Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Bitcoin legal classification in Germany: much ado about ... ?

These days I noticed an interesting discussion in my Twitter time line and on the web on the fact that the German government has 'recognized' Bitcoins (even as legal tender, as cnbc reported for some time). There were many reports on the matter, outlining that Bitcoin is apparently gaining further acceptance among regulators. But as the reports were a bit confusing I felt it would be good to track the sources.

German MP Schäfflers enquired about tax-treatment for Bitcoins
It turns out that a German MP, Frank Schäfflers, has been asking his Ministry of Finance how the taxation rules applies in situations where people use Bitcoin as an instrument of trade/payment. And later on he asked a follow up question whether or not the use of Bitcoins as a payment mechanism would be exempt from VAT (as is the case with German legal tender). Here is the link to the source documents.

The German Ministry of Finance outlined in its response that:
- commercial transactions where bitcoins are being used for payment, have the tax regime on the basis of the transactions' commercial nature; so the use of bitcoins doesn't disturb the regular taxation rules,
- goverment agencies are still discussing how to tax the value increase of bitcoin holdings over a year,
- bitcoins are not legal tender, nor e-money, but a form of private currency which classify as 'Devisen oder Rechnungseinheiten': under the German supervision law (article 11, sub 7).

The Rechnungseinheiten can be translated as unit of accounts, but the explanation of the German Ministry of Finance is that this definition covers - amongst others- all private currencies or units of accounts which are not based on legal tender. Essentially is a catch-all definition to capture any sort of privately agreed payment mechanism that can be used in multilateral clearing or settlement.

The regulatory logic: classification rather than recognition
While to the observer it may appear that the German regulator is leapfrogging into the modern world by outlining the status of bitcoin, the reality may be less exciting. The German Ministry of Finance merely outlined how, given the existing rules on taxation and payments, bitcoins qualify under their supervision law. This is rather a technical exercise and it can be seen that only for income tax issue (what to do with bitcoin holdings that change in value), they haven't yet got an answer.

So yes, the bitcoin has a legal status, but then again: any new development, instrument or technology already is subject to the law book. The fact that the Ministry has now pinpointed the article of the law book where they think the object fits, may therefore not be so spectacular.

If we look at the Netherlands, a similar situation appears. Anyone is free to determine whether to exchange services by paying for them or by using other forms of payment. . I could buy a bread in exchange for washing a car. And if the bakery would accept bitcoin rather than washing their car, it would work as well. The use of bitcoin can be considered payment in kind. Given this regulatory payment mode, our legal system is already recognising alternative forms of payments.

The same holds for the taxation part. The VAT rules on services do not change if the payment leg of my transaction is different. And the income tax rules don not change either. The Dutch rules state that if you hold something which has value, it must be registered on the tax declaration. In this declaration, the bitcoins in a wallet thus show up as the money in my bank account does.

As for the legal tender part of the discussion: I view that as an overrated concept. While in earlier times, the concept of legal tender meant that the other entity in a transaction had to accept the notes and coins, this obligation has been struck out of our Dutch law book many years ago. But it still lingers in the mind of many people and may of course in some other countries still be more relevant.

Future developments
What I find most interesting about the news is the quick and fast coverage that new forms of payments and regulation get in the media and with the public. We can see that the developments are positioned as the story of the recognition of bitcoin by the regulator or as the coming of age for bitcoin. Regardless of the angle of these reports, it is clear that things are happening and moving in the area of private, digital, distributed currencies. And it will be interesting to see this area develop further.