Keyword: Other Regulatory Issues (tax, anti-money laundering, OFAC, and antitrust)

IRS Advisory Committee Identifies the Need to Enforce Compliance on Cryptocurrency Transactions

A recent report (the “Report”) of the IRS Commissioner’s Information Reporting Advisory Committee (“IRPAC”) has identified the need for additional guidance on cryptocurrency transactions to enforce compliance on cryptocurrency transactions. The Report heavily relies on the recent experience the IRS had in enforcing the Coinbase summons, as recently reported in On the Chain. The IRS explained the problem earlier this year: because transactions in virtual currencies can be difficult to trace and have an inherently “pseudo-anonymous” aspect, some taxpayers may be tempted to hide taxable income from the IRS. IRS News Release, IR-2018-71, March 23, 2018. Taxpayers in this situation are at risk, given that, as recently reported in On the Chain, there is no voluntary disclosure program for taxpayers that have failed to report crypto related income.

In the Report, the IRS estimates that potentially unreported cryptocurrency tax liabilities represent approximately 2.5% of the estimated $458 billion tax gap. The calculation relies upon a recent article by Fundstrat Global Advisers, which sets cryptocurrency-related labilities at $25 billion, based on taxable gains of approximately $92 billon and a noncompliance rate of 50%. The Fundstrat Report estimates that approximately 30% of the investors in cryptocurrency are in the U.S., which is more than $500 billion at the end of December 2017 (up from about $19 billion at the start of January 2017!), according to data from CoinMarketCap.

While the IRS previously addressed certain issues in Notice 2014-21, there remain significant open issues that will need additional analysis and further guidance to refine the reporting of these transactions.  For example, the reports cites the following:

  1. whether virtual currency held for investment is a capital asset;
  2. whether the virtual currency ought to be treated as a security, subject or not subject to the wash sale rules, or affected by mark-to-market implications under section 475 of the Code;
  3. whether a taxpayer may use LIFO or FIFO to determine the basis of virtual currency sold;
  4. how to track basis through activities in the blockchain;
  5. whether broker reporting is required under section 6045 of the Code for transactions using virtual currency;
  6. whether a taxpayer may contribute virtual currency to an IRA; and
  7. whether virtual currency is a commodity.

Also, while an initial reading would suggest that virtual currency would not be considered a financial account for FATCA purposes, various guidance notes issued by foreign jurisdictions for purposes of implementing the Common Reporting Standard (CRS) have indicated virtual currency does represent a financial account.  This inconsistency, the Report notes, between regimes that purportedly try to maintain a high level of consistency will be confusing to withholding agents and subject to inherent error.

Citing the recent Coinbase summons and the failures to report income identified in that case, the Report opines that many, if not most, taxpayers will report their virtual currency activities correctly if they are able to determine their tax implications.  Some taxpayers will be tempted to do otherwise, however, because anonymity is inherent in the structure of the block chain activities.  In light of Coinbase, these taxpayers are likely to use exchanges outside the jurisdiction of the U.S.  The Report notes that it is unclear at present whether the U.S. may obtain information from foreign exchange activities (determining the exact nature of residence of the virtual activities of an exchange is itself vexing under existing source and jurisdiction rules, and leads to issues of whether the activities are sourced to any jurisdiction or are stateless income).

The Report concludes with IRPAC stating that it would be very interested in helping develop information reporting and withholding guidance on these important issues.

https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p5315.pdf

A Foreboding View of Smart Contract Developer Liability

At least one regulator is attempting to provide clarity regarding the potential liability of actors who violate regulations through the use of smart contracts. On October 16, 2018, Commissioner Brian Quintenz of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission explained his belief that smart contract developers can be held liable for aiding and abetting CFTC rule violations if it was reasonably foreseeable that U.S. persons could use the smart contract they created to violate CFTC rules. As is typical, the Commissioner spoke for himself, but it seems likely that his views reflect the CFTC’s philosophy.

Generally speaking, smart contracts are code-based, self-executing contractual provisions. Smart contracts that run on top of blockchain protocols, like ethereum, are increasingly being used by companies in a wide variety of businesses to create autonomous, decentralized applications. Some of these applications might run afoul of CFTC regulations if they have the features of swaps, futures, options, or other CFTC-regulated products, but do not comply with the requisite regulatory requirements. The fact that smart contracts support disintermediated markets – a departure from the market intermediaries traditionally regulated by the CFTC – does not change the CFTC’s ability to extend its jurisdiction to them.

To identify where culpability might lie, Commissioner Quintenz identified the parties he believes to be essential to the functioning of the smart contract blockchain ecosystem:

  1. the core developers of the blockchain software;
  2. the miners that validate transactions;
  3. the developers of the smart contract applications; and
  4. users of the smart contracts.

