OCC Underscores Risks Facing Federal Banking System

In its Semiannual Risk Perspective for Spring 2019, the OCC described the condition of banks as “strong” as far as capital, leverage and short-term performance. The regulators highlighted a number of significant big-picture risks, particularly as to AML compliance and operations and FinTech:

AML. AML-related deficiencies “stem from three primary causes: inadequate customer due diligence and enhanced due diligence, insufficient customer risk identification, and ineffective processes related to suspicious activity monitoring and reporting, including the timeliness and accuracy of Suspicious Activity Report filings. Talent acquisition and staff retention to manage [] compliance programs and associated operations present ongoing challenges, particularly at smaller regional and community banks.”
FinTech. “Rapid developments in FinTech and ‘big tech’ firms, evolving customer preferences, and the popularity of mobile technology applications have significantly changed the way banks operate and consumers conduct their banking and financial activity. . . . [T]he pace of change and the transformative nature of technology may result in a more complex operating environment. . . . Changing business models or offering new products and services can, however, elevate strategic risk when pursued without appropriate corporate governance and risk management. New products, services, or technologies can result in greater reliance on third parties by some banks and a concentration of service providers by the industry as a whole.”

LOFCHIE COMMENTARY

A key takeaway from the OCC’s regulatory comments is that the regulators expect that there is likely to be a material reduction in the number of smaller banks. They are squeezed on the expense end from compliance costs and new technology costs, and squeezed on the revenue end from competition with FinTech firms and customers’ disinterest in traditional banking relationships.

CFS Monetary Measures for April 2019

Today we release CFS monetary and financial measures for April 2019. CFS Divisia M4, which is the broadest and most important measure of money, grew by 4.4% in April 2019 on a year-over-year basis versus 4.2% in March.

For Monetary and Financial Data Release Report:
http://www.centerforfinancialstability.org/amfm/Divisia_Apr19.pdf

For more information about the CFS Divisia indices and the data in Excel:
http://www.centerforfinancialstability.org/amfm_data.php

Bloomberg terminal users can access our monetary and financial statistics by any of the four options:

1) {ALLX DIVM }
2) {ECST T DIVMM4IY}
3) {ECST} –> ‘Monetary Sector’ –> ‘Money Supply’ –> Change Source in top right to ‘Center for Financial Stability’
4) {ECST S US MONEY SUPPLY} –> From source list on left, select ‘Center for Financial Stability’

SIFMA AMG Supports FSOC “Activities-Based” Proposal for Combating Systemic Risks

In a comment letter, the SIFMA Asset Management Group (“SIFMA AMG”) expressed support for a proposal by the Financial Stability Oversight Council (“FSOC”) to change existing interpretive guidance to include adopting an “activities-based approach” to address systemic risk issues. Under the approach, FSOC would identify, evaluate and address potential risks to U.S. financial stability that arose from particular activities and would seek to adopt regulations applicable to those activities, rather than impose requirements on a single entity.

SIFMA AMG agreed that the proposed guidance would improve FSOC’s ability to identify and mitigate risks to U.S. financial stability. In order to better “enhance, clarify and refine the strong foundation” outlined in the proposed guidance, SIFMA AMG advised FSOC to:

– provide more details on how FSOC will conduct the “activities-based approach” process;
– confirm that any action by FSOC is triggered by a “reasonably foreseeable and likely set of facts and circumstances,” not simply by possible or potential situations or conditions;
– identify the level of scope and scale that indicates financial risks or threats to financial stability;
– strengthen the role of the primary financial regulator;
– explicitly state that it will solicit input from the industry;
– outline the “shortcomings” of the prior guidance and how the new approach will be better;
– clarify that the cost-benefit analysis requirement applies to recommendations for increased regulation and entity-based designations;
– state that it is responsible for the burden of proof in adopting any requirement;
reference existing rules or policies concerning “transmission channels” that relate to threats to U.S. financial stability;
– set more formalized procedures for the two-stage designation process and specify how it will treat confidential information;
separate functions of investigative and prosecutorial staffs and adjudicative bodies to ensure impartiality; and
– work with non-U.S. and international policymakers to harmonize rules and policies affecting the asset management industry.

