Don’t count on that happening in the immediate future. But several recent developments suggest that cryptocurrency mania is entering a new phase of maturity, driven by regulators and new coin offerings that strive to comply with them.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s new Cyber Unit, created last September to address a broad range of cyber-related threats, announced its first action against an initial coin offering (ICO) in December. The target was PlexCoin, an ICO project from PlexCorps that raised $15m from thousands of investors. In freezing PlexCoin assets, SEC alleged that the currency bore “all the characteristics of a full-fledged cyber scam,” in the words of Cyber Unit chief Robert Cohen. PlexCoin reportedly had promised investors returns of 1,354 percent in less than 29 days.
The principals behind PlexCoin were charged with violating anti-fraud and securities registration provisions — in the latter case, a clear indication that SEC views crypto assets as securities, and therefore subject to applicable federal law. In a report issued last year about a token issued by The Decentralized Autonomous Organization (known as The DAO), the agency stated that “issuers of distributed ledger or blockchain technology-based securities must register offers and sales of such securities unless a valid exemption applies.”
Now comes the announcement of what is claimed to be the first token pre-sale that complies with SEC’s rules for Regulation Crowdfunding, or Reg CF, which was published in May, 2016. The issuer is Indeco, supplier of a platform that enables shared ownership of environmentally friendly assets such as solar panels, batteries for energy storage, and microgrids for efficient, localized energy distribution.
Indeco is offering the pre-sale of “indecoins” via StartEngine, a platform for crowd-sourced investments in a variety of ventures. The platform operates fully under SEC regulations, Indeco stressed.
Indeco’s venture is unique is that it ties the current value of its cryptocurrency to that of a watt of solar power capacity. Funds raised through the ICO will be used for the development of green technology, including sensors built into “smart” dwellings and batteries for energy storage. Token holders share in the ownership of those assets, receiving dividends as revenue is generated.
“We believe this will give the indecoin a fundamental asset value, creating a stable, high-yield, high-growth crypto asset that increases in value as more assets are deployed,” Indeco said. It noted the wild swings in the value of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, which had topped $14,000 for a single coin as of the first of this year. With no direct relationship to physical assets, other cryptocurrencies are free to seesaw in value, subject to the whims of investors and a largely unregulated market.
But indecoin was created to be more than another source of investment. In addition to its supposedly greater level of stability, the token “fuels a cleaner economy,” Indeco said.
The company is actually featuring four separate tokens on its platform, explains chief executive officer David Levine. The first is a tradable asset, adhering to the ERC20 standard for tokens, which means it can be bought, sold or traded on any compliant exchange. That’s the token that Indeco is offering for pre-sale under SEC regulations.
The other three tokens are for manufacturers, suppliers and installers of energy technology. Their goods and services can be offered on the platform and paid for via the blockchain, a distributed, decentralized ledger for transactions.
The result, says Levine, “is literally a shared ownership model. Indeco just manages the platform. The token holders are the generators.” They become the effective owners of watts of solar power across the distributed assets.
Why not pursue a more traditional investment plan, whereby owners hold old-fashioned shares of stock in a startup venture? Private company equity isn’t sufficiently liquid, Levine explains. “You have to wait a long time until a public company buys it, or you register securities on a public exchange and get liquidity. Here, [the assets] are liquid as soon as they’re issued.”
Indeco developed the first SEC-compliant token out of a belief that all cryptocurrencies are subject to U.S. securities laws. According to Levine, they pass the Howey Test, created by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1946 to determine whether a given transaction qualifies as an “investment contract.”
“Most of the crypto industry is in denial over the [difference between] securities tokens and utility tokens,” Levine says. “They believe they’re selling things like gift cards.” Because cryptocurrencies are subject to speculation, and offer an expectation of profits from the investment, they fall squarely within the Howey Test’s definition of “securities.”
The recent SEC rulings, along with the indecoin pre-sale, appear to signal the beginning of a move toward legitimization of cryptocurrencies. But questions remain as their overall stability. New ICOs seem to pop up every week, and the value of existing coins continues to fluctuate. A severe shakeout — even the bursting of what many consider to be a bubble — seems inevitable.
When the edifice crumbles, Levine believes, indecoin will survive. Because it represents shared ownership of a tangible asset, he explains, it functions more like gold than the notorious bitcoin. In the process, it becomes a more stable instrument for investors.
“As soon as there’s a flight to quality,” he says, “we’ll do well.”