DeFi & Financial Services

Back in January, the U.S. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve (the “Federal Reserve”) released its long-awaited discussion paper, “Money and Payments: The U.S. Dollar in the Age of Digital Transformation” (the “Report”), beginning a public dialogue about central bank digital currencies (“CBDCs”) and weighing the merits of a U.S. CBDC.

For the purposes of the Report, a CBDC is defined as a “digital liability of a central bank that is widely available to the general public” and further, a “digital form of paper money.” In this respect, a CBDC is like a stablecoin because a CBDC also seeks to maintain a stable value and become an alternate payment mechanism that can be used to facilitate trading and lending, lessen the friction surrounding cross-border payments, and help foster more financial inclusion. However, unlike a stablecoin backed by reference assets like a national currency, commodities, or another digital asset, a U.S. CBDC (i.e., a digital dollar) would be backed by the full faith and credit of the United States in the same way as a physical dollar and, as described in the Report, would be digital money that is “free from credit risk and liquidity risk.” Thus, as discussed in our recent post on stablecoins, a CBDC enjoys many of the same benefits as stablecoins and, as described in the Report, “could spur innovation by banks and other actors and would be a safer deposit substitute than many other products, including stablecoins and other types of nonbank money.”  Still, the Report suggests that CBDCs may bring their own risks to the safety and stability of the monetary system, particularly during times of financial stress, and otherwise affect the Fed’s ability to implement monetary policy. Plus, there is the added complexity of harnessing and updating the government’s infrastructure to launch such a digital dollar.  On the whole, the Report cautions that a CBDC “could fundamentally change the structure of the U.S. financial system.”

Kryptonite is a fictional substance that causes the mighty Superman to lose all his strength. According to a recent release from the U.S. Department of Labor Employee Benefits Security Administration (“DOL”), cryptocurrency might carry similar dangers for otherwise strong and healthy 401(k) plan accounts. That is, in DOL’s view, the benefits of cryptocurrency in 401(k) plans may prove to be just as fictional as kryptonite, thereby causing significant risks of losses for retirement security.

On March 10, 2022, DOL issued Compliance Assistance Release No. 2022-01 (the “Release”) to caution plan fiduciaries to exercise extreme care before considering whether to include investment options like cryptocurrency as part of a 401(k) plan’s investment menu. In so doing, DOL raised five key concerns associated with offering these types of investment options.

On January 10, 2022, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC” or the “Commission”) announced it settled charges in In re tZERO ATS, LLC, No. 93938 (SEC Order Jan. 10, 2022) (“Order”).  The Order details how the SEC fined blockchain-based trading platform tZERO ATS, LLC (“tZERO”), an alternative trading systems (“ATS”), for alleged violations of Regulation ATS, which requires certain disclosures to the Commission.

An ATS is a trading system that meets the definition of “exchange” under federal securities laws but is not required to register as a national securities exchange if the ATS operates under an exemption provided under regulations under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”).  As stated in the Order, tZERO is an ATS that offers both “digitally enhanced securities” recorded on a blockchain and trading and settlement services for unique investments that may not be available through traditional brokerages.

On 19 January 2022, the UK Financial Conduct Authority (“FCA”) published a consultation paper (CP22/2) (the “Consultation”) setting out its proposals to strengthen its financial promotion rules for high-risk investments (including cryptoassets), as well as for authorised firms which approve and communicate such financial promotions. The Consultation builds on feedback received to its discussion paper (DP21/1) on how the FCA could strengthen financial promotion rules and also forms part of its ongoing work on addressing harm in the consumer investment sector, to pursue its Consumer Investments Strategy as published in September 2021.

The proposals set out in the Consultation relate to financial promotions for “high-risk investments,” being those which are subject to marketing restrictions under the FCA rules. This includes investment based-crowdfunding, peer-to-peer agreements, other non-readily realisable securities, non-mainstream pooled investments and speculative illiquid securities. The FCA has also confirmed that these will also include cryptoassets once they are brought into scope of the FCA’s financial promotions regime. Some of the key changes the FCA is seeking to implement, as set out in the Consultation, are as follows:

On January 3, 2022, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (the “CFTC”) entered an order charging Blockratize, Inc. (d/b/a Polymarket.com) (“Polymarket”) with offering off-exchange binary options contracts and failing to register with the CFTC as a designated contract market or swap execution facility as required under the Commodity Exchange Act (the “CEA”). (In re Blockratize, Inc. d/b/a Polymarket.com, CFTC Docket No. 22-09 (Order Jan. 3, 2022)).  The CFTC ordered Polymarket to cease and desist all such unregistered market making activities and issued a $1.4 million fine (which the order noted was reduced in light of Polymarket’s “substantial cooperation” with the investigation).

On July 23, the New York State Department of Financial Services (the “DFS”) issued a press release announcing the establishment of a new Research and Innovation Division (the “Division”) within the DFS.

The Division will take on the responsibility of licensing and supervising entities engaged in “virtual currency business activity”

New York State has taken measures this year to modernize its approach to regulation for blockchain-based companies. Even before Assembly Bill A8783B established a government task force to study the effects of blockchain and digital assets on financial markets in the state, in October, the New York State Department of Financial Services (“NYSDFS”) announced that it would allow companies engaged in “virtual currency business activity” (as defined in the New York State “BitLicense” requirements) to utilize the Nationwide Multistate Licensing System and Registry (“NMLS”) to apply for, update, and renew their operating licenses, including BitLicenses. The NMLS was created in 2008 by the Conference of State Bank Supervisors to act as a central licensing repository and has expanded over the past decade from servicing non-bank mortgage companies to including a variety of non-bank firms. The system is intended to allow for enhanced supervision, as license applications and registrations can be managed by a number of governmental agencies through NMLS. In addition to businesses engaged in virtual currency business activity, other nonbank financial institutions currently under the oversight of the NMLS platform include licensed check cashing companies, budget planners, sales finance agencies, money transmitter licensees, and mortgage providers.