Is it possible to commit money laundering with virtual currency? At least one federal judge thinks so. Last month, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest refused to dismiss a money laundering charge premised on the use of a Bitcoin-based payment system. She is the first federal judge to hold that the federal money laundering statute is broad enough to encompass the use of Bitcoin in financial transactions.
In February 2014, a grand jury in the Southern District of New York returned an indictment charging Ross William Ulbricht on four counts for participation in a narcotics trafficking conspiracy, a continuing criminal enterprise, a computer-hacking conspiracy, and a money-laundering conspiracy. The charges stemmed from Ulbricht’s alleged creation and operation of an underground website known as Silk Road. Prosecutors alleged that Ulbricht designed, launched, and administered the online marketplace to facilitate the anonymous sale of illegal drugs, malicious computer software, and other illicit goods and services. Two features of the site allegedly protected buyers and sellers from government surveillance and tracking. First, Silk Road operated using Tor—software and a network that allows for anonymous, untraceable Internet browsing. The site also required all purchases to be made in Bitcoin, an anonymous, untraceable form of payment.
Ulbricht asked the court to dismiss all four counts, including the charge for participation in a money-laundering conspiracy. Ulbricht argued that the money-laundering charge should be dismissed on grounds that Bitcoin transactions are not “financial transactions,” as defined under the statute.
The federal money laundering statute prohibits “financial transactions” involving the proceeds of illegal activity when conducted by a person who intends to further the illegal activity or who knows the transaction is designed to conceal material information about the proceeds, such as their source or location. The “financial transaction” requirement may be satisfied by: (i) a transaction involving the movement of funds by wire or other means; (ii) a transaction involving a monetary instrument; or (iii) a transaction involving the transfer of certain types of property. To fall within the second definition, the transaction must involve a “monetary instrument”—i.e., U.S. or foreign coin or currency, checks, money orders, investment securities, or negotiable instruments.
Ulbricht argued for dismissal of the money-laundering charge based on the second definition. Specifically, he contended that Bitcoins do not meet the statutory definition for monetary instruments, so the alleged transactions cannot form the basis for a money-laundering conviction.
But according to Judge Forrest, Ulbricht missed the mark by focusing exclusively on the second definition of “financial transaction.” She prefaced her analysis by acknowledging that anonymous financial transactions are not per se criminal. But in Ulbricht’s case, Bitcoins were problematic because they were alleged to be the medium of exchange for commercial transactions related to illegal activity—narcotics trafficking and computer hacking. The prosecution had ample support for its claim that Ulbricht chose Bitcoin as Silk Road’s exclusive payment system in order to conceal the nature of those transactions.
The court also explained that the government had alleged the necessary elements for a money-laundering conspiracy regardless of whether Bitcoin was deemed to be a “monetary instrument.” The statute defines “financial transaction” more broadly to include any transaction involving the movement of funds by wire or otherwise. Bitcoins were deemed to fit this broad definition because they are used as funds to pay directly for things or as a medium of exchange and can be converted into currency which can pay for things. As Judge Forrest noted, “the only value of Bitcoin lies in its ability to pay for things . . . . The money laundering statute is broad enough to encompass the use of Bitcoins in financial transactions. Any other reading would – in light of Bitcoins’ sole raison d’etre – be nonsensical.”
There is an inescapable irony here. While proponents of Bitcoin favor recognition of the currency as a financial instrument, large operators like Ulbricht argue the opposite.
U.S. citizens and residents with unreported assets abroad may be feeling a steady increase of pressure these days. The July 1, 2014 effective date of the Foreign Assets Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) is looming. The number of countries that have agreed to enforce FATCA is growing (almost daily). That means the banks in those countries will be required to report U.S. citizens’ assets to the IRS. It seems inevitable that if you don’t report your income and assets, your bank will. This point has been reinforced through bank-issued letters, from foreign banks to their U.S. clients, notifying those clients of the impending reporting requirements. If you want to stick your head in the sand or hide in a dark corner, we feel your pain, but we highly recommend against denial. The consequences of doing nothing could be severe – from staggering monetary penalties to jail time.
Taxpayers who are behind in reporting foreign assets and paying taxes on foreign-based income have a few options before the gloom and doom of the taxman cometh. Since the passage of FATCA in 2010, the IRS has offered citizens three rounds of its Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP), whereby taxpayers can reconcile their status with the IRS through reporting assets, paying past due taxes, interest and penalties. The penalties can be fairly steep – 27.5% on unreported assets alone – but they are preferable to an enforcement action by the feds. For taxpayers considered low risk, i.e. those that owe less than $1500 a year, the IRS offers a Streamlined OVDP that is penalty-free and involves a less onerous reporting process.
Below we provide some additional detail on who should consider making a date with the IRS, what steps to take, and possible consequences of doing nothing.
