The Crypto Custody Conundrum: What Are We Even Speaking About?


Noelle Acheson is a veteran of firm evaluation and CoinDesk’s Director of Analysis. The opinions expressed on this article are the writer’s personal.

The next article initially appeared in Institutional Crypto by CoinDesk, a free weekly e-newsletter targeted on crypto belongings. Sign up here. For a primer on crypto custody ideas, you may download our free report here


The crypto asset sector is infamous for its complicated use of vocabulary. Critically, in what sense is a sequence of code a “coin”? And in the true world, “wallets” comprise issues, not intangible addresses.

The identical could be mentioned of the phrase “custody.” A sophisticated phrase at greatest, the normal frequent regulation definition is being utilized to crypto belongings, with the outcome that the majority buyers consider it means the identical factor: the approved safekeeping of property rights. It doesn’t.

This confusion is much more damaging than different misconceptions, as custody isn't solely an integral a part of the safety of an investor’s holdings; additionally it is a elementary side of the rising regulatory framework.

What’s extra, the confusion is being overlaid onto an already baffling internet of protections across the idea of asset custody, which highlights the colossal complication of creating uniform guidelines and expectations.

Options that make use of greatest practices are rising, which ought to reassure institutional buyers fascinated about crypto belongings; however with out higher readability on what we’re even speaking about, it's unlikely {that a} coherent framework will emerge within the brief time period, including an extra layer of threat onto a compelling various funding.

C is for custody

First, let’s have a look at the official definition of the phrase: oh wait, there isn’t one.

“Custody” isn't a authorized “time period of artwork,” which signifies that it doesn't have a selected definition. The time period might seek advice from a authorized relationship, or it could possibly be used generically to indicate the holding of an asset. Therapy of the idea differs between and even inside states, and federal utility is usually totally different once more. “Custody” can indicate transference of possession, or merely third-party authorization, and doesn't all the time include the assure of safety in case of custodian default.

Confusingly, all of us are inclined to assume we perceive what custody means, however we don’t. Even official companies usually apply the time period inconsistently.

One side most appear to agree on, nonetheless, is that “custody” implies the “holding” of one thing. In a 2003 amendment to the Funding Advisers Act of 1940, the U.S. Securities and Change Fee (simply one in all many official our bodies that oversee custody of funding belongings) tried a proper definition:

“An adviser has custody of shopper belongings… when it holds, ‘straight or not directly, shopper funds or securities or [has] any authority to acquire possession of them.’”

However this nonetheless falls in need of specifying what custody is.

By specializing in the phrase “holds,” we are able to begin to glimpse how crypto belongings can ship this definition – and all others that depend on the pillars of “possession” and “belief” – right into a spin.

C is for complication

For the needs of this dialog, we’ll be specializing in bitcoin; it currently dominates the crypto asset market and serves because the gateway for many buyers given its relative liquidity and number of on-ramps.

Possession of conventional belongings tends to depend on ledger entries. On some pc someplace, you might be listed because the proprietor of a sure asset. It doesn’t matter who holds that database – solely you're the proprietor.

Bitcoin, nonetheless, is a bearer asset, and as such, has no names hooked up. As a substitute, bitcoins are related to addresses, which in flip are related to “wallets.” The belongings themselves don’t stay within the wallets, nor in a a central depository, nor within the account of the issuer; they stay on the bitcoin blockchain, a decentralized world community with no identifiable accountability.

Whoever holds the non-public key to these wallets “owns” the bitcoin, in that she or he has the unique proper to maneuver them. Once more, no names or proofs of possession are mandatory – the possession of the non-public secret is sufficient.

So, how do you confer “custody” with out handing over, or sharing, the non-public key? However in the event you hand over the non-public key, you successfully hand over possession.

If a custodian has equal entry to the code that may transfer your bitcoin, it has as a lot possession as you do. Custody is mostly understood to be about holding one thing of yours, in your behalf.

