Community Banking Connections
What Community Bankers Should Know About Virtual Currencies
by Wallace Youthfull, Director, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco
Virtual currencies are growing in popularity. While the collective value of virtual currencies is still a fraction of the total U.S. dollars in circulation, the use of virtual currencies as a payment mechanism or transfer of value is gaining momentum. Additionally, the number of entities (issuers, exchangers, and intermediaries, to name just a few) that engage in virtual currency transactions is enhancing, and these entities often need access to traditional banking services. Providing banking services to these entities presents some unique risks and challenges. This article identifies some of the more significant risks that community bank management teams should consider before engaging in this banking activity.
Bitcoin Leads the Way
Launched in 2009, Bitcoin is presently the largest and most popular virtual currency. However, many other virtual currencies have emerged over the past several years, such as Litecoin, Dogecoin, and Peercoin. One Meantime, even more virtual currencies are being developed; one of these is Dash (formerly Darkcoin), which offers even more anonymity and privacy than that provided by Bitcoin. Another fresh and specialized virtual currency is DopeCoin, which was developed for those who wish to purchase marijuana, either legally or illegally.
The virtual currency landscape includes many participants, from the merchant that accepts the virtual currency, to the intermediary that exchanges the virtual currency on behalf of the merchant, to the exchange that actually converts the virtual currency to real currency, to the electronic wallet provider that holds the virtual currency on behalf of its holder. Accordingly, opportunities abound for community banks to provide services to entities engaged in virtual currency activities. Eventually, it is also possible that community banks may find themselves holding virtual currency on their own balance sheets.
The Virtual Currency Landscape
Virtual currencies such as Bitcoin are digital representations of value that function as a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and/or a store of value. Two In many cases, virtual currencies are “convertible” currencies; they are not legal tender, but they have an equivalent value in real currency. In terms of value, Bitcoin is the most prominent virtual currency. As of late January 2015, one bitcoin equaled toughly $207 (however the value is volatile), and all bitcoins in circulation totaled $Two.85 billion. The next largest virtual currency was Ripple ($441.Four million in aggregate), followed by Litecoin ($43.Two million), PayCoin ($37.8 million), and BitShares ($24.Two million). Note that despite what seems to be a tremendous interest in virtual currencies, their overall value is still enormously puny relative to other payment mechanisms, such as cash, checks, and credit and debit cards. For example, in 2013, U.S. credit and debit cards accounted for over $Four trillion in spending. Three
For Bitcoin, the landscape also includes virtual currency exchangers (including Coinbase and Bitstamp), as well as wallet providers (such as Coinbase, Coinkite, and BitAddress) that hold the bitcoins until they are converted or otherwise transferred. Then, there are intermediaries such as BitPay, which provide the technology and services to merchants that accept bitcoins in exchange for goods and services. Of course, these merchants are also significant participants; according to latest estimates, there are now over 100,000 merchants around the world that accept Bitcoin. Four That is still a puny number, but many large, high-profile companies such as Overstock, Dell, and Microsoft now accept Bitcoin, and it seems likely the number of merchants that accept virtual currency (Bitcoin in particular) will increase.
Considering the virtual currency landscape, what significant risks should community bankers consider? The most significant is compliance risk, a subset of legal risk. Specifically, virtual currency administrators or exchangers may present risks similar to other money transmitters, as well as presenting their own unique risks. Fairly simply, many users of virtual currencies do so because of the perception that transactions conducted using virtual currencies are anonymous. The less-than-transparent nature of the transactions may make it more difficult for a financial institution to truly know and understand the activities of its customer and whether the customer’s activities are legal. Therefore, these transactions may present a higher risk for banks and require extra due diligence and monitoring.
More technically, the U.S. Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has designated virtual currency exchanges and administrators as money transmitters. Five Accordingly, banks are expected to manage the risks associated with the accounts of virtual currency administrators and exchanges just as they would any other money transmitter. The Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering (BSA/AML) Examination Manual, six maintained and published by the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC), contains a more detailed discussion of customer due diligence and enhanced due diligence expectations, including for money transmitter customers.
Another significant risk for community banks to consider is reputational risk. The February two thousand fourteen failure of Mt. Gox, the largest Bitcoin exchange and wallet provider at the time, illustrates how a bank’s reputation can be bruised because of the activities of its customers. In this case, Mt. Gox failed after losing more than $400 million of its customers’ bitcoins. Clearly, Mt. Gox did not have sufficient controls in place to ensure the bitcoins were secure. Since then, numerous lawsuits have been filed against Mt. Gox, with several also naming Mt. Gox’s bank as a defendant. Albeit the bank never held the bitcoins, it did treat Mt. Gox’s transactional banking needs. At least one of the lawsuits claims that the bank should have known about the fraud and that the bank profited from the fraud.
In addition to any influence to the bank’s reputation resulting from its relationship with a failed virtual currency rock-hard, there is also the potential legal and financial influence if the bank lodges or loses any of these lawsuits.
How should a community bank react if a borrower wants to specifically post bitcoins or another virtual currency as collateral for a loan? For many, virtual currencies are simply another form of cash, so it is not hard to imagine that bankers will face such a script at some point. In this case, caution is suitable. Bankers should cautiously weigh the pros and cons of extending any loan secured by bitcoins or other virtual currencies (in entire or in part), or where the source of loan repayment is in some way dependent on the virtual currency. For one, the value of a bitcoin in particular has been volatile. The figure at right shows the dollar value of one bitcoin from November 25, 2013, to January 25, 2015. Thus, the collateral value could fluctuate widely from day to day. Bankers also need to think about control over the account. How does a banker control access to a virtual wallet, and how can it limit or control the borrower’s access to the virtual wallet? In the event of a loan default, the bank would need to take control of the virtual currency. This will require access to the borrower’s virtual wallet and private key. All of this suggests that the loan agreement needs to be cautiously crafted and that extra steps need to be taken to ensure the bank has a perfected lien on the virtual currency.
What if the bank actually wields the virtual currency? For example, it is possible a bank could find itself acquiring virtual currency in satisfaction of debts previously contracted. The most likely script in which this could occur is when a bank makes a business loan secured by the borrower’s business assets, which at default include virtual currency. At the moment, such a script is unlikely, but its plausibility increases as virtual currency becomes more mainstream.
Holding virtual currency presents some operational challenges for a financial institution. The virtual currency acquired in this manner should certainly be liquidated in an orderly style, but before that happens, the institution will need to have internal controls in place to mitigate the risk of loss. Management should establish dual control and access processes, as well as think about how this asset will be valued and accounted for on its financial statements. Management will also have to consider the security of the virtual currency itself, how it is held, and how vulnerable it is to theft.
Virtual currencies bring with them both opportunities and challenges, and they are likely here to stay. Albeit it is still too early to determine just how prevalent they will be in the coming years, we do expect that the various participants in the virtual currency ecosystem will increasingly intersect with the banking industry. Banks need not turn away this business as a class, but they should consider the risks of each individual customer. This will require bank management to broadly understand all the risks involved with conducting banking with these businesses. However, the risk will vary significantly depending on the specific nature of the business, and in many cases, bank management teams may correctly determine that the risk is no more significant than the risk introduced by any other customer. In other situations however, the risk may be heightened and require extra due diligence, ongoing monitoring, or establishment of extra controls to appropriately manage and control the risk.