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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

Agencies warn banks of crypto-asset risks

Bank Regulatory Federal Issues OCC FDIC Federal Reserve Digital Assets Cryptocurrency Risk Management Fintech

On January 3, the FDIC, Federal Reserve Board, and OCC issued a joint interagency statement highlighting key risks banks should consider when choosing to engage in cryptocurrency-related services. Risks flagged by the agencies include: (i) the possibility of fraud and scams among crypto-asset sector participants; (ii) legal uncertainties related to custody practices, redemptions, and ownership rights; (iii) misleading disclosures made by crypto firms that may be unfair, deceptive, or abusive; (iv) volatility in crypto-asset markets, including the susceptibility of stablecoins to run risk, which could impact deposit flows; (v) contagion risks resulting from interconnections among crypto-asset participants that may present concentration risks for banks with exposure to the crypto-asset sector; (vi) lack of maturity in risk management and governance practices within the crypto-asset sector; and (vii) elevated risks associated with open, public, and/or decentralized networks.

The agencies commented that while they will continue to take a cautious approach to current or proposed crypto-asset-related activities (and are not prohibiting nor discouraging banks from providing crypto services to customers, as permitted by law or regulation), they currently “believe that issuing or holding as principal crypto-assets that are issued, stored, or transferred on an open, public, and/or decentralized network, or similar system is highly likely to be inconsistent with safe-and-sound banking practices.” Moreover, the agencies expressed “significant safety and soundness concerns with business models that are concentrated in crypto-asset-related activities or have concentrated exposures to the crypto-asset sector.” Agencies have developed processes for banks to engage in robust supervisory discussions with their supervisory office about any proposed or existing crypto-asset-related activities, the agencies advised, adding that before launching any activities, banks should take appropriate risk management measures and assess whether the activity can be performed in a safe and sound manner, is legally permissible, and complies with applicable laws and regulations. Additional statements will be released in the future by the agencies.

“The events of the past year have been marked by significant volatility and the exposure of vulnerabilities in the crypto-asset sector,” the agencies said as they stressed the importance of keeping crypto-asset risks that cannot be mitigated or controlled from migrating to the banking system.

The OCC separately issued a bulletin advising supervised banks to follow processes outlined in OCC Interpretive Letter 1179 (covered by InfoBytes here) before engaging in certain crypto-asset-related activities.