This blog explores emerging EU and UK approaches to cryptoasset markets and products. This is the first of three blogs on cryptoassets regulation. The next two – to be published later this year – will focus on what the emerging EU/UK regulatory approaches mean for banks and crypto natives.

Relevant to: 

  • Senior leadership and risk and compliance specialists in EU and UK traditional regulated financial services involved in shaping and growing a crypto business.                                                                                                                          
  • Heads of risk and compliance in EU and UK crypto native firms looking to navigate the cryptoassets regulatory landscape.

The exponential growth of the cryptoassets market – currently at an estimated $1.5 – 2 trillion – has resulted in the development of an ecosystem of firms specialising in the issuance, trading and safeguarding of these assets. Traditional regulated financial services (FS) firms are also exploring opportunities to grow this market alongside their existing financial services offering.

This pace of growth has not escaped the attention of EU and UK policymakers and their focus has turned to updating the regulatory framework, and clarifying expectations of firms, to ensure that market integrity, financial stability and consumer protection are maintained.

In this blog we take stock of the key types of cryptoassets that have captured EU and UK policymakers’ attention. We also explore the emerging regulatory approaches to crypto markets products.

What is a cryptoasset?

There is no widely agreed regulatory definition of a cryptoasset and definitions vary across regulators. Some people use the terms “cryptoassets” and “digital assets” interchangeably. Digital assets are a digital representation of value or rights which can be created, transferred and stored electronically. Two defining features appear to dominate their classification as a cryptoasset – they are based on Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) [1], or similar, and are cryptographically secure – i.e. encrypted.

We will follow the regulators’ approach and, for the purposes of this blog, use the term “cryptoassets” to discuss the taxonomy. 

Guiding principles driving EU and UK crypto regulatory taxonomy

Seven broad groups of cryptoassets have caught the attention of EU and UK policymakers, again based on their underlying features. These groups differ in terms of how (if at all) their value is backed, their economic function, and by whom they are issued. 

Some cryptoassets combine features across groups, or transition from one group to another over its lifetime, and therefore may require legal interpretation around the regulatory treatment. We explore the common types of cryptoassets that have influenced regulatory taxonomies:

  • Exchange tokens – cryptoassets that are not issued or backed by a central authority and are intended as a means of exchange. However, as they are not backed by assets and their value can be volatile. A typical example is Bitcoin.                                                                                      
  • Utility tokens – cryptoassets that grant holders access to a current or prospective product or service. They often grant rights similar to pre-payment vouchers.                                                                                                                                                    
  • Stablecoins – cryptoassets whose value is referenced to one or more underlying assets. For example, the underlying reference asset may be fiat currency, a commodity or a basket of assets/currencies. A stablecoin widely adopted with reach and use across jurisdictions could become systemically important, e.g. to make payments.                                                                   
  • Security tokens  cryptoassets that provide rights and obligations similar to traditional regulated financial instruments such as equity and debt (e.g. ownership, repayment of a sum of money).                                                                                                 
  • Cryptoassets classed as e-money – cryptoassets that meet the definition of electronic money (e-money). These are broadly digital payment instruments that store value, can be redeemed at par at any time, and offer holders a direct claim on the issuer.                                                          
  • Non-fungible tokens (NFTs)  type of cryptoasset that references a unique underlying asset and is not interchangeable with other cryptoassets in its category. The record of uniqueness typically exists as a cryptographic record on DLT. They are used in the gaming, music and digital art industries, as well as to represent real world assets such as jewellery, with each NFT referencing a unique piece of art or music.

Another emerging category of digital assets is Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs). CBDCs are a digital form of sovereign currency, issued by and treated as a liability of a central bank. They may or may not be cryptographically secure or issued on DLT. CBDCs can be for retail or wholesale use. A retail CBDC is a digital equivalent of cash for households and businesses to use. A wholesale CBDC is designed for restricted access by financial institutions and is similar to central bank reserve and settlement accounts. It is intended for the settlement of large interbank payments, or to provide digital central bank money to settle securities transactions between institutional counterparties.

