BITCOIN, BLOCKCHAIN, CRYPTOCURRENCIES AND ICO’S: LEGAL ENIGMAS FOR START-UP’S OPERATING ON THE FUTURE FRONTIER

BITCOIN, BLOCKCHAIN, CRYPTOCURRENCIES AND ICO’S: LEGAL ENIGMAS FOR START-UP’S OPERATING ON THE FUTURE FRONTIER

The latest buzz words shaking up the technology, business, financial and legal establishments are not to be treated lightly. These terms are uniting (hard as it might be) all the major role players in their quest to evaluate the potential far-reaching effects it might hold for the future of commerce globally. It is difficult to ignore the fast-paced development of the latest technological advances, as we find ourselves amid the fascinating transition phases nestled between the Third and Fourth Industrial Revolutions. More importantly, as the universal compatibilities envisioned for this technology have now progressed from hypothetical online discussions between “tech-developers” and futurists to functioning real-life applications, passionate debates have erupted across a variety of diverse forums. Ranging from the corridors of legislators and financial regulators to the living rooms of the Stokvel run by Joe Soap, as people are curious (and watchful) about the industries based on the Future Frontier – and rightly so.

As the terminology is complex, we will not aim to explain what the Blockchain, Cryptocurrencies (which include BitCoin) or Initial Coin Offerings (“ICO”) are. We will also not attempt to define or address the application possibilities of these initiatives in this post, as the possibilities are vast and beyond the scope of this post. (For more information on the technical aspects relating to these terms, please see the links below explaining this in more detail.[1]) We will only briefly aim to highlight some aspects start-ups and potential investors should bear in mind when investigating the opportunities created by the technology found on this Future Frontier.

For Start-Up’s

Start-ups looking to venture into the industries of the Future Frontier are advised to note that there is still a lot of uncertainty as to the regulations governing and enforcing the practical application thereof. As such, carefully considering the current legislative frameworks in existence (and more importantly, the purpose behind it) might provide a helpful understanding of the things entrepreneurs should consider when developing their business models for the market. In a South African context, start-ups should consider the following legislative and regulatory concerns which might be applicable to them:

  • FICA, Money-Laundering and Know-Your-Client (KYC) legislation: due to cryptocurrencies trading far more anonymously over various encrypted platforms entrepreneurs are encouraged to familiarise themselves with the relevant FICA, Money laundering and KYC processes. Especially in industries where payments are being made by potential payment or payment systems operators;
  • Business of a Bank and Collective Investment Schemes: Business models based around the collecting and pooling of fees and/or accepting deposits for investments into cryptocurrencies and ICO’s might be considered to be Collective Schemes or structures conducting the business of a bank, both of which are strictly regulated by the SARB and FSB, respectively;
  • Financial Advisory and Intermediary Services Act (Twin Peaks Financial Sector Regulation Bill): any current or potential services aimed at the financial advisory or intermediary industries are strictly regulated by the Financial Services Board (and will soon fall under the Twin Peak Provisions);
  • Exchange Control Regulations: Strict requirements regarding the outflow of capital and funds exist in South Africa. As a result, certain apps or services designed to facilitate transfers of this kind without prior SARB approval, tax clearance from SARS or adherence to existing policies may pose some concern to regulators;
  • Companies Act: A very popular means to raise funds for start-ups focusing on Future Frontier industries is by way of an ICO. During an ICO the start-ups issue their own crypto- tokens to participants at a discount and often raise vast amounts of capital. However, an ICO might, depending on the rights attached to these crypto-tokens, in some cases be regarded as a thinly veiled offer of securities to the public. If that is the case, the Companies Act and accordingly, the strict laws relating to the issue of securities by way of an offerings to the public will be applicable. Since the Securities Exchange Commission of the USA recently declared this position (not without criticism), other jurisdictions may follow suit; and
  • Consumer Protection Laws: The loss of virtual cryptocurrencies value, tokens issued to paying participants without any underlying value and other types of blockchain transaction issues such as erroneous payments and systems breaches, hacks or Ponzi schemes are things to consider. If not adequately managed, this may create serious liabilities, not to mention reputational damage, to any start-up involved in these types of commercial venture.

These are merely some of the myriad questions start-ups are urged to consider as a starting point into the regulatory and compliance frameworks regulating the industries on the Future Frontier.

Investors

Warren Buffet once said the following: “What counts for most people in investing is not how much they know, but rather how realistically they define what they don’t know”.

