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On February 11, the District of Columbia Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking announced the formation of the District of Columbia Financial Services Regulatory Sandbox and Innovation Council. The Council, which will examine the feasibility of implementing a financial services regulatory sandbox in the District, will also “develop a blockchain and innovation regulatory framework to facilitate financial services innovation in the District.” D.C. Mayor Bowser, who established the Council in January, has directed the advisory group to review barriers that fintech, insurtech, regtech, and other technology companies face when attempting to bring innovative services to the District, and to evaluate how these impediments can be mitigated or eliminated to foster innovation, including making recommendations for ways to reduce the regulatory burden on financial services providers that impede innovation. Among other things, the Mayor also has tasked the Council with studying the potential dangers regulatory sandboxes pose to consumers and the possible safeguards to such dangers. The Council—whose membership will include a cross section of professionals from the insurance, securities, banking, and lending industries; consumer representatives; technology industry members; and individuals specializing in financial services regulation and the captive insurance industry—will report legislative, programmatic, and policy recommendations to the Mayor within the first six months after its initial meeting.
On December 21, the New York governor signed A08783, which creates a digital currency task force to conduct a comprehensive review related to the regulation of cryptocurrencies in the state. The act requires the task force to issue a report by December 15, 2020, with recommendations to “increase transparency and security, enhance consumer protections, and to address the long-term impact related to the use of cryptocurrency.” The report will also contain a review of laws and regulations on digital currency, including those used by other states, the federal government, and foreign countries.
On November 1, the Arizona Attorney General announced the approval of two more participants in the state’s fintech sandbox program. The first company, which is based in New York, will test a savings and credit product, enabling Arizona consumers to obtain a small line of credit aimed at providing overdraft protection. If a consumer agrees to a repayment plan recommended by the company’s proprietary technology, the APR may be as low at 12 percent; if a consumer adopts a different repayment plan, the line of credit will have a standard APR of 15.99 percent. The company intends to report transactions under the payment plan to national credit bureaus to enable the building of credit histories. The second company, an Arizona-based non-profit, will test a lending product using proprietary blockchain technology, which has an APR cap of 20 percent.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Arizona governor signed legislation in March creating the first state sandbox program for companies to test innovative financial products or services without certain regulatory requirements. In October, the Attorney General announced the first sandbox participant, a mobile platform company (InfoBytes coverage available here).
On October 18, the SEC announced the launch of its Strategic Hub for Innovation and Financial Technology (FinHub). According to the SEC, FinHub will assist in facilitating public engagement on fintech-related topics, including blockchain/distributed ledger technology, digital marketplace financing, automated investment advice, and artificial intelligence/machine learning. Through FinHub, industry participants and the public will have the opportunity to engage directly with the SEC to discuss and test innovative ideas and technological developments. FinHub will also act as a clearinghouse for SEC staff to access and disseminate fintech-related information throughout the agency, and will “[s]erve as a liaison to other domestic and international regulators regarding emerging technologies in financial, regulatory, and supervisory systems.”
“FinHub provides a central point of focus for our efforts to monitor and engage on innovations in the securities markets that hold promise, but which also require a flexible, prompt regulatory response to execute our mission,” SEC Chairman Jay Clayton announced.
On September 28, the California governor signed AB 2658, which requires the Secretary of the Government Operations Agency to appoint a blockchain working group by July 1, 2019. (The act defines blockchain as “a mathematically secured, chronological, and decentralized ledger or database.”) The working group is charged with evaluating, among other things, (i) the risks and benefits associated with the use of blockchain by state government and California-based businesses; (ii) the legal implications of the use of blockchain; and (iv) best practices for enabling blockchain technology to benefit the state and its businesses and residents. The act, which has a sunset date of January 1, 2022, requires the working group to provide a report to the legislature by July 1, 2020.
