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Agencies adopt final rules excluding community banks from the Volcker Rule; simplify regulatory capital rules
On July 9, the Federal Reserve Board (Fed), CFTC, FDIC, OCC, and SEC adopted a final rule implementing sections of the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act to grant an exclusion for community banks from the Volcker Rule, which generally restricts banking entities from engaging in proprietary trading and from owning, sponsoring, or having certain relationships with hedge funds or private equity funds. Qualifying financial institutions must have fewer than $10 billion in total consolidated assets and total trading assets, as well as liabilities that are equal to or less than five percent of their total consolidated assets. The rule also permits, under certain circumstances, a hedge fund or private equity fund organized and offered by a banking entity to share a name with a banking entity that is its investment advisor that is not an insured bank or bank holding company. The rule will take effect upon publication in the Federal Register.
The same day, the Fed, FDIC, and OCC also finalized a rule “intended to simplify and clarify a number of the more complex aspects of the agencies’ existing regulatory capital rules” for banks with less than $250 billion in total consolidated assets and less than $10 billion in total foreign exposure. Among other changes, the rule alters the capital treatment for mortgage servicing assets, certain deferred tax assets, as well as investments in the capital instruments of unconsolidated financial institutions. The final rule will be effective as of April 1, 2020, for the amendments to simplify capital rules, and as of October 1, 2019 for revisions to the pre-approval requirements for the redemption of common stock and other technical amendments.
On June 24, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) announced a whistleblower award of approximately $2.5 million to an individual who reported information that led to a successful enforcement action. The CFTC noted that the award was reduced because of the individual’s unreasonable delay in reporting the violations to the CFTC. CFTC officials emphasized that while there may be reasons to delay reporting, “[this] case illustrates the importance of reporting violations to the CFTC as soon as reasonably possible. Reporting early lessens the harm violators can inflict on the public and hastens our investigations to bring the culprits to justice.” The associated order does not provide details of the information provided or the related enforcement action. Since 2014, the CFTC has awarded over $90 million to whistleblowers, whose information has led to more than $730 million in sanctions.
On June 18, the CFTC announced it filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against a United Kingdom-based bitcoin trading and investment company and its principal (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly fraudulently obtaining and misappropriating almost 23,000 bitcoin from more than 1,000 customers. The CFTC alleges the defendants violated the Commodity Exchange Act by fraudulently soliciting customers to purchase bitcoin with cash and then deposit the bitcoin in accounts controlled by the defendants. The CFTC alleges that the defendants misrepresented that they “employed expert virtual currency traders who earned guaranteed daily trading profits on customers’ Bitcoin deposits.” Additionally, the CFTC alleges the defendants also fabricated weekly trade reports and “manufactured an aura of profitability” by depositing new customer bitcoin purchases to other customer accounts. The scheme, according to the CFTC, obtained almost 23,000 bitcoins “from more than 1,000 members of the public,” “which reached valuation of at least $147 million.” The CFTC is seeking civil monetary penalties, restitution, rescission, disgorgement, trading and registration bans, and injunctive relief against further violations of the federal commodity laws.
CFTC, SEC settle with foreign trading platform conducting Bitcoin transactions without proper registration
On March 4, the CFTC resolved an action taken against a foreign trading platform and its CEO (defendants) for allegedly offering and selling security-based swaps to U.S. customers without registering as a futures commission merchant or designated contract market with the CFTC. The CFTC alleged that the platform permitted customers to transact in “contracts for difference,” which were transactions to exchange the difference in value of an underlying asset between the time at which the trading position was established and the time at which it was terminated. The transactions were initiated through, and settled in, Bitcoin. The CFTC alleged that these transactions constituted “retail commodity transactions,” which would have required the platform to receive the proper registration.
According to the CFTC, the defendants, among other things, (i) neglected to register as a futures commission merchant with the CFTC; and (ii) failed to comply with required anti-money laundering procedures, including implementing an adequate know-your-customer/customer identification program. The consent order entered by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia imposes a civil monetary penalty of $175,000 and requires the disgorgement of $246,000 of gains. The consent order also requires the defendants to certify to the CFTC the liquidation of all U.S. customer accounts and the repayment of approximately $570,000 worth of Bitcoins to U.S. customers.
In a parallel action, the SEC entered into a final judgment the same day to resolve claims that, among other things, the defendants failed to properly register as a security-based swaps dealer. The defendants are permanently restrained and enjoined from future violations of the Securities Act of 1933 and are required to pay disgorgement of approximately $53,393. This action demonstrates the potential application of CFTC and SEC registration requirements to non-U.S. companies engaging in covered transactions with U.S. customers.
On March 6, the CFTC issued an enforcement advisory announcing that it would add violations of the Commodity Exchange Act involving foreign corrupt practices to its cooperation and self-reporting program. The CFTC will recommend no civil monetary penalty where companies and individuals which are not registered (or required to be registered) with the CFTC timely and voluntarily disclose such violations. Full cooperation and appropriate remediation would also be required. In announcing the enforcement advisory, the CFTC’s Director of Enforcement stated at the ABA’s National Institute on White Collar Crime that the change “reflects the enhanced cooperation between the CFTC and our law enforcement partners like the Department of Justice.” He also stated that the agency currently has open investigations into various foreign corrupt practices that violate the Commodity Exchange Act, including bribes that “secure business in connection with regulated activities,” manipulation of benchmarks, “prices that are the product of corruption [being] falsely reported to benchmarks,” and corrupt practices altering the commodity markets.