In keeping with this thought, we would therefore urge any investors considering investing into start-ups which focus on the Future Frontier industries to not stray too far from established investment principals. Especially in determining what the Investor does not know, conducting an adequate due diligence investigation (or “DD“) into the envisioned Start-up’s proof of concept, management of regulatory and compliance issues and the viability of their intended financial and business models should be considered a minimum requirement. Further to this, investors would do well to consider special escrow arrangements for any transfer of investment funds irrespective of whether these funds are done by way of crypto-funds/tokens and/or fiat currency. Also using respected and knowledgeable service providers may mitigate against any risks involved in these investments.

Conclusion

There are various levels of uncertainty regarding the practical and legal implications of these Future Frontier industries. This accordingly provides ample grey area for entrepreneurs and investors alike to either flower or flounder through. As such, we would recommend that any Start-Ups or investors contemplating to venture into these Future Frontier Industries to make sure that they have a clear view of the legal nature of the transaction at hand. If the legal nature of the transaction is clear, it enables the parties to take a measured approach to control the relative risk associated and build in the protective mechanisms that the law requires.

We hope to see legislators work with other industry experts to create a legislative framework that promotes certainty, without smothering the revolutionary initiatives and staggering opportunities presented by Future Frontier technology.

[1] For further detailed information regarding how Cryptocurrencies and the Blockchain function and operate please make use of the following recommend sources:

 

The difficulties involved in setting up and managing Section 12J Venture Capital Companies

The difficulties involved in setting up and managing Section 12J Venture Capital Companies

“Section 12J Venture Capital Companies” (Section 12J VCC) seem to be a bit of a buzz phrase doing the rounds in the South African entrepreneurial world at the moment. We have had several requests from new and existing clients to set one up, mainly because of the attractiveness of these structures to investors.

A Section 12J VCC is a company formed in terms of section 12J of the Income Tax Act, 1962 (ITA) – it is essentially a pooling mechanism created by the South African Revenue Service (SARS) to encourage largely high net worth individuals to invest in start ups. The incentive to invest in a Section 12J VCC comes from the fact that investors get a full tax rebate on the funds invested into the Section 12J VCC. So, if a person in the highest tax bracket (presently 45%) invests R 1 million, they will get a tax rebate of R 450,000, meaning that the net investment is R 550,000.

The Section 12J VCC itself is relatively simple to set up, but the real complexity and difficulty comes with the management of it. The legislators have included several anti-avoidance provisions in section 12J of the ITA, which have made it particularly difficult, and in our experience prohibitive, for anyone to manage and run a Section 12J VCC. In fact, at the moment, there are only fifty six Section 12J VCCs approved by SARS and according to the information that we have gathered, and less than half of those are actually trading. It is interesting to note that the legislation allowing these funds was put in place in 2009 – that equates to, on average, seven of these companies formed (not necessarily even operating) every year since inception.

So why is it so difficult to get a Section 12J VCC off the ground? Below we have highlighted some of the major difficulties that some of our clients have had:

  1. No investor into the Section 12J VCC may be a “connected person” in respect of the Section 12J VCC, which essentially means that a natural person cannot own 20% or more of the shares in the Section 12J VCC (directly or indirectly) and a company can own up to 50%, in limited circumstances, of the Section 12J VCC (directly or indirectly), but no more.
  2. No more than 20% of the capital raised through the issue of shares may be invested into any one investee company.
  3. An investee company cannot be a “controlled group company”, meaning that a Section 12J VCC cannot own 70% or more of the equity shares in an investee company.
  4. To be recognised by SARS, the Section 12J VCC must be registered in accordance with section 7 of the Financial Advisory and Intermediary Services Act, 2002 (FAIS), meaning that the company must have a “key individual” in its employment and the Financial Services Board must issue it with a certificate.

There are many more nuances to a Section 12J VCC that we have not highlighted here as they are too lengthy to get into, but they also make for significant barriers to entry.

Regarding point one above – the issue of being a “connected person” – this provision was clearly put in place to avoid situations where a single investor uses this platform to invest in a company where he ordinarily would have done so in any event, but he simply sets up a Section 12J VCC to reap the tax benefit on an investment that he was always going to make.

What we have seen is that there are legitimate arm’s length transactions where investee companies are told that the investor will only invest in them if they are able to use the section 12J of the ITA structure and because of the anti-avoidance restrictions, investee companies are losing out on a potential investment as it is often not possible for this to be done.

Regarding points two and three above, Section 12J VCCs are often restricted in the manner that they can invest when they see a good potential investee company, as they cannot invest more than 20% of their raised capital into the investee company. This means that investee companies can, and do, miss out on obtaining more funding or any funding altogether.

It can also prevent arm’s length investors from investing into one investee company, as they cannot use the Section 12J VCC vehicle to invest into a qualifying investee company because they cannot own more than 70% of the investee company and they cannot use more than 20% of the funds raised in the Section 12J VCC to invest in the investee company. The investor also cannot hold 20% or more of the equity shares in the Section 12J VCC.