Ohio governor enacts legislation recognizing blockchain transactions as enforceable electronic transactions
On August 3, the governor of Ohio signed into law SB 220, which codifies that records or contracts and signatures secured through blockchain technology are enforceable electronic transactions. Specifically, SB 220 amends Ohio’s Uniform Electronic Transactions Act to state that “a record or contract that is secured through blockchain technology is considered to be in an electronic form and to be an electronic signature” and that a “signature that is secured through blockchain technology is considered to be in an electronic form and to be an electronic signature.” The amendments also create an affirmative defense or “safe harbor” to tort actions against businesses alleged to have failed to implement reasonable information security controls leading to a data breach of personal or restricted information. To qualify for the safe harbor, a business must implement and comply with a written cybersecurity program that contains specific safeguards for either the protection of personal information or the protection of both personal and restricted information.
On June 14, the Director of the SEC Division of Corporation Finance, William Hinman, stated that the SEC does not consider the cryptocurrencies bitcoin and ether to be securities. In his remarks at the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit, Hinman emphasized a number of factors that are considered when assessing whether a cryptocurrency or ICO should be considered a security. These factors include, primarily, whether a third party drives the expectation of a return—the central test used by the Supreme Court in SEC v. W.J. Howey Co.. According to Hinman, bitcoin’s and ether’s networks are decentralized without a central third party controlling the enterprise and, thus, applying the disclosure rules of federal securities laws to these cryptocurrencies would add little value to the market. Hinman did note that whether something is considered a security is not static and emphasized that if a cryptocurrency were to be placed into a fund and interests were sold, the fund would be considered a security.
On January 9, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held a hearing entitled, “Combating Money Laundering and Other Forms of Illicit Finance: Opportunities to Reform and Strengthen BSA Enforcement” to discuss anti-money laundering and Bank Secrecy Act (AML/BSA) enforcement and compliance. Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) opened the hearing by stating that Congress and financial regulators must examine and address “decades-old” Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money laundering requirements in order “to sharpen the focus, sustainability and enforcement of a modernized, more efficient U.S. counter-threat-finance architecture.” During the hearing, the Committee stressed the need to move towards a more targeted, strengthened AML framework so that banks, law enforcement, and regulators can focus on specific threats such as the financing of terrorism and sanctions evasions.
The three witnesses offered numerous insights related to reforming AML/BSA enforcement and regulatory structures, including: (i) establishing an approach that would utilize and track intelligence and analysis rather than focusing primarily on quantifiable metrics; (ii) increasing inter-agency coordination and improving information sharing between financial institutions and regulators, and among financial institutions themselves; (iii) recognizing the importance of law enforcement participation, specifically related to the sharing of suspicious activity reports; (iv) encouraging the participation of entities outside of the banking sector, such as persons involved in real estate or those acting as proxies for financial system access; (v) supporting beneficial ownership legislation for companies formed in the United States; and (v) understanding the ways in which financial institutions are addressing the anonymity of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. The witnesses were:
- Mr. Dennis Lormel, President and CEO, DML Associates and former Chief, FBI Financial Crimes Program (testimony);
- Mr. Greg Baer, President, The Clearing House Association (testimony); and
- Ms. Heather Lowe, Legal Counsel and Director of Government Affairs, Global Financial Integrity (testimony).
On January 8, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) published its Annual Regulatory and Examination Priorities Letter (2018 Letter), which focused on several broad issues within the securities industry, including improving the examination program to “implement a risk-based framework designed to better align examination resources to the risk profile of  member firms.” As previously covered in InfoBytes, last July FINRA360 (a comprehensive self-evaluation and organizational improvement initiative) prompted the organization to announce plans currently underway to enhance operations by consolidating its existing enforcement teams into a single unit. In the 2018 Letter, FINRA announced ongoing efforts to work with member firms to understand the risks and benefits of fintech innovation such as blockchain technology, as well as the impact initial coin offerings (ICOs) and digital currencies have on broker-dealers.
Additional areas of regulatory and examination focus for FINRA in 2018 will include: (i) fraudulent activities and suspicious activity report filing requirements; (ii) business continuity planning; (iii) protection and verification of customer assets, including whether firms have implemented adequate controls and supervision methods along with measuring the effectiveness of cybersecurity programs; (iv) anti-money laundering monitoring and surveillance resources and policies and procedures; and (v) the role firms and other registered representatives play when effecting transactions in cryptocurrencies and ICOs—specifically with regard to the supervisory, compliance and operational infrastructure firms implement to “ensure compliance with relevant federal securities laws and regulations and FINRA rules.”