Commissioner Quintenz dismissed the core developers and the miners as potential culpable parties by reasoning that while they both play a vital role in creating or administering the underlying blockchain code, they have no involvement in creating the smart contracts. He also limited the possibility of the CFTC pursuing enforcement against individual users because, as he explained, although individual users are culpable for their actions, “going after users may be an unsatisfactory, ineffective course of action.”

That leaves the developers of the smart contract code. Commissioner Quintenz stated that to ascertain the culpability of the smart contract code developers, the “appropriate question is whether these code developers could reasonably foresee, at the time they created the code, that it would likely be used by U.S. persons in a manner violative of CFTC regulations.” If such a use is foreseeable, Commissioner Quintenz believes that a “strong case could be made that the code developers aided and abetted violations of CFTC regulations.”

Commissioner Quintenz expressed that he would much rather pursue engagement than enforcement, “but in the absence of engagement, enforcement is the only option.” The Commissioner recommended that smart contract developers engage and collaborate with the CFTC prior to releasing their code to ensure that the code will be compliant with the law. The Commissioner even suggested that the CFTC is willing to rethink its existing regulations or provide regulatory relief, depending on the technology in question.

As blockchain and smart contract technology matures, we expect decentralized and disintermediated applications to come to market in increasing volumes. In his speech, Commissioner Quintenz provided valuable insight into how one regulator is thinking about applying existing laws to this new market. His remarks will be especially valuable if they influence other regulators, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, to take a similar approach.

EtherDelta Founder’s Settlement with the SEC Has Grim Implications for Smart Contract Developers

The SEC recently brought its first enforcement action against the creator of a “decentralized” digital token trading platform for operating as an unregistered national securities exchange, and in doing so joined the CFTC in putting a scare into smart contract developers.

On November 8, 2018, the SEC issued a cease-and-desist order settling charges against Zachary Coburn, the creator of EtherDelta, an online “decentralized” digital token trading platform running on the Ethereum blockchain. The SEC charged only Coburn, the individual who founded EtherDelta, but no longer owns or operates it. Note that the SEC press release states that the investigation is continuing.

The SEC announced its action against Coburn a month after a CFTC Commissioner stated in a speech that smart contract developers could be found liable for aiding and abetting violations of commodity futures laws. Both agencies appear to be putting smart contract developers on notice that by releasing code into the ether, they are inviting potential liability for any rule violations, even if they sever their connections with the code.

The SEC found that EtherDelta provides a marketplace to bring together buyers and sellers of digital tokens. The platform facilitates these transactions through the use of a smart contract, which carries out the responsibilities generally assumed by an intermediary: the smart contract validates the order messages, confirms the terms and conditions of orders, executes paired orders, and directs the distributed ledger to be updated to reflect a trade. The SEC employed a “functional test” to determine whether EtherDelta constitutes an exchange and to hold Coburn, who “wrote and deployed the EtherDelta smart contract . . . and exercised complete and sole control over EtherDelta’s operations,” responsible. As the Chief of the SEC’s cyber unit stated in the press release, “[w]hether it’s decentralized or not, whether it’s on smart contract or not, what matters is it’s an exchange.”

EtherDelta is one example of the innovation that smart contracts can facilitate. Innovation, however, is not a substitute for compliance. Indeed, in the SEC’s press release announcing the settlement, Co-Director of Enforcement Steven Peiken acknowledged that blockchain technology is ushering in significant innovation to the securities markets, but cautioned that “to protect investors, this innovation necessitates the SEC’s thoughtful oversight of digital markets and enforcement of existing laws.”

Significantly, the SEC found that certain transactions on the platform involved digital tokens that constitute securities, but declined to identify those tokens. Senior SEC officials have previously stated that ether is not a security, but this case shows that the SEC has not reached the same determination for all tokens issued on the Ethereum blockchain.

IRS to Virtual Currency Traders: No Formal Voluntary Disclosure Program

The IRS recently announced that it is not planning to establish a formal voluntary disclosure program for taxpayers who have unreported income derived from virtual currencies. Specifically, Daniel N. Price of the IRS’s Office of Chief Counsel stated on November 8, 2018 that he needed to dispel the rumor that had been circulating since last year that the IRS intended to establish a separate voluntary disclosure program for unreported income related to offshore virtual currencies. This is in contrast to the voluntary program that the IRS established for unreported income from offshore financial accounts.

Under IRS guidance from 2014, the IRS classified Bitcoin and other virtual currencies as property (rather than foreign currency). Accordingly, any income from virtual currency transactions is treated as either ordinary income or capital gains, whichever is applicable based on the activity that gave rise to the income (e.g. investment or mining). Because the IRS requires a U.S. taxpayer to report its worldwide income regardless of where that income was generated or where the taxpayer lives, a U.S. taxpayer could have significant income tax liability for its cryptocurrency activities that were conducted and remain offshore. In spite of this substantial U.S. taxpayer exposure, and despite the potentially enormous amount of unreported income from virtual currency activities, the IRS has provided relatively little guidance to taxpayers and tax professionals, given the complexity of the tax issues and reporting requirements triggered by virtual currencies. At the same time, as discussed previously in On the Chain, the IRS is preparing to collect the massive amount of tax from unreported income from Bitcoin-related trades.