LOFCHIE COMMENTARY

The FSOC move towards imposing restraints on a particular type of activity, rather on an individual entity, is extremely significant in preventing potential abuses of power. It will limit the ability of FSOC to single out a company that may be in the disfavor of the ruling political party. While this move is to the good, it would be better still if Congress would actually adopt legislation that would confine FSOC’s discretionary power rather than rely upon FSOC to police itself.

SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce Criticizes SEC for Lack of Clarity on Jurisdiction over ICOs

SEC Commissioner Hester M. Peirce criticized the SEC for failing to clarify how it applies the “Howey Test” (SEC v. W.J. Howey Co.) to digital assets used in initial coin offerings (“ICOs”).

Contrary to her prior concerns about the downside effects of overregulating the crypto industry, Ms. Peirce said that the SEC’s “unwillingness to take meaningful action” has actually “stifled” the industry.

In a speech at the Securities Enforcement Forum, Ms. Peirce analyzed the recent SEC guidance on digital assets, Ms. Peirce stating that its efforts to provide clarification have been generally unsuccessful. First, Ms. Peirce stated that the SEC staff’s Howey framework probably would only be understood by a “seasoned securities lawyer.” Specifically, while Howey has only four factors, the framework listed 38 considerations for determining whether a token offering is a securities offering.

Second, Ms. Peirce criticized the first token no-action letter, which gave the “false impression” that it was a “gray area of securities law.” As previously covered, the company TurnKey had been seeking to tokenize gift cards. The letter gave the impression that the securities law is more far-reaching than it is, according to Ms. Peirce, because the token was “clearly not an offer of securities.” Additionally, the letter highlighted non-dispositive factors and so, Ms. Peirce stated, “effectively imposed conditions on a non-security.”

Third, Ms. Peirce stated the SEC Division of Investment Management letter for advisers and funds on digital assets failed to provide meaningful guidance. Ms. Peirce conceded that the letter outlined certain questions that advisers should consider when buying and holding digital assets on behalf of their clients. However, she stated that it did not clarify how advisers can remain compliant with the Custody Rule.

Finally, Ms. Peirce warned that lack of regulatory clarification will push innovation into other jurisdictions.

LOFCHIE COMMENTARY

Commissioner Peirce continues to challenge the SEC’s lack of clarity on the application of the Howey test to ICOs. While it is true that the SEC did issue a position paper on the Howey Test and ICOs (SEC Publishes “Framework” for Determining if Digital Assets Are “Securities”), the purpose of the position paper seems largely to assert broad jurisdiction (lest the SEC be subject to the retrospective accusation of having missed something). In particular, the SEC in that position paper failed even to attempt to define the most important legal question under Howey; i.e., what constitutes a “common enterprise.”

At the same time that the SEC issued its position paper, the SEC staff issued a no-action letter holding that a particular crypto offering was not a “security.” See Subject to Strict Conditions, SEC Agrees that “Tokens” to Pay for Services Are Not “Securities”. This no-action letter did little to resolve the jurisdictional question as the tokens that were the subject of the letter very clearly fall into the class of “stable coins” that are completely linked to the value of the dollar on a one-for-one basis, and so there is no opportunity whatsoever for investment gain. In short, the SEC’s no-action letter simply addressed the most obvious possible case for admitting that it did not have jurisdiction, and failed to address any area of uncertainty.

SEC Proposes Improvements to Merger Disclosures

The SEC voted to propose rule amendments intended to improve the information disclosed regarding acquisitions and dispositions of businesses. The proposal is designed to facilitate access to capital in a more timely manner and to reduce the compliance burden of financial disclosures.

The proposed changes would, among other things:

– clarify the required determination of “significance” under the rule by revising the investment test and the income test, expanding the use of pro forma financial information in measuring significance, and conforming the significance threshold and tests for a disposed business;
– require the financial statements of the acquired business to cover up to the two most recent fiscal years rather than up to the three most recent fiscal years;
allow disclosure of financial statements that omit “certain expenses for certain acquisitions of a component of an entity”;
– provide guidance on when financial statements and pro forma financial information are required;
– authorize the use of, or reconciliation to, International Financial Reporting Standards;
– remove the separate acquired business financial statements requirement for businesses that have been included in the registrant’s post-acquisition financial statements for a complete fiscal year; and
– improve the content of the pro forma financial information requirements to reflect “reasonably estimable synergies and transaction effects.”

