Binance is the latest major crypto industry player to be sued by a U.S. regulator. On March 27, 2023, the CFTC announced that it had filed a civil enforcement action against Binance Holdings Limited (and related legal entities) (collectively, “Binance”), its CEO, Changpeng Zhao (“Zhao”), and its former chief compliance officer, Samuel Lim (“Lim”), for violating the Commodity Exchange Act and CFTC regulations. (CFTC v. Zhao, No. 23-01887 (N.D. Ill. Filed Mar. 27, 2023)). The CFTC, among other things, alleges that Binance allowed U.S. customers to make use of their centralized digital asset trading platform without Binance first properly registering with the CFTC and also allegedly failed to implement an effective anti-money laundering (“AML”) program as required under applicable law. The complaint states that Binance has “never been registered with the CFTC in any capacity.” The CFTC is seeking disgorgement, civil monetary penalties, permanent trading and registration bans, and a permanent injunction against further violations of the Commodity Exchange Act and CFTC regulations.
On July 5, 2022, cryptocurrency brokerage Voyager Digital filed for chapter 11 in the Southern District of New York Bankruptcy Court, citing a short-term “run on the bank” due to the “crypto winter” in the cryptocurrency industry generally and the default of a significant loan made to a third party as the reasons for its filing. At Voyager’s first day hearing on July 8, 2022, the Bankruptcy Court asked the critical question of whether the crypto assets on Voyager’s platform were property of the estate or its customers. Voyager asserted the crypto assets were assets of the estate pursuant to the terms of its customer agreements, but the question of ownership was more problematic in the context of a liquidation. In that context, Voyager’s plan of reorganization proposes to resolve any mystery of ownership by delivering the reorganized company to its customers.
On July 13, 2022, cryptocurrency lender Celsius Network filed for chapter 11 in the Southern District of New York Bankruptcy Court. Celsius had frozen customer withdrawals on June 12, 2022 and, at the time of its chapter 11 filing, indicated that it would not be requesting court authority to allow customer withdrawals. Celsius noted in a press release that customer claims would be addressed through the chapter 11 process.
Voyager’s and Celsius’ chapter 11 bankruptcy filings highlight the question of whether crypto assets held by an exchange, or similar platform, may be considered property of a bankruptcy estate and, therefore, not recoverable by the customer, who would then likely be an unsecured claimholder of the debtor.
While some commentators have suggested that crypto assets might be considered property of the exchange’s bankruptcy estate, existing common law, existing provisions of Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) Article 8, and proposed amendments to the UCC recognize that if the arrangement and relationship between the exchange and its customers is one that is characterized as “custodial,” the crypto assets held by the exchange should remain property of the customer and, hence, not subject to dilution by general unsecured claimholders.
Beyond the wider adoption of cryptocurrencies by consumers in recent years, companies and organizations have also shown increased interest in crypto-assets in the past year. A myriad of industries, from sports to fashion to art to videogames to music, are entering NFTs, which, depending on the marketplace, may be minted on a PoW or PoS blockchain. Financial institutions are exploring how to compete with decentralized finance products by offering services on blockchains to provide more security and less friction in an effort toward safer and faster transactions. Depending on how such platforms are structured, such services will also be on a PoW or PoS network. This increase in investments in blockchain-based products and services by numerous and varying shareholders has resulted in increased due diligence on how much investments are complying with ESG mandates. Corporate balance sheets are increasingly filled with cryptocurrencies, presumably as an inflation hedge or broad investment strategy, potentially impacting their ESG practices. At least one financial firm has announced that employers may soon have the option to offer workers the option to place a portion of 401(k) retirement savings in Bitcoin. Also, potential ESG issues can arise not only when investing in a cryptominer or in cryptocurrencies verified with a PoW consensus mechanism, but also with an investment in an exchange that transacts in certain energy-intensive cryptocurrencies.
Simply put, with the increased use of these types of emerging technologies, ESG concerns are likely to arise. It remains to be seen how such emerging technologies will balance innovation, while complying with ESG issues.
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced today that it would hire 20 additional positions to the Crypto Assets and Cyber Unit (formerly known as the Cyber Unit) within the Division of Enforcement, increasing the number of dedicated positions to 50. The “Crypto Unit” is tasked with protecting investors in crypto markets and from cyber-related threats. With more personnel and resources available, the SEC believes the unit will be “better equipped to police wrongdoing in the crypto markets” while still staying involved in disclosure and controls issues with respect to cybersecurity.
According to the release, the 20 additional hires will include supervisors, investigative staff attorneys and fraud analysts, with a focus on investigating securities law violations in: crypto asset offerings, exchanges, and lending and staking products; decentralized finance (“DeFi”) platforms; non-fungible tokens (“NFTs”); and stablecoins.
As we stated in a recent post, statements and proposals by financial regulators suggest that providers should expect more scrutiny and additional compliance hurdles going forward.
On March 9, 2022, the President issued an Executive Order (the “E.O.”) that articulates a high-level, wide-ranging national strategy for regulating and fostering innovation in the burgeoning digital assets space. The strategy is intended to encourage innovation yet still provide adequate oversight to control systemic risks and the attendant investor, business, consumer and environmental concerns.
The E.O. is very broad in scope. It focuses on the myriad of issues associated with “digital assets,” a term defined in a way to capture a wide variety of existing and emerging “crypto” implementations. Specifically, the E.O. defines digital assets to include “all central bank digital currencies (CBDCs), regardless of the technology used, and to other representations of value, financial assets and instruments, or claims that are used to make payments or investments, or to transmit or exchange funds or the equivalent thereof, that are issued or represented in digital form through the use of distributed ledger technology.” Significantly, the E.O. does not make an attempt at defining the regulatory status of digital assets and notes a digital asset “may be, among other things, a security, a commodity, a derivative, or other financial product.”
While the E.O. itself doesn’t really set forth any new requirements, it puts into motion a process that may yield specific regulatory approaches to digital assets. Of course, this process is happening in parallel with other initiatives by the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and Congress itself and thus, there is a possibility that the E.O will result in approaches that are in ways inconsistent with other ongoing regulatory developments. For example, in January 2022 the SEC released a proposal that would enhance investor protections and cybersecurity for alternative trading systems that trade Treasuries and other government securities. The proposal prompted a dissenting statement from SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce (often referred to as “Crypto Mom” for her advocacy of the industry), who objected to the speed and breadth of the January 2022 proposal. The E.O. sidesteps some of the controversial issues addressed in the SEC proposal, such as how “exchanges” should be defined, as well as the greater issue of how different digital assets should be classified (and therefore, which financial regulatory agencies have jurisdiction over various digital products and platforms). At the same time, there seems to be some amount of bipartisan interest in Congress to pass its own legislation regulating certain aspects of cryptocurrency and related technologies (e.g., in the stablecoin area), Whether or not that legislation would be consistent with the results of the E.O.-driven processes is also hard to tell.
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.
With new types of digital assets and related business on the rise, federal authorities have been busy investigating. Recently, the SEC, FinCEN and the CFTC have imposed some notable settlements involving cryptocurrency trading platforms for allegedly operating without appropriate approvals from financial regulatory authorities. This may be the start of…