Ethics Case Study of the Week: Raising Capital with Digital Assets?

By Gary Sarkissian posted 04-06-2020 11:45

CFA Institute’s Code of Ethics and Standards of Professional Conduct codify the ethical guidelines for the investment profession that are critical to maintaining the integrity of capital markets and investor trust.  Members, candidates, and even firms make a commitment to uphold these standards as they help elevate ethical decision-making universally around the globe. 

As investment professionals, we are certain to face important ethical decisions in our day-to-day activities.  Some scenarios we encounter will be straightforward, while others may be more complex.  No matter what circumstances we face, continuous learning remains imperative in an investment industry that is evolving with product innovation and a regulatory environment that is adapting to such changes.   

For that reason, each week we will feature a sample case from CFA Institute’s Ethics in Practice Casebook. Each case is built upon a real-life example that may involve a regulatory matter or even a CFA Institute Professional Conduct investigation. At the end of the case is a multiple-choice question that addresses the ethical nature of the actions taken in that case.

This week’s case involves Standard I(A) Knowledge of the Law. 

Raising Capital with Digital Assets? 
Munchee is a US-based business that created an iPhone application (App) for users to review restaurants. The company initiated an initial coin offering (ICO) to sell digital tokens to raise $15 million in capital to invest in improving the App. The company advertised and promoted the offering on its website, in a white paper, and on social medial channels and message boards, such as Twitter and Facebook, particularly in forums aimed at those interested in investing in Bitcoin and other digital assets. In the communications about the offering, Munchee said it would use the proceeds to create an “ecosystem” in which the company, its App users, restaurants, and others could use the tokens to buy and sell goods and services. Munchee explained that it expects the tokens to increase in value as a result of the company’s efforts. In addition, increased participation in the ecosystem and the use, or “burning,” of tokens would also help increase the value of the tokens. Finally, Munchee stated that it intended for the tokens to trade on a secondary market. Munchee’s ICO was 

    A - unacceptable because it promoted a virtual and highly speculative investment unsuitable for investors. 
    B - unacceptable because it promoted the investment through social media, blog posts, and brief tweets that did not describe the significant limitations and risks associated with buying the tokens.
    C - unacceptable because the tokens were an unregistered security under US securities laws.
    D - acceptable. 

What do you think is the correct choice?  Feel free to discuss in the comments section below and make sure to check back later this week when we post the analysis.  The completion of this case qualifies for 0.25 hour of Standards, Ethics, and Regulation (SER) credit.   

[Update - 4/9/2020]
Welcome back!  Here is the analysis of this case: 


This case involves Standard I(A): Knowledge of the Law, which requires CFA Institute members to “comply with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations . . . governing their professional activities.” The fact that that the tokens are a virtual currency, highly speculative, and thus unsuitable for many investors does not make it unethical for Munchee to offer them as investments. Munchee is not an investment adviser but an investment issuer. It would be up to investors and their advisers to determine whether an investment was suitable for their portfolio. Similarly, from an ethical standpoint, Munchee is free to promote the tokens in a variety of ways as long as the company provides full and complete information about the investment, responds to inquiries from potential investors, and does not provide any fraudulent or misleading information about the tokens. Munchee can direct those who see brief promotional material about the tokens on social media or Twitter to the company’s white paper that presumably contains full and complete information about the tokens. Again, it would be up to an investment adviser, not the issuer, to describe the significant limitations and risks associated with buying the tokens from an investor’s perspective. 

This case turns on whether the tokens are a security and thus need to be registered according to the US securities laws (US law would applicable because Munchee is a US-based company selling the products in the United States). In its 11 December 2017 cease-and-desist order against Munchee, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) found that the tokens were securities as defined by Section 2(a)(1) of the Securities Act and must be registered. According to the test applied by the SEC, a product is a security if it involves the investment of money in a common enterprise with a reasonable expectation of profits that are derived from the entrepreneurial or managerial efforts of others. Upon being contacted by the SEC, the company immediately canceled the sale and refunded the money of  buyers who had bought tokens. Because of this prompt action and Munchee’s cooperation, the SEC imposed no additional sanctions. In this case, the best answer is C because Munchee is a US company that violated US Securities laws. The laws of another jurisdiction may not require registration of this type of virtual currency as a security. In that case, Answer A could be appropriate. 

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

© 2018 CFA Institute. All rights reserved. You may copy and distribute this content, without modification and for non-commercial purposes, provided you attribute the content to CFA Institute and retain this copyright notice. This case was written as a basis for discussion and is not prescriptive of how a business situation or professional conduct matter should or should not be handled or addressed. Certain characters mentioned are fictional to facilitate discussion, and any resemblance to actual persons is coincidental.