In this blog, we don’t address NFTs or CBDCs as the policy landscape is still developing. 

How do cryptoassets challenge regulatory objectives?

Policymakers are considering how crypto markets interact with regulatory objectives such as safety of consumers, integrity of markets, and financial stability. 

They are alert to the consumer protection challenges posed by unbacked exchange and utility tokens in particular. Their price volatility is a key concern since retail investment dominates the market. For example, the price movements of Bitcoin (the best-known exchange token) have been twelve times more pronounced than that of the S&P500 [2]. 

Policymakers also have long-standing concerns that cryptoassets’ global reach, speed of transactions and potential for increased anonymity make them suitable for criminal use. 

There are financial stability concerns too, largely due to two reasons – the increasing interconnectedness between crypto and traditional markets, and the emergence of stablecoins that reference real world financial assets or fiat currency.

There are signs of growing institutional investment in crypto markets. Leveraged investors (including hedge funds) dominate trading in Bitcoin futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange [3]. Banks are also building out their crypto offerings, in particular custody and trading services. While banks’ direct exposure to crypto is limited for now, this could change if their crypto activities give rise to balance sheet exposure to cryptoassets (e.g. offering crypto broker-dealer services and lending). This could increase the interconnectedness between crypto and traditional markets – a trend the International Monetary Fund [4] (IMF) and Financial Stability Board [5] (FSB) have already noted. As the two become more interconnected, regulators are concerned that financial stability risks could increase. For example, a large fall in cryptoasset prices could cause investors to sell other assets and potentially transmit shocks through the financial system.

Stablecoins currently make up around 5% [6] of the crypto market and their use is mainly for payment in crypto markets. But proposals to launch tokens for wide public use – often called systemic stablecoins – have caught the attention of policymakers, specifically the implications for financial stability and retail payments. For example, there are concerns that stablecoins backed with risky assets may not support all redemptions – making them unsuitable for systemic payments use. These concerns have triggered a global response to systemic stablecoins and international work on standards and recommendations for regulatory frameworks, led by the FSB, is ongoing.

Emerging EU and UK regulatory approaches

The EU and UK are taking different approaches to regulating crypto markets. The EU is currently developing a comprehensive crypto-specific regulatory framework – the Markets in Cryptoassets (MiCA) regulation [7]. It aims to harmonise regulatory requirements around the issuance and servicing of most cryptoassets. The European Council and Parliament are expected to launch negotiations on the regulation in the first half of 2022. It is likely that the regulation will be finalised by Q1 2023. In the meantime, national regulatory approaches to cryptoassets vary significantly across the EU.

The UK is taking a more organic approach, addressing specific policy areas of concern and focussing on areas that can be practically regulated within jurisdictional boundaries. Protecting consumers is a key priority – for example, in 2020 the FCA banned the sale of crypto derivatives to retail consumers. The UK Government is now focussed on developing a framework to regulate stablecoin markets – we expect to see initial proposals in the first half of 2022. 

These approaches mean that in some areas the EU and UK crypto regulatory perimeter captures cryptoassets in a slightly different way. The diagram below sets out the latest regulatory position: 


In some areas, the EU and UK are taking similar approaches to regulating crypto markets. For example, both the EU and UK initially focussed efforts on bringing crypto exchanges and wallets within the scope of AML/CTF rules.

In addition, where cryptoassets provide rights or obligations similar to traditional regulated financial instruments, the existing regulatory framework will be applied. This means that cryptoassets that qualify as e-money are already within the EU and UK crypto regulatory perimeter.

Security token markets are also within the UK’s regulatory net and are likely to be regulated under MiFID II in the EU, although this should be assessed on a case-by-case basis in each Member State as national regimes may vary. The EU is taking steps to reduce scope for regulatory arbitrage in the treatment of security tokens by including DLT in the MiFID II definition of a financial instrument.

