Analysis

While Big Banks Hesitate, Small Banks Seize the Crypto Scene

It's still hard for crypto companies to find banks, but a number of small institutions have stepped up.

Last week, two major banks in the UK cut ties with San Francisco-based Coinbase, one of the most popular cryptocurrency exchange services in the US, the UK, and the European Union. The two decisions made the news on the same day: first, unnamed industry sources told CoinDesk that Barclays had dropped Coinbase as a client, possibly as the result or a “contracted” appetite for risk; later, a Coinbase user reported that Santander UK had begun blocking transactions with the app.

The reports were some of the latest examples of the seemingly never-ending banking woes that the cryptocurrency industry has been battling with for years: crypto-related companies and cryptocurrency investors have long been faced with banks who refuse to accept their money, who lock it into accounts for indefinite periods of time, or worse.

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When it comes to larger banks, it could be argued that Santander’s and Barclays’ decisions to drop Coinbase are only the latest piece of evidence to suggest that things aren’t getting better–and in fact, that they may be getting even more difficult

However, it seems that while relatively larger banks the world over are crypto-averse, a number of relatively smaller banks have seen a golden opportunity in the cryptocurrency industry.

Silvergate’s list of crypto clients continues to grow

One of the most prominent examples of this is Silvergate Bank, which controls roughly $.2 billion in assets (for context’s sake, Bank of America controls $2.325 trillion in 2018.) The bank began its foray into crypto several years ago in 2013. But the tale of the bank’s entry into crypto sounds much like the tales of other banks who have made similar decisions–Silvergate saw a hole that larger banks were refusing to fill and seized the opportunity.

“Here were these companies that were raising money from reputable [venture capital] firms,” said Silvergate CEO Alan Lane at the BlockFS conference in 2018. “They weren’t doing anything illegal, they weren’t doing anything immoral. And yet, they were struggling to maintain bank accounts. So I put our need for deposits together with their need for banking services.”

CoinDesk reported that as of Q3 2018, the bank had onboarded at least 483 crypto industry clients who had contributed some $1.7 billion in assets to its balance sheet.

Now, a year later, the cryptocurrency aspects of Silvergate’s business are so profitable that the bank is planning to expand its cryptocurrency-related offerings with the addition of a crypto-based lending service for institutional clients.

According to an IPO filing submitted on August 15th, the crypto lending service would provide “greater capital efficiency for institutional investor clients that wish to transact without needing to move liquidity on and off different exchanges … Offering lines of credit would also improve liquidity within the order book of our exchange clients, enabling additional trading on their platforms, potentially reducing pricing arbitrage across exchanges and improving the stability of digital currencies.”

Metropolitan commercial bank

Similar to Silvergate, New York-based Metropolitan Commercial Bank (which controlled $2.54 billion in assets as of Q1 2019) is another financial institution within the space that is working rather aggressively to take hold within the cryptocurrency industry. According to a report by CCN in June, more than 15 percent of the banks’ deposits are made by cryptocurrency investors and companies.

“We’re certainly very interested in growing this vertical,” Rosenberg told CoinDesk in 2018. “We’ve learned that it’s a serious industry. There are some very smart people involved. There are some very interesting ideas coming out that could really change the way people do business.”

So far, crypto has proven to be a lucrative venture for Metropolitan–in the first quarter of last year (the last period for which such data is available), cash management and foreign exchange conversion fees from cryptocurrency clients totaled $3.4 million. According to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, his contributed significantly to a 300 percent year-over-year increase in Metropolitan’s total non-interest income to $5.4 million.

However, this year, Metropolitan has demonstrated that it is not willing to work with crypto clients who have demonstrated unsavory behaviors. Following a legal battle between the New York Attorney General’s Office and stablecoin issuer Tether, Metropolitan shut down Tether’s accounts in July: “Metropolitan Commercial Bank had limited, corporate operating accounts with Tether Holdings LTD, iFinex Inc, and Digfinex Inc, all with negligible activity, and requested the accounts to be closed after less than 5 months of the accounts being opened.”

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”Banks are often slow to get into newer markets given the regulatory limitations and obligations associated with new markets.”

Quontic Bank has made headlines recently in relation to its growing popularity within the cryptosphere. While the latest available data says that the bank controls only $420 million in assets (roughly .015% of the amount of capital that JPMorgan controls), Quontic told CoinDesk earlier this month that it opened a checking account for a Bitcoin ATM several weeks ago and is currently in the process of onboarding another crypto industry client.

