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  • SEC orders crypto ATM operator to pay $3.9 million for selling unregistered tokens

    Securities

    On April 28, the SEC settled with a cryptocurrency ATM operator for allegedly selling unregistered tokens in order to raise money to expand its bitcoin ATM network. Described as a “token sale,” the SEC claimed the respondents in total raised crypto assets during an initial coin offering valued at roughly $3.65 million. According to the SEC, the company offered and sold its token as investment contracts, which qualified it as a security since investors would have reasonably expected to obtain future profits from the token’s rise in value based upon the respondents’ efforts. By offering and selling securities without having on file a registration statement with the SEC or qualifying for an exemption, the respondents violated Sections 5(a) and 5(c) of the Securities Act, the SEC said. Additionally, one of the respondents and its CEO were also accused of violating Section 17(a) of the Securities Act and Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act and Rule 10b-5 by making materially false and misleading statements and engaging in other fraudulent conduct connected to the offer and sale of the token. The respondents neither admitted nor denied the SEC’s findings, but agreed to pay a collective $3.92 million civil penalty and said they would cease and desist from committing violations of the Securities Act and the Securities Exchange Act. One of the individual respondents also received a three-year officer and director ban.

    Securities Courts SEC Enforcement Digital Assets Cryptocurrency Securities Act Securities Exchange Act Fintech

  • Federal agencies reaffirm commitment to confront AI-based discrimination

    Federal Issues

    On April 25, the CFPB, DOJ, FTC, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released a joint statement reaffirming their commitment to protect the public from bias in automated systems and artificial intelligence (AI). “America’s commitment to the core principles of fairness, equality, and justice are deeply embedded in the federal laws that our agencies enforce to protect civil rights, fair competition, consumer protection, and equal opportunity,” the agencies said, emphasizing that existing authorities apply equally to the use of new technologies and responsible innovation as they do to any other conduct. The agencies have previously expressed concerns about potentially harmful AI applications, including black box algorithms, algorithmic marketing and advertising, abusive AI technology usage, digital redlining, and repeat offenders’ use of AI, which may contribute to unlawful discrimination, biases, and violate consumers’ rights.

    “We already see how AI tools can turbocharge fraud and automate discrimination, and we won’t hesitate to use the full scope of our legal authorities to protect Americans from these threats,” FTC Chair Lina M. Khan said. “Technological advances can deliver critical innovation—but claims of innovation must not be cover for lawbreaking. There is no AI exemption to the laws on the books, and the FTC will vigorously enforce the law to combat unfair or deceptive practices or unfair methods of competition,” Khan added.

    CFPB Director Rohit Chopra echoed Khan’s sentiments and said the Bureau, along with other agencies, are taking measures to address unchecked AI. “While machines crunching numbers might seem capable of taking human bias out of the equation, that’s not what is happening,” Chopra said. “When consumers and regulators do not know how decisions are made by artificial intelligence, consumers are unable to participate in a fair and competitive market free from bias,”  Chopra added. The Director’s statements concluded by noting that the Bureau will continue to collaborate with other agencies to enforce federal consumer financial protection laws, regardless of whether the violations occur through traditional means or advanced technologies.

    Additionally, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division noted that “[a]s social media platforms, banks, landlords, employers and other businesses [] choose to rely on artificial intelligence, algorithms and other data tools to automate decision-making and to conduct business, we stand ready to hold accountable those entities that fail to address the discriminatory outcomes that too often result.”

