Blockchain-based virtual currencies are gaining in popularity and evolving quickly. Blockchain currencies often are described as disruptive, but also have the potential to radically revolutionize the banking industry in a positive manner. The reality is that blockchain currencies may develop into a useful tool for banks. Their acceptance, however, is hindered by their own innovative nature as regulators attempt to keep pace with the technological developments. Potential blockchain currency users struggle to understand their utility. Despite these hurdles, many banks are embracing opportunities to further develop blockchain currencies to make them work for their customers.
What Are Virtual Currencies and Blockchain?
Virtual currencies, also referred to as “digital currencies,” are generally described as a digital, unregulated form of money accepted by a community of users. Currently, blockchain currencies are not centrally regulated in the United States. For example, the federal government’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and the Securities and Exchange Commission view blockchain currencies as money, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission sees them as a commodity, and the Internal Revenue Service calls them property. The IRS has attempted to define virtual currency as:
a digital representation of value that functions as a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and/or a store of value [and] does not have legal tender status in any jurisdiction.
FinCEN, the agency with the most developed guidance regarding virtual currency, regards it in a more practical fashion as a medium of exchange that operates like a currency in some environments, but does not have all the attributes of real currency. Whatever the regulatory definition, virtual currencies need more certainty in form and function before their use becomes commonplace.
Blockchain technology brings benefits to payment systems and other transactions that are quite revolutionary. Blockchain technology is essentially a decentralized virtual ledger (aka, distributed ledger), utilizing a comprehensive set of algorithms that records virtual currencies chronologically and publicly.
Some examples of blockchain currencies currently in use are Bitcoin, Dash, Ether, Litecoin and Ripple. These currencies are constantly evolving and are being developed by individuals, technology-based peer groups or financial institutions. In August 2016, a consortium of banks, led by UBS, Deutsche Bank, Santander and BNY Mellon, announced the development of the “utility settlement coin” or USC. The USC is meant to allow banks to transact payments in real time without the use of an intermediary. It is expected to go live in 2018.
Blockchain Currency Opportunities for Banks
Despite their reputation for being tools of illicit trade, blockchain currencies may be useful to banks in a variety of ways and can achieve certain benefits. Blockchain currencies could:
- actually reduce fraud, including hacking or theft attempts, because the technology makes every step of the blockchain transparent.
- reduce costs and risks associated with know-your-customer (KYC) programs because blockchain has the ability to store KYC information.
- allow a financial institution to establish a new trading platform for exchange that eliminates intermediaries.
- potentially could transform the payments industry. An obvious example is the USC, which permits payments to be made in real time, without the use of intermediaries; and strengthens the confidence in the authenticity of the transaction. Banks that are either able to establish a blockchain currency or adapt a proven technology for their operations will generate operational efficiencies and obtain a significant competitive advantage.
What Are the Regulatory Challenges?
Blockchain currencies currently are not centrally regulated in the United States. As discussed above, the lack of a uniform definition is a fundamental issue. FinCEN has classified any person or entity involved in the transfer of blockchain currencies as a money transmitter under money services business regulations.
As blockchain currencies continue to evolve, however, additional federal laws and regulations must be drafted to address the most substantial areas of risk. Some states are weighing in on the topic as well. For example, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation recently issued guidance on the use of virtual currency in which the Department views virtual currency through the lens of the Illinois’ Transmitters of Money Act.
Additionally, the Uniform Law Commission is developing regulations that would, among other things, create a statutory structure (for each state that adopts it) to regulate the use of virtual currency in consumer and business transactions. Regardless whether the federal government or the states enact legislation affecting blockchain currencies, a more uniform regulatory approach would greatly aid their development and utility.
Blockchain currencies, and the laws and regulations governing them, are in a promising state of development. As new technologies emerge and existing technologies continue to evolve, banks are presented with real opportunities for innovation by successfully adapting blockchain for use by their customers. Those that figure it out are poised for real success.