Framework for “Investment Contract” Analysis of Digital Assets

On April 3, 2019, the SEC announced the framework it would use to determine whether a digital asset would be considered an “investment contract” in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in SEC v. W.J. Howey Co. and subsequent case law. Howey found that an “investment contract” exists where there is an investment of money in a common enterprise with a reasonable expectation that profits will be derived from others’ efforts.  In applying the framework to digital assets, the SEC focuses on three main prongs. First, in determining whether there is a reliance on the efforts of others, the SEC analyzes whether a purchaser of the assets is reasonably expecting to rely on the efforts of a promoter, sponsor, or other third party and whether such efforts are “essential managerial efforts”.  Second, the SEC examines whether there is a reasonable expectation of profits by looking at several factors, including whether the purchaser has a right to the enterprise’s income or profits and whether there is an ability to trade the asset through a market or platform.  Third, the SEC considers other relevant considerations, including whether the digital asset is fully developed and operational and whether there would be an appreciation in value incidental to the asset obtaining its intended functionality.

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