Senate Banking grills regulators on crypto
On November 15, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held a hearing entitled “Oversight of Financial Regulators: A Strong Banking and Credit Union System for Main Street” to hear from federal financial regulators about growing risks related to bank mergers, bailouts, climate change, crypto assets, and cyberattacks, among other topics. Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) opened the hearing by emphasizing that Congress “must stay vigilant and empower regulators with the tools to combat these growing risks,” and said that banks and credit unions must be able to partner with third parties in a manner that enables competition but without risking consumer money. He also warned that big tech companies and shadow banks should not be allowed to “play by different rules because of special loopholes.” In his opening statement, Ranking Member Patrick J. Toomey (R-PA) challenged the regulators to “not stray beyond their mandates into politically contentious issues or establish unnecessary new regulatory burdens,” pointing to the participation of the Federal Reserve Board, FDIC, and OCC in the Network for the Greening the Financial System as an example of politicizing financial regulation.
Testifying at the hearing were the Fed’s Vice Chair for Supervision Michael S. Barr, NCUA Chair Todd M. Harper, acting FDIC Chairman Martin J. Gruenberg, and acting Comptroller of the Currency Michael J. Hsu. Cryptocurrency concerns were a primary focus during the hearing, where Toomey asked the regulators why they still have not provided public clarity on banks’ involvement in crypto activities, such as providing custody services or issuing stablecoins.
Pointing to a major cryptocurrency exchange’s recent major collapse, Toomey pressed Hsu on whether the OCC “discourages banks from providing custody services” for crypto assets. Toomey speculated, “it seems to me if people had access to custody services provided by a wide range of institutions, including regulated financial institutions, they might be able to sleep more comfortably knowing that those assets are unlikely to be used for some completely inappropriate purpose.” Answering that the OCC discourages banks from engaging in activities that are not safe, sound, and fair, Hsu acknowledged that there are underlying fundamental issues and questions about what it means to control crypto through a custody “which have not been fully worked out.” Toomey emphasized that part of the obligation rests on the OCC to provide clarity on how banks could provide these services in a safe, sound, and fair manner, and stressed that currently these activities are operating in a space outside the regulatory perimeter. Barr agreed that it would be useful for the Fed to provide guidance to banks on how to safely custody crypto assets and said it is something he plans to work on with his colleagues.
Toomy further noted that Congress’s failure “to pass legislation in this space and the failure of regulators to provide clear guidance has created ambiguity that has driven developers and entrepreneurs overseas where regulations are often lax at best.” Senator Bill Haggerty (R-TN) cautioned that lawmakers should not resort to a “heavy-handed” regulatory response to the cryptocurrency exchange’s collapse. “No amount of poorly considered, knee-jerk over-regulation here in the U.S. would have prevented a foreign-domiciled company like [the collapsed cryptocurrency exchange] from doing what it did,” Haggerty said. “The fact of the matter is that crypto, much like all of finance, isn’t beholden to a specific country or a specific legal system, and by not acting and by failing to provide legal clarity here in the United States, Congress only incentivizes activity to migrate outside of our country’s borders,” Haggerty stated, adding that it is “important to recognize that whatever happened with a bad actor running a centralized exchange and defrauding customers” has “nothing to do with the technology underpinning crypto itself.” When asked by Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) which regulator was responsible for watching the collapsed cryptocurrency exchange, Gruenberg said “I think in the first instance, you’d probably want to engage with the market regulators, the SEC and the CFTC, to talk about the activities and the authorities in this area.”
The regulators also discussed efforts to mitigate cybersecurity risks and strengthen information security within the banking industry. Hsu stressed during the hearing that “the greatest risk is the risk of complacency,” while noting in his prepared remarks that the OCC is aware of the risks associated with cybersecurity and has “encouraged banks to stay abreast of new technology and threats.” Barr pointed to the importance of operational resilience in his prepared remarks, noting that “technology-based failures, cyber incidents, pandemics, and natural disasters,” combined with the growing reliance on third-party service providers, expose banks to a range of operational risks that are often challenging to anticipate. Harper commented in his prepared remarks that the NCUA continues to provide guidance for credit unions to reinforce their ability to withstand potential cyberattacks, and recommends that credit unions report cyber incidents to the NCUA, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. In his prepared remarks, Gruenberg pointed to recent examination findings revealing that banks that have dedicated resources for implementing appropriate controls are better at defending against cyberattacks, and said the FDIC is “piloting technical examination aids that will help  examiners focus on the controls  found to be most effective in defending against these attacks.”
The House Financial Services Committee also held a hearing later in the week that focused on similar topics with the regulators. Chair Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) also announced that the committee will hold a hearing in December to investigate the aforementioned cryptocurrency exchange’s collapse and understand the broader consequences the collapse may have on the digital asset ecosystem.