    Federal Issues FTC CFPB DOJ Artificial Intelligence EEOC Discrimination Consumer Finance Racial Bias Fintech

  • District Court orders fintech to pay $2.8 million to settle claims of price manipulation of crypto-assets security

    Securities

    On April 20, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York entered a final judgment in which a fintech company and its former CEO (collectively, “defendants”) have agreed to pay the SEC more than $2.8 million to settle allegations that they manipulated the price of their crypto-assets security. The SEC filed charges against the defendants last September for “perpetrating a scheme to manipulate the trading volume and price” of their digital token, and for effectuating the unregistered offering and sale of such token. The complaint also contended that the defendants hired a third party to create the false appearance of robust market activity for the token and inflated the token’s price in order to generate profits for the defendants. According to the SEC, the defendants allegedly earned more than $2 million as a result. The SEC charged the defendants with violating several provisions of the Securities Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5, as well as certain sections of the Exchange Act. At the time the charges were filed, the third party’s CEO consented to a judgment (without admitting or denying the allegations), which permanently enjoined him from participating in future securities offerings and required him to pay disgorgement and prejudgment interest.

    The defendants, while neither admitting nor denying the allegations, consented to the terms of the April final judgment. The company agreed to pay nearly $2.8 million, including more than $1.5 million in disgorgement of net profits, a civil penalty of more than $1 million, and roughly $240,000 in prejudgment interest. The former CEO agreed to pay more than $260,000, representing disgorgement, prejudgment interest, and a civil penalty. Both defendants are permanently enjoined from engaging in future securities law violations, and are restricted in their ability to engage in any offering of crypto asset securities.

    Securities Courts SEC Enforcement Digital Assets Cryptocurrency Securities Act Securities Exchange Act Fintech

  • Fed governor weighs tokenization and AI

    On April 20, Federal Reserve Governor Christopher J. Waller spoke on innovation and the future of finance during remarks at the Global Interdependence Center. Commenting that “[i]nnovation is a double-edged sword, with costs and benefits, and different effects on different groups of people,” Waller stressed the importance of considering whether innovation is creating new efficiencies and helping to mitigate risks and increase financial inclusion or whether it is creating new or exacerbating existing risks. Waller’s remarks focused on two specific areas of innovation that he believes may have the potential to deliver substantial benefits to the banking industry: tokenization and artificial intelligence (AI).

    With respect to tokenization and tokenized assets, Waller flagged several advantages to innovations in this space that use blockchain over traditional transaction approaches, including (i) being able to offer faster or “even near-real time transfers,” which can, among other things, give parties precise control over settlement times and reduce liquidity risks; and (ii) “smart contract” functionalities, which can help mitigate settlement and counterparty credit risks by constructing and executing transactions based on the meeting of specified conditions. He acknowledged, however, that both innovations introduce risks, including potential cyber vulnerabilities and other risks.

    Waller also addressed the banking industry’s use of AI to increase the range of marketing possibilities, expand customer service applications, monitor fraud, and refine credit underwriting processes and analysis, but cautioned that AI also presents “novel risks,” as these models rely on high volumes of data, which can complicate efforts to detect problems or biases in datasets. There is also the “black box” problem where it becomes difficult to explain how outputs are derived, where even AI developers have difficulty understanding exactly how the AI technology approach works, Waller stated. “All of these innovations will have their champions, who make claims about how their innovation will change the world; and I think it’s important to view such claims critically,” Waller said. “But it’s equally important to challenge the doubters, who insist that these innovations are much ado about nothing, or that they will end in disaster.”

    Bank Regulatory Federal Issues Federal Reserve Digital Assets Fintech Cryptocurrency Tokens Artificial Intelligence

  • FSOC seeks feedback on risk framework, nonbank determinations

    Agency Rule-Making & Guidance

    On April 21, the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) released a proposed analytic framework for financial stability risks, “intended to provide greater transparency to the public about how [FSOC] identifies, assesses, and addresses potential risks to financial stability, regardless of whether the risk stems from activities or firms.” FSOC explained in a fact sheet that the proposed framework would not impose any obligations on any entity, but is instead designed to provide guidance on how FSOC expects to perform certain duties. This includes: (i) identifying potential risks covering a broad range of asset classes, institutions, and activities, including new and evolving financial products and practices as well as developments affecting financial resiliency such as cybersecurity and climate-related financial risks; (ii) assessing certain vulnerabilities that most commonly contribute to financial stability risk and considering how adverse effects stemming from these risks could be transmitted to financial markets/market participants, including what impact this can have on the financial system; and (iii) responding to potential risks to U.S. financial stability, which may involve interagency coordination and information sharing, recommendations to financial regulators or Congress, nonbank financial company determinations, and designations relating to financial market utility/payment, clearing, and settlement activities that are, or are likely to become, systemically important.