The final point is possibly the most difficult, FAIS approval is difficult to obtain as you must have a person who fits the criteria to be a “key individual” in terms of FAIS, which requires experience in the industry and further study. With the fast pace of the business environment, it is often too much of a hurdle to cross to find a party with the correct industry experience to write the exam and become qualified as a key individual.

If you have a legal team that thinks laterally about it, there are ways to manoeuvre within the compliance framework, but even then, there are limitations to the extent that it can be done.

Section 12J VCCs look very attractive from the outside, but when you scratch below the surface, there is a structure that is complex and difficult to manage and balance, which is probably the reason that they have not taken off in South Africa yet. That is not to say that forming a Section 12J VCC cannot be done, as we have assisted in setting up several of them, but it is worth considering it a little bit deeper to see whether this is going to be the best structure for you.

2017 Budget Speech implications for the externalisation of intellectual property (IP)

2017 Budget Speech implications for the externalisation of intellectual property (IP)

Relaxing the South African (SA) Exchange Control Regulations, in relation to IP in particular, is crucial for many of our start up clients (especially those operating in the software development and technology space). Up to now, SA resident companies could not export their IP to a non-resident, unless the approval of the Financial Surveillance Department (FSD) of the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) was obtained. This proved to be an insurmountable hurdle for many companies trying to externalise their businesses by moving them “offshore” for any reason, including that of attracting foreign capital investments.

The Exchange Control Regulations provide that when a SA resident (natural or juristic person) enters any transaction in terms of which capital, or any right to capital, is directly or indirectly exported (i.e. transferred by way of cession, assignment, sale transfer or any other means) from South Africa to a non-resident (natural or juristic person) such transaction falls in the ambit of the Exchange Control Regulations.

The export of “capital” specifically includes any IP right (whether registered or unregistered), which means the Exchange Control Regulations must be considered when dealing with an externalisation of IP.

The reasoning behind this regulation is that the offshoring of assets / capital belonging to SA residents amounts to an exportation of assets / capital and therefore erodes the asset base of the SA resident by way of a transfer of ownership from a SA resident to a non-resident. While this reasoning may have seemed sound, the application of the Exchange Control Regulations to the export of IP has led to many negative and unintended consequences for SA companies, and start ups in particular.

In the 2017 National Budget review the Government proposed that SA residents would no longer need the SARB’s approval for “standard IP transactions”. It was also proposed that the “loop structure” restriction for all IP transactions be lifted, provided they are at arms-length and at a fair market price. “Loop structure” restrictions prevent SA residents from holding any SA asset indirectly through a non-resident entity.

The SARB has started the process of relaxing the Exchange Control Regulations by issuing two circulars relating to IP. These latest amendments to the Currency and Exchanges Manual for Authorised Dealers mean that, under certain circumstances, approval for the exportation of IP can now be sought from Authorised Dealers (banks appointed by the Minister of Finance for exchange control purposes), as opposed to the FSD. This is good news for clients looking to restructure and offshore their IP, as the approval process should now be less administratively intense, less expensive and with faster turnaround times.

Approval can now be sought through an Authorised Dealer for:

  • a sale, transfer and assignment of IP;
  • by a SA resident;
  • to unrelated non-resident parties;
  • at an arm’s length and fair and market related price.

The Authorised Dealer will need to be presented with: (i) the sale / transfer / assignment agreement; and (ii) an auditor’s letter or intellectual property valuation certificate confirming the basis for calculating the sale price ((iii) together with any additional internal requirements).

For the approval of the licensing of IP by a SA resident to non-resident parties at an arm’s length and fair and market related price, the Authorised Dealer will need to be presented with: (i) the licensing agreement in question; and (ii) an auditor’s letter confirming the basis for calculating the royalty or licence fee ((iii) together with any additional internal requirements).

The second set of amendments provide that private (unlisted) technology (among others) companies in South Africa may now establish companies offshore without the requirement to primary list offshore in order to raise foreign funding for their operations. This effectively means that “loop structures” can now be created to raise loans and capital offshore, and these companies may hold investments in South Africa. Note that there are still certain requirements that must be met, for example, registration with the FSD.

Our commercial team has experience in making the necessary applications for exchange control approval. Feel free to get in touch if this is something on the horizon for your business.

Companies Act, 71 of 2008 Series Part 6: Share capital – what to consider?

The monies raised by a company through the issue of shares is commonly referred to as the share capital of that company. The Companies Act, 71 of 2008 (as amended) (“Companies Act“) regulates certain aspects regarding share capital, which every director, shareholder and potential investor should be aware of. Set out below are 8 of the most important things you should know in order to manage your company’s share capital and to help you make informed decisions about potential equity investments.

