Banking Issues Continue While Surety Bond Underwriters Embrace MSBs

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Authored by: Brian Nelson, Bond Manager at Alpha Surety Brokerage

Why are MSBs are locked out of the traditional banking sector while at the same time surety bonds are becoming cheaper and underwriting requirements continue to loosen? I know I’m oversimplifying this a bit, but surety bond underwriters understand that claims on MSB bonds are typically caused by a breach in compliance. Naturally, banks understand the same. However, as banks continue to close MSB accounts, surety underwriters are issuing approvals on lower underwriting requirements and at premiums that have previously been reserved for only the top revenue companies. It used to be that new money transmitters, check cashers and prepaid access companies would pay at least 3% for their bonds if they could even qualify based on verification of substantial personal assets or substantial cash in the business bank account. Things have changed. Recently, a company with neither a large amount of cash in the bank or a strong personal financial statement for the owner, received an approval for 1.5% on a multi-million dollar aggregate bond need. According to the underwriters, the reason for the low quote was because competition for these types of bonds has increased significantly. (For a state-by-state list of bond amount requirements, click State by State Bonds.)

Wouldn’t it be nice if banks felt the same way about competition? MSBs around the country are dying to find banking partners that will treat them fairly. I recently spoke to an MSB about a potential partnership that would have brought them a substantial amount of new business. After my presentation, I was told that their bank wouldn’t allow for them to partner with other MSBs. I’m still confused by the comment because both entities involved in the partnership would have been licensed money transmitters. Since when does a partnership between two licensed companies create a compliance risk for banks?

Unfortunately, it is the poor, underserved and deprived populations that suffer the most when MSBs are cutoff from serving them. Organizations like the NMTA, NBPCA and others have been fighting the banking battle for years with little to no progress. We can only hope that newer industries like the digital currency and the electronic payments industries will bring their resources, connections and energy to the fight. Without them, I’m afraid we’ll be talking about the same banking issues for many more years.

If you know of any groups or efforts focused on the non-banking issue, please share details in the comments section.

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Myth Busters: No Widespread Use of Bitcoin for Crime

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***The following is a Bloomberg article written by Bitcoin insider, Carter Dougherty, and re-posted with his permission.***

Get the article on Bloomberg.com here.

Treasury’s Cohen Sees No Widespread Use of Bitcoin for Crime (1)
2014-03-18 15:55:31.842 GMT

By Carter Dougherty and Greg Farrell

The U.S. government sees no evidence of “widespread” use of virtual currencies such as Bitcoin to evade sanctions or finance terrorism, the Treasury Department’s top official targeting money laundering said.

“Terrorists generally need ‘real’ currency, not virtual currency, to pay their expenses -– such as salaries, bribes, weapons, travel, and safe houses,’ David S. Cohen, the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

‘‘The same is true for those seeking to evade sanctions,’’ Cohen said in a speech at the New York headquarters of Bloomberg News.

Governments around the world are grappling with how to classify or regulate virtual currencies such as Bitcoin. Authorities in Russia, China and Israel have sought to restrict the payment system, while Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said in January the U.S. needed more time to assess the ‘‘phenomenon’’ to ensure it isn’t used for unlawful purposes.

Cohen rejected arguments that regulation would drive virtual currency innovation out of the U.S., saying ‘‘the opposite is true’’ in this new industry.

‘‘Financial transparency can help bring stability to the virtual currency market and security to its users and investors,’’ Cohen said. ‘‘And that is what we are trying to do through sensible, flexible and -– to use a word from the tech world -– scalable regulation.’’

At the same time, Cohen emphasized that the government would err on the side of squeezing innovation if necessary for law enforcement purposes.

Choosing Transparency

‘‘There may be situations where we need to choose between innovation and transparency,’’ Cohen said. ‘‘Let me be clear: When forced to choose between the two, we will err on the side of transparency.’’

Cohen said that some virtual currency companies haven’t registered with Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, a requirement established in March 2013, and aren’t following record keeping and reporting requirements.

‘‘Those that do not comply with these rules should understand that their actions will have consequences,” Cohen said.

The Treasury Department’s Bank Secrecy Act Advisory Group will include a member of the virtual-currency community to help make regulations “better informed and more effective,” Cohen said, without saying who it will be.

The department has urged industry leaders to devise ways to prevent criminal use of virtual currencies rather than develop technology that “further obscures financial trails,” he said.

Bitcoin Origins

Bitcoin, the most popular digital currency, emerged from a 2008 paper written by a programmer or group of programmers under the name Satoshi Nakamoto. It uses a public ledger to record transactions made under pseudonyms, an aspect of the system that has fed mistrust among law enforcement.

