-action" policy was contingent upon several rules, including, "TKJ will restrict transfers of Tokens to TKJ wallets only, and not to wallets external to the platform." This was the first time that the SEC issued such a letter to a company offering digital assets.[43][44]

In June 2019, the SEC filed another enforcement action against Longfin - once again charging the company with fraud. The SEC said in a press release that Longfin CEO Vankata S. Meenavalli organized a fraudulent Regulation A + public offering by falsely reporting its revenue. It also alleged that Andy Altahawi misrepresented certain information to Nasdaq in order to get shares listed.[45][46]

In August 2019, the SEC filed an emergency action order against Reggie Middleton, founder of Veritaseum (VERI), an ICO worth almost $15 million. The SEC alleged that Middleton had conducted a fraudulent ICO in 2017, and had manipulated the value of the securities he had offered by propagating fake information about his business, as well as misappropriating $520,000 worth of his investor's money for personal use. The Commission also asked the District Court for Eastern New York to ban him from ever operating a public company or digital asset offering ever again. The SEC obtained a temporary restraining order on August 13, freezing his assets, as well as accounts at Bank of America, Citi, JPMorgan Chase, Kraken, and Gemini.[47]


In late 2018, messaging app service Kik received a Wells notice from the SEC about its 2017 ICO (a Wells notice is a notice that the SEC intends to bring an enforcement action against the recipient). Livingston, the CEO, told the Wall Street Journal that Kik had responded. According to Livingston, the SEC believes that Kik sold unregistered securities when it conducted its ICO. Also according to Livingston, the SEC does not allege fraud. Kik reportedly intends to fight the SEC's claim that Kin are securities under U.S. law. If such a case were to go to trial, it might provide the first legal test of the SEC's approach to ICOs as securities offerings.[48] In June 2019, the SEC filed a lawsuit against Kik for $100 million, alleging that it had violated Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933. Steven Peikin, co-director of the SEC's Division of Enforcement, said that "companies do not face a binary choice between innovation and compliance with federal securities laws" in a press release.[49] Kik's general counsel, Eileen Lyon, said that the SEC's complaints about Kik's ICO makes inaccurate assumptions which “stretch the Howey test well beyond its definition.”[50]

Key People


  1. SEC Appoints New Crypto Chief to Oversee Digital Assets and ICOs. Fortune.
  4. SEC’s Crypto Czar Signals Some Flexibility on Token Offerings. Coindesk.
  5. Self-Regulatory Organizations; Bats BZX Exchange, Inc.; Order Setting Aside Action by Delegated Authority and Disapproving a Proposed Rule Change, as Modified by Amendments No. 1 and 2, to List and Trade Shares of the Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
  6. Self-Regulatory Organizations; Cboe BZX Exchange, Inc.; Order Disapproving a Proposed Rule Change to List and Trade the Shares of the GraniteShares Bitcoin ETF and the GraniteShares Short Bitcoin ETF. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
  7. Self-Regulatory Organizations; NYSE Arca, Inc.; Order Disapproving a Proposed Rule Change Relating to Listing and Trading of the Direxion Daily Bitcoin Bear 1X Shares, Direxion Daily Bitcoin 1.25X Bull Shares, Direxion Daily Bitcoin 1.5X Bull Shares, Direxion Daily Bitcoin 2X Bull Shares, and Direxion Daily Bitcoin 2X Bear Shares Under NYSE Arca Rule 8.200-E. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
  8. Self-Regulatory Organizations; NYSE Arca, Inc.; Order Disapproving a Proposed Rule Change to List and Trade the Shares of the ProShares Bitcoin ETF and the ProShares Short Bitcoin ETF. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
  9. Letter from Secretary. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
  10. Personal Tweet from Hester Peirce. Twitter.
  11. Bitcoin needs a blessing from the SEC, says analyst. MarketWatch.
  12. Bitcoin ETFs Roadblocked by Lack of Safeguards, SEC's Chief Says. Bloomberg.
  13. Cboe’s Bitcoin ETF Application Pulled After Repeated SEC Delays. Bloomberg.
  14. SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION (Release No. 34-84988 ; File No. SR-CboeBZX-2018-040). SEC.
  15. CBOE Re-Applies With US SEC to List Bitcoin Exchange-Traded Fund. Cointelegraph via Yahoo Finance.
  16. ETF Tied to Bitcoin Futures Withdrawn After SEC Staff Request. Coindesk.
  17. The SEC Is Now Reviewing 2 Bitcoin ETF Proposals. Coindesk.
  18. Report of Investigation Pursuant to Section 21(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934: The DAO. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
  19. SEC Statement Urging Caution Around Celebrity Backed ICOs. SEC Division of Enforcment and Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations.
  20. Chairman’s Testimony on Virtual Currencies: The Roles of the SEC and CFTC. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
  21. THE SEC HAS AN OPPORTUNITY YOU WON’T WANT TO MISS: ACT NOW!. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
  22. Digital Asset Transactions: When Howey Met Gary (Plastic). U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
  23. U.S. Judge Says Initial Coin Offering Covered by Securities Law. Bloomberg.
  24. Statement on Digital Asset Securities Issuance and Trading. SEC.
  25. Statement on Potentially Unlawful Online Platforms for Trading Digital Assets. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
  26. Coinbase Says It Has Green Light to List Coins Deemed Securities. Bloomberg.
  27. ICOs continue to raise money via SEC back door. MarketWatch.
  29. US SEC Seeking Big Data Tool for Major Blockchains. Coindesk.
  30. Solicitation Number: 50310219Q0041 Notice Type: Sources Sought. SEC.
  31. SEC’s Crypto Token Framework Falls Short of Clear and Actionable Guidance. Coindesk.
  32. Framework for “Investment Contract” Analysis of Digital Assets. Coindesk.
  33. SEC Guidance Sparks Fear and Loathing in CryptoIndustry. Fortune.
  34. FBI Arrests AriseBank CEO Over $4 Million Crypto Fraud. Coindesk.
  35. Developments in Virtual Currency Law and Regulation. Gibson Dunn.
  36. US SEC smacks ICO fraudster with lifetime ban and $30,000 penalty. Lexology.
  37. Corporate Crime monthly update - April 2018. Lexology.
  38. Lawsuits Involving Cryptocurrency Hit All-Time High. International Business Times.
  39. Crypto Exchange Founder Fined in SEC's First Registration Case. Bloomberg.
  40. SEC Charges EtherDelta Founder With Operating an Unregistered Exchange. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
  41. SEC Settles Unregistered Securities Charges Against ICO Issuer Gladius. Coindesk.
  42. Company Settles Unregistered ICO Charges After Self-Reporting to SEC. SEC.
  43. Private-Jet Cryptocurrency Gets Pass From SEC. The Wall Street Journal.
  44. SEC Issues First ‘No-Action’ Letter Clearing ICO to Sell Tokens in US. Coindesk.
  45. LongFin, the firm that pivoted to crypto and soared 2,500% back in 2017, has been charged with fraud by the SEC. The Block.
  46. SEC Adds Fraud Charges Against Purported Cryptocurrency Company Longfin, CEO, and Consultant. United States Securities Exchange Commission.
  47. SEC Files Emergency Action Against Organizer of ‘Fraudulent’ $15 Million ICO. Coindesk.
  48. Are ICO Tokens Securities? Startup Wants a Judge to Decide. Wall Street Journal.
  49. SEC sues messaging app Kik for its $100 million cryptocurrency offering. CNBC.
  50. The SEC Case Against Kik’s ICO Appears Strong, Experts Say. Coindesk.