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It’s possible for relatively small ventures to raise significant sums of capital without meeting onerous government filing requirements or venture capitalist demands and controls. This is enabled by a sort of hybrid between an initial public stock offering (IPO) and the issuance of private crypto-currency (like Bitcoin). It’s called an initial coin offering (ICO), and it is growing in importance as a funding source, primarily (but not exclusively) for applications leveraging blockchain technology. ICOs themselves are enabled by blockchain, through which a system of virtual, shared accounts is maintained in the cloud, essentially a ledger of who owns (and owes) what claims on whom (and to whom). Like stock or a venture capital investment, its value is tied to the success of the venture or project:

When a cryptocurrency startup firm wants to raise money through an [ICO], it usually creates a plan on a white paper which states what the project is about, what need(s) the project will fulfill upon completion, how much money is needed to undertake the venture, how much of the virtual tokens the pioneers of the project will keep for themselves, what type of money is accepted, and how long the ICO campaign will run for. During the ICO campaign, enthusiasts and supporters of the firm’s initiative buy some of the distributed cryptocoins with fiat or virtual currency. These coins are referred to as tokens and are similar to shares of a company sold to investors in an Initial Public Offering (IPO) transaction.

Scanning though a list of ICOs or “token sales” just might make your eyes glaze over. The descriptions of some of the ventures sound impossibly intangible (or ethereal… a major blockchain application platform is called Ethereum). A few relatively accessible examples: augmented reality platforms; crypto-payment mechanisms; gaming community services; software platforms for dentists and “gig” economy providers; “tokenized” real estate investment; and peer-to-peer property rental.

Crypto-currencies like Bitcoin are viewed as highly speculative by many investors; likewise, ICO tokens are very risky. In fact, the ICO “space” has been fertile ground for fraudulent activity, pyramid schemes, and “exit scams”. Investor due diligence is often no better than guesswork, unless there is already an established product or service related to the project. The last link quotes a Bitcoin expert name Andreas Antonopoulos:

The best way to learn which ICOs are worth it is to lose money. Waiting for the wash-out. When these people promise great riches, they usually mean for themselves. If you have a viable product… build it first and they will come. I do not treat these technologies as investments but learning opportunities.

Very comforting! Some guidance and a framework for ICO due diligence are offered here and here, respectively. More guidance is here. And here is an actual due diligence report on an ICO. Suffice it to say that ICOs are not a perfect match for my risk-return preferences!

Nevertheless, there is a lot to like about ICOs. Jeffrey Tucker writes enthusiastically about their disruptive and innovative nature. The heavily regulated world of investment banking tends to deny smaller firms access to capital, and venture capitalists have their own, frequently costly demands on start-ups. ICOs open a new, low-cost channel through which funds can be raised from investors with a greater appetite for risk. Here is Tucker:

Why is this strategy for raising money for new ventures working so well? There is the most obvious consideration of low barriers to entry. Anyone can float them and anyone can buy them–from and to anyone in the world regardless of geography. There is a larger pool of investors that can bypass the impossiblycostly and complex national regulatory machines that have gummed up capital-raising methods in conventional finance.

It has been a long time since the financial markets have been free. That the market is mostly deregulated and decentralized, and thereby more active and effective, is itself interesting. No sector is more replete with the myths of ‘consumer protection’ than this one. …

And the solution is absolutely ingenious. It relies on decentralized markets that live on the Internet, combined with the invention of new tokens that have all the qualities of traditional money, depending entirely on supply and demand for their value, and also serve as asset titles to the protocol of the company itself.

Unfortunately, governments and large private players do not always wish to promote decentralized markets. Quite the contrary, and in the case of ICOs, governments and regulators are already “chomping at the bit”, so to speak, to impose regulation. Warnings of ICO risks have been formally issued by the SEC, and China has placed a freeze on ICO activity pending inspections of exchanges, reports and the likely issuance of regulatory measures. Given this scrutiny, Tucker might be a bit too optimistic about the ongoing development of the ICO market. It will depend in large part on the success of efforts by participants at self-governance. That’s something financial markets have traditionally done well, despite shrill claims to the contrary. Let the investor beware!

ICOs will tend to encourage the development of competitive forces in the broader economy. And while investment banks might view the funding objectives of many ICOs as table scraps, ICOs will create more competition for those banks if the volume and breadth of “coin” funding continues to grow. ICO’s won’t find their way into my portfolio any time soon, but they show great promise as an economic development.