Overview of the Cryptocurrency Licensing Regime in California
As we discussed in a recent post, New York has already implemented a statute that requires those engaged in certain virtual currency business activities to obtain a license from the state. In a similar fashion, California has proposed A.B. 1123 (the “Bill” or “Virtual Currency Act”) that would allow the state to begin regulating the industry. This post focuses on California’s proposed version of a “BitLicense”, which like New York, would prohibit a person from engaging in a virtual currency business activity unless they receive a license from California’s Commissioner of Business Oversight (“Commissioner”).
California Virtual Currency Act – A.B. 1123
Pursuant to the Virtual Currency Act, any persons involved in a “virtual currency business” in California must register with the Commissioner. The Act defines a “virtual currency business” as “maintaining full custody or control of virtual currency in this state on behalf of others.” The definition of “virtual currency” is very broad (“any type of digital unit that is used as a medium of exchange or a form of digitally stored value”) although there are some carveouts for gaming platforms and for consumer reward programs.
The above definition seems to capture those groups who are offering exchange and wallet services for persons who are buying, selling and holding bitcoin and other digital currencies. Right now we don’t believe that a cryptocurrency hedge fund entity or its manager/general partner would need to obtain the license – a fund would simply be holding virtual currency on behalf of itself and therefore the general partner entity would not need to be registered.
California Application Process
In the event an entity needs to register, there is an application process where the Commissioner will engage in an extensive review of the applicant’s background and services offered. California would also require an initial $5,000 application fee, a renewal fee of $2,500, and the maintenance of a minimum amount of capital as determined by the Commissioner. The licensee would be required to have an annual audit and would need to provide balance sheets, income statements, and other financial verification forms on a periodic basis. A provisional license may be granted for a $500 fee to those engaged in a virtual currency business with less than $1,000,000 in outstanding obligations, and if the business model represents a low or no risk to consumers (as determined by the Commissioner). The provisional licensee may also be required to register as a money services business.
As the definition of a virtual currency business is very broad, this Bill (like a predecessor bill which was abandoned) is heavily opposed by digital non-profit organizations, as well as many others in the space. It is yet to be seen whether this Bill will be passed or amended once again. However, the Bill’s reintroduction does demonstrate that lawmakers are still eager to regulate the industry. If passed, the Virtual Currency Act would become effective July 1, 2018. We will continue to follow the developments surrounding California’s Virtual Currency Act, and any potential impact this may have on investment managers in the state.
Bart Mallon is a founding partner of Cole-Frieman & Mallon LLP. Cole-Frieman & Mallon has been instrumental in structuring the launches of some of the first digital currency-focused hedge funds. For more information on this topic, please contact Mr. Mallon directly at 415-868-5345.