A Regulatory Classification of Digital Assets: Toward an Operational Howey Test for Cryptocurrencies, ICOs, and Other Digital Assets

Henderson, M. Todd; Raskin, Max

Digital assets are hot right now. Whether cryptocurrencies, like bitcoin, or initial coin offerings and tokens, this new asset class has captured the imagination of American investors. While it remains to be seen if this phenomenon has staying power, there is no doubt that these assets and their promoters have attracted the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission. But neither Congress nor the SEC has formally elucidated which digital assets are securities and which are not.

This Article seeks to provide clarity in determining which digital assets are securities. It proposes two tests that operationalize the Supreme Court’s test in SEC v. W. J. Howey Co. The first test is the Bahamas Test, which asks whether a digital asset is sufficiently decentralized such that it is not a security. The second test is the Substantial Steps Test which is used to determine whether an investment is made with an expectation of profit. This Article takes a rules-based approach to provide clarity and begin a conversation about crafting more predictable jurisprudence and regulation in this area.

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Columbia Business Law Review

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December 4, 2019