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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.
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.
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.”
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.”
On April 17, NYDFS announced the adoption of a final regulation establishing how certain licensed virtual currency businesses will be assessed for supervision and examination costs. Under 23 NYCRR Part 102, licensed virtual currency companies holding a Bitlicense will be assessed for their supervisory costs, similar to other licensees regulated by the Department. Last year, NYDFS first proposed a provision in the state budget authorizing the Department to collect supervisory costs from virtual currency businesses licensed pursuant to the Financial Services Law in order to add talent to its virtual currency regulatory team. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) NYDFS explained that the regulation will only apply to licensed virtual currency businesses and that the fees will only cover the costs and expenses associated with the Department’s oversight of a licensee’s virtual currency business activities. A licensee’s total annual assessment fee will be the sum of its supervisory component and its regulatory component, as defined in the regulation, and will be billed five times per fiscal year, once per quarter and a final true-up at the end of the fiscal year. The background to the final regulation notes that to the extent that a person holds multiple licenses to engage in virtual currency business activities, or concurrently acts as a money transmitter, such person will be billed separately for each license, adding that “[p]ersons who engage in virtual currency business activities as a limited purpose trust company or a banking organization will continue to be assessed under 23 NYCRR Part 101.” The final regulation takes effect upon publication of the Notice of Adoption in the New York State Register.
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.
On March 16, NYDFS issued a consent order against a payment service provider for allegedly failing to comply with the state’s virtual currency and cybersecurity regulations. The company was licensed to engage in virtual currency business activity in the state pursuant to 23 NYCRR Part 200. Licensees under Part 200 are required to, among other things, comply with federal and state laws mandating effective controls to guard against money laundering and certain other illegal activities. A 2022 NYDFS examination revealed that, although the company made improvements to address deficiencies within its AML and cybersecurity compliance programs that were identified during a 2018 examination, the programs still required additional improvements to achieve regulatory compliance. NYDFS concluded that the company violated sections of Part 200 by allegedly failing to develop adequate internal policies and controls to maintain compliance with applicable AML laws or to develop procedures to ensure compliance with necessary risk management requirements under applicable OFAC regulations. Furthermore, the company violated the state’s cybersecurity regulation (23 NYCRR Part 500) by failing to conduct periodic cybersecurity risk assessments and failing to timely appoint a designated chief information security officer responsible for overseeing, implementing, and reporting on the company’s cybersecurity program. Under the terms of the consent order, the company agreed to pay a $1 million civil monetary penalty and submit an action plan to NYDFS within 180 days detailing its remediation efforts. The company also agreed to conduct a comprehensive cybersecurity risk assessment within 150 days and to continue to strengthen its controls, policies, and procedures to prevent future violations.
On March 30, the OCC announced the establishment of the Office of Financial Technology, and selected Prashant Bhardwaj to lead the office as Deputy Comptroller and Chief Financial Technology Officer beginning April 10. As previously covered by InfoBytes, last October the OCC said the new office will build on and incorporate the agency’s Office of Innovation (established in 2016 and covered by InfoBytes here), and will strengthen the OCC’s expertise and ability to adapt to a rapidly evolving banking landscape. The Office of Financial Technology will “enhance the OCC’s expertise on matters regarding digital assets, fintech partnerships, and other changing technologies and business models within and that affect OCC-supervised banks,” the OCC said in its announcement, noting that Bhardwaj will lead a team responsible for analyzing, evaluating, and discussing relevant fintech trends, emerging and potential risks, and the potential implications for OCC supervision.
On March 17, the Wyoming governor signed SF 127 enacting the Wyoming Stable Token Act, creating the Wyoming stable token commission, and authorizing the issuance of stable tokens in the state. Under the Act, a Wyoming stable token is “a virtual currency representative of and redeemable for one (1) United States dollar held in trust by the state of Wyoming” that may only be issued in exchange for a USD. Stable tokens will be issued by the Wyoming stable token commission—created by the Act and to be comprised of no more than four virtual currency/fintech subject matter experts. The commission is authorized to, among other things, (i) establish “the means used to issue, maintain and manage the Wyoming stable tokens and the manner of and requirements for redemption”; (ii) select which financial institutions will manage the stable tokens, and make and enter into contracts and arrangements for such services; (iii) seek rulings and other guidance from federal agencies related to the provisions outlined in the Act; (iv) prior to issuing any such tokens, issue a comprehensive report to a select committee overseeing blockchain, financial technology, and digital innovation technology, among others, on all actions taken under the Act; and (v) promulgate rules and regulations as necessary to administer the Act and ensure compliance. The Act also outlines criteria relating to liability limitations and requires that the commission endeavor to issue at least one Wyoming stable token no later than December 31.
On March 29, the SEC filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois against a cryptocurrency trading platform and its executives for allegedly failing to register as a national securities exchange, broker, and clearing agency. The SEC also claimed the founder of the platform used it to raise $8 million in an unregistered token offering and misappropriated at least $900,000 for personal use. Additionally, the SEC charged certain defendant “market makers” operating on the platform as unregistered dealers. The complaint flagged certain defendants as being responsible for maintaining and providing the platform that facilitated the crypto assets that were offered and sold as securities and cited other defendants for operating as an unregistered exchange, broker, and clearing agency or as unregistered dealers.
According to the SEC’s announcement, some of the defendants—without admitting or denying the allegations—“have agreed to perform certain undertakings, including ceasing all activities as an unregistered exchange, clearing agency, broker, and dealer; shutting down the [platform]; providing an accounting of assets and funds for the benefit of customers; transferring all customer assets and funds to each respective customer; and destroying any and all [tokens] in [one of the defendant company’s] possession.” These defendants have agreed to permanent injunctions prohibiting them from engaging in future securities law violations and will pay civil penalties collectively totaling $165,800. Two of these defendants have also agreed to pay a combined amount of $62,779 in disgorgement and prejudgment interest. The SEC said it is continuing to litigate its charges against other defendants for securities fraud and for offering unregistered tokens.