Blockchain Research and Insight - Kapronasia

This commentary was written in collaboration with Banking Circle

It was one thing for the European Union (EU) to talk about enacting comprehensive cryptocurrency regulation: It is another to pass the corresponding legislation. That is exactly what the EU did in late April with the long-anticipated Markets in Cryptoassets (MiCA) directive. MiCA will regulate the cryptocurrency sector with common rules across all 27 of the EU’s member states.

Several years in the making, MiCA is part of a broader push by the EU to regulate digital finance more like it does the rest of financial services. Other legislation focused on this objective includes the Digital Operational Resilience Act (DORA) and the DLT Pilot Regime Regulation.

MiCA’s impact

Once it goes into effect in July 2024, MiCA will classify crypto in three categories subject to different regulation based on their underlying risk: electric money tokens (EMTs), asset-referenced tokens (ARTs) – both of which are variants of stablecoins – and all others. The “others” will include non-pegged payment tokens like bitcoin.

Under MiCA, any firm providing crypto services in the EU must register in one of the bloc’s member states. Once they do that, they can operate throughout the EU. The European Banking Authority and the European Securities and Markets Authority will be responsible for ensuring compliance by crypto firms to eschew another FTX-like catastrophe.

And it is no exaggeration to say that the sudden, rapid implosion of the erstwhile US$32 billion exchange highlighted the urgency of implementing regulations for the crypto sector.

“Under the MiCA regime, no company providing crypto assets in the EU would have been allowed to be organized, or perhaps I should say disorganized, in the way FTX reportedly was,” Alexandra Jour-Schroeder, deputy director general at the European Commission’s financial-services arm, said in November, shortly after the once-massive exchange imploded.

With the adoption of a unified regulatory framework for digital assets, the EU is taking a step no other jurisdiction has to date. Chances are – barring a dramatic increase in severity of the crypto bear market – that the many crypto fence sitters will feel more pressure to act.

“It would be a surprise if other jurisdictions like the UK and the US aren’t quick to follow suit and further accelerate their crypto regulatory efforts,” Alisa DiCaprio, chief economist at enterprise blockchain firm R3, told Bloomberg.

In fact, in the lead-up to MiCA’s passage in April, crypto venture capital investment in Europe overtook that in the U.S., according to data compiled by Pitchbook. Prior to the January-March period, Europe had rarely, if ever, led the U.S. in that category.

Possible shortcomings

The EU should be commended for its efforts to develop a robust and enduring regulatory framework for digital assets. It is likely that the benefits of the legislation will outweigh its shortcomings, and it could set a global standard for crypto regulations.

That said, MiCA has a few potential problem areas worthy of note. CoinDesk identified one in late 2022: Although MiCA requires companies targeting the EU market to register with a local regulator, certain exemptions exist that could be exploited.

For instance, if a company based outside the EU provides relevant crypto-asset services at the "own exclusive initiative" of a customer residing within the bloc, that company does not have to obtain authorization under MiCA. Similar provisions exist under the EU’s Markets in Financial Instruments Directive 2014 (MiFID II).

Known as “reverse solicitation,” this scenario exists for practical reasons. It is challenging for regulators to control how companies and individuals in the EU engage with overseas crypto firms and a blanket ban on such activity like China has implemented is not feasible for Europe.

EU officials say that the risk of reverse solicitation being abused could be mitigated if other jurisdictions adopt similar regulations to MiCA. Perhaps, but easier said than done. It is too early to say whether other countries will follow the MiCA model.

MiCA also imposes some restrictions on stablecoins that crypto diehards are chafing at. MiCA will require operations to maintain local reserves and face trading caps on non-euro-denominated tokens not backed by fiat currency.

Glass half full

Imperfect as it may be, MiCA represents an important step forward in the ongoing and arduous process of cryptocurrency regulation. Detractors of the legislation, which often point out it does not regulate NFTs, should recognize that effective regulation of a new asset class and its underlying technology does not happen overnight.

What MiCA will accomplish in the short run is an elevation of cryptocurrency from the financial underground to the aboveboard mainstream. Bringing crypto out of the shadows and under some centralized regulatory control will disappoint some decentralization zealots, but more importantly, it will help curb fraud, money laundering and other malfeasance that easily proliferate in the absence of proper regulation.

