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What is a Common Enterprise and is Bitcoin or Ethereum one?

In our most recent blog post, we discussed the first prong of the Howey test – an “investment of money” – through the lens of so-called ‘airdrops’. Moving on to the second prong – a “common enterprise” – requires us to take a step back and consider multiple angles. While courts, generally, have been quick to find a common enterprise despite the U.S. Courts fragmentation on the test, new cryptocurrency based projects, as open-source, add a level of consideration that is worth exploring.


Not Split – Fragmented

The circuits are fragmented in evaluating the “common enterprise” element, and we are left with three approaches: (1) horizontal commonality, (2) broad vertical commonality, and (3) narrow vertical commonality.

The horizontal commonality test is relatively straightforward. The test requires a pooling of funds in a common venture and a pro rata distribution of profits. The test is not worried about any promoters (which, in this context, means the issuer and its principal(s)). Thus, an investor’s assets must be joined with other investors where each investor shares the risk of loss and profits according to their investment. To date, the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal that follow the horizontal commonality test include the First, Second, Third (affirmed, but no opinion by the Third Circuit Court), Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits. Note – We have only include the circuit courts because these courts are one tier below the U.S. Supreme Court regarding what decisions hold the most weight in the U.S. legal system.

Vertical commonalty focuses on the vertical relationship between the investor and the promoter. Under this test, a common enterprise exists where the investor is dependent on the promoter’s efforts or expertise for investment returns. There are two approaches the vertical commonality:  (1) broad vertical commonality, and (2) narrow vertical commonality.

The only requirement under broad vertical commonality test is that “the investors are dependent upon the expertise of efforts of the investment promotor for their returns”. This test is perhaps the easiest to satisfy because there is typically always an information asymmetry between the promoter and the investor. The key question to ask, therefore, is does the investor rely on the promoter’s expertise? Both the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits follow the broad vertical commonality test.

The narrow vertical commonality test only finds support from one circuit – the Ninth Circuit. Under this test, the court only looks at whether or not the investor’s profits are linked with the profits of the promoter. Put another way, a common enterprise exists if the investor’s success or failure is directly correlated with that of the promoter’s.


Where Does That Leave Us?

When we look at Bitcoin and Ethereum, we have to ask who exactly are the ‘promoters’? One of the primary concerns in regulating securities is information asymmetries that lead to investors being taken advantage of by promoters. Remember, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has a three-part mission:  (1) protect investors; (2) maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets; and (3) facilitate capital formation. Therefore, companies offering securities must tell the truth about its business, what securities they are selling, and the risks involved in investing in the company’s securities.

Evaluating Bitcoin and Ethereum under the same test, a central organization, clearly, does not exist. For Bitcoin, there was no ICO and has perhaps been sufficiently decentralized since its inception according to the SEC. For Ethereum, perhaps at the ICO stage, a central entity existed that investors relied on, making it (possibly) a security. However, we are now three years removed from that, and Ethereum has been, to all intents and purposes, deemed to be not a security. In the current state, anyone can write proposals on GitHub, fork the code, contribute upstream to Ethereum, etc. In truly permissionless, decentralized systems, has everyone become a ‘promoter’? The investment of money is not in a common enterprise, but rather an investment of money for tokens to participate in the growth of a network or base protocol. Unlike the familiar examples above, however, the issue with most ICOs is that the platforms are not built and there is a core team that is developing the software pre-release in a silo. Therefore, the investor is dependent on the team for the network to be built, and the funds from the ICO are going towards the team to continue the development of the network.

Many people in cryptocurrency are expecting the next big announcement to come from the SEC or the CFTC. We believe, however, that the next large moment of legal clarity will come, rather, from the courts via the numerous civil lawsuits developing. The U.S. Supreme Court has, to date, declined to take on this circuit court fragmentation directly. Perhaps this is because the facts and circumstances of the prior cases do not warrant a novel decision around the commonality question. However, the way we have seen cryptocurrency evolving and expect it to continue evolving, the time has come to settle the issue of what is a common enterprise.

Commentary by Stan Sater
 & Jeffrey Bekiares, Esq.  Jeff is a securities lawyer with over 8+ years of experience, and is co-founder at both Founders Legal and SparkMarket. He can be reached at [email protected]