Subscribe to our InfoBytes Blog weekly newsletter and other publications for news affecting the financial services industry.
District Court rejects dismissal bid, determining plaintiff sufficiently alleged ICO tokens were unregistered stock
On December 10, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey denied a motion to dismiss a putative class action, finding the plaintiff sufficiently alleged that a company’s sale of unregistered cryptocurrency tokens were “investment contracts” under securities law. According to the opinion, the plaintiff filed the proposed class action against the company alleging it sold unregistered securities in violation of the Securities Act after purchasing $25,000 worth of tokens during the company’s initial coin offering (ICO). The company moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the tokens were not securities subject to the registration requirements of the Act. The court applied the three-prong “investment contract” test from SEC v. W.J. Howey Co.—“the three requirements for establishing an investment contract are: (1) an investment of money, (2) in a common enterprise, (3) with profits to come solely from the efforts of others”—and determined the token sales met the requirements. Focusing on the second and third prongs, because the company acknowledged the first was satisfied, the court concluded that the plaintiff sufficiently alleged the existence of a common enterprise by showing a “horizontal commonality” from the pooling of the contributions used to develop and maintain the company’s tasking platform. As for the third prong, the court determined the investors had an expectation of profit rather than simply a means to use the tasking platform, as demonstrated by the company’s marketing of the ICO as a “‘unique investment opportunity’ that would ‘generate better financial returns[.]’”
On December 4, the California Department of Business Oversight (DBO) released an invitation for comments from interested stakeholders in the development of regulations to implement the state’s new law on commercial financing disclosures. As previously covered by InfoBytes, on September 30, the California governor signed SB 1235, which requires non-bank lenders and other finance companies to provide written consumer-style disclosures for certain commercial transactions, including small business loans and merchant cash advances. Most notably, the act requires financing entities subject to the law to disclose in each commercial financing transaction —defined as an “accounts receivable purchase transaction, including factoring, asset-based lending transaction, commercial loan, commercial open-end credit plan, or lease financing transaction intended by the recipient for use primarily for other than personal, family, or household purposes”—the “total cost of the financing expressed as an annualized rate” in a form to be prescribed by the DBO.
The act requires the DBO to first develop regulations governing the new disclosure requirements, addressing, among other things, (i) definitions, contents, and methods of calculations for each disclosure; (ii) requirements concerning the time, manner, and format of each disclosure; and (iii) the method to express the annualized rate disclosure and types of fees and charges to be included in the calculation. While the DBO has formulated specific topics and questions in the invitation for comments covering these areas, the comments may address any potential area for rulemaking. Comments must be received by January 22, 2019.
FDIC encourages more de novo bank applicants, launches initiatives to streamline and promote transparency in deposit insurance applications
On December 6, the FDIC announced several initiatives designed to streamline and promote transparency in the federal deposit insurance application process, while encouraging more applications from de novo banks. According to FDIC Chairman Jelena McWilliams, the “application process should not be overly burdensome and should not deter prospective banks from applying.” As part of its initiative, the FDIC issued a request for information (RFI) soliciting feedback on all aspects of the deposit insurance application process—the RFI applies to all institutions, including those with less than $1 billion in total assets, as well as traditional community banks. The RFI seeks comments on: (i) suggestions for modifying the application process as it relates to traditional community banks; (ii) potential ways to “support the continuing evolution of emerging technology and fintech companies . . . [and whether there are] particular risks associated with any such proposals”; (iii) aspects of the application process such as legal, regulatory, economic, or technological factors that may discourage potential applications; and (iv) other suggestions for addressing stakeholder concerns regarding the application process, as well as methods for improving effectiveness, efficiency, and transparency. Comments on the RFI will be accepted for 60 days following publication in the Federal Register.
The FDIC also discussed a new, voluntary process for new deposit insurance applicants to request feedback on draft applications before filing formal submissions. “The new process is intended to provide an early opportunity for both the FDIC and organizers to identify potential challenges with respect to the statutory criteria, areas that may require further detail or support, and potential issues or concerns,” the announcement stated.
In addition to updating publications related to the application process (available through FIL-83-2018), the FDIC also released FIL-81-2018 and FIL-82-2018, which respectively provide application processing timeframe guidelines and an overview of the review process for draft deposit insurance proposals.
