In the wake of billions in losses suffered by investors from the failure of cryptocurrency exchange FTX and other crypto collapses, how to regulate cryptocurrencies is a hot topic the new Congress must address. Competing proposals for it to consider range from banning cryptocurrencies outright, to giving them government backing, to stifling them with regulatory bureaucracy, to letting them fail or succeed entirely on their own.
Some urge that cryptocurrencies simply be banned. This is the approach taken by China in 2021 when it banned all private cryptocurrency transactions and imposed an official “digital yuan” to monitor its citizens even more. The Chinese approach reflects the belief that currency must be a state monopoly and the official currency must have no private competitors. After FTX, some commentators have asked whether cryptocurrency should be banned in the United States. While banning cryptocurrency may be a characteristic response by an absolutist state like China, we do not believe it is appropriate for the United States.
A second approach, unsurprisingly advocated by Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Gary Gensler, is to have the SEC take over cryptocurrency regulation primarily by using its existing powers to regulate securities. Gensler believes that “the vast majority” of crypto tokens are securities already within the SEC’s jurisdiction. Of course, the SEC failed to head off the FTX collapse or any of the other cryptocurrency debacles. A glaring problem with this approach is that it requires the SEC to first assert that a particular form of crypto is a security and then for this issue to be litigated — a slow, expensive and inefficient process. A former SEC chair conceded that Bitcoin, the archetypal and largest cryptocurrency by market cap, is not a security and many cryptocurrencies are structured similarly to Bitcoin.
The Commodity Futures Trading Commission has proposed that it should be the principal cryptocurrency regulator. This is called for in the Digital Commodities Consumer Protection Act, a bill reportedly pushed by former FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried and other members of the cryptocurrency industry. The crypto industry is said to regard the CFTC as a less stringent regulator than the SEC. One proposal is for each cryptocurrency firm to get to choose either the SEC or the CFTC as its regulator.
From a different perspective, a group of top U.S. financial regulators has put forward a banking-based regulatory approach. This would be applied to stablecoins, a type of cryptocurrency backed by or redeemable at par in dollars (or other government currencies), and intended to maintain a stable value with respect to the dollar. This approach, advanced by the Treasury and the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets, would require that stablecoin issuers be chartered as regulated, FDIC-insured banks. The rationale for this approach is that stablecoin issuers are functionally taking deposits, which is by definition a banking function.
Regulation as a bank is the most invasive form of financial regulation and imposes very high compliance costs. For the business models of many cryptocurrency issuers, this may be the functional equivalent of banning cryptocurrency. (Perhaps this is the outcome actually intended.) More importantly, the only good thing that can be said about FTX’s and other cryptocurrency failures is that they did not damage the wider financial system or result in taxpayer bailouts. Requiring cryptocurrency issuers to be FDIC-insured puts them in the federal safety net and puts taxpayers on the hook for future losses. In our view, creating taxpayer support is going in exactly the wrong direction.
A fifth approach, in a bill introduced by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), would authorize a new type of license from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency for stablecoin issuers, presumably less onerous than a full banking license and not requiring FDIC insurance. Issuers would be subject to examination and required to disclose their assets and redemption policies. Most importantly, they would be required to provide quarterly “attestations” from a registered public accounting firm.
As a further step, we believe that disclosure of full, audited financial statements is critical. Right now, most cryptocurrencies are not subject to any kind of accounting disclosure. But no one should ever invest money in an entity that does not provide audited financial statements without recognizing that their funds are at extreme risk. If a federal regulatory system for cryptocurrency is to emerge, financial statement requirements are essential.
Sixth and finally, it has been proposed that cryptocurrency not be specially regulated at all. Instead, it should be treated like a “minefield,” with appropriate warnings that investors face danger and invest entirely at their own risk. Investors would be able to rely on the protections of general commercial law and existing anti-fraud and criminal laws, but if cryptocurrency ventures crash, they crash, and their debts are reorganized in bankruptcy with losses to the investors and creditors, but not to taxpayers.
Since cryptocurrency originated as a libertarian revolt against the government monopoly on money, this approach is consistent with its founding ideas. If people want to risk their money, they ought to be allowed to do so. However, they must be able to understand what they are doing. All parties should clearly understand that Big Brother is not protecting them when they hold or speculate in cryptocurrency.
We believe that this sixth approach is superior in philosophy, but that it needs to be combined with required full, audited financial statements and disclosures about risks and important matters such as assets and redemption policies. Such a combination is the most promising path forward for cryptocurrency regulation.
Howard B. Adler is an attorney and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury for the Financial Stability Oversight Council. Alex J. Pollock is a senior fellow of the Mises Insitute and former Principal Deputy Director of the Treasury’s Office of Financial Research. They are the coauthors of the newly released book,” Surprised Again! The COVID Crisis and the New Market Bubble.”