Cryptocurrency has significant business utility, especially in international transactions. Companies can exchange funds directly, without wiring fees or banking delays, and easily convert their native currencies into crypto and vice-versa using a mobile phone. However, traditional cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum are extremely volatile and their exchange values can easily fluctuate 10-20% or more in a matter of days or even hours. Market supply and demand forces determine the prices of these most popular cryptocurrencies and their value is particularly sensitive to various external factors. Events like China’s crypto clampdown, significant buys or sells by capital investors, or even Elon Musk’s tweets can crash the market or send the price of crypto soaring. Obviously, price volatility makes businesses and consumers reluctant to adopt these cryptocurrencies for day-to-day transactions. Price volatility translates into purchasing power uncertainty, which in turn devalues the currency.
Stablecoins are cryptocurrencies that try to solve the volatility problem. They do so by pegging their price to the price of another asset (such as the U.S. Dollar or an ounce of gold). For example, the USD Coin (USDC) can be acquired and sold for U.S. Dollars on a 1 to 1 ratio. USDC is actually backed by existing dollar reserves, meaning that each USDC has a real-world dollar counterpart held by regulated financial institutions. USDC reserves are also periodically verified by a third party (but not audited).
There are other stablecoins as well, for example Tether, Binance USD, TrueUSD, DAI, and more. Like USDC, some are tied 1 to 1 to U.S. Dollar reserves. Others are backed by commodities like gold, silver, or oil. The price of a commodity-backed stablecoin is tied to the market price of a commodity unit, like an ounce of gold. There are also stablecoins that attempt stability through overcollateralization using other cryptocurrencies. Finally, there are algorithmic stablecoins that automatically adjust the cryptcurrency’s supply to keep its market price within certain parameters.
Stablecoins are however still cryptocurrency. Even if the stablecoin has a pegged 1 to 1 exchange ratio with the U.S. Dollar, it is not the same as cash. For tax and regulatory purposes, the IRS treats all cryptocurrency as intangible property subject to capital gains tax. They may be subject to separate state-level regulation as well.
Paying for goods and services in stablecoin is a taxable event because the IRS treats it like a sale or exchange of an asset, which is subject to capital gains tax. Technically, if the stablecoin is pegged to the dollar at a 1 to 1 ratio, the capital gain is 0 and there is no tax owed. But the transaction must still be recorded and reported, just like if you were buying and selling a stock at zero net gain/loss. Otherwise, you risk attracting an IRS audit to determine whether you underreprted taxable income. Buying stablecoin for cash and holding it is a non-taxable event.
Receiving stablecoin in exchange for goods and services is a taxable event. It is not much different than receiving payment in fiat currency, which is income subject to tax. The fair market value of the cryptocurrency as of the date of receipt determines its value for income reporting purposes. With stablecoin, it is easy to calculate because of the 1 to 1 ratio. Receiving 500 USDC is the equivalent of receiving $500 cash. However, spending the 500 USDC is not the same as spending $500 cash – rather, the transaction is considered a liquidation of property (subject to capital gains). Again, if the value of the stablecoin is pegged to the dollar, you are not going to have capital gains. But you must still keep records and record the transaction. If you are using a stablecoin that is pegged to an asset like gold, its price will fluctuate and you may record a capital gain or loss.
Converting other cryptocurrencies into stablecoin and vice-versa is also a taxable event. The sale of the crypto is an asset disposition that is subject to capital gains tax even if the transaction is an exchange of one currency to another. Similarly, using stablecoin to purchase other cryptocurrencies is a sale of the stablecoin that must be reported as income, even if the the capital gain is $0.
Stablecoins are still risky and unregulated. Not all stablecoins are created equal and it is a mistake to think that “stablecoin” means there is no risk involved. The LUNA/TERRA debacle is a good example because TERRA was supposedly a “stablecoin” pegged 1 to 1 to the U.S. dollar, yet it was pegged algorithmically (meaning artificially without any actual assets or fiat currencies backing it). An algorithm that no one really understands is not the same backing as fiat in a vault or money market securities or corporate bonds or commodities portfolios. The bottom line is that without a uniform definition of “stablecoin,” users should at a minimum know what “stabilizes” the value of the purported “stablecoin.”
There are other hurdles to using stablecoins in day-to-day business operations. As cryptocurrency, they are still subject to government regulation. For instance, it is illegal under federal labor law to pay workers in anything other than U.S. Dollars. On the international scene, China recently tightened anti-crypto regulations, prohibiting financial institutions from providing crypto exchange services, which presumably includes stablecoins. At the same time, China is rolling out its “digital yuan,” which is a sovereign-backed virtual currency. United States regulators have also expressed interest in the “digital dollar,” in part to improve financial services access to unbanked or underbanked communities. Additionally, all cryptocurrency transactions are still subject to exchange fees imposed by the intermediaries, and there may be delays or additional processing costs associated with converting stablecoin into fiat currency. Widespread adoption by merchants and the public is a must for stablecoins to develop practical utility – but right now, holding a wallet full of stablecoin is not the most practical or liquid solution for most businesses. Nor does a 1 to 1 dollar stablecoin provide any investment upside and in fact periodically loses value due to inflation.
Finally, there are at least 36 different stablecoins available for purchase via most popular exchanges. It is unknown which stablecoin (if any) will enjoy widespread adoption and popularity sufficient to result in real utility for businesses. Further, stablecoins are not truly decentralized because a central entity is holding the collateral, which in turn must be audited or otherwise verified. If a holding entity starts issuing stablecoins that are not actually collateralized, this would cause hyperinflation and essentially render the stablecoin worthless.
Stablecoin certainly holds a lot of promise for business use, but only solves the problem of volatility. Reduced volatility comes at a cost of a centralized authority and reintroduces trust into the cryptocurrency equation. At the same time, sovereign-issued digital currencies are on the horizon and may very well dispel the need for and demand for stablecoin.
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.
© 2021 Artaev at Law PLLC. All rights reserved.