What is a Howey test?

The Howey Test is a test developed by the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether an asset qualifies as an “investment contract”, which would make it subject to securities regulations. The criteria for determining this are fourfold: first, there must be an investment of money; second, there must be an expectation of profits from the investment; third, the investment must be in a common enterprise; and fourth, any profit should come from the efforts of a promoter or third party.

If all of these conditions are met then the asset is considered to be a security and would thus fall under federal securities laws such as the Securities Act of 1933 and 1934. This test has been widely adopted by courts around the world as a way of determining whether a security is subject to regulation. It has also been referred to in other countries, such as the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan. As such, the Howey Test is an important tool for understanding how securities can be regulated globally.

The Howey Test has had a significant impact on the financial sector by making it easier for regulators to determine when and where investments should be regulated. By giving investors more clarity about which investments are considered securities, this test helps ensure that companies comply with applicable regulations and protect investors from potential risks or scams. Furthermore, by providing guidance on what types of transactions may qualify as investment contracts, it helps ensure fairness in the market and encourages financial innovation. Ultimately, the establishment of the Howey Test has helped create a more secure and transparent investment environment.

The test continues to be an important part of the landscape today, used by regulatory authorities around the world in their evaluation of securities. In recent years, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has made it clear that digital assets may qualify as securities under the Howey Test depending on their particular characteristics. This applies not only to Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) but also to other tokens such as utility tokens or security tokens. With this in mind, companies engaging in token sales should ensure that they understand what is involved with the Howey Test and how it can impact their activities.

Simplified Example

The Howey Test can be thought of like a test to see if something is a treat or a trick. Just like how Halloween treats are good and tricks are bad, investments can be good (like treats) or bad (like tricks). The Howey Test helps to determine if an investment is more like a treat or a trick by asking questions about it. If the investment is more like a treat (safe and beneficial), then it passes the Howey Test. If it is more like a trick (risky and harmful), then it fails the test. In other words, the Howey Test helps to determine if an investment is safe or risky.

Who Invented the Term "Howey Test"

The term "Howey Test" finds its roots in the historic Supreme Court case Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) v. W.J. Howey Co., a pivotal decision in 1946. This case centered around the sale of citrus grove land in Florida, where the company not only sold the land but also undertook the cultivation and harvesting of citrus fruits on behalf of the buyers, with the promise to share resulting profits with them.


Example 1: A company sells plots of land in a new development to investors, promising that the land will increase in value over time and can be resold for a profit. The company also agrees to take care of all maintenance and development of the land. This investment passes the Howey Test as it involves an investment of money in a common enterprise, with the expectation of profits to come solely from the efforts of others.

Example 2: An individual invests in a cryptocurrency trading bot that uses advanced algorithms to make trades on their behalf. The individual does not have to do any work themselves, but just sit back and watch their investment grow. This investment passes the Howey Test as it involves an investment of money in a common enterprise, with the expectation of profits to come solely from the efforts of others (the cryptocurrency trading bot).

Example 3: An individual purchases a share in a local farm, with the intention of supporting the local community and receiving a share of the farm's profits in return. The individual is also invited to visit the farm and participate in the day-to-day activities if they wish. This investment fails the Howey Test as it involves an investment of money in a common enterprise, but with the expectation of profits to come not solely from the efforts of others. Instead, the profits depend on the individual's own efforts and the success of the farm as a whole.

  • Securities and Exchange Commision: An independent agency of the United States federal government responsible for enforcing federal securities laws and regulating the securities industry.

  • Security: A financial instrument that represents ownership in an asset, such as stocks, bonds, or real estate investment trusts (REITs).