As further evidence of the SEC’s resistance to the development of a regulated secondary market in bitcoin, on August 12 it delayed making a decision on three additional bitcoin exchange-traded fund (ETF) proposals.
On January 28, 2019, NYSE Arca, Inc. filed a proposed rule change under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 to list and trade shares of the Bitwise Bitcoin ETF Trust. Also, on January 30, CBOE BZX Exchange, Inc. filed a proposed rule change under the Exchange Act to list and trade shares of SolidX Bitcoin Shares issued by the VanEck SolidX Bitcoin Trust. Finally, on June 12, NYSE Arca, Inc. filed a proposed rule change to list and trade shares of the United States Bitcoin and Treasury Investment Trust.
The Exchange Act mandates that a final decision be made within 240 days of such filings. In the case of the first two proposals, the SEC exercised its discretion and found it appropriate to designate the remaining time available under the 240-day maximum period “so that it has sufficient time” to consider it. Based upon the same rationale, the SEC delayed action on the other NYSE Arca proposal for 45 days. Accordingly, it designated October 13, October 18 and September 29, 2019, with respect to the Bitwise Bitcoin ETF Trust, the VanEck SolidX Bitcoin Trust and the United States Bitcoin and Treasury Investment Trust, respectively, as the dates by which it “shall either approve or disapprove the proposed rule change.”
These delays come as no surprise given the SEC’s disapprovals of similar proposals to list other bitcoin ETFs, most notably the multi-year effort of investors Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss to list the Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust on the Bats BZX Exchange, Inc. In rejecting these proposals, the SEC has cited numerous concerns, including the risk of market manipulation, market surveillance and a potential divergence with futures trading as some issues. It remains to be seen whether the SEC will have the same concerns when it rules on the pending proposals.
Earlier this month, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) released new guidance to clarify when the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) will apply to businesses that involve cryptocurrencies (what FinCEN refers to as convertible virtual currencies, or CVCs). The BSA imposes anti-money laundering obligations on various U.S. financial institutions, including “money services businesses” (MSBs). Under the BSA, businesses that transact in cryptocurrencies may qualify as money transmitters, a type of MSB. Whether a business qualifies is important. An MSB must register with FinCEN, implement anti-money laundering controls, and ensure ongoing compliance with recordkeeping and reporting requirements (potentially an expensive and burdensome exercise) – the consequences of failing do so can be severe. But determining which such businesses qualify has been difficult, leaving many in the crypto industry uncertain as to their regulatory status.
FinCEN previously sought to aid in this analysis when it issued guidance in 2013 on the application of the BSA to “persons administering, exchanging, or using virtual currencies.” Although it provided some insight into how FinCEN viewed the cryptocurrency industry, that guidance seemed to raise as many questions as it answered. Various administrative rulings – in which FinCEN publicly advised certain businesses as to whether they were MSBs – helped to answer some of those questions. But those narrow rulings have been few and far between and can provide only limited guidance for a rapidly evolving industry. Through public statements, government officials have also sought to clarify how the BSA might apply to crypto businesses. In particular, a February 2018 letter from a senior Treasury Department official to Senator Ron Wyden suggested that almost all ICOs will constitute BSA-regulated money transmission.
FinCEN’s new guidance “consolidates current FinCEN regulations, and related administrative rulings and guidance issued since 2011, and then applies these rules and interpretations to other common business models involving CVC engaging in the same underlying patterns of activity.” In doing so it takes a step in the right direction, providing greater clarity as to FinCEN’s interpretation of its own regulations (at least to the extent your business model is one of the many covered). For example, the guidance describes why the provider of a hosted wallet likely will be an MSB by virtue of its exercise of total independent control over a customer’s cryptocurrency, whereas the provider of an unhosted wallet that vests the customer with total independent control likely will not. Similarly, the guidance explains that the operator of a trading platform that merely provides a forum where buyers and sellers can post bids and offers likely would not be an MSB, while the operator of a trading platform that additionally acts as an exchanger in consummating transactions between buyers and sellers likely would be. But gaps in FinCEN’s analysis still linger, new questions are raised, and it remains to be seen how useful this guidance will be as technology continues to advance and new and creative business models get off the ground.
And although the guidance signals that FinCEN is thinking about how the federal anti-money laundering laws apply to the cryptocurrency community, it does not signal how aggressive FinCEN will be in enforcing those laws against businesses that deal with cryptocurrency. To date, there have been just a handful of enforcement actions in the industry, including a civil penalty assessed against a peer-to-peer exchanger in April, which we previously discussed. One thing certain is that, in assessing potential BSA enforcement actions, FinCEN will rely heavily on this new guidance and expect businesses dealing in cryptocurrency to do the same. Persons and entities operating in this industry should evaluate (or reevaluate) whether they qualify as an MSB because of crypto-related activities in light of this new guidance.
Last week, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) backed up its strong public statements about enforcing the anti-money laundering (AML) laws with respect to cryptocurrency by bringing an enforcement action against an individual for violating the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA).
