Bitcoin

Today my colleague Eli Dourado and I have filed a public interest comment with the New York Department of Financial Services on their proposed “BitLicense” regulatory framework for digital currencies. You can read it here. As we say in the comment, NYDFS is on the right track, but ultimately misses the mark:

State financial regulators around the country have been working to apply their existing money transmission licensing statutes and regulations to new virtual currency businesses. In many cases, existing rules do not take into account the unique properties of recent innovations like cryptocurrencies. With this in mind, the department sought to develop rules that were “tailored specifically to the unique characteristics of virtual currencies.”

As Superintendent Benjamin Lawsky has stated, the aim of this project is “to strike an appropriate balance that helps protect consumers and root out illegal activity—without stifling beneficial innovation.” This is the right goal and one we applaud. It is a very difficult balance to strike, however, and we believe that the BitLicense regulatory framework as presently proposed misses the mark, for two main reasons.

First, while doing much to take into account the unique properties of virtual currencies and virtual currency businesses, the proposal nevertheless fails to accommodate some of the most important attributes of software-based innovation. To the extent that one of its chief goals is to preserve and encourage innovation, the BitLicense proposal should be modified with these considerations in mind—and this can be done without sacrificing the protections that the rules will afford consumers. Taking into account the “unique characteristics” of virtual cur-rencies is the key consideration that will foster innovation, and it is the reason why the department is creating a new BitLicense. The department should, therefore, make sure that it is indeed taking these features into account.

Second, the purpose of a BitLicense should be to take the place of a money transmission license for virtual currency businesses. That is to say, but for the creation of a new BitLicense, virtual currency businesses would be subject to money transmission licensing. Therefore, to the extent that the goal behind the new BitLicense is to protect consumers while fostering innovation, the obligations faced by BitLicensees should not be any more burdensome than those faced by traditional money transmitters. Otherwise, the new regulatory framework will have the opposite effect of the one intended. If it is more costly and difficult to acquire a BitLicense than a money transmission license, we should expect less innovation. Additional regulatory burdens would put BitLicensees at a relative disadvantage, and in several instances the proposed regulatory framework is more onerous than traditional money transmitter licensing.

As Superintendent Lawsky has rightly stated, New York should avoid virtual currency rules that are “so burdensome or unwieldy that the technology can’t develop.” The proposed BitLicense framework, while close, does not strike the right balance between consumer protection and innovation. For example, its approach to consumer protection through disclosures rather than prescriptive precautionary regulation is the right approach for giving entrepreneurs flexibility to innovate while ensuring that consumers have the information they need to make informed choices. Yet there is much that can be improved in the framework to reach the goal of balancing innovation and protection. Below we outline where the framework is missing the mark and recommend some modifications that will take into account the unique properties of virtual currencies and virtual currency businesses.

We hope this comment will be helpful to the department as it further develops its proposed framework, and we hope that it will publish a revised draft of the framework and solicit a second round of comments so that we can make sure we all get it right. And it’s important that we get it right.

Other jurisdictions, such as London, are looking to become the “global centre of financial innovation,” as Chancellor George Osborne put it in a recent speech about Bitcoin. If New York drops the ball, London may just pick it up. As Garrick Hileman, economic historian at the London School of Economics, told CNet last week:

The chancellor is no doubt aware that very little of the $250 million of venture capital which has been invested in Bitcoin startups to date has gone to British-based companies. Many people believe Bitcoin will be as big as the Internet. Today’s announcement from the chancellor has the potential to be a big win for the UK economy. The bottom line on today’s announcement is that Osborne thinks he’s spotted an opportunity for the City and Silicon Roundabout to siphon investment and jobs away from the US and other markets which are taking a more aggressive Bitcoin regulatory posture.

Let’s get it right.

Today the New York Department of Financial Services released a proposed framework for licensing and regulating virtual currency businesses. Their “BitLicense” proposal [PDF] is the culmination of a yearlong process that included widely publicizes hearings.

My initial reaction to the rules is that they are a step in the right direction. Whether one likes it or not, states will want to license and regulate Bitcoin-related businesses, so it’s good to see that New York engaged in a thoughtful process, and that the rules they have proposed are not out of the ordinary.

That said, I’m glad DFS will be accepting comments on the proposed framework because there are a few things that can probably be improved or clarified. For example:

  1. Licensees would be required to maintain “the identity and physical addresses of the parties involved” in “all transactions involving the payment, receipt, exchange or conversion, purchase, sale, transfer, or transmission of Virtual Currency.” That seems a bit onerous and unworkable.

    Today, if you have a wallet account with Coinbase, the company collects and keeps your identity information. Under New York’s proposal, however, they would also be required to collect the identity information of anyone you send bitcoins to, and anyone that sends bitcoins to you (which might be technically impossible). That means identifying every food truck you visit, and every alpaca sock merchant you buy from online.

