The bigger they come, the harder they fall, especially in an industry like crypto that has rapidly become colossal yet still operates largely in the shadows. The abrupt implosion of crypto exchange FTX might be a Lehman moment, or it might be an Enron moment, or it might be something else entirely. It is hard to say at this point.
Hong Kong as Asia’s top crypto hub? Really? That is our reaction to the speculation that the Chinese SAR could beat out Singapore for Asia’s crypto crown that has emerged since Hong Kong officials at Hong Kong Fintech Week announced a public consultation on how retail investors could have a suitable degree of access to digital assets under a new licensing regime. Rules currently limit crypto trades to institutional investors with a portfolio of at least HK$8mn ($1mn). Yet it is hard to see how Hong Kong can chart such a markedly different course on crypto than mainland China.
Cambodia became one of the first countries in the world to launch a central bank digital currency (CBDC) in October 2020. As adoption of Cambodia’s blockchain-based retail CBDC Project Bakong proceeded expeditiously, other Southeast Asian countries with similar financial inclusion needs and openness to digitization of financial services were expected to follow suit.
Yet two years after Bakong’s launch, no other ASEAN country has launched a digital fiat currency. As the hype around CBDCs has cooled, Southeast Asian countries are worrying less about being first movers in this nascent field and more about if a CBDC offers them benefits that justify its costs.
The crypto bear market sure is not slowing down North Korea’s cyber criminals. Chainalysis data show that North Korean hackers stole US$840 million in decentralized virtual currencies from January to May, about US$200 million more than they pilfered in 2020 and 2021 combined. "By any standard, they [North Korea] are a crypto superpower,” former North Korea analyst at the FBI Nick Carlsen told CNET in a recent interview.
In early October, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) published a 50-page concept note outlining its vision for a digital rupee. The document explains the RBI’s reasons for rolling out a central bank digital currency, such as boosting financial inclusion, accelerating financial digitization and enhancing financial stability, but does not offer a specific timeline for the launch of the Indian digital fiat currency.
Did Thailand’s Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) have a crystal ball handy when it nixed a plan to acquire the troubled Thai crypto exchange Bitkub? The deal, announced in the late-stage crypto bull market of November 2021, had been on thin ice for months. Then came the announcement on August 25: The 17.8-billion-baht (US$536,000) deal was off. In a statement, SCB cited Bitkub’s “various issues” it was sorting out with Thai regulators as the reason the deal was being scrapped. On August 30, it became clear that the issues were serious.
When Cambodia swiftly launched its retail central bank digital currency (CBDC) Project Bakong, it seemed that other Southeast Asian countries might also make similar moves. Yet in the nearly two years since Bakong went live in October 2020, not a single nation in the region has launched a CBDC of its own. Even the pilot programs are proceeding slowly. It seems that the hype around digital fiat currencies is subsiding and governments are worrying less about whether their nations will be left behind in the next generation of finance and more about if a CBDC offers clear benefits that justify its costs.
Crypto believers will point to Thailand recently greenlighting four new digital assets companies to say that the kingdom remains a booster of decentralized virtual currencies. These include Krungthai XSpring, a crypto broker affiliated with one of the country’s leading banks, crypto exchange T-BOX Thailand, crypto adviser and fund manager Coindee and Leif Capital Asset Management, which also manages funds. We reckon Thailand is not going to crack down on crypto as China and India have, but the digital assets’ freewheeling days in the kingdom are quickly winding down. Tighter regulation is inevitable given retail investors’ recent losses in the digital assets market.
Digital transformation at incumbent banks is all well and good, but maybe making a huge bet on crypto as a traditional lender is still a bit risky. At least that is the sense we get from Thailand’s Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) and its digitally forward holding company SCB X. While many aspects of SCB’s pivot to fintech are proceeding smoothly, the planned acquisition of the crypto exchange Bitkub is not. The deal was supposed to be concluded by now, but it appears SCB is having second thoughts about it.
Surprise, surprise: Japan is in no hurry to issue a digital yen. In a June report that declared proof of concept in the first-phase study, the Bank of Japan (BOJ) repeated its stance that it has “no plans to issue” a CBDC, though the Japanese central bank believes it is “important to be prepared thoroughly to respond appropriately to any future changes in the environment.” Talk about a general statement. The BOJ’s stance has to be viewed within the wider context of CBDC development in Asia, especially the underwhelming performance – at least in relation to the hype surrounding it – of China’s digital renminbi.
2022 is turning out to be the worst crypto bear market yet. Bitcoin’s price is hovering around US$20,000 while most traders of the paramount cryptocurrency traders are underwater and continuing to sell at a loss. The dismal crypto market conditions – and how they highlight decentralized digital currencies’ inherent volatility – are forcing regulators in many Asian countries to consider tightening relevant regulations. However, there are exceptions, and the Philippines is a notable one. Cryptocurrencies remain very popular in the country; trading is still brisk and regulators have yet to signal a tougher stance.
