Swiss Move to Reduce Blockchain Regulation

Swiss parliament

Together with 23 co-signatories from all major parties, Swiss member of parliament Franz Grüter filed a parliamentary motion to reduce regulatory burdens of blockchain startups by restricting the legal definition of “client deposit”. Today, firms that handle client money – regardless of whether in Swiss Francs, Bitcoin, or any other currency – get very quickly classified as banks, even if their risk profile fundamentally differs from that of typical banks. Being classified as a bank comes with regulatory and capital requirements that are practically impossible to fulfill for startups. That might be the primary reason why there is not a single operationally active cryptocurrency exchange in the style of bitstamp or bitfinex in Switzerland despite having an otherwise lively ecosystem of crypto startups. Luzius Meisser, founder of Bitcoin Association Switzerland comments: “This motion is a strong signal to blockchain startups all around the world that the Swiss parliament wants Switzerland to be at the forefront of fintech innovation.”

The main part of the motion states (translation): “The federal council shall be instructed to define the term “client deposit” from banking bill art.1 and the banking act art. 2 more narrowly, to the extent risk allows. The current broad interpretation by financial regulator Finma obstructs innovative blockchain startups whose business models get qualified as banking even in cases where the intention behind the law – namely depositor protection – would not require such a qualification.” The full version (in German) can be found on the Website of the parliamentary group for digital sustainability.

Franz Grüter comments in Zentralschweiz am Sonntag that he wants to prevent Finma from trampling the seedlings of a promising new ecosystem with the boots of bureaucracy. Andreas Glarner from law firm MME emphasizes the importance of creating a free, yet carefully regulated, environment in order to continue attracting blockchain startups from all over the world. Switzerland is already well positioned with initiatives like the Cryptovalley in Zug, a city that recently made international headlines by deciding to accept Bitcoin payments.

As a next step, the parliament will vote on the motion. However, the vote has not been scheduled yet and can happen in the autumn session the earliest. Having a citizen legislature, the Swiss parliament meets less often than that of other countries. (As a nice side-effect, it also tends to make fewer and more concise laws.) If passed, it would be up to the federal council to take concrete measures, some of which might again be voted on in parliament. In practice, the motion might already have am indirect positive impact today by sending a strong signal to the Swiss financial markets regulator Finma – which is explicitely mentioned in the motion – to interpret the existing rules less restrictively.

Federal Council report: No special regulation needed

In a report published today, the Swiss government answers questions raised in two parliamentary postulates. The report concludes that Bitcoin is covered by existing laws and that no new regulation is needed. This is excellent news and in full accordance with our views. Furthermore, the report confirms that Bitcoins are neither a good nor a service – which is relevant when deciding whether VAT applies when selling Bitcoins (it should not). Furthermore, the report says that the only thing Bitcoin currently lacks to be money like other currencies is low volatility. As volatility is decreasing, is should thus only be a matter of time until Bitcoin officially gets the legal status of “money”.

A side remark regarding miners: On question the report leaves unanswered is whether miners should be classified as financial intermediaries. Probably, the federal council sees this as a detail to be left to FINMA. In our view, miners do not require such a license because miners never take possession of the Bitcoins they process. So unlike with banks, there is no risk of embezzlement and thus no necessity to protect consumers from that. Also note that technically, most miners do not process transactions – it is the mining pool that does that for them. Instead, miners should be legally seen as someone selling computing power to a mining pool.