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Review procedures need enhancing according to GAO’s Regulatory Flexibility Act compliance report
On January 30, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its annual report on federal financial regulators’ compliance with the Regulatory Flexibility Act (RFA). Specifically, the report assessed whether certain regulators adhered to the RFA when drafting and implementing regulations that may affect small entities. Such regulators include the Federal Reserve, Commodity Futures Trading Commission, CFPB, FDIC, OCC, and SEC (collectively, the "agencies"). Under the RFA, the agencies must either (i) certify that a rule would not have a significant economic impact on a substantial number of small entities, or (ii) perform a regulatory flexibility analysis to assess the rule’s impact on small entities and “consider alternatives that may minimize any significant economic impact of the rule.” The report disclosed issues related to certifications. Examples included (i) providing incomplete disclosures of data sources or methodologies of economic analysis and impact; (ii) failing to provide definitions for criteria used to determine a “substantial number” or a “significant economic impact”; and (iii) relying on alternative and potentially outdated definitions of small entities. Additionally, GAO noted that many regulators were unable to provide supporting documentation for their analyses. GAO presented 10 recommendations for enhancing compliance procedures, and stressed that regulators should “develop and implement specific policies and procedures for consistently complying with RFA requirements and related guidance for conducting RFA analyses.” Specific recommendations for each agency are located here.
CFTC reaches spoofing settlements with banks; joint investigation with DOJ leads to civil and criminal charges against traders
On January 29, three global banks agreed to pay a combined $46.6 million fine to settle civil allegations by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) that their traders engaged in a practice known as spoofing to manipulate futures markets, which involves placing bids or offers with the intent to cancel before execution. While neither admitting nor denying any wrongdoing in connection with the settlements, the banks agreed, among other things, to pay the fines, maintain controls in order to detect and prevent spoofing among traders, and implement new training programs. As part of a larger investigation conducted by the CFTC and the criminal divisions at the DOJ and FBI, the CFTC stated within the same announcement that civil enforcement actions were filed against six individuals for alleged spoofing violations. Additionally, according to a press release issued the same day, the DOJ announced criminal charges against eight individuals who allegedly participated in various deceptive trading practices, including the six traders named in the CFTC’s civil complaints. The DOJ alleged the defendants’ spoofing trades were designed to defraud individuals and entities by artificially depressing or inflating the prices of futures contracts traded on several exchanges.
SEC and CFTC issue joint statement on virtual currency enforcement actions; CFTC files lawsuits alleging cryptocurrency fraud
On January 19, the SEC and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) issued a joint statement to reiterate the agencies’ positions on virtual currency enforcement and stress that they “will look beyond form, examine the substance of the activity and prosecute violations of the federal securities and commodities laws.” As previously discussed in InfoBytes last year (see here and here), the SEC determined that federal securities laws apply to anyone who offers and sells securities in the United States, regardless of the manner of distribution or whether dollars or virtual currencies are used to purchase the securities, while the CFTC announced that virtual currencies are commodities. Additionally, both agencies filed enforcement actions in 2017 against firms based upon fraud allegations (coverage available here and here).
Separately, on January 18, the CFTC filed lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York against two individuals and their companies, alleging commodities law violations and fraud in the cryptocurrency market. In the first complaint, the CFTC alleged that a UK-registered company and its owner solicited cryptocurrency investments from members of the public for a commodity pool, but misrepresented the company’s trading expertise, misappropriated over $1 million of the pool’s funds, and failed to engage in the proposed investments with the pooled funds. In the second complaint, the CFTC alleged that a New York-based company and its owner operated a deceptive and fraudulent scheme in which they solicited cryptocurrency transfers in exchange for virtual currency investment advice and trading guidance, but never actually provided such advice. The CFTC further claimed the company concealed its scheme after collecting customer funds by removing its internet presence and ceasing communications with those customers. The suits seek, among other things, disgorgement of profits, civil monetary penalties, restitution, and a ban on commodities trading for the defendants.
Chair Giancarlo outlines CFTC approach to virtual currency regulation
On January 4, the Chair of the CFTC, J. Christopher Giancarlo, issued a statement emphasizing the CFTC’s commitment to effectively regulating virtual currency and reiterated the CFTC’s view that virtual currency is a “commodity,” as defined by the Commodity Exchange Act (CEA), and thus is subject to CFTC regulation. Giancarlo noted that it would be irresponsible to ignore virtual currency and that the CFTC is following steps to effectively and responsibly regulate the risks, specifically, “consumer education, asserting CFTC authority, surveilling trading in derivative and spot markets, prosecuting fraud, abuse, manipulation and false solicitation and active coordination with fellow regulators.” Giancarlo’s statement also noted an upcoming meeting of the CFTC Technology Advisory Committee to discuss virtual currencies on January 23.
The CFTC also published a backgrounder on the oversight of the virtual currency futures market, which describes the “heightened review” for the self-certification process as applied to virtual currency futures products, and explains the extent to which the CFTC “not only has clear legal authority, but now also will have the means to police certain underlying spot markets for fraud and manipulation.”
CFTC Issues Proposed Interpretation of “Actual Delivery” in Virtual Currency Transactions; Launches Virtual Currency Resource Page
On December 15, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) announced a proposed interpretation concerning its authority over transactions involving virtual currency, which includes its view regarding the term “actual delivery” in the context of retail virtual currency transactions. According to the proposed interpretation, the CFTC claims that it has “explicit oversight authority” over “retail commodity transactions” under Section 2(c)(2)(D) of the Commodity Exchange Act. Applying a broad definition of the term virtual currency, the CFTC believes that these type of currencies are commodities, which means that certain transactions in virtual currencies are subject to CFTC oversight.
