Over the last year, the escalation of cryptocurrencies has aroused a number of issues and controversial debates for the lack of regulation in most jurisdictions, including Italy where the only regulation of the cryptocurrency phenomenon is set by the AML legislation. According to the Italian law, cryptocurrencies do not have legal tender status, the regulators have qualified cryptocurrencies as means of exchange different from e-money, which, however, can be converted into Euro for purchasing virtual currency as for selling such currency; moreover, they can be used to buy both virtual and real goods and services. As a matter of fact, the lack of regulation concerning cryptocurrencies as a form of currency and a financial instrument does not prevent the trade and use of cryptocurrencies not only as means of payment but also as contribution to fund the share capital of limited liability companies.
On July, 18th, the Court of Brescia has denied the validity of a resolution increasing the share capital of a limited liability company subscribed for by certain utility tokens because the relevant contribution (equal to Euro 714,000) didn’t comply with Article 2464 of the Civil Code. The Court has not banned the contribution of cryptocurrencies but based on that case it has remarked the criteria governing contributions in kind which were not met for the subscription of the increase of share capital as resolved by the company; giving that, and starting from this assumption, it is possible to highlight criteria requested by the Italian law to contribute cryptocurrencies into share capital.
Any (tangible and intangible) asset can be contributed into the share capital of joint-stock companies (S.p.A.) and limited liability companies (S.r.l.) to the extent that they have an indisputable economic value (as proved by a sworn appraisal from an expert who issues the relevant report) and a potential market where they can be exchanged and/or converted into cash. The report must be focused on the description of the contributed assets, the reference of the adopted criteria of evaluation, and the certification that their value is, at least, equal to the one assigned at the moment of the subscription of the capital and of the premium, if any. As a matter of fact, the function of the share capital is to guarantee the creditors in relation to the company liabilities, as a consequence it is mandatory that the economic value of the share capital must be indisputable and in compliance with the law, especially when including cryptocurrencies or digital assets.
Moving on the case, the cryptocurrencies contributed were issued by a company based in Bulgaria, they were utility tokens used as mean of payment for buying goods and services on a web platform, owned by the issuers of these digital assets. Hence these tokens were not traded in any exchange platform where it is possible to fix an indisputable exchange rate and then the relevant economic value. Indeed, the Court has reasoned the direct proportion between the value of the contribution into the equity and the existence of exchanges where the value of the cryptocurrency would have been set. Moreover, the Court has stated the lack of enforceability of the tokens contributed. Under the practical side, the contribution of cryptocurrencies has to be made by reporting the private key from the contributor to the company, giving that the enforceability of cryptocurrencies by a pledge can be done subject to the collaboration and the consent of the contributor who has to disclose the private key; should the contributor refuse to disclose the private key, the enforceability of the pledge on the tokens would be undermined.
To sum up, in theory the contribution of cryptocurrencies into equity is not forbidden under the Italian law, however giving its questionable nature, it is still controversial how to guarantee the compliance with the mandatory requirements for the contribution in kind.
This case history and the order of the Court of Brescia give us the opportunity to provide the Italian picture on cryptocurrencies.
The Italian crypto-scenario is quite effervescent since the beginning of 2017; indeed, Italy was the first European country to define the virtual currency and the exchanger according to the new AML legislation. This is not strange considering that the anonymity surrounding cryptocurrencies, which varies from complete anonymity to pseudo-anonymity, prevents cryptocurrency transactions from being adequately monitored, allowing shady transactions to occur outside of the regulatory perimeter and criminal organisations to use cryptocurrencies to obtain easy access to “clean cash”. Anonymity is also the major issue when it comes to tax evasion.
The AML Law
Legislative Decree no. 90 of May 25th 2017, which reformed legislative decree no. 231/2007, introduced definitions of exchanges and virtual currencies and provided a set of rules for the exchanges to comply with the anti-money laundering rules.