    The same day, FSOC also released for public comment proposed interpretive guidance relating to procedures for designating systemically important nonbank financial companies for Federal Reserve supervision and enhanced prudential standards. (See also FSOC fact sheet here.) The guidance would revise and update previous guidance from 2019, and “is intended to enhance [FSOC’s] ability to address risks to financial stability, provide transparency to the public, and ensure a rigorous and clear designation process.” FSOC explained that the proposed guidance would include a two-stage evaluation and analysis process for making a designation, during which time companies under review would engage in significant communication with FSOC and be provided an opportunity to request a hearing, among other things. Designated companies will be subject to annual reevaluations and may have their designations rescinded should FSOC determine that the company no longer meets the statutory standards for designation.

    Comments on both proposals are due 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.

    Both CFPB Director Rohit Chopra and OCC acting Comptroller Michael J. Hsu issued statements supporting the issuance of the proposed interpretive guidance. Chopra commented that, if finalized, the proposed guidance “will create a clear path for the FSOC to identify and designate systemically important nonbank financial institutions” and “will accelerate efforts to identify potential shadow banks to be candidates for designation.” Hsu also noted that sharing additional details to improve the balance and transparency of FSOC’s work “would both make it easier for [FSOC] to explain its analysis of potential risks and create an opportunity for richer public input on the analysis.”

    Agency Rule-Making & Guidance Federal Issues Fintech FSOC Nonbank Federal Reserve Supervision

  • House subcommittee holds hearing on stablecoin regulation

    Federal Issues

    The House Financial Services Subcommittee on Digital Assets, Financial Technology and Inclusion recently held a hearing to examine stablecoins’ role in the payment system and to discuss proposed legislation for creating a federal framework for issuing stablecoins. A subcommittee memorandum identified different types of stablecoins (the most popular being pegged to the U.S. dollar to diminish volatility) and presented an overview of the market, which currently consists of more than 200 different types of stablecoins, collectively worth more than $132 billion. The subcommittee referred to a 2021 report issued by the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets, along with the FDIC and OCC (covered by InfoBytes here), in which it was recommended that Congress pass legislation requiring stablecoins to be issued only by insured depository institutions to ensure that payment stablecoins are subject to a federal prudential regulatory framework. The subcommittee discussed draft legislation that would define a payment stablecoin issuer and establish a regulatory framework for payment stablecoin issuers, including enforcement requirements and interoperability standards. 

    Subcommittee Chairman, French Hill (R-AR), delivered opening remarks, in which he commented that the proposed legislation would require stablecoin issuers to comply with redemption requirements, monthly attestation and disclosures, and risk management standards. Recognizing the significant amount of work yet to be done in this space, Hill said he believes that “innovation is fostered through choice and competition,” and that “one way to do that is through multiple pathways to become a stablecoin issuer, though with appropriate protections [to] prevent regulatory arbitrage and a race to the bottom.” He cited reports that digital asset developers are leaving the U.S. for countries that currently provide a more established regulatory framework for digital assets, and warned that this will stymie innovation, jobs, and consumer/investor protection. He also criticized ”the ongoing turf war between the SEC and CFTC” with respect to digital assets, and warned that “[w]hen you have two agencies contradicting each other in court about whether one of the most utilized stablecoins in the market is a security or a commodity, what you end up with is uncertainty.”

