Keyword: LabCFTC

In or Out? – The CFTC Explains When Virtual Currencies Come Within Its Jurisdiction

On March 24, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) issued final interpretive guidance (the Guidance) regarding retail commodity transactions involving virtual currency. In short, this Guidance clarifies when “actual delivery” of virtual currency (such as bitcoin and ether) occurs under the test determining whether a leveraged arrangement is exempt from regulation by the CFTC as, effectively, a futures contract. This important Guidance demonstrates the proactive and leading role that the CFTC has taken in connection with understanding and addressing developments in the fintech sector. In the Guidance, the CFTC explains the exemption clearly and places it in the context of the CFTC’s regulatory mandate, its somewhat tortured history in obtaining jurisdiction over leveraged retail transactions in commodities, and its interest in preventing abusive practices. As part of its commitment to assisting the industry in adjusting to the evolving interpretations, the CFTC also announced that it would impose a 90-day moratorium on initiating enforcement actions that address aspects of the Guidance that, according to Chairman Tarbert’s accompanying statement, “were not plainly evident from prior CFTC guidance, enforcement actions, and case law.”

The Guidance in effect enables those transacting in leveraged virtual currency (often referred to as “cryptocurrency”) to understand whether they are subject to CFTC jurisdiction. As noted in the release, the CFTC has exclusive jurisdiction over commodity futures, options and swaps – which encompasses a broad range of derivatives – and has broad anti-fraud and anti-manipulation authority over any contract of sale of any commodity in interstate commerce, as well as swaps and futures. This jurisdiction includes certain speculative commodity transactions involving leverage or margin, which are also treated by the CFTC as futures. The CFTC’s jurisdiction over leveraged retail transactions remained uncertain until passage of the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010.

Before the Dodd-Frank Act, it was possible that a retail transaction in a commodity entered on a leveraged or margined basis, or financed by the counterparty, could avoid regulation by the CFTC even though it was economically indistinguishable from a futures contract. In his statement, Chairman Tarbert offers this example: suppose that someone decides to purchase a commodity with some money down, with delivery and final payment to be made at some future date, but is also able to trade out of the position at any time to lock in any gains or losses incurred to date; “that starts to look an awful lot like a futures contract—with identical economics but without any regulation.” The Dodd-Frank Act addressed this regulatory gap, with a particular application to abusive sales practices involving foreign currency and precious metals, and now the Guidance provides interpretation to apply the same principles to virtual currency.

The important exception to the CFTC’s jurisdiction over leveraged retail commodity transactions is for a contract of sale that “results in actual delivery within 28 days…” The determinative factor as to whether a transaction in virtual currency is subject to CFTC jurisdiction is whether actual delivery occurs within 28 days of trade execution. (Note that, for retail foreign currency transactions, the delivery period is only two days.) In its 2015 Coinflip Order, the CFTC clarified that virtual currency constitutes a “commodity” under the Commodity Exchange Act. Although virtual currency is an intangible commodity, the CFTC has jurisdiction over other types of intangible commodities, including rate indices and renewable energy credits. Multiple federal courts have also held that virtual currencies are commodities under the Commodity Exchange Act. The CFTC broadly defines virtual currencies as follows:

a digital asset that encompasses any digital representation of value or unit of account that is or can be used as a form of currency (i.e., transferred from one party to another as a medium of exchange); may be manifested through units, tokens, or coins, among other things; and may be distributed by way of digital “smart contracts,” among other structures.

In the Guidance, the Commission interprets “actual delivery” in the context of virtual currency as taking place when (a) a customer (i) secures possession and control of the entire quantity of the commodity – whether it was purchased on margin, or using leverage, or any other financing arrangement – and (ii) has ability to use the entire quantity of the commodity freely in commerce, no later than 28 days from the date of the transaction; and (b) the offeror and counterparty seller do not retain any interest in, legal right, or control over any of the purchased commodity after 28 days from the date of the transaction. While this interpretation is carefully drafted to avoid permitting any “sham delivery” to qualify, the Guidance states that the simplest definition of actual delivery is the ability of a purchaser to use the virtual currency immediately as a unit of exchange. And while the 28-day period is provided as the outside time limit to constitute actual delivery, as a practical matter, it typically takes much fewer than 28 days for a virtual currency transfer to complete. To determine whether the seller no longer retains any interest in the virtual currency, the CFTC may look to whether the seller retains any ability to access or withdraw any quantity of the virtual currency from the purchaser’s account or virtual wallet. The Guidance essentially reaffirms guidance that the CFTC provided in 2013, in a non-virtual currency context, as to the “functional approach” that the CFTC would apply in determining whether actual delivery had occurred.

