A working group composed of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the National Credit Union Administration, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the US Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network issued a joint statement on July 22 that is intended to provide greater clarity regarding the risk-focused approach used by examiners for planning and performing Bank Secrecy Act (BSA)/anti-money laundering (AML) examinations.

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) recently issued guidance consolidating current FinCEN regulations, rulings, and guidance about cryptocurrencies and money services businesses (MSBs) under the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA). Along with the May 9 guidance, FinCEN issued an advisory to assist financial institutions in identifying and reporting suspicious activity or criminal use of cryptocurrencies.

The Joint Committee of the European Supervisory Authorities (the ESAs) issued a report on 7 January 2019 on the status of regulatory sandboxes and innovation hubs following consultations with national regulators across the European Union.

The report compares the innovation hubs and regulatory sandboxes established in 21 EU member states and three EEA states, flagging too that Hungary and Spain are in the process of establishing regulatory sandboxes.

Two years ago, we wondered in our blog post whether the staff of the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) would have to further extend no-action relief to permit a broker-dealer to rely on an SEC registered investment adviser (RIA) to perform the broker-dealer’s customer identification program (CIP) requirements. And . . . here we are.

On December 12, the SEC staff issued the latest in a series of letters to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA). The letters conditionally extend no-action relief to allow a broker-dealer to rely on RIAs to perform some or all of the broker-dealer’s CIP requirements as well as the broker-dealer’s obligations under beneficial ownership requirements that went into full effect in May 2018.

The ongoing and accelerating pace of developments in the realm of cryptoassets in multiple jurisdictions warrants continual review and monitoring. In a report issued earlier this month on the implications of cryptoassets, the international Financial Stability Board (FSB) stated that, while cryptoassets do not currently pose a material risk to global financial stability, vigilant monitoring is needed in light of the speed of market developments. The FSB believes that due to risks such as low liquidity and the use of leverage, market risks from volatility, and operational risks, cryptoassets lack the key attributes of sovereign currencies and do not serve as a stable store of value or a mainstream unit of account. The financial stability implications of these cryptoasset characteristics include an impact on confidence in, and reputational risk to, financial institutions and regulators; risks arising from financial institutions’ exposures to cryptoassets; and risks arising if cryptoassets were to become widely used in payments and settlement. Therefore, regulators are encouraged to “keep an eye on things” as cryptoassets continue to spread throughout the world economy.

The UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) issued a press release on August 7 announcing that it has joined 11 other financial regulators from around the world to create the Global Financial Innovation Network (GFIN), building on its proposals earlier in the year to create a “global sandbox.” The network is intended to provide fintech firms a more efficient way to interact with regulators as they test new ideas across different markets and to create a new framework for regulators to cooperate on areas of innovation. This announcement continues a regulatory trend of being more hospitable to fintech innovation, as we have previously discussed.

Since taking on the role in November 2017, Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting has been relatively circumspect regarding his views on the banking industry, bank regulation, and bank regulatory reform. In testimony on June 14 before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, Comptroller Otting provided the clearest insight to date about his views on the federal banking system and the role of bank regulation.

In his testimony, Comptroller Otting first discussed risk in the banking system and the OCC’s “supervision by risk” approach, noting the following areas of heightened risk:

  • Elevated credit risk due to eased credit underwriting, increased commercial real estate concentration limits, and policy exceptions that create a higher level of concern
  • Elevated operational risk created by cybersecurity threats and third-party relationships, including risks created by consolidation in the fintech industry, which has led to a limited number of providers servicing large segments of the banking industry
  • Elevated compliance risk due to Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) requirements, the new FinCEN beneficial ownership rules, and new technologies that attempt to increase customer convenience and access to financial products and services, and the need for banks to better manage implementation of regulatory changes in consumer laws

Recent events in the cryptocurrency markets, including the wild swings in the trading prices of bitcoin, the growing incidence of initial coin offerings (ICOs) entailing the offer and sale of unregistered securities, and the launch of bitcoin futures trading, have encouraged the federal government to ratchet up its interest in virtual currencies. Not only have the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) made public announcements about virtual currencies and taken enforcement action against virtual currency companies or initial coin offerors in recent months, but Congress now is showing increased interest in bitcoin and other virtual currencies. A few very recent signals of heightened governmental interest in virtual currency are highlighted below:

  • The Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs (Senate Banking Committee) held two hearings in January during which virtual currencies were discussed in connection with strengthening anti-money laundering (AML) laws
  • Reports indicate that the Senate Banking Committee will hold a hearing in February to analyze the implications of cryptocurrencies. CFTC Chairman Christopher Giancarlo and SEC Chairman Jay Clayton will likely testify at the hearing
  • On January 19, Mr. Giancarlo called on the Futures and Derivatives Bar to “set the course for the future” of virtual currencies
  • In a January 22 speech, Mr. Clayton again cautioned market professionals and “gatekeepers” that they need to “do better” in their handling of ICOs, and said that the SEC staff will be on “high alert” for ICOs that may be “contrary to the spirit of our securities laws.”

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has just issued a memorandum (AG Memo) rescinding prior US Department of Justice (DOJ) guidance on the federal prosecution of marijuana offenses, including the 2013 “Cole Memorandum” (Cole Memo) and subsequent guidance regarding marijuana-related financial crimes (Financial Crimes Memo). The Cole Memo, among other things, expressly acknowledged the legalization of marijuana in several states for medical and recreational purposes and directed federal prosecutors to focus their enforcement priorities and resources on activities that align with current DOJ enforcement priorities. In turn, these priorities emphasized the prevention of marijuana-related activities posing the most significant threats to public safety and welfare (such as preventing the sale of marijuana to minors, or preventing marijuana sales from benefiting criminal enterprises). The Cole Memo in substance encouraged federal prosecutors to take a “hands-off” approach on the prosecution of “low level” marijuana-related offenses in those states that have legalized in some form the possession or use of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes. The subsequent Financial Crimes Memo carried forward the Cole Memo principles to the prosecution of banks and other financial institutions participating in marijuana-related banking and financial activities.

The rise of cryptocurrencies and initial coin offerings (ICOs) undoubtedly shows that we live in interesting times that regularly present us with new and innovative products, markets, and opportunities. When the words “new” and “innovative” come to mind, the federal government is usually not part of the conversation. But the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) under Chairman Jay Clayton appears more than willing to challenge that stereotype and to use the SEC’s regulatory and enforcement authority to take on the complex legal and other issues arising from innovative ICOs and other cryptocurrency products. Throughout these efforts, the SEC’s message has been clear and consistent: it will apply established federal securities laws principles and use its regulatory authority over ICOs and other cryptocurrency products expansively when appropriate, and it expects “gatekeepers” to aid in that effort.

Recent SEC Enforcement Actions: Munchee and Plexcorps

Two SEC enforcement actions over the last few weeks represent just the latest attempt by the SEC to get its message across. Most recently, it announced on December 11 a settled enforcement action that halted an ICO by Munchee Inc., a California business that created an iPhone app for reviewing restaurant meals. In a remarkably quick action for the SEC, it brought the case just weeks after Munchee commenced its ICO. The SEC charged Munchee with violating Sections 5(a) and 5(c) of the Securities Act of 1933 (the Securities Act) by conducting an unregistered offering of securities, and is notable because the SEC did not allege that Munchee made any misrepresentations in connection with the offering. Bringing such a standalone unregistered offering case is unusual for the SEC and represents its intention to bring these cases quickly, even in the absence of fraud.