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Crypto Goes Mainstream: OCC Says Banks Can Provide Crypto Custody Services

On Wednesday, July 22, 2020, Acting Comptroller of the Currency Brian Brooks reaffirmed his interest in being seen as an agent of modernization in a letter clarifying the authority of national banks and federal savings associations to provide cryptocurrency services for customers.

The letter from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) discusses the increasing acceptance of cryptocurrency, and especially Bitcoin, as a method of payment and form of investment. It acknowledges a correlating growing demand for “safe places, such as banks, to hold unique cryptographic keys associated with cryptocurrencies on behalf of customers and to provide related custody services.” Three reasons – a safe way to hold cryptocurrency keys; a secure storage service; and custodian services for assets managed by investment advisors – are cited in the letter as driving the demand for cryptocurrency custody services.

The safekeeping services are described as a modernization of special deposit and safe deposit boxes, falling within “longstanding authorities to engage in safekeeping and custody activities.” Thus, “the authority to provide safekeeping services extends to digital activities and, specifically, that national banks may escrow encryption keys used in connection with digital certificates because a key escrow service is a functional equivalent to physical safekeeping.”

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Blockchain Technology Will Not Disrupt Financial Services Anytime Soon

Twenty venture capitalists gathered in Silicon Valley last week to discuss the impact of blockchain technology, including digital currency, on financial services and venture capital. The 20 VCs represent an equal number of funds, which invest–or are looking for investment opportunities–all over the world, including the third world. They represented a diverse group of perspectives, with some having regulatory experience, some having experience with conventional payment mechanisms and some with innovative mechanisms such as PayPal. Even their disagreements were instructive of the uncertain future of blockchain technology and its various potential applications.

The consensus is that digital currency is entering a nuclear winter. A majority of Initial Coin Offerings made in 2017–perhaps as much as 75%–turned out to be fraudulent and have no value today. Not coincidentally, the vast majority of Initial Coin Offerings originated in Eastern European countries that are home to spam and bot farms…and where there is little, if any, regulatory oversight.

To the extent bitcoins may become a viable, commercial technology for B2B transactions, it is likely to occur in a technology hub in the U.S. or Europe. Those hubs have the talent, the infrastructure and the robust regulatory structures that can be adapted to ICOs and create the trust necessary to make digital currency a positive, viable alternative to government currencies. In fact, the centralization of technology talent in the U.S. is depriving the rest of the world of talent.

The attempts of island states, like Bermuda, Malta, Cyprus, the Isle of Mann, and even Singapore to draft regulations that facilitate the creation of bitcoin issuers on their soil is unlikely to have a significant impact. Nobody who is experienced and seriously intends to build a global digital technology company and change the financial services industry on a global scale will think one can create the necessary large organization on these islands. These islands do not have an ecosystem of sophisticated VCs and do not have a critical mass of talented engineers. The island states are going for broke because they have so little to lose. When and if the technology matures, U.S. companies will step in and crush competitors based in these islands.

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