Stablecoins are cryptocurrencies backed by other assets like fiat currency reserves, precious metals, commercial paper, and even portfolios made up of other cryptocurrencies. By pegging their value to another asset, stablecoins attempt to decrease price volatility and achieve a more “stable” price than uncollateralized cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum. As I previously wrote, stablecoins may be particularly useful for international trade and business due to their predictable value and the ability to avoid wire delays and to minimize transaction costs. Stablecoins are also not targets of speculation or artificial price increases due to external events like Elon Musk’s SNL appearances or even China’s clampdown on Bitcoin mining. If the stablecoin is pegged to the value of the dollar, it will still be worth $1 regardless of whether there is a sudden spike in demand or supply.
Other than potential business use, stablecoins are also a popular investment medium. Certain exchanges have offered attractive interest rates on stablecoin holdings, ranging from Coinbase offering 4% on USD Coin (USDC) to double-digit returns on some lesser exchanges and stablecoins. As always, do your due diligence and make sure you know where your money is going before transferring any significant amount of cash. Also, it may be worthwhile to test the liquidity or withdrawal time with smaller deposits before investing any large amounts.
Just like with traditional cryptocurrency, there are two main legal areas that affect stablecoins: tax and securities regulation. Here are the latest “must knows” in each area:
Stablecoins are taxed like property and are subject to capital gains tax. Cryptocurrency is not “currency” as far as the IRS is concerned – rather, for taxation purposes, it is treated like property and subject to capital gains tax. This gets tricky, especially with stablecoins that are pegged 1:1 to the dollar. Buying stablecoins (or any crypto) for dollars is not a taxable event. However, using stablecoins to purchase goods and services is a taxable event that must be reported, even if your capital gains are zero.
For instance, if you buy 1,000 USDC for $1,000, that is not taxable. Then, when you pay a Romanian engineer 1,000 USDC in exchange for a circuit board design, the IRS deems that you have sold the USDC at the market rate in exchange for the engineering services. The difference between your cost basis and your sell price is the capital gain. Where the stablecoin is pegged 1:1 to the dollar, the capital gain will be $0 (your purchase price and sale price are the same). In fact, you may even realize a loss that you can use to offset your income if you paid a transaction fee. Transaction fees are added to your cost basis, so if you paid a $10 transaction fee to buy 1,000 USDC, your cost basis is $1,010 and when you sell for $1,000, you just netted a $10 loss. Also, you can end up with capital gains or losses if you are transacting large amounts of stablecoin – for example if you sell 50,000 USDT (Tether) when it’s price fluctuated slightly to $1.01, you just received a $500 capital gain.
Additionally, if you are earning interest on your USDT holdings, interest is taxable like ordinary income. In other words, buying stablecoin for fiat currency is not taxable, but earning stablecoin through staking is taxable. Just like you pay income tax on interest earned from your savings account, you will incur income tax on cryptocurrency gains. Finally, when you use your earned USDT to buy something or convert to cash or another cryptocurrency, that is a reportable taxable event subject to capital gains tax because for IRS purposes, you just sold property – your cryptocurrency.
Some stablecoins may be regulated like securities. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) enforces U.S. securities laws, which apply to a wide range of publicly-available investment products like stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and investment contracts where investors provide capital in exchange for expected returns. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum are not considered securities because they are exchange mediums and in the SEC’s view, are no different than a foreign currency like the Euro or the Japanese Yen. At the same time, the SEC has scrutinized new coin offerings (also called initial coin offerings or ICOs) and concluded that they may constitute investment contracts if there are facts that indicate the buyer is “expecting a profit to be derived from the efforts of others.” See generally SEC v W.J. Howey Co., 328 US 293 (1946) (where the Supreme Court held that shares in a citrus grove operation were investment contracts subject to securities laws because the investors provided capital with the expectation that workers’ efforts in harvesting oranges would yield profits). Certain stablecoins, especially those that seek capitalization through ICOs and promise a percentage return through “staking,” will be considered “investment contracts” required to register with the SEC and provide public information like any other security.
There are also some stablecoins that are backed by securities like corporate and municipal bonds, mutual funds, and other publicly-traded instruments that are themselves regulated by the SEC. There is little doubt that these security-backed stablecoins are considered derivatives because their value is derived from the value of regulated securities. SEC regulation will require stablecoin issuers to disclose additional information about their companies to the public. Already there is some concerning information release ahead of Circle’s (the issuer of USDC) intent to go public – USDC reserves are only61% cash and money market funds, with the rest divided between U.S. and foreign treasury bonds, municipal, and corporate debt. Previously, the 1:1 stablecoin issuers represented that each coin was backed by actual cash reserves, which were regularly audited. Apparently, that is not the precise reality.
Finally, stablecoins are also facing increased regulatory scrutiny from central bank authorities. Federal Reserve officials have expressed their concerns about the effect of stablecoins on the credit markets. Stablecoins also threaten the ability of the Federal Reserve to regulate monetary supply to stimulate the economy and control inflation. For instance, if a coin like USDC gains widespread adoption, a private company like Circle will be able to regulate monetary supply by increasing and decreasing interest rates. Expect to see increased guidance and regulation from the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve in the near future. It would not be surprising to see stablecoin issuers to be treated as banks in certain circumstances.
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Disclaimer: This guide is for general informational and promotional purposes only. Nothing herein constitutes legal, investment, or tax advice. Every situation is different and faces its own unique set of challenges. Do not take any action or sign any contract until you have obtained specific guidance from a qualified professional.
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