Singapore has been viewed as the most likely crypto hub in Asia after China’s crackdown on decentralized virtual currencies effectively ended Hong Kong’s prospects for taking on such a role. The city-state has never been that gung-ho about the idea though. Its regulators recognize crypto offers certain opportunities to Singapore, but they also are aware of its inherent volatility. The current crypto bear market and related collapses that are occurring are likely to spur Singapore to take an even more cautious approach to decentralized digital currencies.
South Korea’s K bank, the country’s first online lender, has staged an impressive comeback in the past two years, overcoming long-running capitalization problems and growing both its deposit base and loan books at a brisk rate. K bank's loans have grown 1.56 trillion won (US$1.28 billion) per year on average since its launch in 2017 while customers’ average annual savings have reached 2.31 trillion won. A tie-up with leading South Korean crypto exchange Upbit has been a key reason for K bank’s recent fast growth. However, that reliance on Upbit could now become a liability for the digibank.
Perennially sanctioned North Korea has become adept at stealing cryptocurrency to finance its illicit weapon programs. Unlike fiat currency, decentralized digital assets exist outside of the formal financial system, making them easier prey for Pyongyang’s tenacious and skilled hackers. Yet the recent crypto bear market that has seen US$2 trillion in market valuation lost may complicate North Korea’s crypto-funded criminal endeavors.
Australians lost AU$113 million (US$81.5 million) to crypto investment scams in the first five months of 2022, according to new data from ScamWatch cited by consumer watchdog the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). The ACCC noted that most of the reported losses, which occurred in the January 1 to May 1 period, were investment scams, and they rose by 314% (including non-crypto scams) compared to the same period last year. This situation underscores the need for Australia to implement comprehensive regulation for digital assets, as crypto use among Aussies continues to rise steadily.
It has not been the best few months for India’s cryptocurrency market. New tax legislation is putting a damper on trading and investment, which are also taking a beating amid a broader crypto bear market. At the same time, fintech funding in India may finally dry up – a least for a while – as investors tighten their belts.
In February, Indian finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) would launch a central bank digital currency in the 2022-23 fiscal year. In her budget speech, she said that introducing a digital rupee would give a big boost to the digital economy and lead to a more efficient and cheaper currency management system. Yet since then, there has been no obvious progress on India’s CBDC project, and even some measured pushback against the idea.
South Korea’s new president Yoon Suk-yeol entered office planning to make his country friendlier to cryptocurrency. During his campaign, Yoon said, “To realize the unlimited potential of the virtual asset market, we must overhaul regulations that are far from reality and unreasonable.” Though Yoon likely remains keen to carry out his campaign promises about crypto, it will be no easy task. He faces conservative, crypto-skeptical financial regulators, a parliament controlled by South Korea’s main political opposition, the Democratic Party of Korea, and now the fallout over the abrupt collapse of the TerraUSD stablecoin.
The Philippines is taking a different approach to crypto than many other Asian countries, most notably in a tentative acceptance of the use of decentralized digital currencies for payments. Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia have all banned crypto for payments outright, while Singapore has licensed just a handful of companies to use digital assets for payments.
North Korea’s resilience is often surprising to outside observers. After all, Pyongyang is the only communist East Asian country to not formally launch economic reforms. It is impoverished and isolated. Further, U.S.-led sanctions imposed from the mid-2000s have made it harder for North Korea to conduct international trade. However, North Korea has developed a formidable cybercrime capability in order to evade the sanctions, and it is increasingly targeting digital assets whose decentralized nature make them vulnerable to determined hackers.
The use of decentralized virtual currencies is growing expeditiously in Indonesia and Southeast Asia’s largest economy has the highest crypto adoption rate in the world along with Brazil, according to a new study by crypto exchange Gemini published in early April. The report found that 41% of Indonesians aged between 18 and 75 years old with an income of more than $14,000 per year own crypto assets.
The need for comprehensive regulation of decentralized virtual currencies in Australia is greater than ever as crypto ownership in the country steadily rises. New research by Roy Morgan shows that 1 million Australians aged 18 and up own at least one cryptocurrency with the average crypto investment in the country roughly AU$20,000. Unsurprisingly, Bitcoin and Ethereum are the most popular cryptocurrencies with investors, though some also hold Ripple, Cardano, Dogecoin, Shiba Inu, Solana, Binance Coin, Litecoin, Cronos and others.
There is more than one way to drastically curtail crypto activity in a country. China’s approach has been largely effective, but is generally not applicable elsewhere. In the case of India, which has a very different political system than China, blanket bans could face legal challenges while being difficult to enforce. A better approach is to tax the heck out of crypto transactions, which regulators and some politicians almost certainly hope will reduce the attractiveness of the asset class.