Specifically, the proposal would: (i) amend Rule 3-14 to align with Rule 3-05 where no unique industry considerations exist; ​(ii) clarify elements of Rule 3-14, including the “determination of significance, the need for interim income statements, special provisions for blind pool offerings, and the scope of the rule’s requirements”; (iii) codify smaller reporting company requirements in Article 8 of Regulation S-X; (iv) adopt a new Rule 6-11 and amend Form N-14 to include financial reporting for fund acquisitions by investment companies and business development companies; and (v) amend the definition of “significant subsidiary” for investment companies.

SEC Commissioner Robert J. Jackson Jr. voted to request public comment on the proposal, but urged commentators to propose improvements to the rules that would empower investors to hold executives more accountable for merger and acquisition disclosure. Commissioner Jackson cited “longstanding evidence” that corporate insiders use mergers to promote private interest over that of long-term investors. According to Mr. Jackson, the proposed rule amendments ignore this evidence and could lead to less disclosure about acquisitions by companies whose market value is significantly different from their book value. Additionally, Commissioner Jackson expressed concern that the economic analysis in the release ignores “the other half of [the] well-known equation: that acquiring companies’ stocks tend to take a hit upon the announcement of a merger.”

Comments must be submitted within 60 days of publication in the Federal Register.

LOFCHIE VIEW:

Judging by his statement, Commissioner Jackson appears to distrust corporate managers (i) when they keep profits within a company and use it to acquire another company and also (ii) when they disburse profits by buying back stock. See, e.g., SEC Commissioner Calls for Revision of Stock Buyback Rules. In general, a company that has more money than it can reasonably use for internal expansion must either use the money to buy something else or return it to shareholders. Here, Commissioner Jackson argues that “many mergers are not in investors’ long-term interests.” If the Commissioner is convinced of that, then there is inconsistency in his resistance to allowing issuers to give money back to their shareholders through stock buybacks. Even if a company can’t be too thin, it can be too (cash) rich.

WSJ features Sandor on LIBOR Replacement…

Today, The Wall Street Journal published a wonderful article on CFS Advisory Board Member Richard Sandor and his company the American Financial Exchange (AFX). AFX developed a market-based LIBOR alternative, Ameribor. It now trades on an electronic platform and has over 700 institutional members in 49 states.

The article also nicely chronicles Richard’s prior successes as a perennial entrepreneur in the world of financial products – https://www.wsj.com/articles/futures-guru-targets-libor-replacement-11555410600.

Richard outlined thoughts on a LIBOR alternative at a CFS roundtable in 2012. He delved even more deeply and broadly at a roundtable discussion “Creation and Evolution of New Markets: The Case of Interest Rate Benchmarks” late last year – http://www.centerforfinancialstability.org/research/Sandor-11-16-18.pdf.

Hanke on Measuring Money / CFS Monetary Measures for March 2019…

In addition to the monthly CFS monetary and financial release, CFS special counselor Steve Hanke discusses the need for relevant data and benefits of broad money measurements in the latest World Economics Journal (see http://www.centerforfinancialstability.org/research/HankeOnMeasuring.pdf.)

Today we release CFS monetary and financial measures for March 2019. CFS Divisia M4, which is the broadest and most important measure of money, grew by 4.4% in March 2019 on a year-over-year basis versus 4.5% in February.

For Monetary and Financial Data Release Report:
http://www.centerforfinancialstability.org/amfm/Divisia_Mar19.pdf

For more information about the CFS Divisia indices and the data in Excel:
http://www.centerforfinancialstability.org/amfm_data.php

Bloomberg terminal users can access our monetary and financial statistics by any of the four options:

1) {ALLX DIVM }
2) {ECST T DIVMM4IY}
3) {ECST} –> ‘Monetary Sector’ –> ‘Money Supply’ –> Change Source in top right to ‘Center for Financial Stability’
4) {ECST S US MONEY SUPPLY} –> From source list on left, select ‘Center for Financial Stability’

SEC Agrees that “Tokens” to Pay for Services Are Not “Securities”

Commentary / Steven Lofchie

On the one hand, it is certainly a positive that the SEC is announcing an intellectual framework for determining whether a “digital asset” (perhaps better known as an “Initial Coin Offering” or “ICO”) is within the definition of the term “security.” On the other hand, the framework definitely casts a very broad net, which no doubt was intended.

