I’m often approached for advice about the work I do. Many of these enquiries come via LinkedIn connection requests, but generally they are thinly-veiled attempts to sell me something, or to gain access to my network, or to get free consulting. So I have developed a number of techniques to flush out the bona fide from the free-loaders.
In principle, I like to pay it forward when I can, where I believe I can add value, without any immediate expectation of material reward. But there are only so many hours in a day, and there’s only so many connection requests I can handle.
On the positive side, recently I’ve been receiving more genuine approaches, where specific expertise is being sought, rather than someone wanting to “connect” or “buy me a coffee”.
A great example is the call I received from a prospective client through my work at Brave New Coin. Dr Michael Kollo is the CEO of Clanz, a new on-line community for crypto traders. Following this initial chat, Michael invited me to be a guest on his podcast, to discuss my personal journey into crypto over the past 6 years with Brave New Coin and Techemy.
The result was a very enjoyable (but hopefully informative) conversation about my views on the crypto industry, based on my particular perspective in market data and indexing. I hope you enjoy it too:
You wait ages for a bus, then several come along at the same time. The past week has seen three major developments in Australia regarding the regulation of cryptocurrencies, digital assets and the industry in which they operate.
Second, AUSTRAC issued a Statement on De-banking, that urges banks and financial institutions to take a case-by-case approach when reviewing potential risks associated with clients engaged in Blockchain and cryptocurrencies. Rather than applying a blanket ban or refusal to deal with Blockchain and crypto businesses, banks and other providers should exercise more discretion, and adopt workable and practical solutions to meet their risk management and KYC/AML obligations. Echoing the overarching theme of the Senate Select Committee, AUSTRAC recognises that de-banking crypto risks stifling innovation, and/or forcing crypto businesses to resort to less than ideal alternative service providers.
Third, ASIC released its Response to submissions made under the recent consultation on Crypto-assets as underlying assets for ETPs (aka Report 705 on CP 343). While there is some overlap with the scope and terms of reference of the Senate Select Committee, ASIC maintains its position that it does not want to be responsible for developing policy on regulating digital assets (that’s the role of Government); while at the same time stating in very clear terms how it believes cryptocurrencies should or shouldn’t be classified (and regulated). For example, ASIC did not accept the view of many respondents that crypto-assets which are not deemed financial products should be treated as commodities. In part, because there is no definition of “commodity” in the Corporations Act; but also because the discussion has been more about market operators, rather than the specific nature of the assets themselves.
Meanwhile, ASIC remains very prescriptive about the criteria for approving certain cryptocurrencies as the underlying assets for exchange traded products (ETPs) – including criteria which received push back from the industry as being too restrictive or inflexible. On the other hand, ASIC does appear to accept that if crypto-assets cannot be defined as financial products (or commodities), then a distinct category is required. This is the case that has often been put forward by the industry, namely the need to define instruments commonly known as utility tokens. To its credit, ASIC has made a fair stab at coming up with a workable definition of crypto-asset as:
“a digital representation of value or rights (including rights to property), the ownership of which is evidenced cryptographically and that is held and transferred electronically by:
(a) a type of distributed ledger technology; or
(b) another distributed cryptographically verifiable data structure.”
While the overall tone of these developments is encouraging, they still reveal a need for greater consistency (and inter-agency co-ordination), and the lack of a well-articulated policy on this fast-growing FinTech sector.
If there’s one consistent lesson to be learned from Blockchain and crypto is that the enabling technology often outpaces our understanding of the viable use case, commercial application or sustainable business model. For example, smart contracts have only recently proven their value with the rise of decentralized finance (DeFi). Even then, they are not perfect and if not well-coded can result in hacks, losses or other damage. Plus, until scaling (transaction throughput) and gas fees (transaction costs) are properly resolved, mass adoption is still some way off.
The latest crypto phenomenon is the market for NFTs (non-fungible tokens). Artworks in the form of digital files are being created, auctioned and traded for serious (or very silly?) amounts of money – just Google EtherRock, Beeple, CryptoPunk or Rare Pepe for recent examples.
NFTs are not just confined to digital art – animation, video, music and text are all being created in the form of NFTs. In addition, NFTs are being minted to represent ownership or other IP rights for physical artworks, real estate assets, collectibles and luxury goods.
