Bitcoin and Virtual Currencies: Welcome to Your Regulator

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Among all the U.S. regulators interested in regulating Bitcoin and virtual currencies, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) is determined to be at the forefront.

Since the announcement by CFTC Chairman Timothy Massad in late 2014 that Bitcoin derivatives should fall within the scope of the CFTC’s jurisdiction, the CFTC has been aggressive in addressing not only wrongful conduct involving Bitcoin derivatives, but also wrongful conduct involving certain spot Bitcoin transactions.

In at least one respect, the CFTC should be given credit for taking the lead in seeking to regulate a novel product under its jurisdiction. With such an effort, however, comes
responsibility. The CFTC should clearly articulate, through an interpretation rather than ad hoc enforcement actions, the manner in which the agency intends to apply the actual delivery exception to virtual currencies. Such an interpretation is necessary so as not to stymie innovation.

At the same time, the CFTC should strive to coordinate the regulation of virtual currencies with other federal agencies, some of which have shown an interest in regulating such
products.46 For example, if the Securities and Exchange Commission were to classify Bitcoin or another virtual currency as a “security,” market participants could be compelled to comply with two fundamentally different, and in some ways redundant, regulatory regimes. We have seen dual jurisdiction applied to certain other products—security futures and mixed swaps come to mind—and the outcomes have not been ideal. Here, as before, the CFTC should be aggressive in seeking to address regulatory harmonization.

For market participants, the CFTC has sounded the bell. In offering virtual currencies to customers, market participants must understand and be sensitive to the scope of the
CFTC’s jurisdiction. If a swap or futures contract is involved—including a seemingly innocuous embedded option in which the customer has the right to cancel or offset a purchase—or a retail spot transaction involves any form of financing, margin or leverage, the CFTC has shown its willingness to take action—even in the absence of allegations of fraud or other wrongdoing.

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*This article was first published by the Harvard Business Law Review (HBLR) and is featured on HBLR’s main page. Click here to read the article online.

Matthew Kluchenek
Matthew Kluchenek heads the Baker McKenzie's Global Derivatives and Hedge Fund practice.