In the Guidance, the CFTC emphasizes the importance of virtual currencies and their underlying blockchain technologies, and highlights its efforts to take a “deliberative and measured approach” in this area, to avoid stifling technological innovation. The CFTC points to its efforts in this area, including the LabCFTC initiative, which seeks to promote market-enhancing innovation. It also notes that several derivatives contracts based on virtual currency are listed on CFTC registered entities. The Guidance also reports that the CFTC continues to follow the evolution of the cash market for virtual currencies, since cash markets affect related derivatives markets. It is because the technology, market structures and law are evolving so quickly that, as discussed by several Commissioners in their accompanying statements, issuing interpretive guidance is more appropriate than rulemaking at this time. We encourage readers to refer to the CFTC’s full Guidance, which is clearly written with helpful examples.

The CFTC Wants to Know More About Ether: Your Feedback Could Impact Ether Futures in 2019

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.


Getting Smarter: CFTC Publishes Smart Contracts Primer

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) has joined other agencies in explaining the crypto-related products potentially within its jurisdiction. LabCFTC recently released “A Primer on Smart Contracts” as part of LabCFTC’s effort to “engage with innovators and market participants on a range of financial technology (FinTech) topics.” (LabCFTC itself is a “dedicated function” of the CFTC, launched in 2017 to “make the CFTC more accessible to FinTech innovators.”) As summarized below, the Primer provides (i) a high-level overview of smart contract technology and applications, (ii) a discussion of the potential role of the CFTC in smart contract regulation and (iii) a discussion of the unique risks and governance challenges posed by smart contracts.

The Primer describes smart contracts, fundamentally, as coded computer functions that may either incorporate elements of a binding contract (e.g. offer, acceptance and consideration) or simply execute certain terms of an external contract. Smart contracts allow self-executing computer code to take actions at specified times or based on the occurrence or non-occurrence of an action or event. The Primer also notes that smart contracts can be stored and executed on a distributed ledger, which effectively prevents modifications not authorized or agreed by the parties. It describes distributed ledgers as electronic records that are updated in real time and intended to be maintained on geographically disperse servers or “nodes.” (Distributed ledger technology is the innovation underlying blockchains generally, including the bitcoin blockchain.) As an example of a smart contract in the derivatives context, the Primer describes a credit default swap encoded as a smart contract, whereby the code would (i) automatically make quarterly premium payments from an end-user to a dealer, (ii) check an external financial information source (known as an “oracle”) daily to monitor for credit events with respect to the relevant reference assets, and (iii) if the oracle indicates that a credit event has occurred, calculate and transfer payment from the dealer to the end-user. “Oracle” commonly refers to an external source of information, which the Primer describes as “a mutually agreed upon network authenticated reference data provider (potentially a third-party); this is a source of information to determine actions and/or contractual outcomes, for example, commodity prices, weather data, interest rates, or an event occurrence.”

Regarding the role of the CFTC in regulating smart contracts, the Primer does not state or suggest that the CFTC intends to impose any requirements that would be specific to smart contracts. Rather, noting that derivatives in many cases “may be readily digitized and coded,” the Primer then lists the following types of derivatives products that are subject to CFTC jurisdiction, and states that a given smart contract could constitute any one of them “[d]epending on its structure, operation, and relevant facts and circumstances”: commodities, forward contracts, futures contracts, options on futures contracts and swaps.

The Commodity Exchange Act and related CFTC regulations impose various requirements and restrictions on such transactions, depending on product type. A credit default swap based on a “broad-based” security index, for example, constitutes a “swap” and, as such, may implicate or be subject to swap dealer registration, clearing and execution, reporting and recordkeeping, and other CFTC requirements. Accordingly, absent further guidance or regulations from the CFTC specific to smart contracts, it appears that the Primer’s credit default swap smart contract example described above (assuming it was based on a broad-based security index) would be regulated by the CFTC as a swap, similar to an ordinary, non-smart contract credit default swap based on a broad-based security index. The Primer further clarifies that: “Existing law and regulation apply equally regardless what form a contract takes. Contracts or constituent parts of contracts that are written in code are subject to otherwise applicable law and regulation.”

The Primer also notes that, depending on their “application or product characterization,” smart contracts may be subject to various other legal frameworks, including, among others, federal and state securities laws and regulations; federal, state, and local tax laws and regulations; the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA), and the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (ESIGN Act); the Bank Secrecy Act; etc. Finally, the Primer discusses operational, technical, cyber security, and fraud and manipulation risks unique to smart contracts, as well as possible governance standards and frameworks (such as assigning responsibility for smart contract design and operation and establishing mechanisms for dispute resolution).

CFTC Chairman Includes Fintech and Virtual Currency in Agency’s Priorities

On July 25th, 2018, CFTC Chairman Giancarlo addressed the House Committee on Agriculture regarding the agency’s priorities and recent work. A significant portion of his testimony focused on the CFTC’s oversight of fintech and cryptocurrencies.

Learn about the CFTC’s regulatory approach to cryptocurrency and distributed ledger technology in this recent derivatives post.