FinCEN Director Offers Most Extensive Remarks on Blockchain Since Agency’s New Guidance

On November 15, Director Kenneth Blanco of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) offered his most extensive remarks on blockchain since the agency’s release of updated guidance in May. Speaking at the Chainalysis Blockchain Symposium, Director Blanco offered a number of insights on FinCEN’s current priorities and industry trends.

Suspicious Activity Reports

According to Director Blanco, since the publication of FinCEN’s guidance in May, the agency has received over 10,000 suspicious activity reports (SARs) related to convertible virtual currency (CVC) with 6,600 of those SARs filed by CVC-related businesses, including exchanges and kiosks. Director Blanco noted that this was a significant increase in SAR volume, particularly from CVC-related businesses, and included SARs from dozens of businesses that had never filed a SAR with FinCEN prior to the publication of the guidance.

Director Blanco also highlighted a couple of trends in SAR reporting. The first is SARs related to “potential unregistered, foreign-located money services businesses (MSBs), specifically, Venezuela-based P2P exchangers.” A foreign-located MSB is required to register with FinCEN if it conducts business in whole or in “substantial part” in the United States. (Determining precisely what constitutes “substantial part” continues to be an area of uncertainty for industry, which Director Blanco did not address.) A second trend was CVC kiosk operators reporting on “activity indicative of scam victims upon identification of new customers who have limited knowledge of convertible virtual currencies, particularly those in vulnerable populations, including the elderly.”

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US Regulators Issue Joint Statement on AML Compliance Involving Digital Assets

On October 11, the leaders of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a joint statement regarding anti-money laundering (AML) compliance for persons engaged in certain activities involving digital assets. While the statement largely reaffirms known agency guidance and existing regulations, it is noteworthy for a number of reasons.

First, the joint statement, issued from multiple regulators, is the first of its kind in the digital asset space with respect to AML and may indicate an intent of regulators to show that their approach to AML compliance is aligned and to coordinate more closely on AML compliance going forward. While each of the three regulators has published guidance regarding digital assets and has engaged in related enforcement actions, there has not been any public indication to date that such efforts have been coordinated across agencies.

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IRS Releases New Cryptocurrency Guidance

The IRS has released new guidance on the U.S. tax treatment of cryptocurrency for the first time since 2014. The guidance includes Revenue Ruling 2019-24, which provides guidance on the tax treatment of hard forks. The IRS also released a series of FAQs covering a variety of topics that expand on Notice 2014-21.

Revenue Ruling 2019-24

Revenue Ruling 2019-24 generally concludes on two scenarios involving hard forks. A hard fork occurs when a blockchain undergoes a protocol change resulting in a permanent diversion from the legacy or existing blockchain, which may result in the creation of a new cryptocurrency on a new distributed ledger in addition to the legacy cryptocurrency on the legacy distributed ledger. In the first scenario, the cryptocurrency blockchain experiences a hard fork but the taxpayer does not receive units of a new cryptocurrency, and in the second scenario, the taxpayer receives units of new cryptocurrency “as a result of an airdrop of a new cryptocurrency following the hard fork.” The Revenue Ruling concludes that the taxpayer does not have income in the first scenario. However, in the second scenario, the taxpayer has ordinary income because he has experienced an accession to wealth. The income arises at the time of the airdrop because the taxpayer is, at that time, able to exercise dominion and control over the forked cryptocurrency.

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IRS Stepping Up Cryptocurrency Enforcement Efforts

The IRS has confirmed that it has begun sending letters to taxpayers with virtual currency transactions that potentially failed to report income and pay the resulting tax from virtual currency transactions or did not report their transactions properly. In the announcement, IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig says that “The IRS is expanding our efforts involving virtual currency, including increased use of data analytics. We are focused on enforcing the law and helping taxpayers fully understand and meet their obligations.”

The IRS identified the taxpayers receiving these letters through various ongoing IRS compliance efforts, likely including customer information that the IRS received last year after successfully enforcing a John Doe summons against Coinbase. The IRS has said that it expects more than 10,000 taxpayers will receive these letters by the end of August.

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Blockchain Takes Over Episode 261 of the Cyberlaw Podcast

On April 29, blockchain took over the Cyberlaw Podcast once again with Alan Cohn, Gary Goldsholle, Will Turner, and guest speaker, Jeff Bandman, covering all things blockchain and cryptocurrency. We dove right into the recent activity from the SEC, namely, the Framework for “Investment Contract” Analysis of Digital Assets and the No-Action Letter issued to TurnKey Jet, Inc. (TurnKey) for a digital token. Continue Reading

Congress Weighs In on Cryptocurrency Taxation

Bipartisan members of the House are advocating for more clarity in the tax law as it relates to taxation of cryptocurrency.

