Blockchain: Which Custody for Which Tokens?

13/09/2019

The organization of custody for crypto-currencies or other crypto-assets (also called tokens) must consider certain peculiarities, for example the absence of an issuer identified for crypto-assets or the lack of control of the custody process.

In France, since the dematerialisation of securities in 1984, the ownership of financial securities is recorded by an entry in a securities account, an account that can be held:

  • either by a financial intermediary who is an approved Custody Account Keeper, in which case they are called Bearer securities because the identity of the holders is not communicated to the issuer when these securities are exchanged;

  • or by the issuer of the securities themselves, in which case they are called Registered securities because the issuer knows the investor’s identity. If the investor mandates an intermediary to hold the securities account opened with the issuer, we talk about "Administered Registered Securities", whilst in the absence of intermediation we talk about "Pure Registered Securities".

Whilst the relationship with the issuer is intrinsically facilitated for registered securities, ownership transfer procedures are reputed to be simpler and faster for bearer securities. In all cases, it is the holder of the official securities account (issuer or intermediary) who is legally responsible vis-à-vis the end investor and guarantees the latter’s ability to exercise the rights associated with the securities’ ownership throughout this security’s life cycle. The fact that the investor can freely change account holder means that the latter must be in a position to return the securities to their holder at any time. Of course, no such guarantee can be provided by the custody account keeper unless they have the technical tools to ensure this custody.

The case of crypto-currencies

As these crypto-currencies do not have an issuer, the responsibility for keeping the issuer register is no longer centralized over a single entity but "distributed" in the community of cryptocurrency holders.

The recent French PACTE law passed on 11 April 2019 more or less called this premise into question by attempting to define an “actif numérique” (another name for token) custody service where the service provider is generally not able to control the system that ensures the transfer of these assets’ ownership. Indeed, this system is based on the Blockchain that was originally designed specifically to ensure the transfer of ownership and custody of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin or Ether. As these crypto-currencies do not strictly speaking have an issuer, responsibility for issue register keeping is no longer centralised within a single entity but “distributed” across the crypto-currency holder community (validation of operations through a consensus between these holders). That is why this new way of distributing asset custody responsibility ultimately appears to be more of a complement than an alternative to “Bearer” and “Registered” methods, as it targets assets with no issuer that are not covered by these existing methods.

From custody account keeping to position keeping

It would therefore not appear possible for a service provider to assume responsibility for standard custody account keeping for cryptocurrencies on behalf of a third party, as they do not have control of the custody system for these cryptocurrencies. However, they can continue to ensure Position Keeping on these assets, i.e. check that the quantity of cryptocurrencies recognised at Blockchain level complies with the transactions of which they are aware. This position keeping is not a new concept, as it was already proposed in the case of the associated Administered Registered Securities set-up mentioned above. There is, however, a substantial difference between the position keeping of cryptocurrencies and the position keeping of traditional assets (i.e. with an issuer). Indeed in the second case, it is possible for the position keeper to contact the issuer when he feels that the position is non compliant and the discrepancy is not attributable to him. Indeed, for Registered securities the issuer is supposed to have the power to rectify any anomaly concerning their own registers. However, this will no longer be possible with cryptocurrencies, where there is no issuer to contact.

Moreover, ensuring Position Keeping for a third party in a Blockchain obviously requires the holding (and therefore custody) of the means to access the third party’s tokens in this Blockchain, access that can for example be materialised via cryptographic keys.

Der Fall von Hilfs- oder Sicherheitstoken

Manche Blockchains wollen jedoch auch andere Vermögenswerte verwalten als ihre ursprünglichen Kryptowährungen. Das ist der Fall der Utility Token oder der Security Token, die trotz der unterschiedlichen Rechte (Nutzungsrechte vs. Finanzrechte) etwas gemeinsam haben, nämlich einen Emittenten.

Die Gegenwart dieser Emittenten in der Blockchain erfordert, dass ihnen gegenüber der Gemeinschaft der einfachen Anleger bestimmte Rechte auf ihre eigenen Verzeichnisse gewährt werden. Die ausschließliche Verteilung der Verantwortung auf die Anleger hat also keinen Sinn mehr. Man muss die Blockchain und Namensverwahrung gemäß Artikel R211-2 Code Monétaire et Financier kombinieren. Diese Kombination der verteilten Verzeichnisse und der Namensverwahrung erfolgt nicht sofort und dürfte IT-Entwicklungen (Smart Contracts?) und/oder entsprechende Zulassungen voraussetzen, je nachdem, ob man es mit einer öffentlichen Blockchain (allen zugänglich mit nur einem Teilnehmerprofil) oder einer privaten Blockchain (einigen Teilnehmern mit möglicher Differenzierung der Profile vorbehalten) zu tun hat.


Internationale Standards

Fazit: Es wäre besser, bei Token von Positionsführung statt von Verwahrung zu sprechen, auch wenn, wie wir gesehen haben, die Positionsführung der Token auf der Verwahrung der Zugangsmittel zu diesen Token beruht.  Da das Thema nicht nur Frankreich und die französische Gesetzgebung betrifft, wäre es wohl wünschenswert, dass die nötigen Anpassungen für die Berücksichtigung der Emittenten der Blockchains Gegenstand von Standards auf mindestens europäischer, wenn nicht sogar internationaler Ebene sind.

Head of Knowledge Management Strategy and Market Infrastructure - SGSS
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