Who Is Covered:
U.S. citizens and residents with foreign accounts who have failed to file U.S. tax returns, failed to report income from foreign accounts, failed to file a report on foreign assets (FBAR), or failed to file other forms on foreign-based assets (e.g., Form 3520 on foreign trusts, Form 5471 on controlled foreign corporations, Form 926 on transfers of property to a foreign corporation, or Form 8865 on interest in foreign partnerships), need to address what and how to report to the IRS.
Foreign assets that must be reported include (1) accounts containing $10,000 or more of assets at some point during the tax year in which you have a financial interest or over which you have signature authority (FBAR); (2) your interest in assets worth at least $50,000 on the last day of the tax year or $75,000 at any time during the tax year (Form 8938). The problem for many is that what constitutes a foreign asset is somewhat broad and includes not only foreign accounts, stock, and mutual funds but also foreign partnership interests, debt issued by a foreign person, interests in foreign trusts or estates, and certain derivative instruments with a foreign counterparty.
If you have unreported foreign-based income or assets that pass the threshold amount outlined above, the time is right to consider the disclosure options currently offered by the IRS. The IRS’s website provides guidance on several options available to taxpayers, based upon the level of failed disclosure.
à Delinquent FBAR Filing: Those who reported all taxable income, but were not aware of the need to file an FBAR on foreign assets can file an FBAR with an explanatory statement. There will be no penalty for those who fall under this category.
à Delinquent CFC/Foreign Trust Filing: Those who reported and paid tax on all taxable income associated with a controlled foreign corporation or foreign trust, but failed to file Forms 5471 or 3520, may file these forms with an explanatory statement. (The IRS notes that Form 5471 should be submitted with an amended return.) Provided there were no underreported taxes, the IRS will not impose any penalties.
à Streamlined OVDP: Non-resident taxpayers (i.e. only citizens living abroad) owing less than $1,500 per year in taxes may file delinquent returns and related information returns for the last three years, and delinquent FBARs for the past six years, including tax and interest due. These taxpayers will also need to file additional information for the IRS to ascertain compliance risk. The IRS will review these submissions to confirm they are low-risk (i.e. that amount owed is less than $1,500 per year). If confirmed, the IRS generally will not impose any penalties beyond interest owed. If the IRS determines you are a higher risk, then you may be subjected to a more intensive review, including additional tax years, and may be required to file according to the standard OVDP (below).
à Standard OVDP: Taxpayers who have failed to report foreign accounts and income, especially those who seek to avoid criminal prosecution, may participate in the OVDP, which is structured like a civil settlement. Those taxpayers will pay an offshore penalty (instead of other penalties at the IRS’s disposal). This program involves several steps: (1) the taxpayer must submit a request to the IRS to be accepted into the program; (2) once accepted, the taxpayer must submit many items, including amended tax returns with schedules outlining unreported income for past eight years, FBARS, and information returns for the previous eight years; (3) the taxpayer must submit full payment of all tax and interest due along with penalties (including a penalty of 27.5 percent of the highest aggregate balance of foreign assets held over the last eight years, and a penalty of up to 40 percent of taxes owed on unreported income from foreign accounts). Note that if you disagree with the penalties, you may opt out of the settlement and request a mitigation of penalties (in limited circumstances, some taxpayers will qualify for a five percent or 12.5 percent penalty). You may also choose to opt out if statutory penalties would be lower under relevant laws (which should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis). Taxpayers who opt out are still protected from criminal prosecution.
à Quiet Disclosures: A final option, which is neither offered nor suggested by the IRS, but which some taxpayers attempt, is to simply start disclosing foreign assets and follow normal reporting requirements without addressing delinquent reports from prior years. Some taxpayers may choose to file amended returns under normal reporting procedures. These quiet disclosures are generally not recommended, as they do not safeguard the taxpayer from an IRS enforcement action, including criminal prosecution. They may at least trigger an IRS audit, which can come with stiffer penalties than those incorporated in the voluntary disclosure programs.
A Couple of Caveats:
If the IRS has already contacted you requesting information or already initiated an investigation, it is too late to follow any of the programs outlined above. As the name suggests, the programs are strictly “voluntary.” Also, the IRS may choose to close down its voluntary disclosure programs at any point. Many out there are warning taxpayers to file with the IRS right away before it is too late.
Although, a minor point of observation: while it is possible that the IRS will determine that it will get all the information it needs through FACTA bank disclosures, it is also likely that the agency will be happy to let the taxpayers do the work for them: to volunteer information and pay fines without the need to expend resources on investigators and prosecution. However, the more delinquent you are in taxes owed, the more likely the IRS will seek stiffer action and penalties. Therefore, if you are significantly behind on taxes owed, be aware that you are a more likely candidate for criminal prosecution. See, for instance, the growing list of former UBS clients who have faced incarceration and hefty fines for tax avoidance.
Why Make A Disclosure?