MiCA could also, in the long run, boost the development of a thriving Web3 ecosystem undergirded by stablecoins. For stablecoins to be adopted widely, two factors are crucial: building the proper infrastructure and implementing the right regulation. To the first point, better infrastructure is still needed to enable Web3 payments. With regards to the second, MiCA is likely to be a key part of it.

MiCA mandates that stablecoins are sufficiently backed, have capital requirements for issuers, and have issuance limits. It also focused on transparency. The clarity introduced by these rules will likely boost the confidence of consumers and business to use stablecoins, ultimately catalyzing much wider adoption throughout the EU.

Asset-backed stablecoins are ideal for Web3 payments given their stability against fiat currencies, giving banks and payments providers the ability to facilitate payments outside traditional bank rails. Stablecoins also have significant reconciliation, speed and cost advantages.

Wider adoption of stablecoins, which are cheaper and faster than other instant payment schemes, could ultimately help break down payment barriers, democratizing finance and creating new international growth opportunities for SMEs, especially in markets where correspondent banking is less mature. 

 This commentary was written in collaboration with Banking Circle and originally appeared on Banking Circle

In recent years, political tumult and Covid restrictions have dented Hong Kong’s reputation as a global financial center. Yet Hong Kong faces another type of challenge now: how to best capitalize on opportunities afforded by the financial sector’s rapid digitization. That is where Hong Kong’s newfound interest in cryptocurrency derives, especially given how it has lost some ground to Singapore in wealth management and fintech.

In Asia Pacific, Japan is taking a proactive position on stablecoin regulation much as it has other elements of cryptocurrency rules since 2017. New regulations are expected to come into effect in June, while Japanese banks recently began a stablecoin experiment on an Ethereum public chain. Though certain crypto fundamentalists decry Japan’s stablecoin regulations as overly restrictive, in reality, the alternative is unattractive. UST’s spectacular implosion last year and the subsequent criminal charges brought by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission against Terraforms Labs founder are a pointed reminder of what happens when stablecoins are left entirely to “market forces.”

At long last, Taiwan plans to adopt some basic cryptocurrency regulations beyond requiring crypto firms to adhere to existing anti-money laundering legislation. The Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC) will be responsible for the regulations, though the extent of its role has yet to be decided. In all likelihood, the FSC will continue to take a hands-off approach to decentralized digital currencies due to its limited understanding of them and preference to not get heavily involved in a segment of financial services that remains well outside of the mainstream in Taiwan and thus with relatively few ties to the banking system.

A commentary in collaboration with Banking Circle.

While many countries are enthusiastic about blockchain, or distributed ledger technology (DLT), China is in a class by itself. It has a commanding share of blockchain patents, many companies operating in the space and related investment that is growing exponentially. China’s blockchain investment surged from US$14.4 million in 2017 to USD US$930 million in 2021, according to the research firms IDC and the China Commercial and Industrial Research Institute.

The cryptocurrency industry always runs ahead of regulators while the media builds its narratives based on the stories of exuberant founders and investors. This paradigm helps explain why Singapore has been perceived as the place to be for crypto – “hub” is the word of choice – for several years now even though the city-state’s government has been more modest in its ambitions.

A commentary in collaboration with Banking Circle.

It can be hard to separate the hype from reality when it comes to Web3. After all, on the one hand, it is being heralded as “the future of the internet” and on the other, its actual definition remains fluid.

We reckon Silvergate wishes it had never served as FTX’s bank. The collapse of the once mighty crypto exchange has had massive ripple effects across the entire decentralized digital currency ecosystem. In the last three months of 2022, investors pulled out US$8 billion in deposits from the bank given its heavy exposure to FTX and it posted a loss of US$1 billion in the fourth quarter of the year. Silvergate’s stock is trading at around US$5.40 a share, down 95% from a year ago.