On December 18, the FDIC, the Federal Reserve Board, the OCC, the SEC, and the CFTC (collectively, the Agencies) issued a notice of proposed rulemaking to amend regulations implementing Section 13 of the Bank Holding Company Act (known as, the “Volcker Rule”) to be consistent with Sections 203 and 204 of the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act (the Act). (Previously covered by InfoBytes here.) Consistent with Section 203 of the Act, the proposal would exempt community banks from the restrictions of the Volcker Rule if they, and every entity that controls them, have (i) total consolidated assets equal to or less than $10 billion; and (ii) total trading assets and liabilities that are equal to or less than five percent of their total consolidated assets.
The proposal also, consistent with Section 204 of the Act, would permit a hedge fund or private equity fund organized and offered by a banking entity to share a name with a banking entity that is its investment advisor, if (i) the advisor is not an insured depository institution, does not control a depository institution, and is not treated as a bank holding company under the International Banking Act; (ii) the advisor does not share a name with any such entities; and (iii) the shared name does not include "bank."
Comments will be due 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.
District Court concludes a small virtual currency is a “commodity” under the Commodities Exchange Act
On September 26, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts denied a virtual currency trading company’s motion to dismiss, concluding that smaller virtual currencies are commodities that may be regulated by the CFTC. In January, the CFTC bought an action alleging the company violated the Commodities Exchange Act (CEA) and CFTC Regulation 180.1(a) by making false or misleading statements and omitting material facts when offering the sale of their company’s virtual currency. For example, the complaint alleges that the company falsely stated that its virtual currency was backed by gold, could be used anywhere Mastercard was accepted, and was being actively traded on several currency exchanges. Moreover, while consumers who purchased the virtual currency could view their accounts, they were unable to trade it or withdraw funds from their accounts with the company. The company moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the conduct did not involve a “commodity,” specifically one that underlies a futures contract, under the CEA. In denying the motion to dismiss, the court determined that Congress intended for the CEA to cover a certain “class” of items and specific items within that class are then “dealt in.” Because the company offered a type of “virtual currency” and it is “undisputed that there is futures trading in virtual currencies (specifically involving Bitcoin),” the court held that the CFTC sufficiently alleged the company’s product is a “commodity” under the CEA. The court also rejected the company’s other arguments, determining Regulation 180.1(a) was meant to combat the fraud alleged by the CFTC, notwithstanding its use of the term “market manipulation,” and the CFTC adequately pleaded the fraudulent claim under the regulation.
On September 4, the OCC, Federal Reserve Board, FDIC, SEC, and CFTC (the Agencies) announced a 30-day extension to the public comment period for the Agencies’ joint revisions to the Volcker Rule. The comment period, which was previously scheduled to end on September 17, is now extended until October 17. The joint release notes that the extension will give interested parties “approximately four and a half months from the date the proposal was released to the public to submit comments,” as the Agencies’ first released the text of the proposal on May 30 (it was not published in the Federal Register until July 17). As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Agencies’ joint revisions are designed to simplify and tailor obligations for compliance with Section 13 of the Bank Holding Company Act, known as the Volcker Rule, which restricts a bank’s ability to engage in proprietary trading and own certain funds. Specifically, according to a Federal Reserve Board memo, the proposed amendments will better align Volcker rule requirements with a bank’s level of trading activity and risks.
On August 23, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York entered final judgment in favor of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) in its suit against a cryptocurrency trading advice company and its owner (defendants) for allegedly misappropriating investor money through a cryptocurrency trading scam. As previously covered by InfoBytes in March, the court granted the CFTC’s request for a preliminary injunction, holding that the CFTC has the authority to regulate virtual currency as a “commodity” within the meaning of the Commodity Exchange Act and that the CFTC has jurisdiction to pursue fraudulent activities involving virtual currency even if the fraud does not directly involve the sale of futures or derivative contracts. The final judgment orders the defendants to pay over $1.1 million in restitution and civil money penalties and permanently enjoins them from engaging in future activities related to commodity interests and virtual currencies.
On August 9, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) Director Kenneth A. Blanco delivered remarks at the 2018 Chicago-Kent Block (Legal) Tech Conference to discuss, among other things, the agency’s approach to virtual currency and its efforts to protect financial institutions from being exploited for illicit financing purposes as new financial technologies evolve and are adopted. Blanco commented that while innovation provides customers with greater access to financial services, it can also create opportunities for criminals or serve as a vehicle for fraud. Blanco discussed several areas of focus, such as (i) the regulation of virtual currency and initial coin offerings (ICOs), along with coordinated policy development and regulatory approaches done in conjunction with the SEC and CFTC; (ii) examination and supervision efforts designed to “proactively mitigate potential illicit finance risks associated with virtual currency”; (iii) anti-money laundering/countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) regulatory compliance expectations for companies involved in ICOs or virtual currency transmissions; (iv) enforcement actions taken against companies that fail to implement effective programs; (v) the rise and importance of virtual currency suspicious activity report filings which help the agency identify and investigate illicit activity; and (vi) the development of an information sharing virtual currency-focused FinCEN Exchange program. Blanco emphasized that “individuals and entities engaged in the business of accepting and transmitting physical currency or convertible virtual currency from one person to another or to another location are money transmitters subject to the requirements” of the Bank Secrecy Act.
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