Is crypto finally going mainstream?

Just as my last blog on crypto regulation went to press, news broke that CBA (one of Australia’s “four pillar” banks) will be adding crypto assets to its mobile banking app. Add that to the launch of a crypto equities ETF by BetaShares, and further media coverage of local digital asset fund manager Apollo Capital, and you may start to believe that crypto is finally going mainstream in Australia.

But, before anyone gets too excited, a few caveats are in order.

First, the recent flurry of announcements from the Australian Senate, ASIC and AUSTRAC are simply the latest stages in a long-running debate about how crypto assets should be regulated, serviced and distributed. Despite these positive noises, there is still some way to go before crypto reaches critical mass (even though data for Australia shows we have one of the higher rates of market adoption).

Second, there is a lot of noise out there, and not all of it here in Australia. The SEC, FATF, ISDA, Cboe and SGX are just a few of the institutional voices making announcements on crypto and digital assets in recent weeks. On top of that, of course, there is the President of El Salvador (and the Mayor-Elect of New York) weighing in on behalf of the politicians. Some of this commentary is mere posturing; some is about being seen to be doing something; and a large part is just the legacy markets trying to catch up (and hoping to take control?).

Third, a closer look at CBA, BetaShares and Apollo Capital reveal some significant limitations in terms of what their products actually offer:

The CBA is planning to launch a trial among a small sample of their mobile banking users (although, no doubt, if things go well, it will be rolled out more extensively). But it does not mean the app becomes a fully-fledged crypto wallet: customers will only be able to buy/sell crypto within the app, and they won’t be able to send crypto to third parties. Plus, only a small set of crypto assets will be available.

The BetaShares ETF is not offering direct exposure to Bitcoin or other crypto assets. Instead, the fund is designed to invest in companies (mainly crypto exchanges, miners and technology providers) that are significant or strategic industry players. While that may mitigate the market volatility (and price fluctuation) that crypto experiences, it doesn’t necessarily make for higher returns.

The Apollo Capital fund is only available to wholesale or accredited investors – not retail customers. And while Apollo has done a reasonable job of growing its AUM, I don’t believe there are any major allocations from Industry Super Funds (which manage 27% of Australians’ retirement savings), Retail Funds (21%) or Public Sector Funds (18%). And despite anecdotal evidence that Self-Managed Super Funds (SMSF) are more active in crypto assets (along with Family Offices and HNWIs), recent data from the ATO suggests crypto assets held within SMSF are not much more than $200m.

Having worked in this industry since 2016, it’s always been apparent from an institutional perspective that few want to go first, but nobody wants to be last, when it comes to launching crypto products and services. Of the three Australian stories this week, the most significant is probably the CBA; it certainly got a lot of attention at the recent State of Play presentation by Blockchain Australia, in large part due to the industry implications, and how it will help bring crypto to an even wider audience.

Next week: Summing Up (and Signing Off)

 

 

Crypto Regulation in Australia

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.

First, there was the Final Report of the Senate Select Committee on Australia as a Technological and Financial Centre. Among other things, the Committee has recommended a specific regulatory framework for Digital Currency Exchanges, a formal custody regime for digital assets, a classification (or “token mapping exercise”) for the various types of digital assets, and a legal framework to recognize Decentralised Autonomous Organisations as a form or company structure.

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.

Next week: Is crypto finally going mainstream?

 

To be or NFT?

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.

CryptoPunk #7523 (Image sourced from Reuters)

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.

Next week: I got nothing

 

Accounting for Crypto

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.

First, there is a Senate Select Committee on Australia as a Technology and Financial Centre, including “opportunities and risks in the digital asset and cryptocurrency sector”. The Select Committee is also looking at ways to define and/or potentially regulate crypto assets.

Second, ASIC has launched a public consultation process on crypto ETFs. This follows a desire from the regulator for more policy guidance from the Federal Government on the “regulatory perimeter” for crypto assets.

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