Some taxpayers may have a high risk tolerance and choose to take a chance that their foreign accounts will not be reported. Or they may think the IRS will be sufficiently inundated with new information from FATCA-compliant countries that it will take years for the IRS to identify them… and by that time perhaps FATCA will be repealed. While a number of activists and politicians have been working hard to repeal FATCA, the reality is, it is probably here to stay. Because dozens of international agreements have been signed, and once the legislation takes effect, it will be very, very difficult to unweave this work and convince the government to relinquish its new power. Taxpayers should presume FATCA is here to stay and reconcile their finances with Uncle Sam.
As of May 2014, more than 50 countries have agreed to comply with and enforce FATCA. (Some countries are enforcing the American law as a part of information share agreements with the U.S. whereby the U.S. will also report information on those countries’ citizens. Other countries are enforcing the American law to avoid the harsh withholding penalties that non-compliant countries would otherwise face.) This means that the financial institutions in these countries will be required to report income and asset information to the IRS. Finding a place to park your money outside of Uncle Sam’s purview is nearing impossible.
And the consequences of the IRS initiating an audit or enforcement proceeding against you are invariably going to be more severe than the voluntary disclosure programs (otherwise, what would be the incentive to disclose?). For those severely behind in IRS reporting, the protection from criminal prosecution should be one of the biggest carrots of the voluntary disclosure programs, especially as the IRS steps up its initiatives to help offset a perilous budget deficit. In the last five years, federal prosecutors have brought more than 100 criminal cases against taxpayers with unreported income overseas. FATCA enforcement will likely increase this number significantly. Regardless of political, philosophical, or moral objections you may have to accept Uncle Sam’s reach abroad, unless you want to risk your estate and possible jail time, the time is right to make an appointment with counsel to address your situation with the IRS.
When high frequency trading (HFT) first crept into the public consciousness, it related to primarily to the question of whether rapid, computer driven trading posed risks to the safety and stability of the trading markets. Now it appears that HFT may have also been a means for some traders to gain a possible illegal advantage.
High frequency trading involves the use of sophisticated technological tools and computer algorithms to rapidly trade securities. High frequency traders use powerful computing equipment to execute proprietary trading strategies in which they move in and out of positions in seconds or even fractions of a second. While high frequency traders often capture just a fraction of a cent in profit on each trade, they make up for low margins with enormous volume of trades.
High frequency trading is viewed by many as particularly risky. While some participants disagree, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission issued a report in which their staffs concluded that algorithmic and high frequency trading contributed to the volatility that led to the May 6, 2010 “flash crash.”
More recently, high frequency trading has come under scrutiny by law enforcement. A number of agencies are investigating such practices to determine whether high frequency traders are profiting at the expense of ordinary investors. The Justice Department and the FBI have recently announced investigations, while U.S. securities regulators and the New York Attorney General have said that they have ongoing investigations.
Heightening the recent HFT craze is renowned author Michael Lewis, who recently authored Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt. In the book, Lewis claims that computer-driven stock trading has taken over the market at the expense of ‘the little guy’. According to Lewis, Wall Street is rigged by a combination of insiders – stock exchanges, big Wall Street banks and HFT. Lewis claims that HFT’s advantage is so severe that traders are able to predict which stock a common investor wants to buy before he or she can buy it, and drive the price up before the investor can initiate the purchase.
Not everyone is buying the claims Lewis makes in his book. There have been many on record stating that HFT actually does not prey on mom and pop investors. Additionally, many individualsbelieve Lewis’ claims are overblown and that HFT does not provide traders with a huge profitable advantage.
Inevitably, the most pressing question about high frequency trading is whether any such businesses are given an unfair – and illegal – advantage in placing trades. On April 11, three futures traders filed a federal class action lawsuit against CME Group, the owner of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade, claiming that high frequency traders are given an improper advance look at price and market data that permits them to execute trades using the data before other market participants. While the plaintiffs claim that this practice has existed since 2007, CME denies the merits of the allegations.
Between the investigations and this lawsuit (and the others that will certainly follow), it will eventually be determined whether traders with high speed computers benefited improperly over other market participants. Regardless of the merits of these accusations, it is unquestionable that high frequency trading, like all technological advances, poses special challenges to existing rules and laws that will require special consideration and possibly require new rules and regulations.
If you have unreported income from offshore accounts, now may be the best time to come forward and report those earnings; otherwise, you may be susceptible to criminal prosecution.
The IRS initially began this open-ended Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP) in 2009 and later renewed it in 2011. Due to strong interest from previous years, the IRS rolled the 2012 Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program back out in January. This program provides a way for taxpayers to come forward voluntarily and report their previously undisclosed foreign accounts and assets. The program is designed to resolve an inordinate amount of cases without the IRS having to take the time to conduct independent, thorough investigations of alleged tax fraudsters.
