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By: Jennifer Lee
The Securities and Exchange Commission will be hosting a public forum on distributed ledger technology and digital assets in Washington DC on May 31, 2019. This is a part of the SEC’s increasing efforts to regulate cryptocurrency exchanges and initial coin offerings (ICOs) that have been proliferating unchecked until very recently.
Since digital assets are still an emerging concept, regulators, such as the SEC and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), a bureau of the U.S. Department of Treasury, have been struggling to figure out how the existing regulatory framework applies to cryptocurrencies, exchanges, and ICOs. However, as established financial institutions, such as Fidelity, begin to enter the digital asset space, the SEC has ramped up its efforts to ensure that companies are aware of and are in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations. Depending on the nature of the services provided, companies may be subject to the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, Bank Secrecy Act, and states’ money transmitter licensing statutes.
The push for more oversight over cryptocurrencies comes at the heels of high-profile scandals involving cryptocurrency exchanges and ICOs that left consumers and investors alike with nothing but questions after losing their fiat and digital currencies.
The very first incident involved Mt. Gox, a bitcoin exchange based in Tokyo, Japan that operated between 2010 and 2014. Cryptocurrency exchanges allow its users to exchange fiat currency (e.g., U.S. Dollars) into cryptocurrency and provide digital wallets for users to store their cryptocurrency. At its heyday, it was handling over 70% of all bitcoin transactions worldwide. However, it ran into a host of problems in 2013 continuing on to 2014 until it stopped operations and filed for bankruptcy. During the litigation that ensued, it was revealed that Mt. Gox somehow lost approximately 750,000 of its customers’ bitcoins, valued at around $473 million at that time.
More recently, in February 2019, the cryptocurrency exchange QuadrigaCX announced that it was missing approximately $145 million in digital assets. Its executives, consumers, and law enforcement are in a frenzy to determine what happened to the missing digital assets as the only person who had access was QuadrigaCX’s founder Gerry Cotten, who had passed away the month prior.
These incidents are not limited to cryptocurrency exchanges, especially as ICOs have become more popular in recent years. ICOs are similar to IPOs in the sense that investors can buy a stake in a particular cryptocurrency (referred to as a token), but unlike IPOs, a token’s value is not tied to the value or performance of an underlying company. In November 2018, the SEC settled charges against professional boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. and singer/producer DJ Khaled for failing to disclose payments they received for promoting investments in ICOs. This suggests that despite the decentralized nature of cryptocurrencies and ICOs, the SEC has assumed jurisdiction over the space and its players.
Accordingly, broker-dealers and investment advisory firms looking to get involved in the digital asset space, including operating cryptocurrency exchanges, providing trading platforms for cryptocurrencies, or facilitating ICOs, must ensure that they are in compliance with all existing laws and regulations that govern traditional financial transactions and investments.
For more information or to inquire about the firm’s services related to digital currencies, please contact Jennifer Lee at [email protected].