With any new technology, particularly where large amounts of money is involved, there will be scrutiny from regulators and scams. ICOs have seen both. But the new nature of these digital token issuances has meant that the regulatory landscape globally is fragmented with each country looking at ICOs in different ways.
Are ICOs legal?
The short answer: it depends where you are. It’ll be hard to go through every single country in the world, but let’s look at the major markets.
China, which was once a prolific market for cryptocurrencies, has come down hard on the industry. Last year, the People’s Bank of China declared ICOs as illegal, warning people of the risks involved in investing in them. Shortly after, South Korea followed, banning raising money through virtual currencies.
In the United States, there are no specific regulations for ICOs, but depending on how the digital coin is classed, it may fall under the jurisdiction of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The regulator is in charge of overseeing trading in various financial products. If the SEC deems that a coin is a “security,” then the company behind it may have to register with the regulator.
The SEC has been very vocal however on warning people about the dangers of investing in ICOs.
“As with any other type of potential investment, if a promoter guarantees returns, if an opportunity sounds too good to be true, or if you are pressured to act quickly, please exercise extreme caution and be aware of the risk that your investment may be lost,” the SEC says on its website.
The watchdog also issued a warning last year to celebrities who endorse ICOs saying that they may need to disclose information about the relationship with the company if the digital coin is deemed to be a security.
Elsewhere, in Europe, the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) released guidance on ICOs last year. The regulator said that ICOs that qualify as financial instruments could fall under the relevant laws to do with anti-money laundering or investment legislati
Some countries are attempting to actually create new rules in order to bring ICOs into the regulatory fold. For example, the government in Malta recently approved three new bills related to cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. One of those new laws aims to bring a regulatory regime to ICOs.
Similarly, in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, the regulator has published guidelines on launching ICOs. Under the guidelines, companies wishing to execute an ICO must approach the Financial Services Regulatory Authority to see whether it will fall under the body’s regulation. Companies will also have to publish a prospectus, just like a firm would for an initial public offering (IPO) on the stock market. Any market intermediaries, or secondary market operators dealing with ICOs must be approved by the FSRA.
“If you put a regulator’s lens on, regulators are saying ‘oh my gosh there is a concentration of crypto capital that is in these ICOs, these people aren’t in the financial system, what is happening to the money’,” Lawrence Wintermeyer, a principal at advisory business Capstone, told CNBC. “There is a huge concern retail people might be exposed to this.”
Many countries are looking into how to regulate ICOs but there’s clearly a disparity around the world. The lack of regulation however is a factor behind major scams — one of the biggest issues right now with ICOs.
Scams and dangers
Investing in ICOs is risky business for a number of reasons. Often people are putting money into products that don’t exist yet. While this may not sound too dissimilar to say very early stage investing in other start-ups, the people placing bets on ICOs are usually unsophisticated investors.
These projects have high failure rates too. Already, hundreds of coins are dead, meaning the projects behind them were scams, a joke or didn’t materialize. Dead Coins is a website that lists all the cryptocurrencies that fall into those categories. So far, it has identified just over 800 digital tokens that it considers dead. These coins are worthless and trade at less than 1 cent.
And because of the lack of regulation, scams are rife in the industry. One example uncovered by CNBC earlier this year was a project called Giza which claimed to be developing a super-secure device that would allow people to store cryptocurrencies. Scammers in this case managed to raise more than $2 million in an ICO, and eventually run off with the funds without delivering any product. A bad actor or actors used a fake LinkedIn profile and copied pictures from another user’s Instagram to create a false persona — and successfully drew more than 1,000 investors into the ICO project.
“Are there fraudulent projects? Yes. Are there ill conceived sales that have not thought through potential regulatory issues? Yes. Are there poor projects that will ultimately fail? Naturally.”
Richard Muirhead, founding partner at Fabric Ventures
Investors are still trying to get their money back but because of the lack of regulation, there is very little consumer protection in the space.
Another high-profile scam involved a company called Centra Tech Inc. It was an ICO backed by champion boxer Floyd Mayweather. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged the founders with carrying out a fraudulent ICO.
Even successful ICOs have their problems. Bancor, whose coin offering we detailed above, suffered a security breach that saw $13.5 million worth of digital tokens stolen.
Many experts in the field however have predicted that ICOs are here to stay and that they will become professional.
“Are there fraudulent projects? Yes. Are there ill-conceived sales that have not thought through potential regulatory issues? Yes. Are there poor projects that will ultimately fail? Naturally. However, amongst these there are many, many deeply innovative projects amongst which a handful will be gamechangers,” Richard Muirhead, founding partner at Fabric Ventures, an investment fund focused on blockchain projects, told CNBC.
“If 2017 was the year of ICO hype, then 2018-2020 will be the years of decentralized networks development which will be focused on shipping working code and building communities.”