79. What is the Howey test? What application does it have in cryptocurrencies?

The Howey test is a concept that is fundamental to the regulation of the cryptocurrency market. It is a legal test that helps determine whether or not a particular token or cryptocurrency is subject to securities regulation. 

Understanding how the Howey test works is important for both cryptocurrency issuers and regulators who seek to control the cryptocurrency market. In this article, we take a closer look at this test and its relevance in the context of cryptocurrencies.

What is the Howey test?

The Howey test is named after the court case SEC v. W.J. Howey Co. It is a legal standard that was developed by the US Supreme Court as a result of the aforementioned 1946 case. At that time, the Howey Company was selling property in Florida in the form of shares in a scheme that provided the owners with the right to collectively farm the land and share the proceeds. The court held that these shares were securities and therefore subject to regulation by the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission).

Based on this very judgment, the Howey test was formulated. It determines whether a transaction qualifies as an investment contract or an investment agreement.

If a transaction is classified as an investment contract, it is then subject to registration requirements under the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.

By contrast, according to a ruling by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), we have an investment agreement when we invest money in a joint venture with a reasonable expectation of profit. Importantly, the profits are to be derived from the efforts of others.

The Howey test applies to any contract, scheme, or transaction, whether or not they have the characteristics of typical securities.

Four main elements of the Howey test

Since its inception, the Howey test has been a legal provision for determining whether a transaction is an investment contract. Under the test, it classifies as a security if it meets the main elements:

  1. Investment of money;
  2. In a joint venture;
  3. With the expectation of profit;
  4. Drawn from the efforts of others.

How does the Howey test work in the context of cryptocurrencies?

For cryptocurrencies, the Howey test is used to determine whether a token or ICO (Initial Coin Offering) qualifies as a security. This is important from a regulatory perspective, as securities are subject to strict regulation and oversight by regulatory bodies such as the SEC.

To understand whether a given cryptocurrency or token is subject to the Howey test, it is necessary to assess whether it meets three main criteria:

Monetary investment: Do investors make financial contributions in the hope of a future return? If so, the first criterion is met.

Joint venture: Is there a joint venture where the participants act together and share the risks and rewards? This could include ICO projects, cryptocurrency exchanges, or DeFi platforms.

Expected profits from the work of others: Do investors rely on the work of others, such as project developers, to make a profit? If so, the third criterion is met.

If a token or cryptocurrency meets these three criteria, there is a risk that it will be recognised as a security and regulated. This means that the issuer must comply with the regulator’s registration, disclosure and supervision rules.

Cryptocurrencies are very difficult to classify. They are fully decentralised and therefore effectively elude regulators. Nevertheless, this does not prevent the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)from checking whether they meet the criteria of the Howey test.

According to the SEC, point one of the test is very easily met by most digital assets. Why? Because fiat money or other assets are created with the expectation of profit. Similarly, the ‘joint venture’ test is very easily met.

The Commission repeatedly uses this test to take legal action against cryptocurrency developers.

Howey test vs. cryptocurrencies

The most recent example of the application of the Howey test to cryptocurrencies is the case of Ripple (XRP). In 2020, the SEC filed a lawsuit against Ripple, emphasizing that the cryptocurrency is a security. Ripple denied these allegations, of course, and moved for summary judgment.

In 2023, the court ruled that Ripple and its coin XRP failed the Howey test. The court’s ruling remains controversial to date. The cryptocurrency industry has proclaimed victory; however, the SEC has insisted that it will regulate this cryptocurrency with the test.

Consequences of breaching the Howey test

Violation of the Howey test and the recognition of a token or cryptocurrency as a security without proper registration can lead to serious legal consequences, including financial penalties and criminal sanctions. Therefore, issuers of cryptocurrencies and tokens seek to carefully analyze whether their projects meet the requirements of the Howey test and, in case of doubt, consult lawyers specializing in financial law.


The Howey test is a key element in assessing whether a token or cryptocurrency is considered a security and subject to regulatory rules. In the context of the cryptocurrency market, where innovation and new business models are flourishing, understanding the Howey test is vital for issuers and investors. Cryptocurrency issuers are increasingly seeking to adapt their projects to avoid their tokens being recognized as securities and to comply with relevant legislation. At the same time, regulators, such as the SEC, are monitoring the cryptocurrency market to ensure investor protection and financial market stability.

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