This week, New York State Department of Financial Services (NY DFS) Superintendent Benjamin Lawsky presided over a two-day hearing regarding emerging virtual currencies and the appropriate role of regulation. The hearing was the next step in an inquiry announced last August, and was held as the NY DFS considers developing a state license specific to virtual currency that would subject operators to state oversight. The panels featured the views of private investors, virtual currency firms, regulatory experts, and law enforcement officials. From our view inside the room, the most prominent, theme to emerge is that regulators will need to strike a balance between protecting the public interest—both from a consumer protection standpoint and with regard to the potential for criminal activity—while allowing emerging virtual currency technologies to develop, evolve, and thrive.

Panelists agreed that bringing virtual currency activity into a regulatory framework is necessary, particularly with regard to ensure AML compliance. However, they added that recent criminal AML enforcement actions against virtual currency market participants suggested existing laws may be sufficient to meet the challenge. In general, they urged the NY DFS to apply existing laws and requirements and to otherwise “only regulate at the edges.” One panelist suggested implementing any new rules in tiered manner, allowing smaller players an “onramp” to compliance. All panelists stressed the potential economic benefits to allowing robust virtual currency markets to evolve domestically, and some panelists touted the potential broader positive impacts on ecommerce and the potential to reach individuals not served by the traditional banking sector.

Though cognizant of the potential economic benefits of allowing virtual currencies to take hold, NY DFS expressed concerns about too loose a regulatory structure, particularly with regard to the perceived risks of virtual currency to more easily facilitate money laundering and related illicit activity. In an interview between panels Mr. Lawsky stated: “It’s feeling more like little tweaks around the edges are not enough.” Federal and state law enforcement officials echoed those concerns. While they vowed to use existing laws to pursue wrongdoers, Deputy U.S. Attorney Richard Zabel and New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., challenged the assertion that enforcement of existing laws is sufficient to meet the challenges posed by virtual currencies.

Click here for links to written testimony and other hearing materials.

The hearing coincided with other events focused on virtual currency, including one co-hosted by BuckleySandler and Wells Fargo. BuckleySandler Partner Margo Tank and other industry experts discussed the rapidly emerging field of virtual currency. Panelists weighed-in on market trends, investment opportunities, compliance imperatives, and interoperability with traditional fiat currencies. Particular attention focused on regulatory compliance considerations, risk management, and policy frameworks.