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Why rich people don’t just open a bank…

 

It can be tough to open and maintain a bank account as a crypto-business. A policy of “derisking” (when banks avoid conducting business with customers perceived as being higher risk) leaves many crypto-businesses (and other MSBs) ill-served by the existing banking system.

A not-uncommon response to this reality (i.e. we’ve had this conversation enough times to deem it worthy of a blog post) is some variation of: “I’m a rich person! Why don’t I just open a bank?”

No doubt, this impulse comes from the admirably entrepreneurial spirit of our community. There’s a problem (lack of access to banking services), so let’s solve it.

But if you don’t have a background in compliance or banking and think that you’re “just” going to magically open your dream-crypto-paradise-bank… We’re here to advise you to slow your roll. We’re not saying you can’t do it… but here are some things you should consider. Knowledge is power.

Sidenote: We’re Canadian and these notes refer to Canadian processes. There are likely to be some differences in other countries, but we won’t know what they are. If you want to know, do the research. Let us know what you find if it’s interesting.

Opening a bank is expensive.

While you may think you have the cash to spare, opening a bank is expensive, and probably more expensive than you expect, both in terms of what you need to have in reserve, and what you’ll spend initially. We’ve heard the figure of $50m buy-in—which, by the way, does not guarantee you a charter.

You will spend money for years before you serve customers.

If you’re curious about where all those millions could possibly go, you’re going to get friendly* with an army of consultants, lawyers, and accountants over the next few years. (*And by friendly, we mean pay a lot of money to).

The process of getting issued a charter is lengthy (if you don’t believe us, you may enjoy perusing the 27-page long PDF guide from OFSI on the subject) and getting this process right means your investment will be whittled away by hiring people who can help navigate you through this labyrinth. You’ll also be spending money on employees, by the way, for years before you’ll ever have the privilege of serving a customer. Years. Plural.

Your team will spend a long time pleasing regulators before you’re operational.

Yes, even though you won’t be permitted to have customers for a long time, you will still need to assemble a team that can put together all of the elements of a bank into place. Your team will spend all of their time implementing processes, demonstrating to the regulator(s) that they’ve done so, and then tweaking these processes as the regulators require or request (in these instances, a request is really a politely stated requirement). If it’s any comfort, your employees will certainly be kept busy, even without customers.

You’re probably not going to be the CEO…

Despite making the decision to open a bank, you will likely not become the bank’s CEO, or even its COO. Senior management positions at banks require regulatory approval. Regulators are looking for you to have had a long history, at a senior level, in a bank or other federally regulated financial institution

… or even on the Board of Directors.

As with senior management positions, seats on the Board of Directors require regulatory approval. Even if you successfully jump through all the hoops required to start your bank, you will likely end up with little to no say in how it is ultimately run.

Well That’s Awkward!

There’s a noble sentiment behind the desire to “just open a bank” and solve the problems you see in the current banking system. But, the risks, effort, and returns are seldom well understood. In essence, opening a bank means making a substantial investment (in both time and money) in something that may one day become an asset (but may not). You can own the bank, but will likely not run it, despite the multi-year multi-million commitment you make. Even if you’re a wealthy investor with patient money, we’d suggest that you ought to be really passionate about setting up a bank if you want to embark upon this kind of endeavour.

What can you do instead?

So, if you’re not going to start a bank but are still frustrated by the banking system as it currently stands—what can you do instead?

Frankly, we need grassroots pressure to change the system we have. It’s important for us to have discussions with the gatekeepers (regulators, traditional banking institutions) for crypto business to get access to banking services. Part of the burden of being in this space is taking the time to educate those who control access to the resources we need. We’ve found that often even people with responsibility for developing policy related to bitcoin and other virtual currencies or tokens don’t fully understand it (and therefore its risk implications). While it may be frustrating to explain that it is possible to buy a fraction of a bitcoin to someone who we really think ought to understand this already, the more we can normalize crypto within the system, the more access we can hope to gain.

And while it can be difficult to speak out if you are a business who has been refused a bank account (or had your account shut down), we’d encourage you to share your experiences of trying to find banking services. Make a complaint to the institution. Share your story with the media (even if you don’t name the FI) or contact your political representatives. You can also, at the moment, contribute your feedback on the draft legislation on AML Regulations for “Virtual Currencies.” (See this blog post for more on how to do that). Exert pressure on the existing players.

But, of course… if you’ve decided you are passionate enough (and deep-pocketed enough) to start a truly crypto-friendly bank: more power to you and definitely let us know how you get on.

We’re Here To Help

If you have questions about virtual currency and regulation in Canada, or regulation in Canada in general, please contact us.

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