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Wednesday, 9 December 2015

UK Continues To Clear The Path For Growth Of Alternative Finance

Draft legislation has now been published to allow bad debt relief for investors in peer to peer loans, in addition to the new Personal Savings Allowance announced in the Summer Budget.

These measures are among those that address the key regulatory problems and perverse incentives that have been preventing the flow of finance to people and businesses who need it and improved returns to savers and investors. The first regulatory initiative was to regulate P2P lending, announced in 2013; while the first step in addressing incentives was to include P2P loans in ISAs - first announced in 2014.

In introducing the latest incentive measures the government says it remains "determined to increase competition in the financial sector, where new firms such as P2P platforms can thrive alongside the established players and compete to offer new and improved services to customers. This new relief will create a level playing field for the taxation of income from P2P lending when compared to the taxation of traditional forms of retail investment available from those established players."

The government's commitment is critical, given that the financial system is now less diverse than before the financial crisis blew up in 2008. Few bank reforms have actually taken effect - and some are being watered down. Recent fines and scandals also reveal little change in mainstream financial services culture from that described in the report of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards and most recently in the damning report into the failure of HBOS.

From 6 April 2016, individuals investing in certain P2P loans will be able to set-off the losses they incur from loans in default against income they receive from other P2P loans, when calculating their savings income for tax purposes. 

In addition, under the Personal Savings Allowance announced in the Summer Budget 2015, the first £1,000 of savings income will be exempt from tax for basic rate taxpayers and the first £500 for higher rate taxpayers. An individual’s PSA will apply to interest they receive from P2P lending after any relief for bad debts. 

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Isle of Man Goes Crypto-Crazy

I'm indebted to my colleagues in the Isle of Man for pointing me to the IoM's recent Designated Businesses (Registration and Oversight Act 2015, which imposes various registration and anti-money laundering requirements on distributed ledger technology. Do we have a poster-child for how regulation of new technology can go way too far?

The IoM compliance obligations are aimed at: 
"the business of issuing, transmitting, transferring, providing safe custody or storage of, administering, managing, lending, buying, selling, exchanging or otherwise trading or intermediating convertible virtual currencies, including crypto-currencies or similar concepts where the concept is accepted by persons as a means of payment for goods or services, a unit of account, a store of value or a commodity;"
This seems likely to be counter-productive, to say the least, given that the 'currency' aspect of distributed ledgers is often merely there to reward the 'miner' or processor of transactions or events that occur on the ledger, regardless of whether those events are themselves financial in nature - financial services being merely one of many different potential applications.

So, should every business on the IoM that uses, or might wish to use, distributed ledgers register with the authorities and introduce AML controls on everyone it deals with, just in case? Maybe so...

Two specific points to make:

1. ‘convertible virtual currencies’ are defined more broadly than one would expect:
“including crypto-currencies or similar concepts [neither term being defined, except by what follows…] where the concept is accepted by persons as a means of payment for goods or services, a unit of account, a store of value or a commodity”, 
Most definitions of a ‘currency’ require all these criteria to be met, not just any one of them. Imagine what would happen to the US Dollar, for example, if suddenly it was not accepted as meeting just one of the above criteria...  Indeed, for this reason many people disagree that Bitcoin - the most widely used form of 'crypto-currency' - is still nothing more than a commodity.

In addition, none of the typical exemptions under payment services regulations seem to be imported here. To take but one relevant example: consumer loyalty/rewards programmes are typically exempt on the basis that the rewards are only accepted as a means of payment within a 'limited network'. Do the local authorities really want every business participating in a loyalty scheme on the Isle of Man to register and apply AML controls just because the scheme involves distributed ledger technology? Maybe so...

2.  Similarly, the list of activities that trigger the relevant compliance obligations would seem to cover a vast array of potential services and their providers/users - recognising that these are distributed ledgers to which all computers running the protocol have the same access. Again, just think of consumer loyalty programmes as you go through the list:
the business of issuing, transmitting, transferring, providing safe custody or storage of, administering, managing, lending, buying, selling, exchanging or otherwise trading or intermediating...
Even payment services regulation, for instance, exempts technology services that support transactions without the service provider handling funds. And the whole point of the ledger is that no intermediary is actually handling funds - its all happening peer-to-peer amongst machines - indeed perhaps everyone's device is handling the funds. Furthermore, there will be instances where access to a distributed ledger is just one element of a wider system - as in the car-rental example, or tracking shipping containers - and it may not be clear to everyone that a distributed ledger is involved if it's just to share the location or state of a vehicle or container.

Still, the Isle of Man's approach might at least be useful in demonstrating how regulation in this area can go too far...