Despite the name, and unlike its predecessors, the 2012 OVDP has no set deadline for taxpayers to apply. However, citizens should be cognizant of the fact that the IRS can change the terms at any given time. For example, the program’s tax penalty could increase, or worse – the program could completely end without any notice, leaving taxpayers as fair game for IRS crosshairs. Those choosing to not report their offshore assets could be prosecuted under the fraud penalty and foreign information return penalties, in addition to increasing their risk of criminal prosecution.
Additional and possible criminal charges that could stem from undisclosed tax returns include tax evasion, filing a false return and failure to file an income tax return. A person convicted of tax evasion is subject to a prison term of up to five years and a fine of up to $250,000. Taxpayers should understand that the likelihood of undisclosed offshore accounts being found is increasing through information available to the IRS by tax treaties, information from whistleblowers and more revealing information by way of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), which we’ve blogged on before.
Citizens are wising up and taking advantage of the program. Since 2013, more than 39,000 citizens have utilized OVDP and disclosed unreported earnings. This has netted over $5.5 billion in recovered tax revenues for the IRS.
A few citizens, such as Ty Warner, have ignored the ODVP. The creator of Beanie Babies saw this enforcement first hand when the IRS came knocking on his door, alleging that he hid a secret offshore bank account. In September 2013, a federal court in Chicago issued tax evasion charges against Warner. The court fined Warner a civil fine of $53 million and he was sentenced to two years of probation. Additionally, Warner paid $14 million in back taxes.
While some citizens will surely be tempted to allow their offshore earnings go unreported, we are here to tell you that decision (and risk) may come at a high price.
Here’s a visual: Uncle Sam extending his arms around the world, reaching out for his citizens, wherever they may be. He may resemble a candy-striped Gumby, with disproportionately long rubbery arms spanning the globe. The visual is not an endearing one to many Americans abroad. They do not see Uncle Sam’s reach as an embrace, but rather as a stronghold. And a close-up of the visual will show that not only is Uncle Sam holding his citizens, he is also clutching foreign institutions and sovereigns.
This visual describes how many perceive the U.S. following the enactment of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), a law that takes effect July 1, 2014, and is purported to increase accountability of U.S. taxpayers who have foreign financial assets. Unlike most countries, the U.S. taxes its citizens on income regardless of where the income was earned. Either through inattention or willful ignorance, many Americans have not fully complied with all U.S. tax laws and have not reported all foreign assets and income earned abroad. Desperate to shore up a massive budget deficit, in 2010 U.S. Congress decided to go after tax revenues on these foreign assets with the passage of FATCA.
FATCA followed on the heels of a 2009 settlement between the U.S. Justice Department and UBS AG in which the bank agreed to pay a hefty $780 million fine to avoid prosecution for allegedly fostering American tax evasion. A savvy Congress may have seen revenue potential both in ferreting out tax evasion and finding reasons to penalize financial institutions that fail to comply with U.S. law. FATCA and its implementing regulations shrewdly address both.
FATCA has two general reporting requirements: (1) U.S. individual taxpayers must attach Form 8938 to their income tax return, reporting information about foreign financial accounts and offshore assets valued over a specified threshold ($50,000 for a single filer, though a higher threshold applies to those living outside the U.S.) and (2) foreign financial institutions (FFIs) must register with the IRS and report information (mainly account balances) about U.S. accounts (including accounts of foreign entities with substantial U.S. owners). The FFIs may be required to withhold 30% on U.S. sourced payments to foreign payees if those payees do not comply with FATCA.
Here’s another visual: a massive splitting headache. FFIs agreeing to comply with FATCA will need to confirm the identity of all account holders, culling U.S. accounts for reporting purposes. In instances where local law conflicts with FATCA, e.g., when accounts are located in countries with bank secrecy laws, FFIs will need to ensure account holders sign waivers to allow reporting of their information. Many FFIs will need to institute a process to withhold 30% of certain payments from recalcitrant account holders and non-compliant FFIs. So not only must these banks track their account holders, they may be required to track payments to those account holders and to other FFIs. They must stay abreast of which of their account holders and which FFIs are not compliant with FATCA. Then for the non-compliant, the FFIs will need to track U.S. payments to those and withhold 30% of the U.S.-sourced payments. Good luck.
The compliance and reporting requirements will be onerous. And the tediousness of compliance with the U.S. laws and regulations is only one piece of the legal framework FFIs must navigate. As mentioned above, they also have the overarching concern of compliance with their own country’s banking and privacy laws. A clash of laws may subject FFIs to class actions in their respective countries. While intergovernmental agreements between the U.S. and FATCA-cooperating countries, as well as local legislative efforts, may attempt to remediate problems of conflicting laws, FFIs must tread carefully.
Why would foreign banks, or foreign sovereigns for that matter, choose to subject themselves to the U.S.’s jurisdictional overreach? Why wouldn’t countries, especially those known for their bank secrecy laws, simply refuse to submit this costly program? The answer is simple. FATCA includes a steep penalty for non-participation. As mentioned above, there is a 30% withholding of any U.S.-sourced payments to FFIs that do not adhere to the law. A simple solution to avoid the penalty and the regulatory nightmare is to no longer hold U.S. accounts. And many Americans abroad are now struggling to find banks that will take their cash. But other FFIs have chosen to work with the U.S. and their local government to ease compliance and implementation.
