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On September 20, U.S. Representative David Schweikert (R-AZ) sent a letter to Comptroller of the Currency Thomas Curry, asking the OCC to consider a more flexible and uniform approach for regulating digital currencies and the use of blockchain technology. Specifically, the letter notes that much of the development of digital currencies does not originate within institutions that are already federally chartered. Representative Schweikert further argues that most institutions active in this area do not wish to engage in traditional lending or deposit-taking activity, and instead seek a more limited scope of regulation. Thus, the letter asks Comptroller Curry to consider the following questions as the OCC continues to formulate its policy on digital currencies: (i) can the OCC create a limited purpose charter for non-bank financial service firms operating in this area? (ii) can the OCC take steps to coordinate with AML/CTF authorities, and state regulators, to develop flexible approaches that would allow U.S. digital currency firms to be competitive in light of various foreign regulatory frameworks? and (iii) how can the OCC help to facilitate relationships between digital currency firms and national banks?
On June 21, the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) released its 2016 annual report. The report reviews financial market and regulatory developments, identifies emerging risks, and offers recommendations to enhance the U.S. financial markets, promote market discipline, and maintain investor confidence. Among other things, the report focuses on threats and vulnerabilities related to cybersecuritry, marketplace lending, and distributed ledger systems/blockchain technology. Addressing the need for heightened cybersecurity, the report advises financial institutions to work together with government agencies to better understand risks associated with destructive malware attacks and to “improve cybersecurity, engage in information sharing efforts, and prepare to respond to, and recover from, a major incident.” Regarding marketplace lending, the report stresses that, as the industry continues to grow, “financial regulators will need to be attentive to signs of erosion in lending standards.” Finally, according to the report, distributed ledger systems pose operational vulnerabilities that “may not become apparent until they are deployed at scale,” and cautions that a “considerable degree of coordination among regulators may be required to effectively identify and address risks associated with distributed ledger systems.”
On March 29, CFTC Commissioner J. Christopher Giancarlo delivered remarks before the Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation 2016 Blockchain Symposium. According to Giancarlo, blockchain technology — also known as distributed ledger technology — has the ability to “revolutionize the world of finance” by potentially linking networks of legal recordkeeping in a similar fashion to how the “Internet connects data and information.” Giancarlo spent much of his remarks heralding the technology’s potential, opining that blockchain technology may (i) “be able to provide regulators with visibility into the trading portfolios of swaps counterparties that they lacked during the financial crisis and that Dodd-Frank mandated”; (ii) “make possible new ‘smart’ securities and derivatives that can value themselves in real time”; and (iii) “help market participants manage the enormous operational, transactional and capital complexity brought about by the legion of disparate mandates, regulations and capital requirements promulgated globally in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.” In light of the potential benefits of blockchain technology, the speed at which it is developing, and the vast interest it has garnered within the financial industry, Giancarlo advocated that regulators take a uniformed, encouraging, and principle-based approach toward their regulation of the industry, likening it to the “do no harm” framework implemented during the comparatively relaxed regulatory framework at the onset of the Internet. This approach will foster innovation, according to Giancarlo : “[o]nce again, the private sector must lead and regulators must avoid impeding innovation and investment and provide a predictable, consistent and straightforward legal environment. Protracted regulatory uncertainty or an uncoordinated regulatory approach must be avoided, as should rigid application of existing rules designed for a bygone technological era.”
2015 was the year that blockchain technology, initially used as the public ledger for tracking bitcoin, began to mature and expand beyond payments. While regulators focused on the risks associated with virtual currency, technology companies and financial institutions forged ahead with developing alternate uses for the blockchain.
Using blockchain technology offers many upsides, with one of the most notable being faster clearing and settlement functionality. Companies that can clear and settle transactions faster and at a reduced cost will have a competitive advantage. Thus far, however, no dominant player has emerged.
There are a number of companies that are working on creating blockchain platforms for financial institutions to use to clear and settle trades. Below are just a few of note:
- Digital Asset Holdings. Blythe Master and team are developing a blockchain platform for financial institutions to use to settle digital currency trades as well as digitized versions of financial assets. Digital Asset Holdings recently purchased Hyperledger, which developed a distributed ledger to allow banks and other financial institutions to clear and settle transactions in real time, and Blockstack, which offers private blockchain services.
- Ethereum. Launched in mid-2015, it offers its own decentralized blockchain platform that allows each blockchain to be customized to fit the specific security that is subject to clearance and settlement.
- Bankchain. Developed by ItBit, it is a ledger system seeking to leverage the blockchain for clearing, settlement, and custody.
- Clearmatics is working with UBS to help develop a digital coin based on blockchain technology to settle trades and make cross-border payments.
- R3CEV has developed a consortium of 42 banks dedicated to developing blockchain technology for settlements and payments, among other things.
- Citigroup is developing various blockchain technologies (at least three) and has created a test virtual currency, “Citicoin,” which it uses to test the blockchain technologies.
In addition, companies are using blockchain technology to issue and trade equities. At the end of 2015, Nasdaq issued shares in Chain.com using Nasdaq Linq, its blockchain ledger technology. Additionally, the SEC approved Overstock.com’s plan to issue company stock via blockchain through its subsidiary, t0.
As the above demonstrates, both technology companies and financial institutions will be focused on developing numerous use cases for blockchain technology beyond payments in 2016. Regulators are also beginning to focus on the blockchain technology itself as opposed to solely virtual currency. For example, the CFTC is holding a hearing on January 26, 2016 to discuss the use of blockchain technology in derivatives markets. Taken together, 2016 seems to be the year that blockchain technology separates itself from payments and begins to stand on its own. Judging by the CFTC’s interest in blockchain technology, it appears that regulators may be thinking the same thing.
For another retrospective on the blockchain in 2015, see our Coindesk article "The Stories That Shaped the Blockchain Narrative in 2015."
- Daniel A. Bellovin to discuss “Perspectives on proposed private flood insurance” at a CoreLogic webinar
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “How the new administration sets the tone for 2021” at the American Conference Institute Legal, Regulatory and Compliance Forum on Fintech & Emerging Payment Systems
- Sherry-Maria Safchuk to discuss UDAAP at an American Bar Association webinar
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss "What to expect: The new administration and regulatory changes" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “The future of fair lending” at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Steven R. vonBerg to discuss "LO comp challenges" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "Major litigation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss “The False Claims Act today” at the Federal Bar Association Qui Tam Section Roundtable