SEC Obtains Emergency Court Order Against Canadian Firm for Allegedly Violating Federal Securities Law; Halts Initial Coin Offering
On December 4, the SEC announced it had obtained an emergency court order to freeze the assets of a Canadian company and the company’s founders (Defendants) and block Defendants’ ability to continue to raise funds through an initial coin offering (ICO). At the time the order was issued, the ICO had raised $15 million since August by “promising investors returns of 1,354% in under 29 days.” This is the first enforcement action taken by the SEC’s recently established Cyber Unit, whose focus includes distributed ledger technology and initial coin offering violations. (See previous InfoBytes Cyber Unit coverage here.)
According to a complaint filed December 1 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Defendants allegedly violated the anti-fraud and registration provisions of U.S. federal securities laws by making a series of materially false and misleading statements when marketing and selling securities as digital tokens/cryptocurrencies to obtain investor funds. From August to the present, Defendants purportedly raised $15 million through the ICO, and made false representations including, among other things, that: (i) the firm consisted of large teams of experts across the globe, and (ii) investors would receive certain promised returns (1,354% in less than a month) on investments if all tokens were sold. Further, Defendants allegedly failed to disclose (i) that a portion of the proceeds from the ICO funds would pay personal expenses, and (ii) that the company’s principal executive was “a known recidivist securities law violator in Canada.” The SEC seeks relief in the form of permanent injunctions, monetary penalties and interest, and an “officer-and-director bar and a bar from offering digital securities” against the company’s founders.
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "NMLS usage" at the NMLS Annual Conference & Training
- Jeffrey S. Hydrick to discuss "State legislative update" at the NMLS Annual Conference & Training
- Kathryn L. Ryan to speak at the "Business model primer" at the NMLS Annual Conference & Training
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Dynamic customer due diligence and beneficial ownership from KYC to ongoing CDD and the new rule implementation" at the Puerto Rican Symposium of Anti-Money Laundering
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "Preparing for servicing exams in the current regulatory environment" at the Mortgage Bankers Association National Mortgage Servicing Conference & Expo
- Jon David D. Langlois to discuss "Regulatory risks of convenience fees" at the Mortgage Bankers Association National Mortgage Servicing Conference & Expo
- APPROVED Webcast: NMLS Annual Conference & Ombudsman Meeting: Review and recap
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "Keeping your head above water in flood insurance compliance" at the Mortgage Bankers Association National Mortgage Servicing Conference & Expo
- Melissa Klimkiewicz to discuss "Servicing super session" at the Mortgage Bankers Association National Mortgage Servicing Conference & Expo
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Lessons learned from recent high profile enforcement actions" at the Florida International Bankers Association AML Compliance Conference
- Moorari K. Shah to provide "Regulatory update – California and beyond" at the National Equipment Finance Association Summit
- Sasha Leonhardt and John B. Williams to discuss "Privacy" at the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions Spring Regulatory Compliance School
- Aaron C. Mahler to discuss "Regulation B/fair lending" at the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions Spring Regulatory Compliance School
- Heidi M. Bauer to discuss "'So you want to form a joint venture' — Licensing strategies for successful JVs" at RESPRO26
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Small business & regulation: How fair lending has evolved & where are we heading?" at CBA Live
- Jonice Gray Tucker to to discuss "DC policy: Everything but the kitchen sink" at CBA Live
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Lessons learned from ABLV and other major cases involving inadequate compliance oversight" at the ACAMS International AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "A year in the life of the CDD final rule: A first anniversary assessment" at the ACAMS International AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Moorari K. Shah to discuss "State regulatory and disclosures" at the Equipment Leasing and Finance Association Legal Forum
- Hank Asbill to discuss "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain: Addressing prosecutions driven by hidden actors" at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers West Coast White Collar Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Keep off the grass: Mitigating the risks of banking marijuana-related businesses" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Mid-year policy update" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management Conference
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "Requirements for banking inherently high-risk relationships" at the Georgia Bankers Association BSA Experience Program