The financial pressure and regulatory burden to which the U.S. has subjected these foreign banks and sovereigns is the impetus for many intergovernmental agreements (IGAs) between the U.S. and other countries. The carrot for these countries to enter an IGA is that the U.S. will reduce the oversight requirements the law foists upon banks. For instance, an FFI in a country with an IGA may not have to track and withhold payments; they merely need to report on U.S. accounts. This regulatory ease is why many big banks in foreign countries have pressured their local governments to sign an IGA with the U.S. The end result is places known for bank secrecy, like Switzerland and Hong Kong, are buckling. Thanks to FATCA, bank secrecy will be a concept as antiquated as carriage rides.
But FFIs who think they are dodging a bullet by lobbying for an IGA in their country should think again. This merely opens the door to an increasing level of U.S. involvement in their affairs. We can expect the U.S. Justice Department to leverage its increased presence in FFIs to expand its enforcement initiatives.
Last Friday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Treasury, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCen), both published new guidance in connection with the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado. Because marijuana use remains illegal under federal law, the banking industry is prohibited from servicing any marijuana-related bank accounts. This forces the recreational marijuana industry to operate on an all-cash basis, which increases public safety risks (both to retailers and to customers) and is a great inconvenience to the industry (which is required to take extreme measures such as hiring armed guards, installing very high tech security measures, and the businesses are unable to obtain bank loans or credit).
In response, FinCen’s guidance, along with the DOJ memo, was supposed to enable marijuana-related banking and eliminate the public safety concerns, as it clearly stated: “This FinCEN guidance should enhance the availability of financial services for, and the financial transparency of, marijuana-related businesses.” Although the guidance pursued an admirable goal, it fell remarkably short.
The DOJ memo states:
“The provisions of the money laundering statutes, the unlicensed money remitter statute, and the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) remain in effect with respect to marijuana-related conduct. Financial transactions involving proceeds generated by marijuana-related conduct can form the basis for prosecution under the money laundering statutes (18 U.S.C. §§ 1956 and 1957), the unlicensed money transmitter statute (18 U.S.C. § 1960), and the BSA. … Notably for these purposes, prosecution under these offenses based on transactions involving marijuana proceeds does not require an underlying marijuana-related conviction under federal or state law.”
Simply stated, the DOJ memo confirms that recreational marijuana use remains illegal under federal law and could serve as the basis of prosecution against banks (or individuals), but that the DOJ will probably not enforce the applicable federal statutes against banks for processing marijuana-related accounts, provided that the banks follow certain guidelines that are outlined in the DOJ memo.
These wishy-washy “promises” of non-enforcement are extremely unlikely to sway banks from their decision not to permit marijuana-related accounts. Banks are naturally conservative and also have a huge self-interest to be 100% compliant with federal law because of the highly regulated banking industry; therefore, banks are only likely to permit marijuana-related accounts if it was legal under federal law, or if there were some form of safe harbor for the banks. However, there is clearly no safe harbor with the recent regulations and guidance.
For instance, the DOJ memo explicitly states: “Neither the guidance herein nor any state or local law provides a legal defense to a violation of federal law, including any civil or criminal violation of the CSA, the money laundering and unlicensed money transmitter statutes, or the BSA, including the obligation of financial institutions to conduct customer due diligence.”. The FinCen memo also repeats “that the illegal distribution and sale of marijuana is a serious crime…” Thus, although the guidance issued by DOJ and FinCen on the surface appear to be helpful, they are ultimately toothless.
Further, the ultimate decision (and the inherent risk and liability) remains with the banks, as also noted in the FinCen memo: “In general, the decision to open, close, or refuse any particular account or relationship should be made by each financial institution based on a number of factors specific to that institution.” Therefore, in the absence of any safe harbor and the illegal status of marijuana under federal law, banks will likely pursue the safe option of refusing to process marijuana-related accounts.
This scenario is quite similar to the recent aftermath in New Jersey when it legalized online gaming for intrastate users. Although New Jersey declared online gaming legal under New Jersey state law, banks generally refused and continue to refuse to process online gaming accounts. Banks deemed these accounts too risky because their internal regulations dictate that they would not process payments for accounts related to online gaming for real money when it was still prohibited in other states and would be an unwanted burden on their compliance checks. Similarly, the ultimate conclusion of banks considering marijuana-related accounts is likely to refuse to allow such accounts because they are still illegal under federal law and permitting those accounts presents an unwelcome risk for the banks.