Virtual currency means “a digital representation of value that is neither issued by a central bank or a public authority, nor attached to a legally established fiat currency, which can be used as a means of exchange for the purchase of goods and services and transferred, stored and traded electronically.” Virtual currencies within the scope of AMLD5 and of the Italian AML Law are those that can be transferred, stored and traded electronically. Until now, other virtual currency schemes are not in scope, including virtual currencies used to attain goods and services without requiring exchange into legal tender or similar instruments, or the use of a custodian wallet provider.
Exchanges are defined as virtual service providers: “any natural or legal person providing professional services to third parties for the use, the exchange, the related storage of virtual currencies and for the conversion from or in currencies having legal tender [.]” Given this scope, they are subject to anti-money laundering regulations and, therefore, they have to obtain a sort of licence and be listed in a special register to operate in Italy. Considering this definition, it seems that a material number of key players are not included in AML law, for example miners and pure cryptocurrency exchanges that are not custodian wallet providers, hardware and software wallet providers, trading platforms and coin offerors. This choice of the legislator leaves blind spots in the fight against money laundering, terrorist financing and tax evasion. However, a decree of the Ministry of Economy and Finance (MEF) is under discussion, which seeks to extend the monitoring not only to exchanges but also to those subjects that accept cryptocurrencies for the sale of services and goods.
As said, apart from the AML Law, there is a lack of regulation which undermines the grade of protection of users and investors.
The protection of users/investors
One of the issues which prevents or undermines the grade of the protection is that crypto markets and crypto players can be located in jurisdictions that do not have effective money laundering and terrorist financing controls in place or do not have any regulation for their offering to the investors. Moreover, against the risk of default of the platform or the exchanges there is very little to do to protect investors especially at a cross-border level.
The protection of users/investors depends on several factors, the first one being the nature of the cryptocurrencies in question and the crypto-platforms (i.e. what they are, where they are based and whether they are compliant with the Italian law).
The nature of the cryptocurrencies has to be identified on a case-by-case basis. If qualified as securities (standard financial products which are transferable and generate profits), the prospectus rules should apply, this meaning that a prospectus is required under the Consolidated Financial Law (“Testo Unico Finanza” or “TUF”) to disclose significant financial risks to investors. If they are a hybrid made up of a means of payment and an investment component, the application of the TUF provisions is controversial.
From a criminal perspective, users/investors can be protected in case of fraud irrespective of the above factors. The general remedies under the criminal law apply.
The landmarks for investors’ protection are:
- The AML Law defining the subjects obliged to declare their activities in the cryptocurrencies world (e. the custodian wallet providers and the virtual currency exchanges);
- The TUF rules, inter alia, the prospectus regulation; and
- The Consumers’ Code rules the mandatory provisions on the “form and pre-contractual information”.
The common ground of civil actions is the disclosure of pre-contractual information to investors and the compliance of crypto-platforms and exchanges with the Italian law.
Civil actions might be brought against platforms:
- Pursuant to Articles 50 and 67 of the Consumers’ Code, according to which any contract must provide consumers with mandatory “pre-contractual information”.
- Pursuant to Article 23 of the TUF, according to which any contract providing investment services must be in writing and “failure to comply with the prescribed form shall render the contract null and void”.
In 2017, the Court of Verona declared a contract null and void because of its breach of the mandatory provisions on the “form and pre-contractual information” and ordered the refund of the money to the consumer. From the consumers’ perspective, all the information about the nature, the risks and the features of any cryptocurrency must be provided in advance to individuals in a transparent manner. As a matter of fact, the Court of Verona has reasoned that any online agreement between parties, implying the exchange of real money for virtual money, represents a financial service or rather “a paid service.” The Court judged that the contract between the exchange and the Italian consumer was null and void, as the IT service firm breached the obligations set forth by Articles 50 on “distance contracts” and 67 of the Consumers’ Code, which provide as mandatory the “form and pre-contractual information” to be provided to consumers. Lastly, the Court ordered to return to the Italian plaintiff the amount invested in cryptocurrencies.
