Crypto Mama and the SEC’s “Escape Room”

“If figuring out how to deal with the SEC on crypto issues feels like a regulatory version of an escape room, here’s the latest clue,” wrote one of the agency’s own Commissioners last week on Twitter. It wasn’t the first such salvo by Commissioner Hester Peirce—known to many as “crypto Mama”—and it’s unlikely to be the last.

The SEC’s latest misstep in Peirce’s eyes—the one that drew the “escape room” snark—was a bloated piece of legalese the agency coughed up last Monday in response to broker-dealer firms that wanted to branch out to sell security tokens. The document, a joint release from FINRA, explained how a regulation called the Customer Protection Rule made such sales a non-starter for now. While Bitcoin and Ethereum are in the clear since the SEC has said they are not securities, brokers who want to sell other popular tokens—think Tezos or EOS or Dash—remain in limbo .

According to SEC staff, the trouble lies in the fact that brokers can’t protect digital assets in the same way they safeguard other customer investments. While brokers can comply with the Protection Rule by parking their clients stocks and bonds with a bank or trust company, the same options don’t exist when it comes to security tokens. As the regulators note, it’s hard to prove someone else doesn’t have the private key to a stash of crypto—and if the stash is hacked, unlike a stock certificate, there is no way to recreate it. Hence, the SEC’s slow-rolling when it comes to letting brokers sling security tokens.

“It’s a frustrating process for all involved. The SEC is saying we’re not in solutions biz, but that ‘this is the problems you guys have to solve,” says Phil Liu, a lawyer and co-founder of Arca, an investment management firm for crypto assets.

Liu adds the problem is unlikely to get cleared up soon, especially as, unlike stock certificates, many crypto assets are unique, and require extra effort from any would-be custodian that wants to store them. Meanwhile, insurance companies are not familiar enough with digital assets to back-stop brokers in the event they get hacked.

In light of all this, it’s not surprising the SEC shrugged its shoulders when it came to helping brokers sell crypto assets.  But it’s also understandable while Peirce describes the agency’s approach to crypto as an “escape room”—a confusing set of riddles and dead-ends. While countries like Switzerland are actively promoting a crypto eco-system, the leading U.S. financial regulator is telling companies when they may get sued, but doing little to create rules that could help them.

So how could the SEC do better? I will put the question directly to Commissioner Peirce when she joins me on stage on Tuesday morning at Brainstorm Tech in Aspen. If you have other questions for Hester Peirce, feel free to email them to me. If you didn’t make it Aspen, you can check out our livestream here—”Crypto Mama” goes on stage at 11am MT/1pm ET. 

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Jeff John Roberts
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@jeffjohnroberts

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DECENTRALIZED NEWS

To the Moon… Bitcoin ATMs are blooming in PA convenience stores. Investment firm offers to pay $900 per Bitcoin to Mt. Gox creditors. SEC blesses Blockstack’s token security offering. New one-stop crypto investment shop from Bitmain’s Jihan Wu is up and running. Sanction-wrecked Iran may give crypto mining a try. Winklevoss twins let bygones be bygones, say they will try Zuckerberg’s Libra

…Rekt. The Treasury Secretary thinks virtual currencies are a national security concern. Texas town bets big on Bitmain…and loses. Bitcoin back below $10,000 for a few hours. Ransomware crooks want Monroe College to pay $2 million in Bitcoin to get its files back. 

BUBBLE-O-METER

$105,000

That’s the average salary for “blockchain-realated” jobs in the U.S. right now, a figure 117% higher than the average American wage of $49,000. This is one nugget from a research report titled “Blockchain’s Got Talent” by research firm Teqatlas. Also of interest are tidbits about the firms with the most blockchain openings (top 5 are IBM, Oracle, PWC, EW and Coinbase), and the university that’s producing the most blockchain executives—take a bow Stanford.

MEMES AND MUMBLES

Testing tribal loyalties. Many crypto fans are clannish types who will defend their favorite coin from all comers—and will do the same when it comes to their political heroes. So what happens when the two loyalties collide? That was the dilemma faced by Trump-loving crypto fans when the President last week dumped on Bitcoin. The response—of course—was a series of memes, including this “Defend Trump vs Betray Bitcoin” tweet. 

FOMO NO MO’

Can Libra be like Bitcoin? Don’t count on it. Plenty has been written about Facebook’s wildly-ambitious crypto project, but Tim Lee of Ars Technica has one of the better answers to “can this possibly work?” Lee is skeptical, noting that the Libra crowd wants to enjoy all the permissionless perks of Bitcoin when it comes to regulation—while also having central control. The upshot could be ugly:

“You could wind up with a network where would-be payment app developers have to do stacks of paperwork before they can write their first line of code, where small organizations struggle to get approval to create Libra-based services, and where the functionality of services is constrained by legal requirements.”

We hope you enjoyed this edition of The Ledger. Find past editions here, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters here. Question, suggestion, or feedback? Drop us a line.

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