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District Court concludes a small virtual currency is a “commodity” under the Commodities Exchange Act
On September 26, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts denied a virtual currency trading company’s motion to dismiss, concluding that smaller virtual currencies are commodities that may be regulated by the CFTC. In January, the CFTC bought an action alleging the company violated the Commodities Exchange Act (CEA) and CFTC Regulation 180.1(a) by making false or misleading statements and omitting material facts when offering the sale of their company’s virtual currency. For example, the complaint alleges that the company falsely stated that its virtual currency was backed by gold, could be used anywhere Mastercard was accepted, and was being actively traded on several currency exchanges. Moreover, while consumers who purchased the virtual currency could view their accounts, they were unable to trade it or withdraw funds from their accounts with the company. The company moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the conduct did not involve a “commodity,” specifically one that underlies a futures contract, under the CEA. In denying the motion to dismiss, the court determined that Congress intended for the CEA to cover a certain “class” of items and specific items within that class are then “dealt in.” Because the company offered a type of “virtual currency” and it is “undisputed that there is futures trading in virtual currencies (specifically involving Bitcoin),” the court held that the CFTC sufficiently alleged the company’s product is a “commodity” under the CEA. The court also rejected the company’s other arguments, determining Regulation 180.1(a) was meant to combat the fraud alleged by the CFTC, notwithstanding its use of the term “market manipulation,” and the CFTC adequately pleaded the fraudulent claim under the regulation.
On August 23, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York entered final judgment in favor of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) in its suit against a cryptocurrency trading advice company and its owner (defendants) for allegedly misappropriating investor money through a cryptocurrency trading scam. As previously covered by InfoBytes in March, the court granted the CFTC’s request for a preliminary injunction, holding that the CFTC has the authority to regulate virtual currency as a “commodity” within the meaning of the Commodity Exchange Act and that the CFTC has jurisdiction to pursue fraudulent activities involving virtual currency even if the fraud does not directly involve the sale of futures or derivative contracts. The final judgment orders the defendants to pay over $1.1 million in restitution and civil money penalties and permanently enjoins them from engaging in future activities related to commodity interests and virtual currencies.
On August 9, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) Director Kenneth A. Blanco delivered remarks at the 2018 Chicago-Kent Block (Legal) Tech Conference to discuss, among other things, the agency’s approach to virtual currency and its efforts to protect financial institutions from being exploited for illicit financing purposes as new financial technologies evolve and are adopted. Blanco commented that while innovation provides customers with greater access to financial services, it can also create opportunities for criminals or serve as a vehicle for fraud. Blanco discussed several areas of focus, such as (i) the regulation of virtual currency and initial coin offerings (ICOs), along with coordinated policy development and regulatory approaches done in conjunction with the SEC and CFTC; (ii) examination and supervision efforts designed to “proactively mitigate potential illicit finance risks associated with virtual currency”; (iii) anti-money laundering/countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) regulatory compliance expectations for companies involved in ICOs or virtual currency transmissions; (iv) enforcement actions taken against companies that fail to implement effective programs; (v) the rise and importance of virtual currency suspicious activity report filings which help the agency identify and investigate illicit activity; and (vi) the development of an information sharing virtual currency-focused FinCEN Exchange program. Blanco emphasized that “individuals and entities engaged in the business of accepting and transmitting physical currency or convertible virtual currency from one person to another or to another location are money transmitters subject to the requirements” of the Bank Secrecy Act.
CFTC, NASAA enter cryptocurrency, fraud information sharing partnership; CFTC releases virtual currency derivative guidance
On May 21, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) announced it had signed a mutual cooperation agreement with the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) to increase cooperation and information sharing on cryptocurrencies and other potential market fraud. The memorandum of understanding (MOU) is designed to “assist participants in enforcing the Commodity Exchange Act, which state securities regulators and state attorneys general are statutorily authorized to do alongside the CFTC,” leading to the possibility of additional enforcement actions brought under other areas of law. In order to receive the benefits—including investigative leads, whistleblower tips, complaints, and referrals provided to NASAA members by the CFTC—individual jurisdictions will be required to sign the MOU.