The price for Bitcoins soared in November, topping $1,000 for the first time, as merchants including Overstock.com began accepting the virtual currency and speculators anticipated broader use of digital money.

Prices dropped this year amid mounting U.S. prosecutions of Bitcoin-linked money laundering, concerns that governments would restrict the currency and market disruptions including hacker attacks on online exchanges.

Bitcoin prices declined about 1 percent today, and stood at $612.50 at 11:08 a.m. New York time, according to the CoinDesk Bitcoin Price Index.

‘Grossly Inefficient’

The decline was “likely” connected to the outage at the website Blockchain.info, a popular Bitcoin wallet provider, said Jonathan Levin, a co-founder of Coinometrics, a research firm in Oxford, U.K. He also said that digital currency markets are “grossly inefficient.”

Cohen said that the Treasury Department places “real value” on financial innovation such as digital currencies.

“Advancements in technology that allow entrepreneurs and businesses to innovate, grow and hire are crucial to our country’s long-term success,” Cohen said.

Cohen has served as undersecretary since 2011. He first joined the Treasury in 1999 and, while working for its general counsel, helped draft part of the Patriot Act that granted the regulator new tools to thwart money laundering and terrorist financing after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Treasury’s office for terrorism and financial intelligence seeks to prevent criminal networks from using the U.S. financial system and to cut off funding for terrorists. It includes the Office of Foreign Assets Control that helps enforce sanctions on nations, such as Iran, that have a history of providing support to terrorist groups.

Accepting Applications

New York financial regulators also have been working on a response to Bitcoin. Benjamin Lawsky, the state’s superintendent of financial services, announced last week that his office is accepting applications to operate exchanges for Bitcoin and other digital currencies. He plans to propose a set of rules for virtual-currency firms by mid-year.

Last month’s collapse of Tokyo-based Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox, in which some customers lost their holdings, shows the need for “robust standards for consumer protection, cyber security and anti-money laundering compliance,” Lawsky said.

Federal authorities have been targeting misuse. Last year, they shut down Silk Road, an online drug and weapons bazaar where Bitcoin was the preferred medium of exchange. In January, they arrested Charlie Shrem, a Bitcoin entrepreneur, on charges of money laundering. He has denied the allegations.

To contact the reporters on this story: Carter Dougherty in Washington at cdougherty6@bloomberg.net; Greg Farrell in New York at gregfarrell@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Maura Reynolds at mreynolds34@bloomberg.net Anthony Gnoffo, Gregory Mott

NY Virtual Currency Announcement Misleads

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The excitement and enthusiasm of Digital Currency entrepreneurs was palatable after the recent announcement by Ben Lawsky, New York’s first Superintendent of Financial Services, that the state would begin accepting license applications by Digital Currency exchangers. However, less than 48 hours after Lawsky’s announcement, feelings of frustration have replaced the excitement. Bitcoiners are quickly learning that the announcement does not apply to the majority of companies in the space.

Why are Digital Currency industry members so upset and frustrated?

New York is only accepting applications from “pure” exchanges. That is to say, exchanges that do not offer any other services or products other than exchange services.

Based on that information, the heavily funded, well-known and respected Bitcoin companies like Coinbase, Circle, Kraken, itBit or BitStamp are not being allowed to submit applications to the state. And it’s not likely that smaller, less visible companies will submit money transmitter applications because of the surety bond requirement. The $500,000 surety bond, which is required to be submitted with the NY application, is not attainable for these companies.

The motives behind this announcement are somewhat suspect. Having such a narrow scope of possible applicants doesn’t make much sense. If Lawsky and his team in New York really want to protect consumers by issuing Digital Currency specific regulations, then they should encourage the big industry participants to submit applications, not lock them out. And on the subject of consumer protection, a singular focus on exchanges for consumer protection purposes is shortsighted and will be found lacking. New York will accomplish little with this current application acceptance strategy.

– Brian Nelson

Is Objectivity Possible for Compliance Consultants?

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Two articles appeared in the New York Times on September 13, 2013 which caught my attention because of its relation to ‘objectivity’ in the Compliance Consultant industry.    The two articles appeared in separate sections of the New York Times and had no bearing on each other in any way.  It was my reading of the articles which raised an interesting thought.

