Banking regulators took a significant step toward the mainstreaming of cryptocurrency recently when the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) provided guidance about how a bank can provide custody services for cryptocurrency. In Interpretive Letter #1170, published on July 22, the OCC concludes that “a national bank may provide these cryptocurrency custody services on behalf of customers, including by holding the unique cryptographic keys associated with cryptocurrency.”
The OCC’s Letter arrives at an opportune time, when, according to CipherTrace’s recently published findings, the majority of cryptocurrency transactions are cross-border and, on average, each of the top ten U.S. retail banks unknowingly processes an average of $2 billion in crypto-related transactions per year. Providing custody services might help bring more of these transactions in to the open.
The OCC Interpretive Letter
The Interpretive Letter—which was issued just a few short months after the former Coinbase chief legal officer Brian Brooks became the Acting Comptroller of the Currency—is a breakthrough in terms of bringing cryptocurrency within a regulated environment. The OCC outlined three sources of market demand for banks to provide cryptocurrency custody services: (1) cryptocurrency owners who hold private keys want to store them securely because private keys are irreplaceable if lost—misplacement can mean the loss of a significant amount of value; (2) banks may offer more secure storage services than existing options; and (3) investment advisors may wish to manage cryptocurrencies on behalf of customers and use national banks as custodians.
The OCC recognized that, as the financial markets become increasingly technological, there will likely be increasing need for banks and other service providers to leverage new technology and innovative ways to provide traditional services on behalf of customers. The OCC pointed out that cryptocurrency custody services fit neatly into the long-authorized safekeeping and custody services national banks provide for both physical and digital assets.
With respect to cryptocurrency, the Letter states that national banks may provide fiduciary and non-fiduciary custody services. Non-fiduciary custodial services typically entail providing safekeeping services for electronic keys, which, as discussed above, fit neatly into the types of activities national banks have historically performed. Specifically, the OCC explains that a bank that provides custody for cryptocurrency in a non-fiduciary capacity typically would not involve physical possession of the cryptocurrency but rather “essentially provide safekeeping for the cryptographic key that allows for control and transfer of the customer’s cryptocurrency.” Fiduciary cryptocurrency custody services (such as those where the service provider acts as trustee, administrator, transfer agent, or receiver, or receives a fee for providing investment advice) are permissible if conducted in compliance with the National Bank Act and other applicable laws and regulations (such as 12 CFR Part 9 and 12 U.S.C. Ch. 2). Banks are authorized to manage cryptocurrency assets in a fiduciary capacity just as they manage other types of assets in a fiduciary capacity.
Banks that provide cryptocurrency custody services have to comply with existing policies, laws, and regulations, and conduct its custody services in a safe and sound manner, including having adequate systems in place to identify, measure, monitor, and control the risks of its custody services. In particular, banks should ensure they assess the anti-money laundering (AML) risk of any cryptocurrency custodial services and update their AML programs to address that risk. It would be advisable for AML compliance personnel to be well-integrated in the development of cryptocurrency custodial services. Banks must also implement effective risk management programs and legal and regulatory reporting practices for these services. Cryptocurrency custody services may raise unique issues identified by the OCC, including the treatment of blockchain forks, and consideration of whether technical differences between cryptocurrencies (for example, those backed by commodities, those backed by fiat, or those designed to execute smart contracts) may require different risk management practices.
The OCC Letter points out that different cryptocurrencies may be subject to different regulations and guidance. For example, some cryptocurrencies are deemed securities and therefore are subject to federal securities laws and regulations. In addition, because crypto assets are thought of as offering a greater level of anonymity or as falling beyond the ken of centralized banking systems, they have been associated with illicit activity including money laundering. Consequently, banks must ensure that their AML programs are appropriately tailored to effectively assess customer risk and monitor crypto-related transactions. Just yesterday, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network published an advisory warning that “[f]inancial institutions dealing in [cryptocurrency] should be especially alert to the potential use of their institutions to launder proceeds affiliated with cybercrime, illicit darknet marketplace activity, and other [cryptocurrency]-related schemes and take appropriate risk mitigating steps consistent with their BSA obligations.”
While there has been limited enforcement of federal law against banks for crypto-currency related activity, earlier this year, the OCC brought its first crypto-related enforcement action, against M.Y. Safra Bank for deficient AML processes for digital asset customers. The OCC concluded that the Bank’s deficiencies included its failure to: (1) appropriately assess and monitor customer activity flowing to or from high-risk jurisdictions; (2) conduct ongoing testing of its due diligence processes; (3) implement sufficient controls for its digital assets customers, including cryptocurrency money service businesses (MSBs); (4) address the risk created by the significant increase in wire and clearing transactions created by the cryptocurrency MSB customers; and (5) notify the OCC of its significant deviation from its previous business plan. In the Matter of M.Y. Safra Bank, SFB, AA-NE-2020-5, Consent Order (Jan. 30, 2020).
The OCC’s Letter should give comfort to many banks that have been bystanders to the growth of the cryptocurrency market. Now banks can offer more cryptocurrency-based financial services with more certainty, although many questions will likely be answered through greater participation. More marketplace involvement by traditional banks will in turn have a beneficial effect. Smaller businesses wishing to engage in cryptocurrency-based transactions now may do so by interacting with large, stable, and well-regulated banking institutions.
OCC’s Consideration of an MSB Regime
OCC’s Interpretive Letter may be part of a broader movement by the OCC to promote greater integration of cryptocurrencies into mainstream financial services. Acting Comptroller of the Currency Brooks announced on a podcast on June 25 that the OCC intends to unveil a new bank charter including a national payments charter that will pave the way for nationwide participation by cryptocurrency payments companies. As contemplated, that charter would be equivalent to FinCEN’s MSB registration process and stand in (under the doctrine of preemption) for individual state-level MSB licensing requirements. It also should answer questions like how the Community Reinvestment Act might apply to banks that do not take deposits and how the OCC will impose capital standards on companies that do not bear credit risk.