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 Federal Reserve Board (Fed) released on April 23 a notice of proposed rulemaking to clarify the standards and criteria under which one company “controls” another company under the Bank Holding Company Act (BHCA) and the Savings and Loan Holding Company Act (SLHCA). This long-awaited proposal, which Fed officials have stated for some time was in the works, is notable for several reasons—primarily because if adopted, it will bring much-needed clarity to an area of banking law that historically has been notoriously opaque.

Kathleen Kraninger, only the second Senate-confirmed director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in its almost eight-year existence, recently gave her first public remarks. The priorities Director Kraninger laid out will materially impact the CFPB’s direction and mission until the end of her term in December 2023. Director Kraninger, appointed by President Donald Trump, succeeds the first CFPB director, Richard Cordray, who was appointed by President Barack Obama.

In a recently published statement, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision (BCBS) has raised concerns relating to the risks that crypto-assets pose to the global financial system. While it acknowledges that banks do not currently have significant exposure to crypto-assets, it warns that these assets are increasingly becoming a threat to financial stability.

These concerns are founded on the volatility, constant evolution, and lack of standardization of crypto-assets, which the BCBS believes exposes banks to liquidity, credit, operational, money laundering, legal, and reputational risks. It considers that crypto-assets should not be referred to as “cryptocurrencies,” given that they fall short of being currencies that are safe mediums of exchange.

As readers of our blog are aware, courts and regulators are playing catch-up when it comes to cryptocurrencies, and to interpreting existing laws and regulations as applied to these new and innovative offerings. One of these many important questions relates to whether virtual currencies are “commodities” within the meaning of the Commodity Exchange Act (CEA) and subject to regulation by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). A recent ruling by a US district court in Massachusetts held that a virtual currency (My Big Coin) is a commodity within the meaning of the CEA and is therefore subject to the anti-fraud authority of the CFTC, even though there currently is no futures contract on My Big Coin. My Big Coin is a Las Vegas-based creator of software that purportedly allows for the anonymous exchange of currency.

The five federal banking agencies (Federal Reserve, Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, National Credit Union Administration, and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency – collectively Agencies) have issued a joint statement on the role of supervisory guidance.

The statement says that supervisory guidance does not have the force and effect of law, and that the Agencies do not take enforcement actions based on supervisory guidance. However, the Agencies state that supervisory guidance outlines the Agencies’ “supervisory expectations or priorities and articulates the [A]gencies’ general views regarding appropriate practices for a given area.” For example, supervisory guidance often contains examples of practices that the Agencies “generally consider consistent with safety-and-soundness standards or other applicable laws and regulations.”

Prior to the passage of the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act (EGRRCPA), bank holding companies and nonbank financial companies supervised by the Federal Reserve with $50 billion or more of total consolidated assets were subject to enhanced prudential standards (SIFIs). The EGRRCPA raised that threshold to $100 billion or more of total consolidated assets, and the SIFI threshold will eventually increase to $250 billion in total consolidated assets.

Zions Bancorporation (Zions) has around $66.5 billion in total consolidated assets and, prior to EGRRCPA, was a SIFI. Post-EGRRCPA, Zions is no longer a SIFI, which one would think would be the end of the story and Zions could walk away a happy non-SIFI bank.

The UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) issued a press release on July 3 announcing the latest cohort of firms accepted into its regulatory sandbox. Twenty-nine firms were accepted, which represents the largest cohort to date. The sandbox, now in its fourth year, allows firms to test their products and services in a controlled environment, prior to use in the open market where they would be subject to the full suite of regulations and associated costs.

The United Kingdom is a leader worldwide in supporting growth and innovation in the world of financial technology. Similar efforts are occurring in the United States, but lag behind UK developments; as we reported just three months ago, Arizona became the first state in the United States to enact a law to create a “Fintech Sandbox.”

Focus of cohort

The focus of this year’s UK Fintech Sandbox cohort appears to be on the capital-raising process, with a large number of applicants seeking to increase the efficiency of the process and improve access to capital, including six firms seeking to automate the issuance of debt or equity. Other notable innovations among the UK cohort include the use of distributed ledger technology (over 40% of the cohort), firms offering automated or “robo” investment advice, and the continued increase of firms seeking to use technology to streamline the AML/KYC process.

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

Just over two months after the Senate passed the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act (S 2155), the House voted 258-159 (with 33 Democrats voting “yea”) to pass S 2155 without amendments. S 2155 was quickly signed into law by President Donald Trump.

Until recently, S 2155 faced an uncertain future in the House. In June 2017, the House had passed its version of financial regulatory reform (HR 10, better known as the Financial CHOICE Act of 2017 (CHOICE Act). The CHOICE Act was a relatively comprehensive effort to reform the Dodd-Frank Act. Because it included a large number of provisions that would not attract broad bipartisan support, however, the CHOICE Act never was seen as having much, if any, chance of passing the Senate.

When S 2155 was passed, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) signaled that the House was not inclined to pass it without incorporating at least some elements of the CHOICE Act. In the interim, however, Mr. Hensarling and other Republicans were persuaded to allow a vote on S 2155 without further amendment, with the promise that additional provisions of the CHOICE Act could be brought as a separate bill or bills, which resulted in House passage of the bill.