  1. Where is the share capital recorded?

A company’s memorandum of incorporation (“MOI“) must set out the classes of shares, the number of shares of each class that the company is authorised to issue and any specific preferences, rights, limitations and other terms associated with the shares. The share capital is therefore located in the MOI, which is theoretically a public document available for inspection from the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (“CIPC“).

  1. The distinction between the authorised and issued shares of a company

The authorised shares are the shares which the company is entitled to issue in terms of its MOI. Authorised shares have no rights associated with them until they have been issued. The issued shares are shares that are authorised and issued to shareholders, and to which certain rights are then attached.

  1. Basic rights attaching to every share

Save as provided otherwise in the MOI of the company, a share affords every holder of such share the right to certain dividends when declared, the return of capital on the winding up of the company and the right to attend and vote at meetings of shareholders. These rights can, however, be limited, for example, dividend preferences or liquidation preferences may attach to one class of shares but not the others. Non-voting rights may also attach to a class of share. However, every share issued gives that shareholder an irrevocable right to vote on any proposal to amend the preferences, rights, limitations and other terms associated with that share. This is an unalterable right under the Companies Act.

  1. How many authorised shares is appropriate?

This of course depends on the circumstances, but there is no limit to the number of authorised shares a company can have in its share capital. When starting a business an entrepreneur will often acquire a “shelf company”, which typically has an authorised share capital of 1 000 shares. This is suitable if there are only one or two shareholders. If more shareholders are anticipated, the authorised share capital will need to be increased. It is advisable to have enough authorised shares to avoid having to create further shares (and go through the process set out in point 5 below) every time the company needs to issue further shares.

  1. Amendment of the share capital – how is the CIPC involved?

The authorisation, classification, number of authorised shares, and preferences, rights, limitations and other terms associated with the shares, as set out in the company’s MOI, may only be changed by way of an amendment of the MOI. Such amendment can be approved by resolution of the board of the company, or by special resolution of the shareholders of the company, depending on which method is provided for in the MOI. It is common practice to restrict the board’s powers in this regard and reserve such matters for approval by the shareholders (in the MOI).

Any amendment of the MOI must be submitted to the CIPC for acceptance and registration. This process could take anywhere between 1 – 3 months, depending on the CIPC’s capacity and any backlogs.

  1. What happens if shares are issued in excess of the authorised share capital?

In the event that more shares are issued than are authorised (or shares are issued that have not yet been authorised), the board may retroactively authorise such an issue within 60 business days of “issue” – otherwise the share issue is void to the extent that it exceeds the authorised share capital. In such circumstances, the company must return to the relevant person the fair value of the consideration received in terms of such share “issue” (plus interest) and the directors could be held liable for any loss, damage or costs sustained by the company as a consequence of knowingly issuing unauthorised shares.

While these consequences can be severe, the potential costs and damages to the company (and its board) can be limited in the event that all the shareholders are willing to participate in rectification steps that would need to be taken and simultaneously waive their rights to claim any return of consideration and damages, where such actions were not taken knowingly and not timeously retroactively authorised.

  1. Share capital may comprise of different classes of shares

Not all shares in a company need have equal rights and preferences. Some shares may have preferential rights as to capital and/or dividends, privileges in the matter of voting or in other respects. A company may, for example, create one class of shares for the founders of the company, another class of shares for its investors and a third class of shares for its employees, with each class having its terms tailored for specific purposes. Note that the preferences, rights, limitations and other terms of shares distinguish the different classes, but are always identical to those of other shares of the same class.

  1. Shares in a company incorporated under the “old” Companies Act, 61 of 1973 (as amended) (“1973 Companies Act”)

Any issued shares held in a company that was incorporated under the 1973 Companies Act and were issued before 1 May 2011, being the effective date of the Companies Act (“Effective Date“), continue to have all the rights associated with it immediately before the Effective Date. Those rights may only be changed by means of an amendment to the MOI of the company.

All shares of companies incorporated under the Companies Act are no par-value shares. Under the 1973 Companies Act, however, a company could have a par-value share capital. If par-value shares had been issued as at the Effective Date, such company may still issue further authorised but unissued par-value shares, but the authorised par-value share capital itself may not be increased. In the event that such a company wishes to increase its authorised share capital, it can either convert its existing par-value shares to no par-value shares and then increase such number of authorised shares, or alternatively, create a further class of no par-value shares thereby also increased the total number of authorised shares.

Concluding remarks

Although at first glance the exact composition and structure of a company’s authorised and issued share capital may not be considered a top priority for busy entrepreneurs to worry about, we trust that the issues highlighted above will give you some insight and guidance into how and why your company’s share capital should be of great importance to your shareholders and any potential investors. If you would like to discuss any of these topics in more detail, please feel free to contact our commercial department and we will gladly assist you.