The proposed interpretation sets forth two primary factors that market participants must demonstrate to prove “actual delivery” of virtual currency in connection with retail commodity transactions:
- a customer has the ability to “(i) take possession and control of the entire quantity of the commodity, whether it was purchased on margin, or using leverage, or any other financing arrangement, and (ii) use it freely in commerce (both within and away from any particular platform) no later than 28 days from the date of the transaction”; and
- “the offeror and counterparty seller (including any of their respective affiliates or other persons acting in concert with the offeror or counterparty seller on a similar basis) does not retain any interest in or control over any of the commodity purchased on margin, leverage, or other financing arrangement at the expiration of 28 days from the date of the transaction.”
Comments on the proposed regulation must be received on or before March 20, 2018.
In October, the CFTC’s LabCFTC released “A CFTC Primer on Virtual Currencies,” which discusses potential use-cases for virtual currencies, outlines the agency’s role and oversight of virtual currencies, and highlights the risks associated with virtual currencies. The CFTC also launched its own webpage with virtual currency resources and a customer advisory warning of the risks of virtual currency trading.
CFTC Issues Primer on Virtual Currencies, Claims Certain Virtual Tokens Fall Under Its Oversight
On October 17, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) announced the release of “A CFTC Primer on Virtual Currencies” (Primer) issued by its LabCFTC division. As previously discussed in Infobytes, the LabCFTC initiative rolled out in May of this year to engage innovators in the financial technology industry to promote responsible fintech innovation within regulated CFTC markets. In this Primer—a first in a series—the CFTC discusses potential use-cases for virtual currencies and outlines the agency’s role and oversight of virtual currencies. The Primer also highlights the risks associated with virtual currencies, such as (i) the susceptibility of “digital wallets” to cybersecurity hacks; (ii) inadequate safeguards and other customer protection related systems on virtual currency exchanges; and (iii) the susceptibility of virtual currencies to Ponzi schemes and other types of frauds.
The CFTC noted that there’s no inconsistency between the SEC’s analysis that Initial Coin Offerings or Token Sales may be subject to federal securities law (see previous InfoBytes coverage here) and CFTC’s determination that virtual currencies are commodities and virtual tokens “may be commodities or derivatives contracts, depending on the particular facts and circumstances.” Last month, as discussed in InfoBytes, the CFTC also filed its first-ever antifraud enforcement action for activities involving Bitcoin investment solicitations.
CFTC Orders Large Financial Institution to Pay for Supervision Failures
On September 28, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) announced a concurrent filing and settling of charges against a large financial institution/clearing firm (Firm) for failing to adequately supervise fee processing. The Order alleges that between 2009 and 2016, the Firm did not implement and maintain adequate procedures and systems that could account for and help prevent the risk of overcharging customers for exchange and clearance fees. In 2015, according to the Order, the Firm modified its processes to prevent future overcharges to customers.
The settlement requires the Firm to pay a $500,000 civil penalty.
CFTC Director of Enforcement Offers Incentives to Regulated Companies for Self-Reporting and Cooperation
On September 25, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission Director of the Division of Enforcement James McDonald spoke before the New York University Institute for Corporate Governance & Finance to address the Division’s priorities and outline its self-reporting and cooperation program. Director McDonald described the Division’s enforcement actions as part of a “broader mission to facilitate healthy, robust, and resilient markets,” with the goal of deterring misconduct. “Optimal deterrence,” he stressed, requires receiving buy-in from regulated companies and financial institutions, which is the premise of the Division’s cooperation and self-reporting program. The Division’s program requires companies to comply with three specific criteria: (i) voluntarily report wrongdoing to the Division in a timely and fully disclosed manner prior to the announcement of a government investigation; (ii) proactively cooperate with the Division throughout the investigation; and (iii) engage in timely and appropriate remedial measures to prevent future misconduct, and implement fixes to internal compliance and control programs. Should a company follow these steps, Director McDonald stated, the Division “will recommend a substantial reduction in the penalty,” and in “extraordinary circumstances . . . may recommend declining to prosecute a case.”
CFTC Files Anti-Fraud Enforcement Action Against New York-Based Corporation Concerning Bitcoin Investments
On September 21, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against a New York-based corporation and its CEO (defendants) for allegedly engaging in fraudulent acts and practices in violation of the Commodity Exchange Act and CFTC Regulations by issuing false account statements in connection with Bitcoin investment solicitations. According to the complaint, the “Bitcoin Ponzi scheme” solicited more than $600,000 from approximately 80 customers to be placed in a pooled fund, executed by the defendants’ computer program called “Jigsaw,” which traded the virtual currency. The CFTC alleges that defendants’ strategy was fake and the “purported performance reports” were false in that they created the appearance of positive Bitcoin trading increases, but the gains were “illusory.” The CFTC further asserts that the “payouts of supposed profits to [pool participants] in actuality consisted of other customers’ misappropriated funds.” In addition, the CFTC alleges that defendants orchestrated a “fake computer ‘hack’” to conceal the scheme. The suit seeks, among other things, disgorgement of profits, civil monetary penalties, restitution, and a ban on commodities trading for the defendants.
CFTC Approves First Digital Currency Derivatives Exchange
On July 24, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) announced its approval, by unanimous vote, of the first digital currency derivatives exchange under the Commodity Exchange Act. The CFTC issued a letter and order granting the registration, allowing the company to provide clearing services for fully-collateralized digital currency swaps, but noted that the authorization to provide clearing services for fully-collateralized digital currency swaps did not constitute or imply a CFTC endorsement of the use of digital currency generally, or bitcoin specifically. Based on the company’s representations related to having collateral already on deposit to cover the maximum possible loss, the CFTC exempted the company from certain regulations calling for, among other things, monthly stress-testing and specific daily reporting requirements. The company initially plans to clear bitcoin options.