    The same would apply to merchant service companies like BitPay. Today they identify their merchant account holders–say a coffee shop–but under the proposed framework they would also have to identify all of their merchants’ customers–i.e. everyone who buys a cup of coffee. Not only is this potentially unworkable, but it also would undermine some of Bitcoin’s most important benefits. For example, the ability to trade across borders, especially with those in developing countries who don’t have access to electronic payment systems, is one of Bitcoin’s greatest advantages and it could be seriously hampered by such a requirement.

    The rationale for creating a new “BitLicense” specific to virtual currencies was to design something that took the special characteristics of virtual currencies into account (something existing money transmission rules didn’t do). I hope the rule can be modified so that it can come closer to that ideal.

  2. The definition of who is engaged in “virtual currency business activity,” and thus subject to the licensing requirement, is quite broad. It has the potential to swallow up online wallet services, like Blockchain, who are merely providing software to their customers rather than administering custodial accounts. It might potentially also include non-financial services like Proof of Existence, which provides a notary service on top of the Bitcoin block chain. Ditto for other services, perhaps like NameCoin, that use cryptocurrency tokens to track assets like domain names.

  3. The rules would also require a license of anyone “controlling, administering, or issuing a Virtual Currency.” While I take this to apply to centralized virtual currencies, some might interpret it to also mean that you must acquire a license before you can deploy a new decentralized altcoin. That should be clarified.

In order to grow and reach its full potential, the Bitcoin ecosystem needs regulatory certainty from dozens of states. New York is taking a leading role in developing that a regulatory structure and the path it chooses will likely influence other states. This is why we have to make sure that New York gets it right. They are on the right track and I look forward to engaging in the comment process to help them get all the way there.

In April I had the opportunity to testify before the House Small Business Committee on the costs and benefits of small business use of Bitcoin. It was a lively hearing, especially thanks to fellow witness Mark T. Williams, a professor of finance at Boston University. To say he was skeptical of Bitcoin would be an understatement.

Whenever people make the case that Bitcoin will inevitably collapse, I ask them to define collapse and name a date by which it will happen. I sometimes even offer to make a bet. As Alex Tabarrok has explained, bets are a tax on bullshit.

So one thing I really appreciate about Prof. Williams is that unlike any other critic, he has been willing to make a clear prediction about how soon he thought Bitcoin would implode. On December 10, he told Tim Lee in an interview that he expected Bitcoin’s price to fall to under $10 in the first half of 2014. A week later, on December 17, he clearly reiterated his prediction in an op-ed for Business Insider:

I predict that Bitcoin will trade for under $10 a share by the first half of 2014, single digit pricing reflecting its option value as a pure commodity play.

Well, you know where this is going. We’re now five months into the year. How is Bitcoin doing?

coindesk-bpi-chart

It’s in the middle of a rally, with the price crossing $600 for the first time in a couple of months. Yesterday Dish Networks announced it would begin accepting Bitcoin payments from customers, making it the largest company yet to do so.

None of this is to say that Bitcoin’s future is assured. It is a new and still experimental technology. But I think we can put to bed the idea that it will implode in the short term because it’s not like any currency or exchange system that came before, which was essentially William’s argument.

Patrick Byrne, CEO of Overstock.com, discusses how Overstock.com became one of the first online retail stores to accept Bitcoin. Byrne provides insight into how Bitcoin lowers transaction costs, making it beneficial to both retailers and consumers, and how governments are attempting to limit access to Bitcoin. Byrne also discusses his project DeepCapture.com, which raises awareness for market manipulation and naked short selling, as well as his philanthropic work and support for education reform.

Download

Related Links

opengraphI’m thrilled to make available today a discussion draft of a new paper I’ve written with Houman Shadab and Andrea Castillo looking at what will likely be the next wave of Bitcoin regulation, which we think will be aimed at financial instruments, including securities and derivatives, as well as prediction markets and even gambling. You can grab the draft paper from SSRN, and we very much hope you will give us your feedback and help us correct any errors. This is a complicated issue area and we welcome all the help we can get.

While there are many easily regulated intermediaries when it comes to traditional securities and derivatives, emerging bitcoin-denominated instruments rely much less on traditional intermediaries. Additionally, the block chain technology that Bitcoin introduced for the first time makes completely decentralized markets and exchanges possible, thus eliminating the need for intermediaries in complex financial transactions. In the article we survey the type of financial instruments and transactions that will most likely be of interest to regulators, including traditional securities and derivatives, new bitcoin-denominated instruments, and completely decentralized markets and exchanges.