C is for consent

“Multisig” choices shield your bitcoin to the extent that a couple of non-public key signature is required for a transaction – however that additionally implies a sacrifice of possession. Your custodian couldn't transfer your bitcoin with out your consent, however nor might you progress it with out your custodian’s consent.

Certain, a custodian can commit by contract to recognizing that, though they maintain the asset, they acknowledge that it's actually yours.

However then belief comes into the equation. What if the custodian disappears? In concept, conventional securities could be returned to their rightful house owners in case of custodian default. With bitcoin, there’s little reassurance that can occur, particularly since regulatory protections are scant.

A part of the reason being that globally accepted requirements don't but exist. Associations reminiscent of GDF are drafting “greatest practices” in collaboration with business contributors, however getting settlement on the element and the appliance will take time.

C is for shopper

In an try so as to add readability, in July the SEC and FINRA issued a joint assertion highlighting considerations concerning the custody of digital securities by broker-dealers. They identified that the appliance of the Buyer Safety Rule, which protects a shopper’s holdings within the occasion of a broker-dealer collapse, is unlikely to use within the case of crypto belongings.

Even when a holder “shares” non-public keys with a custodian, how does the custodian know that others don’t even have entry? With this chance, how can it guarantee safekeeping? How can or not it's sure that the shopper’s entry level can’t be compromised? The lack to reverse or appropriate transactions could also be one in all bitcoin’s worth propositions for holders, however it's a vital concern for custodians and regulators.

The assertion goes even additional in highlighting the obstacles of disjointed definitions: a failed broker-dealer can be liquidated in accordance with the Securities Investor Safety Act, which has a totally different understanding of the time period “safety” than that of the SEC. This leaves broker-dealer shoppers who've invested in crypto belongings with out safety, which the SEC is understandably uncomfortable with.

Clearly, any readability in any respect is best than none, however the assertion is restricted in that it refers to digital securities held by broker-dealers – in accordance with most regulators, bitcoin isn't a “safety,” and plenty of bitcoin holders bypass broker-dealers by shopping for straight on exchanges. It does, nonetheless, underline the priority at regulatory degree concerning the lack of expertise and standardization.

C is for problem

So, being a “custodian” for bitcoin is a completely totally different proposition from being a custodian for conventional belongings. And but we persist in utilizing the identical phrase.

This makes it more durable for newcomers to the sector to get their heads across the nature of this new asset class. It additionally makes it even more durable for regulators to ascertain a coherent framework, when the usual understanding of “possession” and “legal responsibility,” elementary pillars of the custody idea, crumble beneath the crypto lens.

Symbolic phrases reminiscent of “coin” and “pockets” have good intentions – they offer us a body of reference. However within the case of “custody,” the misplaced metaphor provides to confusion greater than it subtracts.

All through historical past, the event of know-how has simply outstripped the emergence of a vocabulary that matches the brand new ideas. Metaphors are employed to facilitate comprehension, they usually normally work. Typically the expropriated phrases change in that means due to their new purposes (what do “internet” and “internet” imply to you at this time?).

However generally the semiotics encroaches onto areas the place vocabulary wants to be particular to be able to have influence: that of regulation. The usage of the time period “custody” to seek advice from the approved safekeeping of personal keys, and “custodian” to seek advice from the supplier of this service – areas which name for the consolation of regulatory safety – are prime examples.

Developing with a brand new time period would possibly assist, and would possibly even set a precedent on how establishing particular definitions to make use of throughout jurisdictions and mandates might facilitate and strengthen oversight. However a systemic barrier is the fragmented nature of monetary regulation within the U.S. and elsewhere – who would resolve on that new time period and its definition?

Not all obstacles are insurmountable, nonetheless – and with a lot at stake, coordination might maybe be achieved. In the meantime, the sector continues to mature.

Within the case of bitcoin and comparable crypto belongings, the issue isn't a lot that crypto custody is so totally different from conventional safety custody – it’s that we’re attempting to suit a brand new idea into an previous field that doesn’t have the identical dimensions.

Vault door picture by way of Shutterstock

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