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On March 23, the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation (DFPI) released a new opinion letter covering aspects of the California Money Transmission Act (MTA) related to a digital asset trading platform. The redacted opinion letter examines whether the inquiring Company (a registered money services business) requires licensure under the MTA. The Company requesting an interpretive opinion operates a software platform that allows retail and institutional investors to buy and sell digital assets, including cryptocurrency, and access related services, within the platform. The letter explains that U.S. customers must fund an account on the Company’s platform prior to purchasing cryptocurrency with either fiat currency (U.S. dollars) or cryptocurrency. The letter also describes, among other things, how customers can buy from and sell to the Company cryptocurrencies on one or more cryptocurrency exchanges using the platform. In these transactions, the Company would sell or buy cryptocurrency from the customer at the selected price and settle the trade using fiat or cryptocurrency held in its own accounts. Simultaneously, the Company would execute a trade for its own benefit on the exchange offering the price selected by the customer. Customer funds would not be used to buy or sell cryptocurrency from or to the exchange. After executing a transaction, a customer may choose to withdraw all or part of the customer’s fiat or cryptocurrency from the platform, or may choose to maintain a balance to execute future transactions.
The DFPI stated that it “has not concluded whether a wallet storing cryptocurrency constitutes a form of monetary value representing a claim against the issuer and accepted for use as a means of redemption for money or monetary value or payment for goods or services.” As such, the DFPI will not require the Company to be licensed under the MTA to provide customers with an account via a proprietary software platform to transfer and store cryptocurrency in order to execute trades directly with the Company.
Recently, the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation (DFPI) released new opinion letters covering aspects of the California Money Transmission Act (MTA) related to a digital currency trading platform and the referral of customers to financial institutions. Highlights from the redacted letters include:
- Digital Currency Trading Platform. The redacted opinion letter examines whether the inquiring Company requires licensure under the MTA. The letter describes that the Company’s customers would transfer digital currency into the account they have with the Company, with the balance being reflected in the customer’s wallet issued by the Company. The letter further explains that the Company would provide California residents access to its digital currency trading platform to buy, sell, or hold digital currency and provide liquidity services. The letter also describes, among other things, how customers could use the platform, transfer digital currency into the account, and transfer fiat currency by transferring it from their own bank account or by debit or credit card to the Company. Customers would not be able to send fiat or digital currency to others, except in the context of a sale. DFPI concluded that while the Company’s wallets holding fiat currency meet the definition of stored value, licensure under the MTA was not required because the Company offered fiat currency wallets to customers solely to facilitate the trade of digital currency. DFPI also noted that the Company does not require licensure under the MTA to perform Platform trading services or to issue wallets holding digital currencies.
- Referral of customers to financial institutions. The redacted opinion letter examines whether the inquiring Company’s referral service is subject to the MTA. The letter describes that under this service, the Company would refer customers to banks, trust companies, and other entities which are either licensed as money transmitters in California or exempt from licensure. Under the proposed referral service, customers would be re-directed to a financial institution’s website where they could set up and fund an account. Customers wishing to buy, sell, or exchange cryptocurrency or fiat currency could do so from the Company’s website and use a third party’s software platform to input their order details. The platform would check to make sure that the customer has sufficient assets in the customer’s account with the financial institution to purchase the cryptocurrency. The financial institution would be the only party to hold, receive, or transmit all cryptocurrencies in the customer’s account. DFPI concluded that the referral service does not meet the definition of money transmission because the service entails connecting customers with financial institutions from which customers can buy, sell, or exchange cryptocurrency. Further, DFPI noted that the transactions between customers and financial institutions are also not money transmission because the customer would simply exchange cryptocurrency directly with the financial institution. Accordingly, DFPI held that licensure under the MTA is not required because the Company will not sell or issue payment instruments, sell or issue stored value, or receive money for transmission by offering the referral service.
On June 16, Chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee Maxine Waters (D-CA) announced the organization of the “Digital Assets Working Group of Democratic Members” to develop “legislation and policy solutions” on issues emerging in the digital asset space, including those related to (i) the regulation of cryptocurrency; (ii) the use of blockchain and distributed ledger technology; and (iii) the potential development of a U.S. central bank digital currency (see InfoBytes coverage on matters related to a CBDC here). During the first hearing held by the Task Force on Financial Technology, Waters stated that the working group will “focus on making sure there is responsible innovation in the cryptocurrency and digital asset space,” noting that “[a]s cryptocurrencies, central bank digital currencies and other digital assets enter the mainstream, the Committee will look at how digital assets have begun to enter many aspects of our lives—from payments to investments to remittances—and consider how to devise legislation to support responsible innovation that protects consumers and investors while promoting greater financial inclusion.”