As to the question of whether digital assets involve a “common enterprise,” the SEC simply says that “[b]ased on our experiences to date, investments in digital assets have constituted investments in a common enterprise because the fortunes of digital asset purchases have been linked to each other or the success of the promoter’s efforts” (at fn. 11). There is not much analysis there. One could, for example, argue that a digital newspaper subscription constitutes a digital asset because the value of the subscription is likely dependent upon the publisher’s ability to generate other subscriptions and thereby to turn out a good digital newspaper.

On the question of whether cryptocurrencies are securities, the framework says that, to fall outside of the definition, the digital asset must “actually operate as a store of value that can be saved, retried, and exchanged for something of value at a later time.” As to digital assets generally, “any economic benefit that may derived from appreciation [must be] incidental to obtaining the right to use [the asset] for its intended functionality.”

It is fairly well accepted that certain of the major cryptocurrencies are not securities. That said, it is not at all clear that any newly issued cryptocurrency would be able to meet the SEC’s conditions so as not to be a security.

Although the SEC has cast a very wide net with this analysis, it also published a no-action letter providing at least one example as to when a digital asset would not be a security. See SEC Staff Advises Turnkey Jet Tokens Are Not Securities.


The SEC provided a “framework for analysis” to help market participants evaluate whether the federal securities laws apply to the offer, sale or resale of a specific digital asset.

The framework is based on the “Howey” case, which found that a security exists where there is “[(i)] an investment of money [(ii)] in a common enterprise [(iii)] with a reasonable exception of profits [(iv)] to be derived from the efforts of others.” As to the first two elements, the SEC states that, generally, persons pay in some way for the digital asset and “in evaluating digital assets, [the SEC] has found that a ‘common enterprise’ typically exists.”

The report focuses on the third element, whether the purchaser of the asset may reasonably expect to profit from the purchase of the assets, (i.e., by having the expectation – or at least the hope – of selling the asset to someone else at a higher price); and the fourth element, whether the purchasers of the asset depend on the efforts of others (finding that they generally do, because a third party is creating and maintaining the technology).

Former CFTC Chair Urges Congress to Strengthen Regulation for Crypto-Assets

Commentary / STEVEN LOFCHIE
While the Brookings report runs some 60 pages, plus 4 pages of footnotes, it may be summarized as follows: There is stuff that could go wrong in some way with the production, trading or ownership of crypto-assets; therefore, crypto-assets ought to be regulated in some unspecified way, which would make the bad stuff less likely to happen. (The other 59 7/8th pages, plus 4 pages of footnotes, amplify on this theme.)

To be chary of Mr. Massad’s report is not to dispute that some bad things will happen as to investments in crypto-assets. It is a safe guess that a good number of retail investors will lose money. Beyond saying that “something” should be done, Mr. Massad might have offered us something more, perhaps by starting with an explanation as to why what currently exists is insufficient and how new rules will solve the problem.

As a starting matter, Mr. Massad should better define and distinguish what he means by “crypto-assets.” Presumably, he is referring to initial coin offerings (“ICOs”). (Note, he quotes SEC Chair Clayton to the effect that all ICOs are “securities” (see fn. 54 and surrounding text)). Therefore, he should explain the deficiencies in securities regulation as applied to ICOs. Unless Mr. Massad believe that there should be one scheme of regulation for securities held through DTC and another for securities in crypto-form, all he is saying is that there should be more enforcement of the securities laws as applied to ICOs. That is reasonable; but it is not clear why any more laws or rules are required. It appears that he just wants more cops on the beat.

If by crypto-assets Mr. Massad means cryptocurrencies, he should say so, and explain how cryptocurrencies should be regulated. If he wants them prohibited, he should say that. Rather, he argues that Bitcoin mining is so “highly energy intensive” is so bad, that – by comparison – he would “long for a return of Lehman Brothers” (at 11). That statement certainly suggests that he favors prohibition. If that is the case, then recommending the imposition of a recordkeeping regulation is somewhat beside the point.

Finally, if by crypto-assets Mr. Massad means assets that give a person a “right to use . . . some sort of blockchain based application or service” (at page 29), he owes us an explanation as to what type of regulation he imagines the SEC or CFTC imposing and to what purpose, and what will be the anticipated effect on blockchain businesses.