On November 28, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) filed a proposed rule change with the SEC to amend paragraph (a)(3) of FINRA Rule 4512(a)(3)—“Customer Account Information”—which will permit the use of electronic signatures consistent with the E-SIGN Act. Specifically, under the proposed rule, firms will be allowed to obtain electronic signatures of personnel exercising discretionary trading authority over customer accounts maintained by a member. FINRA acknowledges that “[g]iven technological advances relating to electronic signatures, including with respect to authentication and security” it now believes that the requirement for manual signatures is obsolete. If approved by the SEC, the proposed rule change will be published in a regulatory notice no later than 60 days following approval, and will take effect within 30 days following publication.
OCC Comptroller discusses state of banking system; emphasizes areas of economic opportunity and innovation
On November 14, Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting discussed the condition of the U.S. federal banking system at the “Special Seminar on International Finance” in Tokyo. Otting highlighted three areas where the OCC is working to promote economic opportunity and service to bank customers: innovation, short-term small dollar lending, and supervision of international banks operating in the U.S. Specifically, Otting discussed, among other things, the importance of (i) providing a path for fintech companies to become national banks to promote modernization, innovation, and competition; and (ii) encouraging banks to provide responsible short-term small-dollar installment loans—typically between $300 and $5,000—to help consumers meet unplanned financial needs.
Notably, while noting that foreign banks have the option to operate under a state license and that the OCC strongly supports the dual banking system in the U.S., Otting stressed that the OCC is well qualified to supervise foreign banks’ federal U.S. branches, and noted that there are “supervisory efficiencies” to be gained when switching from state-by-state oversight and “consolidating the supervision of branches of foreign banks with the supervision of the national bank subsidiary of the parent company, which the OCC already supervises.” According to Otting, operating under a single regulatory framework with one prudential regulator—the OCC—would achieve a “more complete, more efficient, and, importantly, more thorough regulation of the institution.”
On November 13, Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard spoke at the “Fintech and New Financial Landscape” conference hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia to discuss the potential implications associated with artificial intelligence (AI) innovation and advise regulators to remain diligent in their approach to understand and regulate the use of AI by financial institutions when augmenting or replacing traditional financial processes. Brainard’s prepared remarks emphasize the benefits and potential risks to bank safety and consumer protection that new AI applications pose. Noting, however, that many AI tools are proprietary and may be shielded from close scrutiny, Brainard suggested that existing regulations and supervisory guidance such as the Federal Reserve Board’s guidance on model risk management and vendor risk management could prove helpful in this space, which requires strong controls. Among other things, Brainard discussed the use of AI models to make credit decisions, and noted the risk of “opacity and explainability” challenges, which would make it difficult to explain how consumer credit decisions were determined and could “make it harder for consumers to improve their credit score by changing their behavior.” However, Brainard noted that the “AI community is responding with important advances in developing ‘explainable’ AI tools with a focus on expanding consumer access to credit.”
Brainard also commented that “[r]egulation and supervision need to be thoughtfully designed so that they ensure risks are appropriately mitigated but do not stand in the way of responsible innovations that might expand access and convenience for consumers and small businesses or bring greater efficiency, risk detection, and accuracy.” Moreover, supervisory guidance to firms must be read in the context of the “relative risk,” and the “level of scrutiny should be commensurate with the potential risk posed by the approach, tool, model, or process used.”
At the same conference, FDIC Chairman Jelena McWilliams also discussed the use of innovation to expand banking access to more consumers, including lower transaction costs and increases in credit availability, but emphasized that millions of “unbanked or underbanked” U.S. households do not experience these technological benefits. McWilliams stated that “[i]t will be up to institutions to leverage technology and develop products to reach these consumers.” McWilliams also discussed the FDIC’s planned Office of Innovation, which will, among other things, evaluate ways to support community banks with limited resources for fintech research and development and explore policy changes to encourage more innovation, particularly “in the areas of identity management, data quality and integrity, and data usage or analysis.” Additionally, McWilliams stated that advances in technology and data analytics will present opportunities for managing risk and change the process in which regulators handle oversight in areas such as Bank Secrecy Act/anti-money laundering compliance and consumer privacy.
On November 8, the SEC announced its first enforcement action settlement with a digital currency platform for allegedly operating as an unregistered national securities exchange. According to the cease-and-desist order, the founder of the digital currency exchange, who has since sold the exchange to foreign buyers, allegedly violated federal securities laws by providing an online platform for secondary market trading of digital assets, including ERC20 tokens, without registering with the Commission or operating pursuant to a registration exemption. ERC20 tokens are digital assets issued and distributed on the Ethereum Blockchain using the ERC20 protocol, which, according to the SEC, is the standard coding protocol currently used by a significant majority of issuers in initial coin offerings. The order emphasizes that 92 percent of the trades on the exchange took place after the SEC released its Report of Investigation Pursuant To Section 21(a) Of The Securities Exchange Act of 1934: The DAO (the DAO Report) in July 2017, advising that non-exempt digital currency exchanges must register with the Commission. Without admitting or denying the findings, the founder agreed to pay $300,000 in disgorgement plus interest and a $75,000 penalty.
