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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

DFPI addresses several MTA licensing exemptions

Licensing State Issues DFPI California Money Transmission Act Money Service / Money Transmitters California Cryptocurrency Fintech

Recently, the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation (DFPI) released several new opinion letters covering aspects of the California Money Transmission Act (MTA) related to virtual currency and agent of payee rules. Highlights from the redacted letters include:

  • Cryptocurrency and Agent of Payee Exemption. The redacted opinion letter reviewed whether MTA licensure is required for a company’s proposal to offer payment processing services that would enable merchants to receive payments in U.S. dollars from buyers of goods and services, automatically exchange these payments into dollar-denominated tokens on a blockchain network, and to store the tokens in a custodial digital wallet. DFPI currently does not require licensure for companies to receive U.S. dollars from a buyer for transfer to a merchant’s wallet as dollar tokens. DFPI explained that even if it did regulate this activity, the structure of the company’s payment processing services satisfies the requirements of the agent-of-payee exemption, wherein the company acts as the agent of the merchant pursuant to a preexisting written contract and the company’s receipt of payment satisfies the buyer’s obligation to the merchant for goods or services. DFPI further explained that while storing dollar tokens in a custodial digital wallet or making subsequent transfers out of a wallet do not currently require licensure under the MTA, DFPI may later determine the activities are subject to regulatory supervision.
  • Asset-Backed Tokens and Other Cryptocurrency. The redacted opinion letter asked DFPI whether an MTA license is required to (i) provide technical services to enable owners of metal to create digital assets representing interests in that metal; (ii) facilitate trading in these digital assets; or (iii) provide digital wallets to customers. The company intends to create a platform to facilitate the creation, sale, and trading of metal asset-backed tokens, whereby a customer purchases metal asset-backed tokens (ABTs) or currency tokens using fiat currency stored in an FBO account. Customers will not be allowed to transmit fiat currency to each other except to facilitate the purchase of ABTs or currency tokens, to receive proceeds from ABTs, or to pay platform fees. DFPI explained that while issuing stored value is generally considered money transmission, “[p]roviding technical services to assist in the creation of a [m]etal ABT and [i]ndustrial [t]okens and issuing a digital wallet holding the [m]etal ABT does not require licensure.” DFPI noted that the company is not itself issuing the ABT or industrial tokens. DFPI further concluded that the company does not need an MTA license to issue a digital wallet holding metal ATBs because the digital wallet is not stored value nor can the wallet’s contents be redeemed for money or monetary value or be used as payment for goods or services. DFPI separately indicated that a license is not currently required to facilitate the sale of ABTs, nor the issuance and sale of currency tokens. However, DFPI warned the company that the opinion only pertains to MTA, and that the company should be aware that metal ABTs and industrial tokens “could be considered a commodity and California Corporations Code section 29520 generally prohibits the sale of a commodity, unless an exception applies.”
  • Cryptocurrency-to-Precious Metals Dealer. The redacted opinion letter reviewed whether an online cryptocurrency-to-precious metals dealer, which accepts a variety of different cryptocurrencies in exchange for precious metals and also purchases precious metals from customers using different cryptocurrencies, requires MTA licensure. The company referenced a 2016 decision where DFPI determined that a company operating a software technology platform to facilitate the purchase and sale of gold was not engaged in money transmission, that gold and other precious metals were not payment instruments, that the transactions did not represent selling or issuing stored value, and that “the activity did not constitute receiving money for transmission because the sale or repurchase of gold was a bargained-for-exchange and did not involve transmission to a third party.” The company argued that purchasing and selling precious metals with cryptocurrency is similar and should not trigger MTA’s licensing requirement. DFPI agreed that the company’s business activities do not meet the definition of money transmission because precious metals are not payment instruments, and as such, purchasing and selling precious metals for cryptocurrency does not represent the sale or issuance of a payment instrument. Additionally, DFPI concluded that the company is not selling or issuing stored value, nor do the transactions “involve the receipt of money or monetary value for transmission within or outside the U.S.”
  • Virtual Currency Wallet. The redacted opinion letter asked whether an MTA license is required to operate a platform that will provide customers with an account to store and transfer virtual currencies. The company will also provide customers access to an exchange where they can facilitate the purchase or sale of virtual currencies in exchange for other virtual currencies. Fiat currency will not be used on the platform. DFPI stated that it does not currently require companies to obtain an MTA license to operate a platform that provides customers with an account to store and transfer virtual currencies. DFPI further stated that a license is not required to operate a platform that gives customers access to an exchange to purchase or sell virtual currencies in exchange for other virtual currencies.
  • Purchase of Cryptocurrency. The redacted opinion letter examined whether a company that offers clients a direct opportunity to buy cryptocurrency in exchange for fiat currency requires MTA licensure. The company explained, among other things, that there is no transmission of cryptocurrency to third parties and that it does not offer money transmission services. DFPI concluded that because the company’s activities are limited to directly selling cryptocurrency to clients, it “does not require an MTA license because it does not involve the sale or issuance of a payment instrument, the sale or issuance of stored value, or receiving money for transmission.”

DFPI reminded the companies that its determinations are limited to the presented facts and circumstances and that any change could lead to different conclusions. Moreover, the letters do not relieve the companies from any FinCEN or federal regulatory obligations.

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