A bifurcated decision in a highly anticipated digital assets enforcement action may not provide the clarity that market participants want or need.

By Jack Barber, Jenny Cieplak, Benjamin Naftalis, John Sikora, Stephen P. Wink, Douglas K. Yatter, Luca Marquard, Adam Zuckerman, and Deric Behar

On July 13, 2023, Judge Analisa Torres of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York issued an order on motions for summary judgment in the civil enforcement action brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on December 22, 2020, against Ripple Labs Inc. (Ripple), its former CEO (Christian Larsen), and its former COO and current CEO (Brad Garlinghouse). The SEC’s claims include the unlawful offer and sale of securities in violation of Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933 (the Securities Act), as well as aiding and abetting the allegedly unlawful offer and sale of securities by the individual defendants (see this Latham blog post for more information).

The issue before the Court was whether, at the time of the various offerings, the defendants sold XRP as an investment contract. The Court determined at the outset that “XRP, as a digital token, is not in and of itself a ‘contract, transaction, or scheme’ that embodies the Howey requirements of an investment contract. Rather, the Court examines the totality of the circumstances surrounding the defendants’ different transactions and schemes involving the sale and distribution of XRP.”

By Stephen Wink and Adam Zuckerman

Decentralization is the key innovation enabled by blockchain technology, and can have significant technological, economic, and legal implications for web3 companies and protocols. Decentralization remains hard to grasp and define despite its importance. In the web3 spirit of collaboration and open source, Latham has partnered with a16z Crypto to develop two matrices to help enumerate the components of decentralization.

The matrices articulate not only the various categories and factors of decentralization but also suggest

The order directs federal agencies to focus on six priority areas within the digital asset sector and potential development of a US CBDC.

By Alan W. Avery, Yvette D. Valdez, Stephen P. Wink, Pia Naib, Adam Bruce Fovent, and Deric Behar

On March 9, 2022, President Biden issued an Executive Order on Ensuring Responsible Development of Digital Assets (Order). In the face of rapid advancement in blockchain technology and its applications, the Order asserts that “an evolution and alignment” in the approach of the various federal agencies (Agencies) to digital assets is necessary. It directs the Agencies to study the risks of digital assets to the US economy, investors, and consumers, and to explore the development of a US central bank digital currency (CBDC). The Order also directs the Agencies to monitor and assess the impact of digital assets on financial stability and financial system integrity, the prevention of crime and illicit finance, national security, financial inclusion and equity, energy policy, and climate change.

Popular and institutional interest in digital assets, decentralized applications, NFTs, and blockchain technology skyrocketed, and regulators sprinted to catch up.

By Todd Beauchamp, Yvette D. Valdez, Stephen P. Wink , Adam Bruce Fovent, Adam Zuckerman, and Deric Behar

For the digital asset markets, 2021 was a banner year. Among the milestones:

•  Bitcoin prices hit an all-time high, exceeding $65,000, up from about $30,000 at the end of 2020.

•  Total value locked in decentralized finance (DeFi) surged from under $20 billion to over $250 billion in 12 months.

•  Market capitalization for all digital assets reached $3 trillion.

•  Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) went from crypto curiosity to mainstream phenomenon, with a single NFT selling for $69 million at a traditional auction house and notable NFT collections reaching trading volumes in the billions.

•  Valuations for crypto companies and cryptoassets soared, with at least 40 unicorns (valuation of $1 billion or more) minted.

•  Venture capital (VC) firms invested an estimated $32.8 billion into crypto and blockchain-related startups, including $10.5 billion in Q4 2021 (up from an estimated $8 billion for all of 2020). Furthermore, 49 new crypto-focused VC funds were raised, with three of those funds raising over $1 billion and two topping $2 billion.

It was a year filled with tantalizing tidbits and many loose ends.

By Stephen P. Wink, Cameron R. Kates, Shaun Musuka, and Deric Behar

2019 marked the 10th year since blockchain technology was released into the wild by its still unknown inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, who mined the first bitcoin block in January 2009. In the intervening decade, blockchain technology has catalysed widespread innovation, some of which has garnered the attention (and consternation) of US regulators. One topic in particular has spawned spirited debate: How should token-based economic activity, especially within the sphere of capital raising and value exchange, be treated under existing US regulatory infrastructure?

While US regulators did not provide any specific answers in 2019, the year was notable for providing the crypto space with additional pieces of the burgeoning regulatory puzzle in the form of agency guidance, enforcement actions, no-action letters, and highly publicized governmental concerns regarding private global stablecoins.

The US agency has used a no-action letter to enable a sandbox-like approach to blockchain-based trade settlements.

By Stephen P. Wink, Cameron R. Kates, Shaun Musuka, and Deric Behar

In what may be the first regulator-approved application of blockchain technology for the settlement of US equities trades, the Division of Trading and Markets of the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently granted no-action relief to Paxos Trust Company (Paxos) to conduct a two-year “feasibility study” of a securities settlement service using distributed ledger technology. During this period, Paxos will be permitted to operate as a clearing agency under Section 3(a)(23) of the Securities Exchange Act without needing to register as a clearing agency under Section 17A(b)(1) of the Act. The no-action relief for the Paxos Settlement Service (PSS) is limited to clearing a volume-restricted number of trades per day of highly liquid publicly traded equities, for at most seven eligible broker-dealers.

By Andrew Moyle and Stuart Davis

The Project Stella report, a European Central Bank (ECB) and Bank of Japan (BOJ) joint venture, details the applicability of distributed ledger technology for financial market infrastructure. During a one-month research project, the central banks tested whether distributed ledger technology (DLT) could sustain the liquidity saving mechanisms — a system introduced in 2013 to ensure the liquidity of banking institutions — in their current real-time gross settlement systems (RTGS).

Published in September 2017, the report concluded that DLT solutions have the potential to increase the resilience and reliability of financial transactions and are scalable to meet the needs of large value payment systems, but they have not yet reached the level of maturity needed to replace the RTGS that the ECB and BOJ currently use. The findings on the scalability of DLT are important, because regulators such as ESMA and FCA have previously questioned whether DLT could be scalable enough to meet the needs of the financial market infrastructure.

By Andrew Moyle, Wenchi Hu, Simon Hawkins and Stuart Davis

Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) involve issuers offering virtual coins or tokens that are created and disseminated using distributed ledger or blockchain technology. The capital raised from the offer will fund the development of a digital platform, software, or any other project. Holders of virtual coins or tokens may have additional rights over and above those of a cryptocurrency, such as rights to access the platform, use the software, or otherwise participate in the project. In some cases, holders may also have rights to a return on their investment, or rights to participate in a share of the returns provided by the project or by the company backing the project. Post-issuance, holders may resell virtual coins or tokens in a secondary market on virtual currency exchanges or other platforms. ICOs are typically announced on cryptocurrency forums and websites through a white paper describing the project and key terms of the ICO, subscription details, timeline, etc.