The same day, the CFTC’s Division of Market Oversight and Division of Clearing and Risk (DCR) issued a joint staff advisory providing guidance on several enhancements to which CFTC-registered exchanges and clearinghouses should adhere when listing derivatives contracts based on virtual currencies. The advisory addresses the following five key areas for market participants: (i) “[e]nhanced market surveillance”; (ii) “[c]lose coordination with CFTC staff’; (iii) “[l]arge trader reporting”; (iv) “[o]utreach to member and market participants”; and (v) “Derivatives Clearing Organization risk management and governance.” According to the DCR director, the information provided is intended in part, “to aid market participants in their efforts to design risk management programs that address the new risks imposed by virtual currency products . . . [and] to help ensure that market participants follow appropriate governance processes with respect to the launch of these products.”
On May 2, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) reiterated the importance of coordinating and harmonizing regulatory requirements with the SEC. In prepared remarks issued before FIA’s 40th Annual Law and Compliance Conference, CFTC Commissioner Brian Quintenz stated that its internal cryptocurrency enforcement task force will work in cooperation with its SEC counterparts on cases involving virtual currency. “Both agencies’ Divisions of Enforcement have demonstrated their commitment to work closely to prosecute fraud and ensure that differences in product nomenclature do not enable bad actors to slip through jurisdictional cracks,” Quintenz said. The agencies plan to update their existing 10-year-old memorandum of understanding to facilitate the sharing of information related to, among other things, swaps and security-based swaps data, fintech developments, and market events.
On March 6, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York granted the CFTC’s request for preliminary injunction against defendants alleged to have misappropriated investor money through a cryptocurrency trading scam, holding that the CFTC has the authority to regulate virtual currency as commodities. The decision additionally defined virtual currency as a “commodity” within the meaning of the Commodity Exchange Act (CEA) and gave the CFTC jurisdiction to pursue fraudulent activities involving virtual currency even if the fraud does not directly involve the sale of futures or derivative contracts. However, the court noted that the “jurisdictional authority of CFTC to regulate virtual currencies as commodities does not preclude other agencies from exercising their regulatory power when virtual currencies function differently than derivative commodities.” Under the terms of the order, the defendants are restrained and enjoined until further order of the court from participating in fraudulent behavior related to the swap or sale of any commodity, and must, among other things, provide the CFTC with access to business records and a written account of financial documents.
Find continuing InfoBytes coverage on virtual currency oversight here.
On February 15, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) issued a Consumer Protection Advisory on virtual currency “pump-and-dump” schemes, which offers eligible whistleblowers between 10 and 30 percent of enforcement actions of $1 million or more, which result from the shared information. The notice cautions consumers against falling for the fraudulent “pump-and-dump” schemes, which capitalize on consumers’ fear of missing the potentially lucrative—yet volatile—cryptocurrency market. The advisory warns consumers that many of the perpetrators of these schemes use social media to promote false news reports and create fake urgency for consumers to buy the cryptocurrency immediately. Then, after the price reaches a certain level, the schemers sell their virtual currency and the price begins to fall.
On February 6, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held a hearing entitled, “Virtual Currencies: The Oversight Role of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission” to discuss the need for unified measures to close regulatory gaps in the cryptocurrency space. Committee Chairman Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, opened the hearing by briefly discussing the rise in interest in virtual currencies among Americans, as well as investor education and enforcement efforts undertaken by the SEC and the CFTC. Crapo commented that he was interested in learning how regulators plan to safeguard investors. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), ranking member of the Committee, spoke about the importance of pursuing “the unique enforcement of regulatory demands posed by virtual currencies.”
SEC Chairman Jay Clayton commented in prepared remarks that the SEC does not want to “undermine the fostering of innovation through our capital markets,” but cautioned that there are significant risks for investors when they participate in an entity’s initial coin offering (a method used to raise capital through decentralized autonomous organizations or other forms of distributed ledgers or blockchain technology) or buy and sell cryptocurrency with firms that are not compliant with securities laws. Speaking before the Committee, Clayton stated that the SEC has some oversight power in this space but supported collaborating with Congress and states on new regulations for cryptocurrency firms. “We should all come together, the federal banking regulators, CFTC, the SEC—there are states involved as well—and have a coordinated plan for dealing with the virtual currency trading market,” Clayton stressed.
