Ever since Ethereum settled on Switzerland for its Foundation and Initial Coin Offering (ICO), the jurisdiction has been popular among blockchain-based businesses. In fact, the city of Zug is often referred to as ‘crypto-valley’. In this article, I will shortly delve into the laws that apply to ICO’s in Switzerland. Is a Swiss Foundation as smart as it sounds?
The Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority (FINMA) recently published guidelines on how it intends to treat ICO’s. FINMA’s CEO, Mark Bransom stated:
“Our balanced approach to handling ICO projects and inquiries allows legitimate innovators to navigate the regulatory landscape and to launch their projects in a way consistent with our laws protecting investors and the integrity of the financial system.”
Like most regulators, each ICO will be examined on its individual merits. In other words, the regulator will look at the economic function and purpose of each individual offering to determine what laws apply. Still, FINMA recognizes the emerging distinction between different kinds of tokens. These are:
This distinction is very similar to the terminology that has been emerging in the industry. The distinction will help founders in determining whether an ICO is subject to securities legislations, anti-money laundering (AML) and know-your customer (KYC) requirements.
To make matters slightly more confusing, FINMA states that the individual token classifications are not mutually exclusive. Asset and utility tokens can also be classified as payment tokens (referred to as hybrid tokens). In these cases, the requirements are cumulative; in other words, the tokens are deemed to be both securities and means of payment.
As was to be expected seeing FINMA’s current practice, asset tokens are treated as securities under Swiss securities laws.
Interestingly, FINMA also makes a distinction between pre-sales and ICO’s for payment tokens and utility tokens with a working product or service. Any pre-sale which gives investors a claim to acquire tokens in the future will be treated as securities, no matter what kind of token it is.
ICO’s for utility tokens will generally not be seen as securities offerings. However, there are exceptions to this:
So what if your token is a security under Swiss law?
Well, the regulation of securities in Switzerland is often not as onerous as it is in most other jurisdictions. Under the Swiss Stock Exchange Act, the book-entry and offering of self-issued uncertificated securities is for a large part unregulated. Under the Code of Obligations (CO), the only formal requirement is to keep a book in which details of the number and denomination of the uncertificated securities issued and of the creditors are recorded (Art. 973c para.3 CO).However, underwriting or offering securities of third parties will require a licensed under the Swiss Stock Exchange Ordinance. Finally, if the token you are offering is ‘analogous to equities or bonds’, you will most likely also have to satisfy the prospectus requirements of the Swiss Code of Obligations.
Anti money laundering rules are made to ‘protect the financial system from money laundering and the financing of terrorism.’ Under the Swiss Anti-Money Laundering Act (AMLA) you are seen as as a financial intermediary subject to AML requirements if:
(i) you provide payment services or
(ii) you issue or manage a means of payment
So, does an ICO automatically make you a ‘financial intermediary’?
No. In fact, only cryptocurrencies / payment tokens will be seen as a means of payment under the AMLA. If you are issuing a payment token, you will have to comply with a number of due diligence requirements. The most important requirements for founders are:
For utility tokens, you will likely not be subject to AML-requirements, as long as the your main reason for issuing the tokens is to provide access rights to a non-financial application. For pre-sales, you will never be subject to the AMLA.
It has become market practice to hold the funds raised during an ICO in a Foundation. Due to the relative legal certainty in Switzerland and low tax-burden, Swiss foundations are often used in this respect. It should be noted however that Swiss foundations are not ideal for this purpose.
First of all, one can only incorporate as a non-profit foundation when the founders do not have any (even indirect) personal financial interest linked to the operation of the non-profit foundation. In many cases, founders retain a small percentage of tokens for themselves, which is something tax authorities might deem a problem.
Secondly, Swiss foundations are by nature very rigid. Swiss law states that these foundations should operate completely independently. Moreover, the money raised during the ICO can only be used for the promotion of the foundation’s purpose.
This is often good news for investors. However, it can also prove to be a burden. The drama of a cryptocurrency called Tezos is a great example hereof.
I have written an article about the curious tale of Tezos. In short, Tezos’ founders, the Breitlings, are dealing with three different US-filed class-actions. Although they successfully raised about $250 million during the ICO, it is still unclear if the funds in the Foundation can be used to cover their legal defense. Is the use of funds for their legal defense for the promotion of the foundation’s purpose? And, as the Breitlings are officially not part of the Foundation themselves, is the Foundation still acting independent if they pay for their defense?
Thijs Maas is a law student with a healthy obsession for the legal challenges that arise in relation to the wave of innovation brought by distributed ledger technologies. He recently founded www.lawandblockchain.eu, a hub for information, insights and academic research on everything law & blockchain.