The EU and UK are also taking directionally similar approaches to stablecoins. Both propose to bring stablecoin issuers and service providers within the regulatory net, with rules proportionate to the stablecoin’s systemic importance. A more in-depth comparison of their regimes will be possible once detailed requirements emerge in 2022.

Based on the latest proposals, the most notable difference between the EU’s and UK’s approach to crypto regulation is around exchange and utility token markets. The EU’s MiCA regulation will bring issuers of exchange and utility tokens within the regulatory perimeter. It will also establish a framework for crypto service providers (e.g. wallets). They will likely be subject to general requirements (e.g. prudential safeguards), and rules specific to the service they provide.

In the UK, exchange and utility token markets are likely to be outside the regulatory perimeter, although three areas could affect market intermediaries: the sale of derivatives referencing exchange and utility tokens to retail consumers is banned; crypto exchanges and wallet providers are within the scope of anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing rules; and exchange and utility token promotions are also likely to be captured by the UK financial promotions regime, as per the latest proposals.

The regulatory conundrum

As EU and UK crypto regulatory frameworks take shape in 2022, three key issues will continue to challenge policymakers:

1. Lack of international harmonisation

Overall we see limited international coordination for the treatment of cryptoassets which has led to a fragmented international regulatory landscape. However in two areas we see global coordination – systemic stablecoins and the prudential treatment of cryptoasset exposures. The FSB, Basel Committee on Banking Supervision (BCBS), the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures (CPMI), and the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO) are leading global coordination efforts.

2. Mechanics of regulation makes it difficult to regulate crypto markets

Traditional financial regulation is typically applied at a national level, mirroring national regulatory mandates. But cryptoassets are global by default since most are based on permissionless digital networks spanning across jurisdictions. Market participants can move across jurisdictions quickly, limiting what policymakers can do to oversee the market. For example, despite an FCA ban, some UK retail customers have still been able to purchase cryptoasset derivatives abroad, or through means outside the FCA’s control [8].

3. Applying analogue regulation to crypto markets

Key crypto market activities (e.g. trading, custody and settlement) are subject to interpretations of traditional rulebooks such as MiFID II if the underlying product has characteristics similar to traditional financial instruments like shares, debentures etc. However these rules were not designed with cryptoassets in mind and applying them can be practically challenging. For example, as ESMA highlighted [9], applying existing frameworks to the decentralised business models of some crypto firms is difficult. 

EU and UK policymakers are taking some steps to address these issues. For example, the EU is establishing a pilot to help firms develop DLT-based market infrastructure and inform potential future rules on crypto trading and settlement. In the UK, in 2020, the Government sought views on areas of regulation that needs clarification to support the use of security tokens.

Conclusion

In 2022, EU and UK policymakers will continue to develop the future regulatory frameworks for cryptoassets. We expect them to focus on areas of the market that can be practically regulated, including systemic stablecoins, and market intermediaries, such as exchanges and wallets.

The next two blogs in our series will explore the interaction of emerging EU and UK cryptoassets regulation with banks’ and crypto natives’ crypto strategies.

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Endnotes

[1] DLT is a decentralised database for recording transactions, shared by a network of computers. The network works together to verify transactions without the need for a central authority. Each computer in the network shares an immutable replica of the same database. Blockchain is the best known DLT. 

[2] https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/speech/2021/october/jon-cunliffe-swifts-sibos-2021

[3] https://www.bis.org/publ/qtrpdf/r_qt2112b.pdf

[4] https://www.imf.org/-/media/Files/Publications/gfs-notes/2022/English/GFSNEA2022001.ashx

[5] https://www.fsb.org/wp-content/uploads/P160222.pdf

[6] https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/speech/2021/october/jon-cunliffe-swifts-sibos-2021 

[7] The EU Commission published a legislative proposal in September 2020

[8] https://www.fca.org.uk/publication/supervisory-notices/first-supervisory-notice-binance-markets-limited.pdf

[9] https://www.esma.europa.eu/sites/default/files/library/esma50-157-1391_crypto_advice.pdf