In prepared remarks, CFTC Chairman Chris Giancarlo discussed different approaches to regulating distributed ledger technologies and virtual currencies. “‘Do no harm’ was unquestionably the right approach to development of the internet. Similarly, I believe that ‘do no harm’ is the right overarching approach for distributed ledger technology,” Giancarlo said. “Virtual currencies, however, likely require more attentive regulatory oversight in key areas, especially to the extent that retail investors are attracted to this space.”
Giancarlo referenced a joint op-ed in which the two chairmen discussed whether the “historic approach to the regulation of currency transactions is appropriate for the cryptocurrency markets,” and offered support for “policy efforts to revisit these frameworks and ensure they are effective and efficient for the digital era.” The chairmen also agreed that the lack of a clear definition for what cryptocurrencies are has contributed to regulatory challenges, but stressed that their agencies would continue to bring enforcement actions against fraudsters. Both the SEC and CFTC have joined a virtual currency working group formed by the Treasury Department—which also includes the Federal Reserve and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network—to discuss cryptocurrency jurisdiction among the agencies and understand where the gaps exist.
See here for additional InfoBytes coverage on initial coin offerings and virtual currency.
SEC and CFTC issue joint statement on virtual currency enforcement actions; CFTC files lawsuits alleging cryptocurrency fraud
On January 19, the SEC and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) issued a joint statement to reiterate the agencies’ positions on virtual currency enforcement and stress that they “will look beyond form, examine the substance of the activity and prosecute violations of the federal securities and commodities laws.” As previously discussed in InfoBytes last year (see here and here), the SEC determined that federal securities laws apply to anyone who offers and sells securities in the United States, regardless of the manner of distribution or whether dollars or virtual currencies are used to purchase the securities, while the CFTC announced that virtual currencies are commodities. Additionally, both agencies filed enforcement actions in 2017 against firms based upon fraud allegations (coverage available here and here).
Separately, on January 18, the CFTC filed lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York against two individuals and their companies, alleging commodities law violations and fraud in the cryptocurrency market. In the first complaint, the CFTC alleged that a UK-registered company and its owner solicited cryptocurrency investments from members of the public for a commodity pool, but misrepresented the company’s trading expertise, misappropriated over $1 million of the pool’s funds, and failed to engage in the proposed investments with the pooled funds. In the second complaint, the CFTC alleged that a New York-based company and its owner operated a deceptive and fraudulent scheme in which they solicited cryptocurrency transfers in exchange for virtual currency investment advice and trading guidance, but never actually provided such advice. The CFTC further claimed the company concealed its scheme after collecting customer funds by removing its internet presence and ceasing communications with those customers. The suits seek, among other things, disgorgement of profits, civil monetary penalties, restitution, and a ban on commodities trading for the defendants.
On January 4, the Chair of the CFTC, J. Christopher Giancarlo, issued a statement emphasizing the CFTC’s commitment to effectively regulating virtual currency and reiterated the CFTC’s view that virtual currency is a “commodity,” as defined by the Commodity Exchange Act (CEA), and thus is subject to CFTC regulation. Giancarlo noted that it would be irresponsible to ignore virtual currency and that the CFTC is following steps to effectively and responsibly regulate the risks, specifically, “consumer education, asserting CFTC authority, surveilling trading in derivative and spot markets, prosecuting fraud, abuse, manipulation and false solicitation and active coordination with fellow regulators.” Giancarlo’s statement also noted an upcoming meeting of the CFTC Technology Advisory Committee to discuss virtual currencies on January 23.
The CFTC also published a backgrounder on the oversight of the virtual currency futures market, which describes the “heightened review” for the self-certification process as applied to virtual currency futures products, and explains the extent to which the CFTC “not only has clear legal authority, but now also will have the means to police certain underlying spot markets for fraud and manipulation.”