Law Decoded: Three regulatory trends of 2021, Dec. 20–27

It is that time of the year: Singular events must be abandoned in favor of end-of-year, big-picture narratives and yearly lessons learned. As many governments across the globe finally had to face the rapidly mainstreaming realm of digital finance, the year is packed with developments in crypto policy and regulation that are impossible to fit into a neat little summary. However, it is possible to try and distill several major trends that have come to the fore during the past 12 months, and that will keep shaping the relationship among societies, state power and the crypto space as we roll into 2022.

Below is the concise version of the latest “Law Decoded” newsletter. For the full breakdown of policy developments over the last week, register for the full newsletter below.

U.S. Congress notices crypto

In 2021, crypto regulation in the United States ceased to be mostly the domain of unelected officials sitting on various financial regulatory commissions and within the Treasury Department. Federal lawmakers called more high-profile Congressional hearings on digital assets than in any previous year. Their command of crypto-related issues has also improved visibly. The executive branch still attempted to steer important decisions — the approach most vividly illustrated by the last-minute inclusion of crypto broker reporting requirements into the infrastructure bill — yet the backers of such course were likely caught off-guard by a vocal, concerted pushback from the industry and its allies on the Capitol Hill. Granted, not everyone in Congress is a Bitcoin buff, but there are still quite a few, and some are making crypto salient on their legislative agendas.

The emergence of crypto as a conspicuous matter of public policy in the age of partisan polarization has also raised a question of where each of the two major U.S. political parties stands on digital asset-related issues. The coming year will likely see further crystallization of partisan crypto stances.

Authoritarians lean toward the hardline

Another emerging rift can be observed in how various political systems have come to approach crypto depending on where they stand on the liberal-authoritarian continuum. Obviously, all agents of power strive to maximize the degree of control they exert over payment systems and the financial system more broadly, yet in 2021, those who make greater use of the free-market look more likely to co-opt rather than heavily restrict the digital asset space.

The approach exemplified by China and its outlawing of crypto trading and mining mark the heavy-handed end of the policy palette. The alternative is opening up to financial innovation and reaping the benefits of such openness at the cost of limited control.

The struggle between these two stances has been intensifying within several big economies that can be reasonably expected to opt for a more hardline scenario. While an imminent threat seems to have been averted in India, inconclusive signals emanating from Russia and Turkey suggest that forces championing the hawkish approach are extremely influential there.

Unprecedented rates of legal exposure

From El Salvador becoming the first crypto nation with a legal tender status for Bitcoin (BTC) to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission finally allowing a Bitcoin exchange-traded fund to the market, more people than ever now have a legal way to use cryptocurrency for payments and investment.

Still, narrative shifts driven by these historic advancements resonate far beyond the crypto bubble, leading to new waves of mainstream interest. With both the awareness and exposure on the rise, it gets harder for policymakers to ignore the new economic and social reality where Bitcoin and its siblings are present in the lives of millions. At this point, there is no stopping the virtuous cycle of global crypto adoption, and in 2022, there will be even less room for the powers that be to remain oblivious to crypto-driven social transformation.

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