When it comes to the cryptocurrency policies of Asia’s regulators, it pays to not be overly sanguine. While most regulators in Asia are happy to let crypto evolve as a regulated asset class, payments are another story. Thailand is the latest Asian country to crack down on using crypto for payments.
On March 23, Thailand’s Securities and Exchange Commission on Wednesday banned the use of cryptocurrency for payments, effective April 1. That means no bitcoin or any other crypto can be used to purchase goods and services. Digital assets payment operators will be given a grace period through the end of April to cease providing payment services. Trading of digital assets for investment purposes will be not affected by the SEC’s ban on payments.
South Korea’s people have long been more enthusiastic about crypto than the country’s regulators and politicians. By one estimate, in 2021 one in three South Koreans either invested in crypto or was paid in digital assets. A study by the Korean government’s Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) found that South Korea’s cryptocurrency market value was estimated at 55 trillion won (US$45.6 billion) as of the end of last year, that 15.2 million Koreans have accounts and 5.6 million registered users of crypto actually trade. Yet heading into Korea’s recent presidential election, the country was tightening oversight of cryptocurrencies in a manner detrimental to market growth.
Could Malaysia become a crypto hub in Asia? A recent CoinDesk article made that case, pointing out that some of the necessary ingredients are already there, such as a common law system and institutional use of English. Further, Malaysia's crypto ownership rate of 19.9% is above the global average of 15.5%, according to Finder’s latest Cryptocurrency Adoption Index.
With CBDC hype subsiding – at least in most advanced economies – Japan’s plans for a digital yen are coming into focus and unsurprisingly, Tokyo is in no rush to launch a digital fiat currency even if it sees some upside to the idea in the long term. Japan has no compelling policy reasons to quickly roll out a digital yen, regardless of what China is doing. And in fact, Beijing spent about six years getting the digital RMB ready and it remains in the pilot stage.
Remember when more crypto was traded in China than any other country in the world? Though it was less than five years ago, it seems like a lifetime ago. In 2021, China accelerated a long-running crackdown on decentralized virtual currencies, banning just about everything crypto-related but possession. While some diehard crypto enthusiasts in China may carry on, Beijing has made crypto trading more trouble than it is worth for most Chinese. With crypto out of the way, Beijing can now concentrate on developing its own blockchain ecosystem.
Why ban crypto when you can discourage its use by taxing it heavily? That seems to be at least part of the rationale behind India’s plan to forego a ban on decentralized virtual currencies but tax income from digital assets at a flat 30% rate with no deductions or exemptions. At the same time, India plans to go ahead with a digital rupee by early 2023.
Somewhere in between the El Salvador and China approaches to crypto is a middle road, neither a full-throated embrace nor a strict ban. Call it crypto agnostic. Thailand appears to be taking that road, allowing the digital assets business to grow organically, while gradually implementing regulations as needed. For Thai regulators, the priority is not developing a regional hub for decentralized virtual currencies – that is more of a Singapore project and something Japan has considered – but simply ensuring they are used in a manner beneficial for the country’s economy and overall society.
Earlier this week the People’s Bank of China e-CNY digital wallet showed up on Android and Apple App stores in China in what appears to be the government’s next push to get people to use the somewhat underused digital currency. Previously, the PBOC's e-CNY digital wallet app was only available as a ‘side-loaded’ app meaning that it had to be loaded manually by the user rather than installed through one of the official stores. This is a relatively trivial task on an Android phone where you just click on a .APK file, but somewhat more difficult in the Apple ecosystem.
2021 has been a pathbreaking year for decentralized digital currencies. They have made more headway into the mainstream financial system than in any previous year. The Indian government has been watching these developments closely and has quietly walked back its erstwhile anti-crypto stance. A blanket ban of crypto no longer makes sense for India, as it would be both detrimental to financial inclusion and cashless payments objectives, while offering questionable benefits for combating money laundering and terrorism financing.
Taiwan’s financial sector is known for its conservatism, so it is no surprise that the island has not embraced cryptocurrency. Yet, to their credit, nor have Taiwan’s regulators taken an overly harsh approach to decentralized digital currencies. Unfortunately, the lack of regulatory clarity that initially allowed crypto to gain a foothold in Taiwan is not sufficient for the island to become a hub for the industry.
Australia may be reaching its crypto inflection point. Canberra has never repudiated crypto but nor has it embraced decentralized virtual currencies. However, as other countries in the Asia-Pacific region like Singapore and Japan step up their efforts to become crypto hubs, Australia is realizing that decentralized digital currencies offer it an opportunity as well. A report published by Australia’s Senate in late October recommends that the country alter its laws to make them more amicable to crypto.