Why would anyone pay the best part of US$12m for the original digital file of CryptoPunk #7523, a copy of which I have displayed above?
Perhaps we need to consider the following:
First, the image above is simply a low-res web image, easily reproduced via copy and paste – it’s not the “real” image as represented by the code or digital file embedded in the NFT. The original file is owned by the NFT buyer, and if it is an edition of one, then that is the only authentic version. Scarcity (as well as kudos) is a key market driver in NFTs – but only if someone else attaches financial value to the work (just as in any art market).
Second, owning the NFT does not necessarily mean you own the copyright or other rights associated with the art work. (I may own a Picasso painting, but I don’t own the image contained in the work.) So, apart from holding an NFT in your digital wallet or displaying it in a virtual art gallery, the only right you have is to re-sell the work. This means you can’t commercialise the image for t-shirts, on-line redistribution or reproduction (unless the owner has agreed to grant such rights within the NFT). (My use of the image here would be covered by the “fair use” principle, for the purposes of illustration and/or critical analysis.)
Third, unless you are able to export the NFT from the marketplace or platform that sold it, the NFT may “vanish” if the platform goes offline for any reason. (Doubtless, platforms need to enable token transfers to other market places and to users’ own digital wallets, otherwise there could be a lot of stranded and/or worthless NFTs in years to come.)
Fourth, the creator of the original work may be entitled to a % of the resale value of the NFT. This is obviously an important consideration for artists and other content creators, and I see this as a positive development. By extension, musicians, authors, film-makers and designers can more easily track and control the downstream revenue generated by the use and licensing of their works by third-party marketplaces, streaming platforms or 3D printing and fabrication services.
Fifth, NFTs support improved authentication, provenance and chain of ownership, as well as bringing more transparency to the world of art auctions – valuations, bidding and prices could all be hashed on the Blockchains that track the NFTs.
Finally, if NFTs are seen as a form of bearer bond (linking ownership to whomever controls the token), they could also be used to package up a portfolio of different crypto or digital assets, and auctioned as a single lot. The buyer could then unlock the disparate assets, and combine them into subsequent bundles – bringing a new dimension to block trades and the transfer of large bundles of stocks.
The period leading up to June 30 saw the usual raft of end of financial year updates, special offers and reminders from equipment suppliers, business service providers, accountants, tax specialists and even the ATO itself.
Crypto is certainly getting a lot of attention in Australia at the moment.
Third, the CPA published an op ed on the need for more clarity in crypto asset accounting. Not just in Australia, but across the world of International Financial Reporting Standards.
None of this should be surprising, as governments, regulators, tax authorities, professional bodies and institutional investors are still struggling to comprehend this new asset class, and the technology that underpins it.
Do crypto and digital assets represent currency, commodity, real estate, software license, network membership, utility access, payment mechanism, store of value, financial security, or unique property rights? Depending on the design, use case and origination of a token and its economic properties, the answer could be “yes” in each case – albeit not all at the same time.
In my consulting work with Brave New Coin, I get to speak to clients on a daily basis about their own crypto activities – be they exchanges, asset managers, accountants, tax authorities, regulators or investors. A lot of the discussion involves education – helping them to make sense of the technology and its potential. Some of the time they are simply asking our advice about how to address a particular issue, or they need a recommendation for a custodian or broker. A few share the regulatory challenges they face, and seek our perspective in how to navigate them. Others need more technical help, in building software solutions, or with on-chain analysis and wallet tracking (even though “free” block explorers already do a pretty good job in that regard). While many simply need a source of market data and indices for price discovery and NAV calculations, or a process to capture and track the crypto equivalents of corporate actions.
If anyone wonders how we are doing to make the reporting of crypto holdings as simple as equities or fixed income assets, my own experiences suggest we have a way to go. Legacy accounting and portfolio tools struggle with crypto: for example, can they calculate to 8 decimal places? how do they deal with an air drop? and how do they distinguish between Ether and Ethan Minerals (both use ETH as their ticker symbols), or Cardano and Adacel Technologies (both use ADA). And if I am an accountant, auditor, financial planner or adviser, how can I make sure I understand my clients’ portfolio of crypto investments, if I don’t have the appropriate tools?
Next week: Goya – allegories and reportage for the modern age