Lobbying disclosures for the first quarter of 2019 show a wide swath of industries and advocacy groups focusing on financial technology issues, including the Association of National Advertisers, Intuit, Mastercard, Alibaba, FreedomWorks, IBM, the Entertainment Software Association and U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
More than half of the 80 firms that reported lobbying on fintech in the first quarter listed blockchain and cryptocurrencies, including tax elements of the latter, among their biggest concerns. Combined, more than 80 firms lobbying on fintech reported spending more than $42 million in the first quarter of 2019.
The data doesn’t perfectly capture fintech lobbying. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, accounted for $16.4 million of the $42 million, but the chamber’s lobbying spending also covers many non-fintech issues, such as trade, infrastructure, drug pricing and health care.
The data show the Blockchain Association, a trade group, spending $100,000 itself and another $60,000 through the S-3 Group, a government relations and public affairs firm. And Coin Center, a cryptocurrency advocacy group, spent $140,000 in the first quarter for both in-house lobbying and outside lobbying by RWC Inc. and the Sternhell Group.
Fintech is a broad term, encompassing cryptocurrencies, blockchain technologies, online lending, mobile banking and more. As the new technologies develop, market participants, lawmakers and regulators are grappling with how to update a legal framework for financial issues largely erected before there were computers.
Untethering banks from physical locations through online lending, for example, risks undermining laws aimed at encouraging banks to serve low-income communities with nearby brick-and-mortar branches. The more consumers turn to the internet for mortgages or other financial projects, the greater the risk from data security breaches. And as fintech startups begin to disrupt banking, regulators are questioning how to balance the benefits from increased competition against the risk to the financial system.
Proponents say the technology could one day be deployed across many industries to speed up transactions and eliminate middlemen. But today blockchain applications can run into regulatory roadblocks because they often resemble existing, heavily-governed products or services such as stocks, bonds, and commodities futures.
While the Securities and Exchange Commission has released some guidance on when it would consider a digital token a security, the nascent industry has complained that the SEC’s most recent comments have muddied the already murky matter.
That’s why the fintech industry is lobbying hard for a bill from Ohio Republican Rep. Warren Davidson to exempt digital tokens from securities regulations, said Kristin Smith of the Blockchain Association. “That’s probably been our biggest focus,” she said. “And it will continue to be our biggest focus for the next couple of months.”
Tax issues are another priority, Smith said. Because cryptocurrencies can alternately be considered currencies, securities, futures contracts or something else, their tax treatment is a complicated question that the industry hopes can be simplified soon.
The IRS has issued scant guidance on how to tax digital coins, said Jerry Brito, executive director at Coin Center. Brito is hoping a pair of cryptocurrency tax bills introduced last year can advance this year.
One would create minimum thresholds for capital gains in cryptocurrencies. The other would offer a small tax compliance exemption when cryptocurrencies “fork” — when digital tokens splinter off another kind of digital token, somewhat similar to a corporation spinning off a subsidiary and awarding shareholders stock in the new business.
“The IRS has given no guidance how they’d treat that, so people are guessing,” Brito said. He wants a bill that would provide a safe harbor to anyone who made a good faith effort to comply until tax officials issue formal guidance.
Groups pushing Congress on blockchain issues say partisan lines haven’t been drawn on the issue. Instead, the challenges are legislators’ unfamiliarity with the concept, and regulators’ concern about bad actors swindling investors.
“There’s no one really working against us at this point,” Smith said. “It’s just that it’s so complex.”
Israel “Izzy” Klein of the Klein/Johnson Group said his organization is focused on education. The group got $70,000 from the Coalition to Secure America’s Internet of Value, a group of cryptocurrency startups.
The National Venture Capital Association wants to help the SEC protect retail investors from initial coin offering, or ICO, scams, but also wants to allow venture capital firms to put more of the portfolio into blockchain products, said Justin Field, the group’s senior vice president of government affairs. He said the industry could help separate the scammers from honest entrepreneurs if SEC regulations were updated to allow VC firms to treat funding for blockchain projects like other, more traditional startup investments.
“I know there is a lot of concern about retail investors that bought into ICOs, and some fly-by-night operators during the ICO craze,” he said. “But the one group that doesn’t need investor protection is venture capital.”
The NVCA lobbied on a host of issues affecting venture capitalists in 2019’s first quarter, reporting $525,000 on in-house work, plus $60,000 to Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas, Inc. for lobbying on issues including blockchain regulatory policy and Davidson’s bill.