The first article entitled ‘ 2 Consultants to Banking Industry Come Under Scrutiny’ by Ben Protess and Jessica Silver-Greenberg concerns the Promontory Financial Group and Pricewaterhouse Coopers  being subpoenaed within the past few months by the New York Department of Financial Services.  It appears that there is a questioning of the Compliance Consultants being able to have total independence when reviewing a bank.  There is a possibility that there could be a conflict of interest  for the Compliance Consultant in giving independent assessments when at the same time it is the customer who is choosing and paying for the consultant work.  This situation is also causing concern to the Regulators  because of its own use of Compliance Consultants to correct and institute AML compliance processes for the banks.

The second article appearing in the New York Times the same day was ‘When Accountants Act as Bankers.’ By Floyd Norris.    In this particular case, Deloitte L.L.P was fined 14 million English pounds and one its retired partners Maghsoud Einollahi – 250,000 English pounds  for failure in its professional responsibilities for work conducted for MG Rover.  Apparently in the U.K, there are ethics rules of the Institute of Chartered Accountants which require accountants to consider the ‘public interest.’  In this particular case, the U.K Financial Reporting Council ruled ‘ They placed their own interests ahead of that of the public and compromised their own objectivity.’

After reading these two articles, the terminology of ‘ the Public Good’ is so very appropriate when it comes to Anti-Money Laundering and the Countering of Financing of Terrorism issues in the U.S.A.   These two serious issues if not controlled and thus prohibited at the banking level can be considered as being for ‘ the Public Good.’  And we would expect the compliance staff at the banks and the supplemental professional assistance from the Compliance Consultants to set up maximum procedures to prevent the infiltration of drug money and other criminal finances from entering the U.S Banking system.

I am under the belief that Compliance personnel are indeed very serious about their responsibilities in the prevention of money laundering and terrorist financing.  But there could be the tendency of trying to be lenient with their Customers not for financial gain but perhaps not wanting the hurt the ‘bottom line’ of their customers.  The areas of Compliance and Business Development do come under different mentalities.  On the one hand, if the compliance group institutes such strong compliance rules then from the business development point of view – it means a loss of revenue from operations.

Somehow we have to come to a level whereby there is a regulation of some sort which ties into the concept of the ‘Public Good’ which will clearly spell out the objectify role of the compliance consultants.   Then once this rule is established, both the customer and the compliance consultant would clearly understand seriousness of the U.S Compliance Regulations.  The consultant would then have no choice but to demonstrate a strict compliance assessment.   In a way, the rules will then provide more comfort to the consultant when conducting compliance work on an objective basis.

– Allan Ramlall

State of California Fires the First Shot at Bitcoin Operators

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It was only a matter of time before the most over-regulated state in the country got involved in Bitcoin regulation. A new article from PaymentsSource describes the attack launched against the Bitcoin Foundation by regulators from the state of California. Interestingly enough, the Bitcoin Foundation should in no way be considered a money transmitter. Could it be that California regulators have delivered the cease and desist order to the Bitcoin Foundation simply to wrangle other Bitcoin operators in one fell swoop?

Read the full story HERE.

bitcoin-foundation-california

FinCEN to Bitcoin Administrators & Exchangers – You are Money Transmitters

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According to the statutes and regulations released by FinCEN on March 18, 2013 regarding virtual currencies, administrators and exchangers of Bitcoin will be treated as money transmitters.

An administrator or exchanger that (1) accepts and transmits a convertible virtual currency or (2) buys or sells convertible virtual currency for any reason is a money transmitter under FinCEN’s regulations, unless a limitation to or exemption from the definition applies to the person.

The definition of a money transmitter does not differentiate between real currencies and convertible virtual currencies. Accepting and transmitting anything of value that substitutes for currency makes a person a money transmitter under the regulations implementing the BSA.

Bitcoin

What does it mean to be classified as a money transmitter in respect to surety bonds?

Although money transmitters are regulated at the federal level, surety bond requirements are set by each individual state. The majority of US states require a company licensed as a money transmitter to post a surety bond as part of the state licensing process. Bond amounts range from $25,000 to $2,000,000+ based on a statutory or variable amount set by the state’s regulators.

A nationally licensed money transmitter is required to post approximately $7,000,000 in total surety bonds. At a premium cost of 1-2% of the aggregate total, Bitcoin administrators and exchangers with clients on a national scale will pay $70,000 – $140,000 for their surety bonds and the opportunity to be in business.

Since Bitcoin is a virtual currency, it would be extremely difficult to operate on anything other than a national scale. Therefore, any administrator or exchanger that is unable to qualify or pay for the $7,000,000 in surety bonds will be forced to close their doors or face legal action.

The question is, what will the impact be on the Bitcoin market as the number of administrators and exchangers decrease due to new regulations?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section.