EASIER TO SET UP BANK THAN A VIRTUAL CURRENCY EXCHANGE? IMPACT OF EBA’S OPINION

On 11 August 2016, the European Banking Authority (EBA) laid out their opinions on the application of the 4tht Anti Money Laundering Directive (4AMLD) to virtual currencies (VC) exchanges and wallets.

The EBA mentions that VC exchanges and wallets operating in multiple countries in the EU “may […] be required to be registered or licensed in each Member State in which they intend to provide VC-related services.”

This would be akin to the state-by-state registration process that VC exchanges must carry out in the United States.

This is due to lack of passporting rights granted under the 4AMLD. This is understandable, as the regulations are not designed to facilitate the movement of goods, services or capital, but are simply motivated by the public policy imperative of protecting the European Union from terrorism and crime.

We take the view that a member state level registration is an unnecessary burden placed on VC exchanges and wallets. A small VC exchange and wallet operating in the EU would not only need to register as an Obligated Entity in its home state, but in every other member state of the EU where it operates – an unfathomable task.

Unfair Treatment of VC Exchanges

Further, this particular duplication of registrations creates a disproportionate burden on VC operators, compared to other regulated institutions in the EU. A pre-pay card is issued by an electronic money institution (EMI) licensed by the Electronic Money Directive (EMD). That EMI can ‘passport’ the services it provides to other member states seamlessly through its home state regulator. It goes without saying that EMI still needs to adapt its customer due diligence (CDD) to any additional requirements – i.e. ‘goldplating’ of anti-money laundering (AML) or counter terrorist financing (CTF) laws in the host state. However, the EMI does not need to apply directly state-by-state for AML or CTF registration.

Financial Implication

If a standard authorisation or licence takes from six to 12 months to obtain from application, then what of an AML or CTF registration? Usually this process can take between three to six months. However, the VC exchanges and wallets will now need to contend with language barriers, administration and bureaucratic fragmentation in each member state, in which it wants to do business.

Ironically, registering in 50 states in the US may be easier, as at least the process is in a single language. The same state-by-state requirement in the EU will mean the VC exchange operator will need to contend with 24 official languages.

Paradoxically, the process of state-by-state registration will be far more cumbersome in terms of capital and operational resources, than if the VC exchange and wallet simply applies to become an EMI or, at a push, a ‘Challenger Bank’.

This must be an unintended consequence. The EBA interprets this implication as a matter of fact. However, our view is that this must, at the very least, be unintended, as the result is absurd considering the following preamble statements from the EU Commission:

“In respect of designating providers of exchange services between virtual currencies and fiat currencies as obliged entities, the proposed amendments respect the proportionality principle.

“Similarly, due account was taken of the need to respect the freedom to conduct a business, and while there will be an impact on market players becoming obliged entities and currently not performing any customer due diligence (CDD) on their customers, the ability to operate a virtual currency exchange platform is not affected by the proposed amendments.”

Are You Fit and Proper in Every Single Member State?

The above position is worsened when you consider the requirement that, according to the EBA, the “amendments proposed by the Commission introduce a requirement that those who hold a management function in, or are the beneficial owners of, [VC exchanges and wallets] are fit and proper persons.”

Although evidently the EU Commission has not fleshed out what ‘fit and proper’ test will be in practice, it is reasonable to expect that this will be an assessment of the background of the applicants and provision of documentation (passport, proof of address) possibly notarised/apostilled and translated officially. Imagine a VC exchange or wallet having to do this in 28 member states. Average costs of producing validated documentation that has been officially translated will be a minimum of EUR1-2k per owner/manager.

NEXT STEPS

If the EU Commission were to accept the EBA’s interpretation that all VC exchanges and wallets will be required to register individually in each member state in which they operate, this would be the biggest regulatory blunder for a region expounding the job creation opportunities of fintech.

Overnight, the overheads for VC exchanges and wallets will increase exponentially. It is also most likely that the beginning of January 2017 will see a full consolidation of the VC exchange and wallet market in the EU.

Again, it would be absurd to assume that the intention of the EU Commission is to make it cheaper to set up a licensed payment institution or electronic money institution or even Challenger Bank than be regulated under 4AMLD as a VC exchange or wallet.