Another significant hurdle that may cause banks to refuse marijuana-related accounts is the significant disclosure requirements applicable to the banking industry that are mandated by federal agencies like the FDIC and Federal Reserve. Banks, particularly banks that are publicly traded entities, have many filings and disclosures that they are required to make on a consistent basis. Therefore, the banks would presumably have to disclose that they are currently violating federal law by processing marijuana-related transactions and permitting marijuana-related accounts (and anticipate continuing to violate the federal laws). Regarding disclosure requirements, it should make no difference whether the DOJ presently anticipates prosecuting those crimes or how much of a priority they are in accordance with the DOJ memo – the fact remains that the bank is violating the federal law and that must be disclosed. Indeed, the DOJ could decide to prosecute these crimes at any time in the future. Furthermore, that disclosure (i.e. that they are currently violating the law) would likely trigger a host of regulatory issues that require banks to comply with all federal laws.
Yet, the banking market for marijuana-related accounts remains lucrative and underserved. The million dollar question is which bank will take the leap of faith to enter the marijuana industry?
One possibility is a Colorado bank that only has Colorado branches may be willing to permit marijuana-related accounts. Obviously, the potential reward is great because of the lucrative and underserved marijuana industry market. More importantly, the risk to Colorado banks is lower because they only operate in Colorado and can legitimately claim they are complying with all laws because Colorado state law permits recreational marijuana use, so they can be more confident that the DOJ will not prosecute them. More importantly, even if the DOJ decides to prosecute them, the state of Colorado will likely defend them and throw their weight behind the local bank, because if Colorado did not, then the whole recreational marijuana law and industry would quickly collapse.
Consequently, the risk-reward equation for a local Colorado bank is tilted more favorably toward permitting marijuana-related accounts because there is less risk to a Colorado-only bank, and the reward would be given more weight because the value of the marijuana accounts would mean much more to a smaller Colorado bank than to a larger national one. In the meantime, one would hope that the federal agencies would issue guidance that provides more clarity and real solutions to this issue, rather than just discouraging banks from this industry by issuing vague guidance.
As followers of trends in e-commerce, our firm takes a keen interest in new e-payment methods. Last year, we predicted the Bitcoin would emerge as an innovative mode of currency for online transactions. When Bitcoin – an alternative virtual currency – first appeared in the mainstream media, it was largely portrayed as a wonky, nerdy counterculture experiment in decentralized wiki-currency. Reports explained that it was based on digital cryptography, but few if any people actually understood the math and even fewer could explain it in language that was comprehensible to most of us. But things have changed, and it is a whole new Bitcoin world.
Recent reports actually treat Bitcoin like a part of the mainstream economy. Government officials testifying on Capital Hill warn legislators not to underestimate the value that Bitcoin brings to the economy. Even leaving aside the federal shutdowns of illicit sites like Silk Road (an eBay-like marketplace for illegal drugs), ever-growing numbers of businesses are accepting Bitcoin as payment. Online market Overstock.com and social gaming site Zynga.com have both indicated their intent to accept Bitcoin. The owner of the Sacramento Kings has announced that fans will soon be able to buy tickets and hot dogs using Bitcoin. And it even appears that it will be possible to make political contributions using Bitcoin – doubling down on the whole issue of transparency versus anonymity in campaign contributions.
So if your organization considers using or accepting Bitcoin, there are some significant considerations:
1. The value of Bitcoin is extremely volatile.
Individuals can exchange national (fiat) currencies for Bitcoin through a variety of exchanges that have popped up in response to the demand for such services. The prices on these exchanges vary considerably among themselves at any particular time, and the price of Bitcoin has fluctuated wildly over the course of the past year. One Bitcoin was worth about $13 a year ago (in January 2013); in November 2013, the price surged over $1000 per Bitcoin. For a period of time, people in China were reportedly using Bitcoin as a means to avoid currency restrictions in that country; when China issued a ban on Bitcoin, the price swooned, although it later recovered much of that value.
The volatility of Bitcoin obviously poses challenges for businesses that accept them. Some address the issue by setting prices in national (fiat) currencies, accepting payments in Bitcoin but exchanging them on a regular basis. Other businesses have proposed engaging in sophisticated hedging transactions to address this risk.
2. Bitcoin has regulatory uncertainty.
To even talk about regulations and Bitcoin feels like it cuts against the entire vibe of this alternative currency, but there is little doubt that it is coming. The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FINCEN) has stated unequivocally that Bitcoin exchanges (which exchange Bitcoin for fiat currencies) and most Bitcoin “miners” (which process Bitcoin transactions) must register as Money Services Businesses (MSBs) under Department of the Treasury regulations. And legislators in the U.S. Congress are unquestionably considering what regulations can and should be imposed on the currency in order to safeguard against abuses without extinguishing the innovation to which it is so closely tied.