On June 9, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Policy held a hearing titled “Building A Stronger Financial System: Opportunities of a Central Bank Digital Currency” to discuss the potential opportunities of a central bank digital currency (CBDC). Among the issues discussed at the hearing were protecting consumer privacy and security, financial inclusion, and the Federal Reserve’s authority.
The Honorable J. Christopher Giancarlo, Senior Counsel at Willkie Farr & Gallagher, was a witness on behalf of the Digital Dollar Project (DDP). The digital dollar, proposed by the Fed, would be distributed through the two-tiered banking system and operated alongside physical currency and commercial bank money. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) asked how a CBDC should be designed, implemented, and regulated to reduce the risk of fraud and ensure privacy. Giancarlo, who stated he is not convinced of the need for CBDC, but believed in the need to examine this issue, said the DDP convened a privacy subcommittee which addressed four principles: (i) economic privacy; (ii) security; (iii) inclusion; and (iv) sufficient transparency to provide settlement and payment certainty. When Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) questioned witness Dr. Neha Narula, Director of the Digital Currency Initiative at MIT, on security risks associated with cryptocurrencies, she responded that, with respect to ransomware attacks, the issue is that valuable data has not been properly secured, and suggested that a CBDC could have built-in safeguards. She also believed that open source software is critical for security.
Subcommittee Chairwoman Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) suggested that banks use “abusive” practices and that the crypto industry has promised a better and more inclusive financial system, which reduces cost and improves quality. When Warren asked if a well-designed CBDC could help people who are poorly served by the current financial system, Narula emphasized the importance of designing a CBDC with a focus on accessibility and reducing barriers to access.
Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) argued that Americans should not be subject to excessive fees to access their own money. He also noted that a CBDC may work with a solution he has proposed, called No-Fee Accounts, which would be available to every American and backed by the Fed. As previously covered by InfoBytes, Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard noted in a speech that a CBDC may address concerns regarding the lack of federal deposit insurance and banking supervision for nonbank issuers of digital assets, and that “new forms of private money may introduce counterparty risk into the payments system in new ways that could lead to consumer protection threats or, at large scale, broader financial stability risks.” Ranking Member Pat Toomey (R-PA) expressed his concerns around the Fed’s position in retail banking services and was doubtful that the Fed would provide high quality customer service, while Ranking Member John Kennedy (R-LA) questioned if it is appropriate for the federal government to get entangled in the credit markets by way of a CBDC.
On May 24, Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard spoke at the Consensus by CoinDesk 2021 Conference about the Fed’s exploration of central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) and cross-border payments. Brainard noted that a CBDC may address concerns regarding the lack of federal deposit insurance and banking supervision for nonbank issuers of digital assets, and that “new forms of private money may introduce counterparty risk into the payments system in new ways that could lead to consumer protection threats or, at large scale, broader financial stability risks.” She highlighted that “introducing a safe and accessible central bank money to households and businesses in digital payments systems. . .would reduce counterparty risk and the associated consumer protection and financial stability risks.” Brainard noted that a Fed-backed digital currency could cause payment transactions to be cheaper, faster, and more efficient by improving processes for sending and receiving money internationally, encouraging private-sector competition in retail payments, and increasing financial inclusion.
Brainard discussed how CBDCs could affect central banks’ ability to manage the economy, saying a digital dollar would need to be designed with safeguards to “protect against disintermediation of banks and to preserve monetary policy transmission more broadly.” She cautioned that the design should complement, not replace, existing currency and bank deposits and emphasized the need for regulators to work together “to ensure that banks are appropriately identifying, monitoring, and managing risks associated with digital assets.”
As previously covered by InfoBytes, last week Chairman Jerome Powell stated that an important step in engaging the public about CBDCs involves “publishing [a] paper this summer to lay out the Fed’s current thinking on digital payments, with a particular focus on the benefits and risks associated with CBDC in the U.S. context.”
- John R. Coleman to discuss “CFPB update” at the MBA Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "State licensing and NMLS challenges" at MBA’s Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Fair lending and equal opportunity laws” at the MBA Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss “Contemplating the boundaries of UDAAP” at the MBA Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Steven vonBerg to speak at closing “super session“ on compliance topics at MBA Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Buckley Webcast: Fifth Circuit muddles CFPB’s plans to use in-house judges in enforcement proceedings
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss “Understanding the ESG impact on compliance” at the ABA’s Regulatory Compliance Conference