Mr. Massad’s suggestion that the Financial Stability Oversight Council (“FSOC”) direct the production of a report for the regulation of crypto-assets, albeit in some unknown way and to an undefined end, demonstrates a potential for abuse by FSOC of its all-too-ambiguous powers. FSOC was supposed to be focused on “gaps in regulation that could pose risks to the financial stability of the United States.” There is zero evidence that crypto does that. The purpose of FSOC is not supposed to be to evade the “formal notice and comment process used for rule making.” FSOC has neither expertise with respect to crypto-assets nor any focus on most of the potential problems raised by Mr. Massad; e.g., energy usage by Bitcoin miners or suitability issues. That Mr. Massad thinks FSOC should be used as a device for rushing through regulations without “formal notice and comment process” is probably a better argument for eliminating FSOC (what exactly has it accomplished to date?) than it is for regulating crypto.

Ten years of experience with Dodd-Frank, much of which is still not implemented because it was neither practical nor useful, should offer some lessons. Throwing out a laundry list of issues, and then demanding regulation with no consideration of specifics, is unlikely to get you where you want to go. It may even take you in the wrong direction. “Too-big-to-fail” was, by way of example, supposedly a cause of the financial crisis. Yet following on Dodd-Frank, increases in regulation and resulting cost have likely only increased concentration.

To advance the discussion of the regulation of crypto-assets, Mr Massad has to define: (i) what are the assets or transactions that he wants to regulate; (ii) does he favor a single scheme of regulation that would cover all cryptocurrencies, ICOs, and assets that create a right of use; (iii) what is the specific problem he is trying to solve (is it energy usage or suitability or just the absence of governmental control); (iv) what are the requirements (whether imposed by statute or rule) for which he advocates; and (v) what does he predict is the likely effect of imposing those requirements (meaning why would it solve the problem, and at what cost)? He should address whether he is trying to regulate or trying to prohibit. It’s fair to demand such specificity of a former senior regulator.

—-

In a Brookings Institute working paper, former CFTC Chair Timothy Massad urged Congress to bolster regulation of crypto-assets.

Mr. Massad pointed out that new crypto exchanges and trading platforms are not held to the same standards required of securities and derivatives market intermediaries, resulting in weak investor protection. In part, this has allowed crypto-assets to be used to circumvent sanctions, and to facilitate payment for illegal activities.

Mr. Massad argued against deferring to state law with respect to regulating crypto-assets. He recommended that Congress:

pass legislation giving the SEC or the CFTC “authority to regulate the offering, distribution and trading of crypto-assets”;

provide more resources to the SEC and the CFTC to regulate crypto-assets;

adopt legislation around “core principles,” which address, among other things: (i) protection of customer assets, (ii) governance standards, (iii) conflicts of interest, (iv) recordkeeping and reporting, (v) trade execution and settlement, (vi) pre- and post-trade transparency obligations, (vii) anti-fraud prohibitions, (viii) disclosures to customers regarding fees, order types and execution practices, (ix) risk management, business continuity and cybersecurity, (x) capital, and (xi) AML and KYC requirements;

direct the relevant agencies to establish regulations to implement the core principles;

grant the relevant agencies authority to determine whether non-U.S. platforms that provide access to U.S. investors should be required to meet U.S. standards, comply with comparable standards or disclose that they do not meet U.S. standards; and

direct the relevant agencies to decide whether there should be alternative ways for centralized and decentralized platforms to comply with the core principles.

Mr. Massad called on the Financial Stability Oversight Council or the U.S. Treasury Department to provide a report recommending Congress to enhance regulation in the crypto-assets sector. He also encouraged the industry to continue developing its own self-regulatory standards.

CFS Monetary Measures for February 2019

Today we release CFS monetary and financial measures for February 2019. CFS Divisia M4, which is the broadest and most important measure of money, grew by 4.5% in February 2019 on a year-over-year basis versus 4.4% in January.

For Monetary and Financial Data Release Report:
http://www.centerforfinancialstability.org/amfm/Divisia_Feb19.pdf

For more information about the CFS Divisia indices and the data in Excel:
http://www.centerforfinancialstability.org/amfm_data.php

Bloomberg terminal users can access our monetary and financial statistics by any of the four options:

1) {ALLX DIVM }
2) {ECST T DIVMM4IY}
3) {ECST} –> ‘Monetary Sector’ –> ‘Money Supply’ –> Change Source in top right to ‘Center for Financial Stability’
4) {ECST S US MONEY SUPPLY} –> From source list on left, select ‘Center for Financial Stability’