While Quontic did not name either client, CEO Steven Schnall claimed that the bank’s newest client “could impact millions of Americans.”

In any case, the bank is working to become an early actor within the space: ““We’re just taking steps so that when the regulatory environment becomes more crypto-friendly, we don’t have a lot of catching up to do,” Schnall told CoinDesk “We’re looking to diversify our product offering and our customer mix by entering into that field.”

“Big banks and small banks are often slow to get into newer markets given the regulatory limitations and obligations associated with new markets,” explained Patrick Sells, Quontic’s Chief Innovation Officer, to Finance Magnates. “This is an area we felt that we could build expertise in and that would help provide us with a competitive advantage. “

Patrick Sells, Quontic Bank CIO.

So far, the effort seems to be paying off. WhenFinance Magnates asked Sells if Quontic frequently gets inquiries from crypto companies hoping to become clients, he replied: “yes, MANY.”

But Quontic can’t simply open the floodgates and let companies come rushing in: “or us it all starts with compliance,” he said. “Some of the processes we go through include wanting to understand what kind of business is it, where they are domiciled, and who are officers or owners.”

“We then look into their compliance practices and policies. For example, are they following all the regulations that are applicable, do they have a KYC/AML policy, do they have third party audits happening for example? This is really the first step for us.”

Why are banks unwilling to work with crypto companies?

Even if they are hesitant to serve cryptocurrency customers, a number of large banks have explored the use of blockchain and cryptocurrency within their own systems: JPMorgan Chase’s JPMCoin; Bank of America’s many, many crypto- and blockchain-related patents, and a number of other examples.

If major banks recognized blockchain technology and crypto as legitimate–in some capacity, at least–then why won’t they accept crypto businesses as customers?

Part of the problem seems to be the bad reputation that–despite years of maturation and an increasing amount of regulation–cryptocurrency just can’t seem to shake.

Robby Houben, a lawyer University of Antwerp professor, to Bloomberg earlier this year. “I have met some really stand-up people in crypto that don’t deserve such a bad reputation and want the sector to be regulated, yet for every one of those, there are plenty of others trying to scam the public, launder money or evade taxes.”

Another possible issue seems to be the possibility that a wave of regulation could be coming for the cryptocurrency industry at any moment–Bloomberg journalists Alastair Marsh and Silla Brush said that most banks view crypto companies as “ticking regulatory time bombs”, similar to companies operating in other relatively new and moderate- to high-risk fields, such as the cannabis industry.

Patrick Sells, Chief Innovation Officer at Quontic, acknowledged that the work that regulators do in the banking space is vital to the success of partnerships between cryptocurrency firms and banks in the long term: “the regulators play a critical and meaningful role in banking,” he told Finance Magnates. “Their job is to make sure that American consumers money is protected and that money isn’t being used for illegal activities or for ‘bad actors.’”

“When it comes to cryptocurrency, these negative outcomes become more probable and therefore its incredibly important that we are diligent in how we approach working in this space. We have worked with several different law firms and specialists in the crypto world to prepare ourselves and our team for being in this market.”

Time, money, and bureaucracy

However, complying with regulatory requirements is no easy task–according to Sam Bankman-Fried, chief executive officer of digital-assets trading firm Alameda Research, it’s a lot more paperwork and a lot more expense–a lot more than is typically associated with other kinds of clients. “It’s a massive compliance headache that they don’t want to put the resources in to solve,” he told Bloomberg.

Sells told Finance Magnates that the situation is a bit more nuanced: “it depends on the banking need of the crypto customer.”

However, there are a few more baseline costs associated with crypto companies that are typically higher than with other types of clients: “there is a greater cost incurred initially due to the vetting process we use with a crypto business versus a typical business, like a deli, who wants banking customers. There is also a greater responsibility to be continuing to monitor and audit a crypto business then the deli, for example.”

Banks may also face a unique set of know-your-customer (KYC), and anti-money-laundering (AML) challenges when it comes to crypto industry clients.

Indeed, Joshua Klayman, head of the blockchain and digital assets practice at law firm Linklaters, told CoinDesk that “if you have a startup that raised money doing an ICO and didn’t do proper KYC or AML, that bank doesn’t know who the proceeds are from.” Because “banks and other financial institutions have to look out for any suspicious activity,” ICOs and similar kinds of fundraising methods can create complex compliance challenges.

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