International Financial Regulatory Cooperation and Digital Currencies

Daniel Heller (PIIE) and Edwin M. Truman (PIIE)

This article was first published in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs (Fall 2017), Volume XVIII, Number III, pp. 59-66.

December 1, 2017

Digital currencies such as Bitcoin provide an entirely new way to transfer monetary value. Unlike banknotes or deposit money, most digital currencies are not issued by a legal entity, but by a locationless software protocol. This allows for fast and relatively inexpensive payments across the globe on a peer-to-peer basis without the involvement of banks or clearinghouses. Users of digital currency are pseudonymous—they are only identifiable by an alphanumeric string and not by their names or physical or digital addresses.

These novel attributes of digital currencies pose several challenges for national financial regulators, on the one hand, and international bodies and committees seeking to cooperate on regulatory regimes, on the other hand. For instance, the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures states "the borderless online nature of digital currencies, and the absence of an identifiable 'issuer' of the instrument, pose particular challenges to attempts at regulation that a national authority might make." The borderless nature of digital currencies also greatly facilitates regulatory arbitrage making effective international regulatory cooperation more important than ever. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) staff has opined that when it comes to new financial technologies, "policymaking will need to be nimble, experimental, and cooperative."

This article focuses on three issues raised by digital currencies that are particularly challenging for policymakers: money laundering (ML) and terrorist financing (TF), taxation, and crowdfunding through initial coin offerings (ICOs). To date, in general, policymaking has been neither nimble nor particularly cooperative. Policymakers are at risk of getting behind the curve. International financial cooperation with respect to digital currencies is most developed in the fight against ML and TF but falls short of what is needed. We recommend that in the area of ML/TF, policymakers should ensure that supervisors and regulators in all jurisdictions are monitoring activities according to the agreed international standards. In the area of taxation, authorities need to establish clear tax treatment of virtual currencies and include information on virtual currency holdings in the emerging regime of sharing data for tax purposes. With respect to ICOs, policymakers should develop a common framework for their regulatory treatment.