Keyword: cryptoassets

HMRC’s New Approach to Cryptoassets – Tax First, Define Later

The UK tax authority, Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC), has taken a further step towards tackling perceived tax avoidance in transactions involving cryptoassets. Specifically, according to press reports, exchanges such as eToro, Coinbase and CEX.IO have received letters from HMRC requesting customer and transaction data.

The move follows HMRC’s most recent policy paper, “Cryptoassets for Individuals,” published in December 2018, which in turn built on the brief general guidance published by HMRC four years earlier in 2014. The 2018 policy contains the statement that HMRC will apply the relevant income or capital gains tax provisions by looking at the factual details of each circumstance rather than by reference to terminology.

While the policy paper does distinguish between exchange tokens, utility tokens and security tokens, in practice we expect HMRC to focus on a transaction’s factual elements, rather than the description of the cryptoassets.

In contrast to HMRC’s approach, the UK financial regulator, the FCA, has recently revamped its classification of cryptoassets, clearly defining which ones among them would not fall within the scope of its regulatory regime, the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. HMRC is yet to comment publicly on this development, but it is hoped that HMRC will follow suit and provide taxpayers with more certainty in determining their tax obligations in relation to cryptoassets.

Interestingly, on the other side of the Atlantic, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was also reported to have sent compliance letters to holders of cryptocurrency, warning them of the consequences of their potential non-compliance with relevant tax obligations. It is not clear whether the letters are limited to those taxpayers identified in the Coinbase Summons in 2016. The IRS believes that in 2017 up to $90 billon in cryptocurrency gains went unreported. On the Chain authors have written on the topic previously here, here and here.

While the IRS confirmed in 2014 that virtual currency ought to be treated as property for tax purposes, HMRC has, so far, used the word “property” only to describe cryptoassets for inheritance tax (IHT) purposes. Whether a similar approach will be taken for other UK taxes is yet to be confirmed and cannot be assumed.

The Financial Committee of the City of London Law Society published a paper that provided a potential framework for legal classification of cryptoassets. According to the Committee, exchange tokens could constitute a new category of personal property that is neither a “chose in possession” nor a “chose in action,” subject to the Supreme Court extending the notion of personal property to such assets.

In order to tap into the value generated by cryptoassets, HMRC’s approach has been to treat cryptoassets as property in relation to IHT and as “assets” in relation to other taxes. This approach is potentially quite unclear for taxpayers if we consider that, at the time of writing, there is no legislative basis (judicial or statutory) for the classification of cryptoassets as property. The fact that HMRC has recognized cryptoassets as property only in relation to IHT, and not for other UK taxes, adds to the uncertainty.

This uncertainty, coupled with the fact that most taxing legislation was drafted before digital assets even existed, means there is an urgent need for clarification on their legal status.

This is relevant to all value-generating actions involving cryptocurrencies, including the UK tax treatment of:

  1. options on tokens – will this mirror the taxation of options over shares?
  2. ICOs – will these be taxed in the same way as IPOs? and
  3. the transfer of tokenized shares – will these fall within the scope of stamp duty?

At the moment, there is no clear answer.

One thing does seem certain, however – blockchain is a harbinger of a new way of generating value and its potential will be fully leveraged only when the tax and legal frameworks around it have reached a serviceable level of cohesion. How and when this will be achieved is difficult to say.

The FCA Reclassifies Cryptoassets, But Is It Moving Away From Its Technology Neutral Approach?

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has released final guidance on cryptoassets in a policy statement that includes feedback from their January consultation paper. It is important to note that the policy statement is of a limited scope and focuses on whether different types of cryptoassets fall within the regulatory perimeter of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (FSMA) and Electronic Money Regulations 2011 (EMRs). While the policy statement does touch upon the use of cryptoassets for payment services, prospectus requirements and anti-money laundering issues, it does not provide much new guidance on these areas.

In terms of whether cryptoassets fall within the regulatory perimeter, there is not much new or groundbreaking in the FCA’s approach – which is a good thing. The guidance closely follows the FCA’s views that it had set out in the consultation paper, and the FCA is aware that regulation outside its purview would require legislative changes. This being said, the guidance is useful in assisting token issuers and market players to classify whether the cryptoassets they deal with are subject to, or could potentially be subject to, the regulatory regime.

The guidance confirms that cryptoassets will fall within the regulatory regime, if they meet the definition of specified investments, under the FSMA (Regulated Activities) Order 2001 (RAO), the definition of transferable securities under the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive (MiFID) or the definition of e-money in the EMRs. The guidance notes that the most relevant specified investments for cryptoassets are:

  • Shares
  • Debt instruments
  • Warrants
  • Certificates representing certain securities
  • Rights and interests in investments

The guidance deviates from the consultation paper in classifying the different types of cryptoassets. The previous categories had been security tokens, which were regulated, and exchange tokens and utility tokens, which were unregulated unless they met the definition of e-money under the EMRs. The new categories are:

  • Security tokens
  • E-money tokens
  • Unregulated tokens

The definition of security tokens remains the same, that is, those tokens that meet the definition of specified investments under the RAO and fall within the regulatory perimeter. The previous categories of utility tokens and exchange tokens have been reclassified as e-money tokens, which are those tokens (either utility or exchange tokens) that meet the definition of e-money, and unregulated tokens which, as the name suggests, fall outside the regulatory sphere. This new approach is far clearer from a regulatory standpoint and acknowledges that utility and exchange tokens did not need to be classified separately when considering whether they were regulated.

Less obvious, and potentially more interesting, the policy statement also indicates a change from the FCA’s previous technology-neutral approach. This is not spelled out, and we suspect the FCA would still claim to be technology-neutral; however, the guidance notes that the use of particular technology may raise operational issues unique to that technology and the FCA will consider this as part of its ongoing regulation.

The policy statement also notes the transposition of the 5th Anti-Money Laundering Directive (5AMLD) into UK law by January 2020, although separate guidance on this will be issued. The policy statement confirms that the UK’s approach goes beyond that required by the 5AMLD with regards to cryptoassets, and the Government proposes to extend the Anti-Money Laundering regulations to all cryptoasset exchanges, cryptoasset transfers on behalf of another person and issuance of new cryptoassets, for example an ICO.

This shift towards a less technology-neutral approach is also shown in the FCA’s recent consultation on banning contracts for difference (CFDs) and CFD-like products that reference cryptoassets to retail investors. This consultation comes on the heels of the FCA imposing restrictions on the sale of all CFDs and CFD-like products to retail investors. We would argue, and suspect a technology-neutral approach to support, that CFDs and CFD-like products that reference cryptoassets should be treated in the same way as CFDs and CFD-like products that reference other assets. Given that the ban which is being consulted on only targets those products that reference cryptoassets, is it possible that the FCA is moving away from its technology-neutral approach and towards specific cryptoasset regulation?