FinCEN, a bureau within the U.S. Department of Treasury tasked with safeguarding the financial system from illicit use and combating money laundering, has not been shy about expressing interest in blockchain and cryptocurrency issues. In a recent speech, Director Kenneth A. Blanco explained that “FinCEN has been at the forefront of ensuring that companies doing business in virtual currency meet their AML/CFT obligations regardless of the manner in which they do business.” He added that FinCEN “will continue to work with the SEC and CFTC to ensure compliance in this space and will not hesitate to take action when we see disregard for obligations under the BSA.” But FinCEN enforcement actions involving cryptocurrency activities have been infrequent. Since its landmark action against Ripple Labs in 2015, FinCEN’s only enforcement proceeding in this area was brought in 2017 against virtual currency exchanger BTC-e and its owner.
That changed last week when FinCEN assessed a civil penalty against Eric Powers, a “peer-to-peer exchanger” of virtual currency, for violations of the BSA. In agreeing to pay a $35,350 penalty, Powers admitted that he willfully violated the BSA by failing to (i) register as a money services business (MSB), (ii) implement written policies and procedures for ensuring BSA compliance, and (iii) report suspicious transactions and currency transactions.
The Powers action does not provide much insight into one of the more difficult questions a company whose business involves virtual currency faces: whether it qualifies as an MSB that is subject to the BSA. FinCEN guidance from 2013 indicates that the BSA generally will apply to “exchangers” and “administrators” of convertible virtual currencies. Unlike many virtual currency companies, Powers seems to have clearly fit within FinCEN’s definition of an exchanger – through online postings he advertised his intention to purchase and sell bitcoin for others, and he completed purchases and sales by delivering or receiving currency in person, through the mail, or via wire transfer. But in establishing that the BSA applied to Powers, FinCEN leans heavily on the 2013 guidance. That guidance in many ways is imprecise or unclear and it continues to create uncertainty as blockchain technology and virtual currency business models continue to evolve. But the Powers assessment confirms that other entities operating in the cryptocurrency space nevertheless should continue to evaluate their BSA obligations through the lens of that guidance to the extent possible.
Unlike those assessed against Ripple and BTC-e, the financial penalty assessed against Powers was relatively small. This might be because Powers was a natural person (potentially with a lesser “ability to pay” than larger incorporated entities), conducted a fairly small-scale operation, and paid larger sums as part of an earlier civil forfeiture action brought by the Maryland U.S. Attorney. While those considerations warranted a lesser penalty in Powers’s case, FinCEN very well could apply the same law, guidance, and reasoning underlying the assessment to more extensive cryptocurrency operations. Director Blanco’s recent comments regarding FinCEN’s priorities and this latest enforcement action suggest that FinCEN likely will do just that. In other words, we wouldn’t be surprised if FinCEN brings more enforcement actions – levying more severe penalties – to enforce the BSA in the cryptocurrency industry. Persons and entities operating in this industry thus should focus on assessing their potential BSA obligations early and take affirmative steps to comply if required.
The CFTC is giving the public an opportunity to influence its views as they relate to Ethereum, Ether or similar virtual currencies or projects. On December 11, 2018 the CFTC issued a Request for Information (the “Request”) seeking public comments and feedback on Ether and the Ethereum Network. The Request “seeks to understand similarities and distinctions between certain virtual currencies, including Ether and Bitcoin, as well as Ether-specific opportunities, challenges, and risks,” according to the accompanying press release. The version of the Request published in the Federal Register states that public comments must be received on or before February 15, 2019.
Individuals and companies involved in cryptocurrency, especially if related to the Ethereum Network or one of its competitors, should consider making a submission. The Request states that information submitted to the CFTC will be used to inform the work of LabCFTC (a dedicated function of the CFTC, launched in 2017 to “make the CFTC more accessible to FinTech innovators”) and the CFTC as a whole. It appears likely that the CFTC will look to the submissions to assist it in deciding whether to green light Ether futures trading.
Of the over 2,000 cryptocurrencies currently in circulation, Bitcoin is the only one for which futures contracts are traded on regulated futures exchanges. Bitcoin is also the only cryptocurrency which the SEC (through Chairman Clayton’s testimony) has officially deemed not to be a security. As mentioned in the Request, a certain SEC senior official recently stated that offers and sales of Ether, in its current state, are not securities transactions. The SEC’s stance on Ether likely paves the way for the CFTC to green-light regulated futures exchanges, such as the Chicago Board Options Exchange, to offer Ether futures contracts.
The cryptocurrency market is desperate for some good news to pull it out of the prolonged bear market it is currently enduring. Many had hoped that the announcement of Ether futures would be the catalyst that turns the market around. It appears possible that the CFTC will authorize Ether futures contracts, once it has reviewed the comments submitted in response to this request.
Earlier this year, two key SEC officials shared their views on digital assets under federal securities laws. While an ultimate determination will be dependent upon the specific facts and circumstances in a given situation, and these views do not constitute official policy, they are nonetheless helpful in understanding the SEC’s perspectives and considerations for potential future direction.
Learn more about key takeaways from this recent article published by one of our cross-practice teams.