    Witness NYDFS Superintendent Adrienne A. Harris discussed the framework that is currently in place in New York and highlighted requirements for payment stablecoin issuers operating in the state. In a prepared statement, Harris said many domestic and foreign regulators call the Department’s regulatory and supervisory oversight of virtual currency the “gold standard,” in which virtual currency entities are “subject to custody and capital requirements designed to industry-specific risks necessary for sound, prudential regulation.” Harris explained that NYDFS established “additional regulations, guidance, and company-specific supervisory agreements to tailor [its] oversight” over financial products, including stablecoins, and said the Department is the first agency to provide regulatory clarity for these types of products. She highlighted guidance released last June, which established criteria for regulated entities seeking to issue USD-backed stablecoins in the state (covered by InfoBytes here), and encouraged a collaborative framework that mirrors the regulatory system for more traditional financial institutions and takes advantage of the comparative strengths offered by federal and state regulators. Federal regulators will be able to comprehensively address “macroprudential considerations” and implement foundational consumer and market protections, while states can “leverage their more immediate understanding of consumer needs” and more quickly modernize regulations in response to industry developments and innovation, Harris said.

    Federal Issues Digital Assets Stablecoins Payments State Issues House Financial Services Committee State Regulators NYDFS Federal Legislation Fintech

  • DFPI cracks down on crypto platforms’ AI claims

    State Issues

    On April 19, the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation (DFPI) announced enforcement actions against five separate entities and an individual for allegedly offering and selling unqualified securities and making material misrepresentations and omissions to investors in violation of California securities laws. According to DFPI, the desist and refrain orders allege that the subjects (which touted themselves as cryptocurrency trading platforms) engaged in a variety of unlawful and deceptive practices, including promising investors high yield returns through the use of artificial intelligence to trade crypto assets, falsely representing that an insurance fund would prevent investor losses, and using investor funds to pay purported profits to other investors. The subjects also allegedly took measures to make the scams appear to be legitimate businesses through the creation of professional websites and social media accounts where influencers and investors shared testimonials about the money they were supposedly making. The orders require the subjects to stop offering, selling, buying, or offering to buy securities in the state, and demonstrate DFPI’s continued crackdown on high yield investment programs.

    State Issues Securities Enforcement California State Regulators Digital Assets DFPI Artificial Intelligence Cryptocurrency

  • SEC opens comment period on defining “exchange”

    Agency Rule-Making & Guidance

    On April 14, the SEC reopened the comment period on proposed amendments to the statutory definition of “exchange” under Exchange Act rule 3b-16, which now includes systems that facilitate the trading of crypto asset securities. (See also SEC fact sheet here.) The comment period was reopened in response to feedback requesting information about how existing rules and the proposed amendments would apply to systems that trade crypto asset securities and meet the proposed definition of an exchange, or to trading systems that use distributed ledger or blockchain technology, including such systems characterized as decentralized finance (DeFi). The SEC also provided supplement information and economic analysis for systems that would now fall under the new, proposed definition of exchange. The reopened comment period allows an opportunity for interested persons to analyze and comment on the proposed amendments in light of the supplemental information. Comments are due 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.

    “[G]iven how crypto trading platforms operate, many of them currently are exchanges, regardless of the reopening release we’re considering today,” SEC Chair Gary Gensler said. “These platforms match orders of multiple buyers and sellers of crypto securities using established, non-discretionary methods. That’s the definition of an exchange—and today, most crypto trading platforms meet it. That’s the case regardless of whether they call themselves centralized or decentralized.” He added that crypto-market investors must receive the same protections that the securities laws afford to all other markets. Commissioners Mark T. Uyeda and Hester M. Peirce voted against reopening the comment period. Uyeda cautioned against expanding the definition of an “exchange” in an “ambiguous manner,” saying it could “suppress further beneficial innovation.” Peirce also dissented, arguing that the proposal stretches the statutory definition of an “exchange” beyond a reasonable reading in an attempt to “reach a poorly defined set of activities with no evidence that investors will benefit.”