For the sake of completeness, the consumers’ protection has been achieved also by the Italian Antitrust Authority (i.e. the non-governmental organization focused on consumer protection), which stopped the operations of several affiliates of OneCoin, the digital currency investment scheme widely accused of fraud.
In 2017, Consob (National Authority for the Stock Exchange) banned the advertisement and then the offer of investment portfolios containing cryptocurrencies, made in breach of the prospectus regulation.
Pursuant to Article 101, Par. 4, Part c) of the TUF, Consob has prohibited the advertising – via the website www.coinspace1.com – of the public offer for ‘cryptocurrency extraction packages’ launched by Coinspace Ltd (Resolution no. 19968 of April 20th 2017). The offer had already been the subject of a precautionary 90-day suspension. Moreover, on December 6th, 2017, pursuant to resolution no. 20207, under Article 99, paragraph 1, letter d) of the TUF, Consob banned the offer to the Italian public of “investment portfolios” carried out without the required authorizations by Cryp Trade Capital through the website https://cryp.trade. A few months later, in March 2018, the website https://cryp.trade was subjected to precautionary seizure by the Criminal Court of Rome pursuant to Article 166 of the TUF (a criminal provision which punishes those who carry out financial services and activities without Consob’s authorization). The common ground of these resolutions issued by Consob is the absolute lack of the mandatory information and prospectus set forth by the TUF for entities providing financial services to Italian investors trading in cryptocurrencies and cryptocurrency-related products. Given the application of the TUF, pursuant to Article 23, any contracts for the provision of investment services must be in writing and “failure to comply with the prescribed form shall render the contract null and void”.
Both resolutions have remarked how the Italian versions of the websites were the evidence that those offers were targeted to the Italian market, therefore Consob has set the criteria to identify the territoriality of the crypto-platforms subject to the Italian law which is: “where the cryptocurrencies are intended to be offered to the public”.
To complete this overview, some highlights follow on ICOs and the tax regime of cryptocurrencies in Italy.
Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) are not regulated by the Italian law. In ICOs the funding collected by a start-up could also be exchanged for an equity token (very similar to securities and then embodying an interest in the issuing start-up) or a utility token, which entitles the holder to exchange it for goods or services provided by the same start-up.
ICOs are very controversial (even if not yet officially banned by Consob), as they issue equity tokens that, due to their similarity to securities, can be offered to the public of investors only by entities duly authorized by the regulators, according to the TUF. As far as utility tokens, in theory their issuance might be allowed subject to a strict set of contractual rules, in order to protect investors as much as possible. However, the ICOs market has not taken off, yet.
The tax regime
For Italian tax purposes, the taxation of cryptocurrencies is not regulated by Law. Nonetheless, the Italian Revenue Agency issued a Ruling in May 2018 providing that gains on virtual currency for individuals trading outside a business activity are treated as gains arising from the disposal of traditional foreign currency. Consequently, gains relating to forward sale are always taxable, rather gains relating to forward sale are taxable only to the extent that, during the tax period, the average amount of the overall virtual currency maintained by the taxpayer exceeds the equivalent of EUR 51,645.69 for seven days in a row (the exchange rate to use is the one given by the website where the individual carried out the transaction). Any gain is therefore subject to 26% withholding tax. Additionally, the taxpayer must comply with the tax monitoring duties in the Individual Tax Return though he is not exempted from wealth tax (IVAFE), to the extent that virtual currency is not held through institutions or other authorized intermediaries by the Bank of Italy.
The same regulatory uncertainty put on the taxation of corporations trading in virtual currency. In a Ruling issued in September 2018, the authorities submitted that exchanges of bitcoins for legal currency constitute, for income tax purposes, a taxable event subject to Ires (24%) and Irap (3.9%).
For indirect tax purposes, the authorities confirmed that trading in bitcoins and other virtual currencies is similar to the activity of an intermediary negotiating in financial instruments, and, as a consequence, it is exempt from VAT under the Italian provision implementing article 135(1)(e) of the VAT Directive (2006/112). Therefore, when bitcoins are exchanged for real currencies, no VAT is due on the value of the bitcoins themselves.