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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

OCC: Banks may hold cryptocurrency for customers

Agency Rule-Making & Guidance OCC Virtual Currency Compliance

Agency Rule-Making & Guidance

On July 22, the OCC issued an interpretive letter concluding that national banks and federal savings associations (collectively, “banks”) may hold cryptocurrency on behalf of customers so long as they effectively manage the risks and comply with applicable law. Specifically, the letter responds to a bank’s proposal to offer cryptocurrency custody services to its customers as part of its standard custody business. The OCC notes that “there is a growing demand for safe places, such as banks, to hold unique cryptographic keys associated with cryptocurrencies.” The letter emphasizes that the OCC “generally has not prohibited banks from providing custody services for any particular type of asset,” and providing cryptocurrency custody services “falls within [] longstanding authorities to engage in safekeeping and custody activities.”

The OCC notes that while the custody services will not “entail any physical possession of the cryptocurrency,” OCC regulations authorize banks to provide through electronic means any activities that they are otherwise authorized to perform. Thus, because banks may perform custody services for physical assets, they are “likewise permitted to provide those same services via electronic means (i.e., custody of cryptocurrency).” Additionally, a bank with trust powers has the authority to hold cryptocurrencies in a fiduciary capacity, in the same way they manage other assets they hold as fiduciaries.

The OCC reminds banks that they should develop and implement sound risk management practices, and specifically notes that “custody activities should include dual controls, segregation of duties and accounting controls.” Moreover, banks should “conduct a legal analysis to ensure the activities are conducted consistent with all applicable law,” noting that “[d]ifferent cryptocurrencies may also be subject to different OCC regulations and guidance outside of the custody context, as well as non-OCC regulations.”

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