We find that bitcoin derivatives would likely not be subject to the full scope of regulation under the Commodities and Exchange Act because such derivatives would likely involve physical delivery (as opposed to cash settlement) and would not be capable of being centrally cleared. We also find that some laws, including those aimed at online gambling, do not contemplate a payment method like Bitcoin, thus placing many transactions in a legal gray area.

Following the approach to Bitcoin taken by FinCEN, we conclude that other financial regulators should consider exempting or excluding certain financial transactions denominated in Bitcoin from the full scope of the regulations, much like private securities offerings and forward contracts are treated. We also suggest that to the extent that regulation and enforcement becomes more costly than its benefits, policymakers should consider and pursue strategies consistent with that new reality, such as efforts to encourage resilience and adaptation.

I look forward to your comments!

Later today I’ll be testifying at a hearing before the House Small Business Committee titled “Bitcoin: Examining the Benefits and Risks for Small Business.” It will be live streamed starting at 1 p.m. My testimony will be available on the Mercatus website at that time, but below is some of my work on Bitcoin in case you’re new to the issue.

Also, tonight I’ll be speaking at a great event hosted by the DC FinTech meetup on “Bitcoin & the Internet of Money.” I’ll be joined by Bitcoin core developer Jeff Garzik and we’ll be interviewed on stage by Joe Weisenthal of Business Insider. It’s open to the public, but you have to RSVP.

Finally, stay tuned because in the next couple of days my colleagues Houman Shadab, Andrea Castillo, and I will be posting a draft of our new law review article looking at Bitcoin derivatives, prediction markets, and gambling. Bitcoin is the most fascinating issue I’ve ever worked on.

Here’s Some Bitcoin Reading…

And here’s my interview with Reihan Salam discussing Bitcoin…

The volatility of Bitcoin prices is one of the strongest headwinds the currency faces. Unfortunately, until my quantitative analysis last month, most of the discussion surrounding Bitcoin volatility so far has been anecdotal. I want to make it easier for people to move beyond anecdotes, so I have created a Bitcoin volatility index at btcvol.info, which I’m hoping can become or inspire a standard metric that people can agree on.

The volatility index at btcvol.info is based on daily closing prices for Bitcoin as reported by CoinDesk. I calculate the difference in daily log prices for each day in the dataset, and then calculate the sample standard deviation of those daily returns for the preceding 30 days. The result is an estimate of how spread out daily price fluctuations are—volatility.

The site also includes a basic API, so feel free to integrate this volatility measure into your site or use it for data analysis.

I of course hope that Bitcoin volatility becomes much lower over time. I expect both the maturing of the ecosystem as well as the introduction of a Bitcoin derivatives market will cause volatility to decrease. Having one or more volatility metrics will help us determine whether these or other factors make a difference.

You can support btcvol.info by spreading the word or of course by donating via Bitcoin to the address at the bottom of the site.

Over a month ago I testified at the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Bitcoin. I’ve been asked by the committee to submit answers to additional questions, and I thought I’d try to tap into the Bitcoin community’s wisdom by posting here the questions and my draft answers and inviting you to post in the comments any suggestions you might have. I’d especially appreciate examples of innovative uses of Bitcoin or interesting potential business cases. Thanks for your help! Continue reading →

Everyone seems to be worried about Bitcoin’s carbon footprint lately. Last week, an article on Quartz claimed that Bitcoin miners are spending $17 million per day on electricity in order to reap $4.4 million worth of bitcoins. And Yesterday, Pando Daily ran a piece that ominously warned about Bitcoin’s carbon footprint.

One problem with both of these pieces is that they seem to rely on electricity consumption estimates from blockchain.info. While this site is great for getting stats about the Bitcoin network, it’s not such a great site for estimating electricity consumption. Blockchain.info clearly states that it is using an estimate of 650 Watts per gigahash [per second, I assume] in its electricity calculations. While this may have been a good estimate of the efficiency of the Bitcoin network when the page was first created, the network has become much more efficient since then. Archive.org shows that the 650W/GH/s figure was used on the earliest cached copy of the page, from December 2, 2011; yes, that is over two years ago. Continue reading →

Is there a Bitcoin bubble? Jason Kuznicki thinks so and believes that he has conclusive proof. He blogs three graphs that show more or less that there is a lot of speculation in Bitcoin. But does speculation prove that there’s a bubble? Let’s use Bayes’s rule to think about this carefully.

Bayes’s rule is a mathematical tool for thinking about the incorporation of new evidence into subjective probabilities. Let’s suppose that there is some proposition A for which you have a prior belief. Somebody offers evidence B for or against A. How much should you change your belief in A based on evidence B?

Bayes’s rule boils the answer down to a simple mathematical form: Continue reading →