    Agency Rule-Making & Guidance Federal Issues Digital Assets Securities SEC Securities Exchange Act Decentralized Finance Blockchain Cryptocurrency Fintech

  • Fed governor outlines CBDC risks

    On April 18, Federal Reserve Governor Michelle W. Bowman cautioned that the risks of creating a U.S. central bank digital currency (CBDC) may outweigh the benefits for consumers. Bowman said the Fed continues to engage in exploratory work to understand how a CBDC could potentially improve payment speeds or better financial inclusion, and noted that the agency is also trying to understand how new potential forms of money like CBDCs and other digital assets could play a larger role in the economy. In prepared remarks delivered before Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business Psaros Center for Financial Markets and Policy, Bowman raised several policy considerations relating to privacy, interoperability and innovation, and the potential for “unintended effects” on the banking system should a CBDC be adopted. She also commented that due to the upcoming rollout of the agency’s FedNow Service in July (covered by InfoBytes here), real-time retail payments will happen without the introduction of a CBDC. With respect to privacy, Bowman cautioned that any CBDC “must ensure consumer data privacy protections embedded in today’s payment systems continue and are extended into future systems.” She added that “[i]n thinking about the implications of CBDC and privacy, we must also consider the central role that money plays in our daily lives, and the risk that a CBDC would provide not only a window into, but potentially an impediment to, the freedom Americans enjoy in choosing how money and resources are used and invested.”

    Bank Regulatory Federal Issues Federal Reserve Digital Assets CBDC Consumer Finance Consumer Protection Payments FedNow Fintech

  • Treasury recommends stronger DeFi supervision

    Financial Crimes

    On April 6, the U.S. Treasury Department published a report on illicit finance risks in the decentralized finance (DeFi) sector, building upon Treasury’s other risk assessments, and continuing the work outlined in Executive Order 14067, Ensuring Responsible Development of Digital Assets (covered by InfoBytes here).

    Written by Treasury’s Office of Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes, in consultation with numerous federal agencies, the Illicit Finance Risk Assessment of Decentralized Finance is the first report of its kind in the world. The report explained that, while there is no generally accepted definition of DeFi, the term has broadly referred to virtual asset protocols and services that allow for automated peer-to-peer transactions through the use of blockchain technology. Used by a host of illicit actors to transfer and launder funds, the report found that “the most significant current illicit finance risk in this domain is from DeFi services that are not compliant with existing AML/CFT [anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism] obligations.” These obligations include establishing effective AML programs, assessing illicit finance risks, and reporting suspicious activity, the report said.

    The report made several recommendations for strengthening AML/CFT supervision and regulation of DeFi services, such as “closing any identified gaps in the [Bank Secrecy Act (BSA)] to the extent that they allow certain DeFi services to fall outside the scope of the BSA’s definition of financial institutions.” The report also recommended, “when relevant,” the “enforcement of virtual asset activities, including DeFi services, to increase compliance by virtual asset firms with BSA obligations,” and suggested continued research and engagement with the private sector on this subject.

    In addition, the report pointed to a lack of implementation of international AML/CFT standards by foreign countries, “which enables illicit actors to use DeFi services with impunity in jurisdictions that lack AML/CFT requirements,” and commented that “poor cybersecurity practices by DeFi services, which enable theft and fraud of consumer assets, also present risks for national security, consumers, and the virtual asset industry.” To address these concerns, the report recommended “stepping up engagements with foreign partners to push for stronger implementation of international AML/CFT standards and advocating for improved cybersecurity practices by virtual asset firms to mitigate these vulnerabilities.” The report seeks input from the public sector to inform next steps.

    Financial Crimes Agency Rule-Making & Guidance Of Interest to Non-US Persons Department of Treasury Anti-Money Laundering Combating the Financing of Terrorism Illicit Finance Decentralized Finance Supervision Bank Secrecy Act Digital Assets Fintech

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