United States: HMRC's New Approach To Cryptoassets – Tax First, Define Later

Last Updated: October 2 2019
Article by Peter J. Connors, B. J. Rosen and Bridget Winters

The UK tax authority, Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC), has taken a further step towards tackling perceived tax avoidance in transactions involving cryptoassets. Specifically, according to press reports, exchanges such as eToro, Coinbase and CEX.IO have received letters from HMRC requesting customer and transaction data.

The move follows HMRC's most recent policy paper, "Cryptoassets for Individuals," published in December 2018, which in turn built on the brief general guidance published by HMRC four years earlier in 2014. The 2018 policy contains the statement that HMRC will apply the relevant income or capital gains tax provisions by looking at the factual details of each circumstance rather than by reference to terminology.

While the policy paper does distinguish between exchange tokens, utility tokens and security tokens, in practice we expect HMRC to focus on a transaction's factual elements, rather than the description of the cryptoassets.

In contrast to HMRC's approach, the UK financial regulator, the FCA, has recently revamped its classification of cryptoassets, clearly defining which ones among them would not fall within the scope of its regulatory regime, the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. HMRC is yet to comment publicly on this development, but it is hoped that HMRC will follow suit and provide taxpayers with more certainty in determining their tax obligations in relation to cryptoassets.

Interestingly, on the other side of the Atlantic, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was also reported to have sent compliance letters to holders of cryptocurrency, warning them of the consequences of their potential non-compliance with relevant tax obligations. It is not clear whether the letters are limited to those taxpayers identified in the Coinbase Summons in 2016. The IRS believes that in 2017 up to $90 billon in cryptocurrency gains went unreported. On the Chain authors have written on the topic previously here, here and here.

While the IRS confirmed in 2014 that virtual currency ought to be treated as property for tax purposes, HMRC has, so far, used the word "property" only to describe cryptoassets for inheritance tax (IHT) purposes. Whether a similar approach will be taken for other UK taxes is yet to be confirmed and cannot be assumed.

The Financial Committee of the City of London Law Society published a paper that provided a potential framework for legal classification of cryptoassets. According to the Committee, exchange tokens could constitute a new category of personal property that is neither a "chose in possession" nor a "chose in action," subject to the Supreme Court extending the notion of personal property to such assets.

In order to tap into the value generated by cryptoassets, HMRC's approach has been to treat cryptoassets as property in relation to IHT and as "assets" in relation to other taxes. This approach is potentially quite unclear for taxpayers if we consider that, at the time of writing, there is no legislative basis (judicial or statutory) for the classification of cryptoassets as property. The fact that HMRC has recognized cryptoassets as property only in relation to IHT, and not for other UK taxes, adds to the uncertainty.

This uncertainty, coupled with the fact that most taxing legislation was drafted before digital assets even existed, means there is an urgent need for clarification on their legal status.

This is relevant to all value-generating actions involving cryptocurrencies, including the UK tax treatment of:

  1. options on tokens – will this mirror the taxation of options over shares?
  2. ICOs – will these be taxed in the same way as IPOs? and
  3. the transfer of tokenized shares – will these fall within the scope of stamp duty?

At the moment, there is no clear answer.

One thing does seem certain, however – blockchain is a harbinger of a new way of generating value and its potential will be fully leveraged only when the tax and legal frameworks around it have reached a serviceable level of cohesion. How and when this will be achieved is difficult to say.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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