The IRS is Closing in on Cases Regarding Bitcoin Income Reporting

Following a several-year court fight, the Internal Revenue Service (the IRS) appears to have obtained a substantial amount of information regarding individuals’ transactions in cryptocurrency, and the agency might be in a position to make criminal referrals of failures to report income from such transactions. In December 2016, the IRS, believing that virtual currency gains have been widely underreported, issued a summons demanding that Coinbase, the largest U.S. cryptocurrency exchange, produce a wide range of records relating to approximately 500,000 Coinbase customers who transferred Bitcoin, a virtual currency, from 2013 to 2015. Formed in 2012, Coinbase has served at least 5.9 million customers and handled $6 billion in transactions. Coinbase did not comply with the summons.

In seeking to enforce the summons in the Northern District of California, the IRS cited the fact that while approximately 83 percent or 84 percent of taxpayers filed returns electronically, only between 800 and 900 persons electronically filed a Form 8949, Sales and Other Dispositions of Capital Assets, that included a property description that was “likely related to bitcoin” in each of the years 2013 through 2015. Presumably, the IRS believes that more than 900 people made gains on bitcoin trading during that period.

On November 28, 2017, the court enforced but modified the summons by requiring Coinbase to provide documents for accounts with at least the equivalent of $20,000 in any one transaction type (buy, sell, send or receive) in any one year from 2013 to 2015. The order required Coinbase to provide: (1) the taxpayer’s ID number, name, birth date and address; (2) records of account activity, including transaction logs or other records identifying the date, amount and type of transaction, i.e., purchase/sale/exchange, the post-transaction balance and the names of counterparties to the transaction; and (3) all periodic statements of account or invoices (or the equivalent).

The IRS appears to be getting closer to the prospect of criminal cases:

  • In March 2018, Coinbase informed 13,000 of its customers that it would be giving information on their accounts to the IRS.
  • At the recent Tax Controversy Institute in Beverly Hills, Darren Guillot, Director (Field Collection), IRS Small Business/Self-Employed Division, said that “[he] has had access to the response to the John Doe summons served on Coinbase, Inc. for two months and has shared that information with revenue officers across the country.”
  • Bryant Jackson, Assistant Special Agent in Charge (Los Angeles), IRS Criminal Investigation Division, recently said that CI has been expecting fraud referrals from the Coinbase summons response.
  • CI and the Justice Department Tax Division have been discussing those anticipated cases and issues that may arise in them, such as proof of willfulness.

It is noteworthy that in Notice 2014-21, the IRS answered a series of questions related to the taxation of cryptocurrency (which it refers to as “virtual currency”). In the Notice, the IRS indicated that penalties would apply for failures related to the reporting of gains under section 6662 and failure to file information returns under sections 6721 and 6722. While the Notice specifically provided that penalty relief may be available to taxpayers and persons required to file an information return who are able to establish reasonable cause, it did not provide any indication as to whether reasonable cause relief would be available for taxpayers who failed to report cryptocurrency-related gains. More recently, on July 14, the Large Business and International division of the IRS initiated a Virtual Currency Compliance Campaign to address noncompliance issues.

While there may be valid reasons for failure to report cryptocurrency-related gains, taxpayers who are among the 13,000 Coinbase customers should be particularly concerned about the penalties that might apply due to the failure to report their gains.

Just Another Week on the Blockchain: September 10-16, 2018

The week of September 10th was particularly eventful and saw a rather large number of recent enforcement and regulatory developments, even by blockchain industry standards. Notable actions seen during the week included the first time the SEC has issued an order against a cryptocurrency company for operating an unregistered broker-dealer; the first time the SEC has brought and settled charges against a hedge fund manager that invested in cryptocurrencies while operating as an unregistered investment company; the first FINRA disciplinary action involving cryptocurrencies; a decision by EDNY Judge Raymond Dearie in U.S. v. Zaslavskiy; the authorization of two stablecoin cryptocurrencies pegged to the U.S. dollar by the New York Department of Financial Services; and the release of Chairman Clayton’s “Statement Regarding SEC Staff Views.”

For summaries of these developments, read our recent Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Alert.

Potential Antitrust Issues With Blockchain Technology

The advent of blockchain technology has raised many questions regarding securities and privacy law. But what about potential antitrust and competition issues? Agencies such as the FTC and the Japan Fair Trade Commission have indicated they are looking into competition policy involving blockchain-based cryptocurrencies.

Learn more about some of the potential antitrust issues associated with blockchain in this article from our Antitrust team.