First, on April 9, Representative Warren Davidson (R-OH), a member of the House Financial Services Committee, reintroduced legislation that would provide clarity on certain tax and securities law issues related to cryptocurrency.  The bill, entitled the “Token Taxonomy Act of 2019,” resembles the original bill that Davidson introduced in the 115th Congress with Congressional Blockchain Caucus co-chair Darren Soto (D-FL).  The 2019 version of the bill is co-sponsored by Representatives Soto, Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), Ted Budd (R-NC), Scott Perry (R-PA), and Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) (who has announced she is running for President).

Davidson said in a statement that “[t]he Token Taxonomy Act is the key to unlocking blockchain technology in America.  Without it, the U.S. is surrendering its innovative origins and ownership of the digital economy to Europe and Asia.”

The bill would enact a number of new tax provisions.  Continue Reading

TurnKey Token Gets to Fly: SEC Issues First No-Action Letter for Token Sale

On April 3, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) provided important guidance for token issuers. The SEC Division of Corporation Finance issued a No-Action Letter dated April 3 regarding TurnKey Jet, Inc. (the “TurnKey No-Action Letter”) in which the SEC staff confirmed that it would take no action against Turnkey Jet, Inc. (TKJ) for selling tokens without registration. This guidance is most relevant to token issuers who are focused on commercial utility and record-keeping benefits in a centrally controlled network and are willing to minimize or eliminate the profit elements of the token. The TurnKey No-Action Letter, taken together with the Framework for “Investment Contract” Analysis of Digital Assets (“Framework”) issued by the SEC’s Strategic Hub for Innovation and Financial Technology on the same date, offers guidance for structuring the elements of a private, permissioned, centralized blockchain token and network.[1]  Continue Reading

SEC Smooths Out Digital Assets Turbulence With Further Guidance

Long awaited guidance from the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on application of the Howey test to digital assets came on April 3 in the form of a Framework for “Investment Contract” Analysis of Digital Assets (“Framework”) and a No-Action Letter regarding TurnKey Jet, Inc. (the “TurnKey No-Action Letter”). These two documents are best understood as part of a trilogy with the June 2018 Hinman speech.

The Framework offers the clearest indication yet of the SEC staff’s thinking on the Howey test, with the TurnKey No-Action Letter and the Hinman speech providing examples of where a digital asset fails to meet a necessary element of the test. For purposes of clarity, it helps to think of the Howey test as having four elements:  (1) an investment of money (2) in a common enterprise (3) with a reasonable expectation of profits (4) derived from the efforts of others.[1]

The first two prongs are essentially throwaways inasmuch as the Framework devotes only three sentences to them in total. SEC staff note that these prongs are “typically satisfied” in evaluating digital assets. On the other hand, the Framework pays significant attention to the third and fourth elements. Continue Reading

Judge Holds Blockvest Token a Security Under Howey, and the Wait for a Non-Security Token Continues

Last week, US District Judge Gonzalo Curiel of the Southern District of California reversed his previous November 2018 order and issued a preliminary injunction against Blockvest LLC (Blockvest) and its founder, Reginald Buddy Ringgold, III, after finding that the Blockvest token (BLV token) met the definition of an investment contract under the Howey test and was therefore a security.  While we are keen to see an example of a digital asset that falls outside the definition of a security either through application of the Howey test or a new test, we are relieved that Judge Curiel did not use the Blockvest case to set forth this precedent. Continue Reading

Steptoe Offers Blockchain Regulatory Insights and Authors Regulatory Overviews in GBBC’s 2019 Annual Report

The Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC) recently published its 2019 Annual Report, “Beyond the Hype: Building Blockchains for Real World.” The report provides a comprehensive update on the global regulatory landscape surrounding blockchain technology along with an overview of some of the blockchain solutions being built by GBBC members.

Steptoe authored an overall insights piece, titled “Regulation in the US: Where are We, and Where are We Going?,” which looks at where the United States stands in terms of regulation and predicts what we’ll see in terms of regulation in 2019. Steptoe also provided regulatory updates for the United States as part of a global regulatory overview, with specific insights on ICO regulation in the US.

To access the GBBC 2019 Annual Report click here.

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