Most Asian countries are mulling the creation of a central bank digital currency (CBDC), but only China and Cambodia have launched one. We think that CBDCs make the most sense for countries with pressing financial inclusion needs, and with that in mind, the launch of Laos’s first CBDC pilot led by the same Japanese blockchain company that developed Cambodia’s Project Bakong can be viewed as a positive development.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has emerged as a leading fintech hub of the Middle East, with one of the region’s most dynamic startup ecosystems. From a regulatory standpoint, it is also taking a leading role, with big plans for both cryptocurrency and a central bank digital currency (CBDC). While many countries have adopted one or the other, the UAE is one of the few that seems open to both.

China’s launch of the digital yuan has prompted a scramble in Northeast Asia among central banks to assess the merits of CBDCs. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are all at different stages of CBDC testing that they likely never would have begun if it were not for Beijing’s determination to develop a digital fiat currency. That begs an important question: Does the rest of Northeast Asia need CBDCs? After all, the respective initiatives of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are inherently reactive, in contrast to Beijing’s proactive approach.

What crypto bear market? North Korea stole a record amount of digital assets in 2022 despite the industry facing unprecedented difficulties. Perhaps the Hermit Kingdom knows something others do not and is betting all that purloined crypto will appreciate handsomely in the years to come. Or maybe it’s just easier for the country’s formidable cybercriminals to pilfer digital assets than other types of money given that the crypto industry continues to operate in the shadows. Whatever the reason, Pyongyang made off with a quite haul last year.

The whispers about China potentially reconsidering its ban on cryptocurrency are growing. In fact, some credible (not crypto bros) people are starting to openly moot the possibility, albeit in the most cautious way possible. If asked a year or even six months ago, we would have said that it was highly unlikely given the concerns the central government has about the use of decentralized digital currencies to evade capital controls and how they may foment systemic financial risk. Now we would say that there is a real debate occurring, but that the ban will not be reversed unless the Chinese authorities see compelling economic benefits.

We have published a few commentaries over the past year noting how central bank digital currency (CBDC) adoption in Southeast Asia is pretty slow. Cambodia is an exception, but its digital fiat currency is not exactly a CBDC in the traditional sense – an important distinction to make. Bakong is probably best described as a blockchain-powered retail payments system managed by the Cambodian central bank that allows interoperability among the different players in the country’s payments landscape.

The Chinese government views cryptocurrency as a serious systemic financial risk and has taken strong measures to minimize its usage in the world’s second largest economy. Though China retains a thriving underground crypto ecosystem, Beijing’s different bans on digital assets ensure that the average Chinese citizen will not be exposed to them.That said, Beijing has not expressed any opposition to blockchain/DLT technology; on the contrary, the Chinese government believes that it can use blockchain for a wide variety of applications, from trade finance to improving supply chain safety.

Taiwan’s government has historically had an amicable relationship with the cryptocurrency industry because it functions for the most part outside of the Taiwanese banking system and has not caused them many problems. Further, Taiwan’s conservative retail investors have generally been less eager than most of their counterparts in East Asia to jump into crypto investing, which has made digital assets a niche market on the island. However, the latest crypto bear market, and especially the collapse of FTX, have highlighted why the hands-off approach may need to be adjusted.

Crypto bear market be darned: Indonesia plans to set up a cryptocurrency exchange later this year ahead of a shift of regulatory powers over digital assets to the Financial Services Authority from the Commodity Futures Trading Regulatory Agency, known as Bappebti. The move is part of a broader financial reform push.

India launched its long-awaited CBDC pilot in early November – wholesale – and early December – retail – with much fanfare. Nine banks are participating in the wholesale pilot and four in the retail pilot, which is focusing on the cities of Mumbai, New Delhi, Bengaluru and Bhubaneswar.

Call it a comeback? That seems to be the message of the Hong Kong authorities as they work to restore the city’s reputation as Asia’s premier financial hub. While some things will never be the same in the erstwhile British crown colony, it does retain significant strengths as a financial bridge to the mainland, and the Greater Bay Area (GBA) in particular. But when it comes to serving as a hub for cryptocurrency, the jury is still out.

It was just a matter of time before Southeast Asia’s largest economy unveiled its roadmap for a central bank digital currency (CBDC) and indeed, Indonesia’s central bank recently published a white paper about its plans for a digital rupiah. Whether Indonesia actually needs a CBDC is a separate matter, and its motivations for launching a digital fiat currency are only now starting to become clear.

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.

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