On November 1, the Arizona Attorney General announced the approval of two more participants in the state’s fintech sandbox program. The first company, which is based in New York, will test a savings and credit product, enabling Arizona consumers to obtain a small line of credit aimed at providing overdraft protection. If a consumer agrees to a repayment plan recommended by the company’s proprietary technology, the APR may be as low at 12 percent; if a consumer adopts a different repayment plan, the line of credit will have a standard APR of 15.99 percent. The company intends to report transactions under the payment plan to national credit bureaus to enable the building of credit histories. The second company, an Arizona-based non-profit, will test a lending product using proprietary blockchain technology, which has an APR cap of 20 percent.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Arizona governor signed legislation in March creating the first state sandbox program for companies to test innovative financial products or services without certain regulatory requirements. In October, the Attorney General announced the first sandbox participant, a mobile platform company (InfoBytes coverage available here).
CSBS files lawsuit over OCC’s fintech charter decision, arguing agency exceeds it authority under the National Bank Act
On October 25, the Conference of State Bank Supervisors (CSBS) filed a lawsuit against the OCC arguing that the agency exceeded its authority under the National Bank Act (NBA) and other federal banking laws when it allowed non-bank institutions, including fintech companies, to apply for a Special Purpose National Bank Charter (SPNB). As previously covered by InfoBytes, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed CSBS’s challenge last April on ripeness grounds because the OCC had not yet issued a fintech charter to any firm. But CSBS renewed its challenge in light of the OCC’s July announcement welcoming non-depository fintech companies engaging in one or more core-banking functions to apply for a SPNB (previously covered by Buckley Sandler Special Alert here), and statements indicating the OCC is currently vetting several companies and expects to make charter decisions mid-2019.
Among other things, the complaint argues that the SPNB program (i) exceeds the OCC’s statutory authority because the OCC may not “redefine the business of banking” to include non-depository institutions; (ii) is “arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion” because it inadequately addresses, without explanation, “the myriad policy implications and concerns raised by the public” and the “cost-benefit” tradeoffs; (iii) did not include the proper notice and comment period for preemption interpretations under the NBA; and (iv) is an improper invasion of “state sovereign interests.”
FATF updates standards to prevent misuse of virtual assets; reviews progress on jurisdictions with AML/CFT deficiencies
On October 19, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) issued a statement urging all countries to take measures to prevent virtual assets and cryptocurrencies from being used to finance crime and terrorism. FATF updated The FATF Recommendations to add new definitions for “virtual assets” and “virtual asset service providers” and to clarify how the recommendations apply to financial activities involving virtual assets and cryptocurrencies. FATF also stated that virtual asset service providers are subject to Anti-Money Laundering/Combating the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) regulations, which require conducting customer due diligence, such as ongoing monitoring, record-keeping, and suspicious transaction reporting, and commented that virtual asset service providers should be licensed or registered and will be subject to compliance monitoring. However, FATF noted that its recommendations “require monitoring or supervision only for purposes of AML/CFT, and do not imply that virtual asset service providers are (or should be) subject to stability or consumer/investor protection safeguards.”
The same day, FATF announced that several countries made “high-level political commitment[s]” to address AML/CFT strategic deficiencies through action plans developed to strengthen compliance with FATF standards. These jurisdictions are the Bahamas, Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, Pakistan, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, and Yemen. FATF also issued a public statement calling for continued counter-measures against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea due to significant AML/CFT deficiencies and the threats posed to the integrity of the international financial system, and enhanced due diligence measures with respect to Iran. However, FATF will continue its suspension of counter-measures due to Iran’s political commitment to address its strategic AML/CFT deficiencies.
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Trends in regulatory enforcement" at the American Bar Association Banking Law Committee Meeting
- Jessica L. Pollet to discuss "Your career is impacting your life..." at the Ark Group Women Legal Conference
- Jon David D. Langlois to discuss "Successors in interest updates" at the Mortgage Bankers Association National Mortgage Servicing Conference & Expo
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "Keeping your head above water in flood insurance compliance" at the Mortgage Bankers Association National Mortgage Servicing Conference & Expo