3. Bitcoin is anonymous – sort of.
When Bitcoin first emerged in the public eye, it was ballyhooed – and demonized – because of its supposed anonymity. The belief that its users could indeed remain anonymous gave rise to marketplaces for drugs and murders for hire paid in Bitcoin. The rub is that Bitcoin is not entirely anonymous: The digital framework of the currency is that each transaction is recorded in the cryptography itself (preventing fraud such as spending the same Bitcoin twice), and it is possible in some cases to use that information to find one’s way back to a Bitcoin user. The combination of a belief in anonymity and the ability of law enforcement to identify users obviously poses risks related to anti-money laundering obligations of which businesses must be aware.
4. Bitcoin still has security issues.
The last, but possibly most serious, consideration about accepting Bitcoin is lingering questions about security. Bitcoin are balances (credits) assigned to “addresses” (random strings of letters and numbers) that are publicly available. To spend the balance associated with a particular “address,” a user must have the corresponding “private key” (a slightly longer random string of letters and numbers) and apply a digital signature that allows some portion of that balance to be transferred to another address. Thus, the security of Bitcoin relies entirely on the security of “private keys”: Anyone who gains access to a private key gains access to the Bitcoin balance associated with that key. Given the recent headlines about data security breaches, it is not hard to understand why there might be concerns about accepting a virtual currency that can be purloined simply by stealing digital data from a computer.
The likelihood is that it is simply too early to judge whether Bitcoin is simply a fad or a harbinger of a sea change in our notion of what constitutes money and currency in a global digital world. Businesses who are early adopters may garner significant gains – or they may get burnt by early “learning experiences.” Inside counsel are wise to advise their clients about the risks and benefits of Bitcoin so that business leaders may make wise choices about the decision to accept them.
By: Karl Smith and Casselle Smith
The value of Bitcoin, the hottest and most widely traded virtual currency, plunged a little over a week ago, after China’s central bank issued a statement that the government is banning financial institutions from trading in the virtual currency.The price of a single Bitcoinfell from roughly $1200 on December 5th to less than $600, early morning December 8th. Thereafter it recovered somewhat selling for around $700 as of December 16. At the time of this posting (12/18), the price had fallen once again to $571.
This time last year, Bitcoin were selling for roughly $13 apiece. Economists and financial experts have struggled to explain the meteoric rise price to investors and to a public increasingly interested in the virtual currency. In many ways, the soaring price for Bitcoin looks like a classic bubble: Speculators pay out of the nose for Bitcoin, hoping to unload them to an “even greater fool” who will come along later with the same plan. At first blush, this type of bubble appears to resemble a pyramid scheme that must inevitably collapse once all potential speculators have bought in.
Bitcoin, however, has important features that differentiate them from other bubble-prone assets. The fact that the crash coincided with a change in policy from the Chinese government makes it even more likely that the special features of Bitcoin have played an important role in their use.
The design of Bitcoin allows for almost completely secure and anonymous transactions. Users don’t have to trust that a bank or other financial intermediary will keep their information secret. For the most part, the very nature of a Bitcoin transaction does this. Consequently, the currency has attracted substantial interest from users engaged in illicit transactions. Some of these are of the kind familiar to American readers. The website Silk Road, for example, specialized in selling narcotics and accepting Bitcoin as payment; it has been shuttered by U.S. law enforcement.
The Chinese government’s ban on Bitcoin arose from a different sort of illicit transaction that is less familiar to Americans because it are designed to get around regulations that the United States does not impose… Here’s the rub: the Chinese government limits its citizens’ ability to invest outside of the country because it wishes to provide a large pool of capital available to Chinese industries. Since Chinese investors have limited choice, Chinese banks can offer them paltry rates of return that guarantee that the value of their investments will fail to keep up with inflation. Naturally, Chinese investors wanted a way out, and many of them turned to Bitcoin.
Chinese investors would buy Bitcoin using the local currency, the Yuan. They would then transfer the Bitcoin to a bank or other financial institution outside of China and have that institution sell the Bitcoin and invest the proceeds outside of China. When the investor was ready to cash in, she would simply instruct the financial institution to sell the foreign investments, use the proceeds to buy Bitcoin, and then transfer the Bitcoin back to her.
This loophole allowed Chinese investors to earn higher rates of return without being caught by the authorities. For a time, the Chinese government allowed the loophole to remain open. On Wednesday, however, the Chinese government banned financial institutions and, importantly, online platforms like Biadu.com, from doing any business in Bitcoin. Baidu is a Chinese search engine that, like Google,forms the backbone of how users connect online. Without Baidu’s help,finding someone to buy or sell Bitcoin in the first place becomes exponentially more difficult.
Fear that the Chinese market for Bitcoin would dry up seemed to lead speculators to dump the currency following the announcement. It also exposes the fundamental weakness of Bitcoin: while they allow enormous anonymity for users, connecting with a broadbase of other users requires using a platform which almost necessarily does not seek anonymity. If it did, potential users would not know of their existence.
Regulators don’t have to crackdown on users themselves but simply on the websites and platforms that connect them.
