In the wake of the collapse of cryptocurrency exchange firm FTX, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has ratcheted up its oversight and enforcement of crypto firms engaged in activities ranging from crypto staking to custody of digital assets. This is due in part to concerns that the historically free-wheeling and largely unregulated crypto marketplace may adversely impact U.S. investors and contaminate traditional financial systems. The arguments that cryptocurrencies and digital assets should not be viewed as securities under federal laws largely fall on deaf ears at the SEC. Meanwhile, the state of the crypto economy in the United States remains in flux as the SEC, other regulators and politicians alike attempt to balance competing interests of innovation and investment in a relatively novel and untested asset class.
Is Crypto Staking Dead?
First, what is crypto staking? By way of background, it’s necessary to understand a bit about blockchain technology, which serves as the underpinning for all cryptocurrency and digital asset transactions. One of the perceived benefits of such transactions is that they are decentralized and “peer-to-peer” – meaning that Person A can transact directly with Person B without the need for a financial intermediary to approve the transaction.
However, in the absence of a central authority to validate a transaction, blockchain requires other verification processes or consensus mechanisms such as “proof of work” (which in the case of Bitcoin mining ensures that transactions are valid and added to the Bitcoin blockchain correctly) or “proof of stake” (a network of “validators” who contribute or “stake” their own crypto in exchange for a chance to validate a new transaction, update the blockchain and earn a reward). Proof of work has come under fire by environmental activists for the enormous amounts of computer power and energy required to solve complex mathematical or cryptographic puzzles to validate a transaction before it can be recorded on the blockchain. In contrast, proof of stake is analogous to a shareholder voting their shares of stock to approve a corporate transaction.
Second, why has crypto staking caught the attention of the SEC? Many crypto firms and exchanges offer “staking as a service” (SaaS) whereby investors can stake (or lend) their digital assets in exchange for lucrative returns. This practice is akin to a person depositing cash in a bank account in exchange for interest payments – minus FDIC insurance backing of all such bank deposits to protect investors.
Recently, on February 9, 2023, the SEC charged two crypto firms, commonly known as “Kraken,” for violating federal securities laws by offering a lucrative crypto asset SaaS program. Pursuant to this program, investors could stake their digital assets with Kraken in exchange for annual investment returns of up to 21 percent. According to the SEC, this program constituted the unregistered sale of securities in violation of federal securities laws. Moreover, the SEC claims that Kraken failed to adequately disclose the risks associated with its staking program. According to the SEC’s Enforcement Division director:
“Kraken not only offered investors outsized returns untethered to any economic realities but also retained the right to pay them no returns at all. All the while, it provided them zero insight into, among other things, its financial condition and whether it even had the means of paying the marketed returns in the first place."1
Without admitting or denying the SEC’s allegations, Kraken has agreed to pay a $30 million civil penalty and will no longer offer crypto staking services to U.S. investors. Meanwhile, other crypto firms that offer similar programs, such as Binance and Coinbase, are waiting for the other shoe to drop – including the possibility that the SEC will ban all crypto staking programs for U.S. retail investors. Separate and apart from potentially extinguishing a lucrative revenue stream for crypto firms and investors alike, it may have broader consequences for proof of stake consensus mechanisms commonly used to validate blockchain transactions.
NY DFS Targets Stablecoins
In the world of cryptocurrency, stablecoins are typically considered the most secure and least volatile because they are often pegged 1:1 to some designated fiat (government-backed) currency such as U.S. dollars. In particular, all stablecoins issued by entities regulated by the New York Department of Financial Services (NY DFS) are required to be fully backed 1:1 by cash or cash equivalents. However, on February 13, 2023, NY DFS unexpectedly issued a consumer alert stating that it had ordered Paxos Trust Company (Paxos) to stop minting and issuing a stablecoin known as “BUSD.” BUSD is reportedly the third largest stablecoin by market cap and pegged to the U.S. dollar.
The reasoning behind the NY DFS order remains unclear from the alert, which merely states that “DFS has ordered Paxos to cease minting Paxos-issued BUSD as a result of several unresolved issues related to Paxos’ oversight of its relationship with Binance in regard to Paxos-issued BUSD."2 The same day, Paxos confirmed that it would stop issuing BUSD. However, in an effort to assuage investors, Paxos stated “All BUSD tokens issued by Paxos Trust have and always will be backed 1:1 with U.S. dollar–denominated reserves, fully segregated and held in bankruptcy remote accounts."3
Separately, the SEC reportedly issued a Wells Notice to Paxos on February 12, 2023, indicating that it intended to commence an enforcement action against the company for violating securities laws in connection with the sale of BUSD, which the SEC characterized as unregistered securities. Paxos, meanwhile, categorically denies that BUSD constitute securities, but nonetheless has agreed to stop issuing these tokens in light of the NY DFS order.
It remains to be seen whether the regulatory activity targeting BUSD is the beginning of a broader crackdown on stablecoins amid concerns that, contrary to popular belief, such coins may not be backed by adequate cash reserves.
Custody of Crypto Assets
On February 15, 2023, the SEC proposed changes to the existing “custody rule” under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. As noted by SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the custody rule was designed to “help ensure that [investment] advisers don’t inappropriately use, lose, or abuse investors’ assets."4 The proposed changes to the rule (referred to as the “safeguarding rule”) would require investment advisers to maintain client assets – specifically including crypto assets – in qualified custodial accounts. As the SEC observed, “[although] crypto assets are a relatively recent and emerging type of asset, this is not the first time custodians have had to adapt their practices to safeguard different types of assets."5
A qualified custodian generally is a federal or state-chartered bank or savings association, certain trust companies, a registered broker-dealer, a registered futures commission merchant or certain foreign financial institutions.6 However, as noted by the SEC, many crypto assets trade on platforms that are not qualified custodians. Accordingly, “this practice would generally result in an adviser with custody of a crypto asset security being in violation of the current custody rule because custody of the crypto asset security would not be maintained by a qualified custodian from the time the crypto asset security was moved to the trading platform through the settlement of the trade."7
Moreover, in a departure from existing practice, the proposed safeguarding rule would require an investment adviser to enter into a written agreement with the qualified custodian. This custodial agreement would set forth certain minimum protections for the safeguarding of customer assets, including crypto assets, such as:
- Implementing appropriate measures to safeguard an advisory client’s assets8
- Indemnifying an advisory client when its negligence, recklessness or willful misconduct results in that client’s loss9
- Segregating an advisory client’s assets from its proprietary assets10
- Keeping certain records relating to an advisory client’s assets
- Providing an advisory client with periodic custodial account statements11
- Evaluating the effectiveness of its internal controls related to its custodial practices.12
The new proposed, cumbersome requirements for custodians of crypto assets appear to be a direct consequence of the collapse of FTX, which resulted in the inexplicable “disappearance” of billions of dollars of customer funds. By tightening the screws on custodians and investment advisers, the SEC is seeking to protect the everyday retail investor by leveling the playing field in the complex and often murky world of crypto. However, it still remains to be seen whether, and to what extent, the proposed safeguarding rule will emerge after the public comment period, which will remain open for 60 days following publication of the proposal in the Federal Register.