There is no readily apparent US or European analogue to the Chinese monetary policy that motivated the country’s crackdown. Hence, China’s stance does not necessarily indicate that an international sea change is afoot with respect to the legal nature of Bitcoin and other emerging virtual currencies. Nonetheless, to the extent that Bitcoin’s surge in value was precipitated by Chinese investors’ thirst for international investment capabilities, the recent crash highlights the currency’s deep vulnerability to changes in financial regulation around the world.
Karl Smith is the Creator and Chief Curator of Modeled Behavior, a leading international finance and economics blog currently hosted on Forbes. He blogs mostly on macroeconomics, rationality, philosophy, and futurism.
Supreme Court Grants Cert to Resolve Circuit Conflict on Intent Required to Prove Federal Bank Fraud
On December 13, 2013, the United States Supreme Court granted a certiorari petition in a case that squarely poses the question of what the government must prove with respect to intent in order to convict a defendant of federal bank fraud. There is wide agreement among the Courts of Appeal that, in order to secure a conviction under Title 18, United States Code section 1344(1) (making it illegal “to defraud a financial institution”), the government must prove that the defendant intended to defraud the government and to expose it to a risk of loss. With respect to subdivision 2 of the statute, however (making it illegal to obtain money and the like of a financial institution “by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises”), the Circuits are split six to three – with the First, Second, Third, Fifth, Seventh and Eighth Circuits holding that the same intent requirement applies under either subsection of the statute, and Sixth, Ninth and Tenth Circuits holding that subsection 2 establishes an independent crime that requires only intent to defraud someone (and not necessary a bank) and some nexus between the fraudulent scheme and a financial institution.
In the case in question, Kevin Loughrin v. United States, the defendant was convicted of bank fraud arising from a scheme to make fraudulent returns at a Target store despite the undisputed fact that he did not intend to cause (nor actually caused) any risk of financial loss to the bank. The Tenth Circuit acknowledged that it took the minority view of split Circuits, but nevertheless upheld the conviction, and Loughrin filed a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court. In his petition, Loughrin emphasized that having different standards for each subsection regularly led to opposite results in factually similar cases.
The Court’s decision in this case could be a game-changer for the way in which prosecutors use the federal bank fraud statute. In many cases – for example, the Black Friday poker cases in the Southern District of New York – bank fraud charges pose the most serious consequences for a criminal defendant but are asserted in cases in which there is no intent to expose the financial institution to loss. A change in the law will change the way such cases are charged by prosecutors, and alter the dynamics of how such cases are negotiated and tried. Whatever the Court’s ultimate decision on the issue, it will bring badly needed clarity to this area of the law.
At least six federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau (CFPB), and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), are currently coordinating a broad crackdown of the online payday lending industry. The agencies are trying to shut down companies that offer short-term loans online at very high interest rates.
The online payday lending industry is rapidly growing. Online payday lending volume rose by 10 percent to $18.6 billion in 2012. Online payday loans now account for nearly 40 percent of the payday lending industry.
The Department of Justice has issued civil subpoenas to more than 50 financial companies, including banks and payment processors, that connect borrowers with online lenders. Federal agencies are also pressuring banks to cut ties with online lenders to prevent the lenders from being able to access consumers’ bank accounts. The scope of the investigation shows that the crackdown is focused not just on the individual lenders, but also the infrastructure that supports the lenders.
Multiple state agencies are also involved in investigations of the online payday lending industry. State regulators have brought actions against online payday loan companies under various laws, such as usury laws that limit the amount of loans that can be provided to borrowers or cap the interest rates for the loans.
Earlier this month, New York State’s top financial regulator ordered 35 online payday lenders to stop offering loans that were in violation of the state’s usury laws and urged more than 100 banks to cut off access to the online payday lenders. At least nine states, including California, Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon and Virginia have also all taken action against individual online payday loan companies in the past year.
On August 12, 2013, the New York Attorney General’s Office sued Western Sky Financial, an online lender, and its affiliates alleging that they charged interest rates that were 10 times higher than rates allowed under the state usury law. Western Sky Financial operates on the land of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota and has already been the target of actions by regulators in Colorado, Oregon and Minnesota. Indian tribes are a major player in the online payday loan industry, with lenders forming partnerships and operating on tribal lands. Lenders have argued that they are part of a sovereign nation and not subject to federal or state laws.
Last year the FTC sued several companies for their payday loan practices, but some of the defendants sought to have their case dismissed, claiming that their affiliation with an American Indian tribe made them immune from those federal statutes. Last month a federal magistrate judge ruled that the FTC has authority over payday lending companies, regardless of their tribal affiliations, and that all companies are subject to regulation under the Federal Trade Commission Act, the Truth in Lending Act, and the Electronic Fund Transfer Act.
The online payday lending industry is attracting increasing scrutiny from both federal and state regulatory agencies, and more enforcement actions are very likely to come soon. Online payday lenders need to be sure that they are complying with all federal and state laws to avoid being in the government’s crosshairs.