Bitcoin – Big In Japan

I spent the past week in Tokyo on behalf of Brave New Coin, meeting with various participants in the cryptocurrency industry – from exchanges to brokers, from industry bodies to information vendors, from connectivity providers to technology platforms. Given its share of Bitcoin trading volumes, and the legal developments currently in motion, Japan is now the focus of attention as it navigates towards a fully regulated and orderly cryptocurrency market.

Bitcoin is now accepted in Bic Camera stores in Japan (Photo: Rory Manchee – all rights reserved)

On my previous visit to Japan, I commented on the extent to which it was still a cash economy – even major museums and galleries don’t accept plastic, and my pre-paid foreign currency card issued by a major Australian bank was only accepted at a limited number of ATMs: 7-Eleven, and Japan Post. But according to expats I spoke to last week, this situation has changed over the past couple of years.

One of the reasons I was given as to why Japan is taking a lead in regulating cryptocurrencies is its previous perception of having a somewhat lax approach to money laundering. Part of this might be explained by the limited technical integration and interoperability with the global banking system (somewhat akin to Japan’s approach to telecoms, where in the past, it was impossible for overseas visitors to use their mobile phones on the domestic network).

In addition, as China has cracked down on most things crypto, so has Bitcoin trading activity shifted to Japan. This growth in Bitcoin trading volumes can also be linked to Japan’s passion for retail forex trading, now expanding into crypto.

Earlier this year, the Japanese government passed legislation that recognises bitcoin as a legal form of payment. (Note: this does not mean that bitcoin is legal tender – shops do not have to accept it; but if they choose to take it as payment for goods and services, then it is no different to paying in cash or by credit card when it comes to things like consumer rights, for example.)

Later this month, the main regulator, the FSA is expected to announce new regulations to govern cryptocurrency exchanges and brokers. Currently, exchanges that accept Yen deposits for cash trading of crypto must be licensed as payment institutions. By the end of March 2018, my understanding is that all exchanges and brokers must be fully licensed to operate – for both cash trading, and futures and margin trading. Anywhere between 20 and 50 exchanges have applied for a license.

Currently, participants in the “legacy” securities and futures industry are either registered with the JSDA or the FFA. Likewise, it is expected that the FSA will appoint a similar self-regulating entity to have official oversight of the cryptocurrency markets, under the overarching authority of the FSA. However, there are two rival blockchain and cryptocurrency industry associations that are vying for this role – which is where things become a little political. One group claims to represent the “pure” crypto world, whereas the other might be seen to represent more of the traditional market. No doubt the FSA would prefer not to have to choose…

Key considerations for the FSA are retail investor protection, and market stability. The total market cap of all cryptocurrencies is now around US$150bn. If we assume that 10% of these assets are held in Japan, when compared to the total capitalisation of the cryptocurrency exchanges themselves, this creates a significant risk for the FSA should there be a market collapse or a run on Yen-based crypto deposits.

Equally, the FSA does not want to stifle innovation in an area of financial services where Japan is keen to take the lead. For example, Japan has witnessed a couple of bitcoin-denominated corporate bonds (more like privately syndicated short-term commercial paper) that demonstrate an investor appetite for this new asset class.

Meanwhile, in preparation for this new regulatory environment, and in anticipation of the increased interest by major banks and asset managers, there is a project underway to create an institutional-strength order management platform connecting banks, brokers and exchanges. I also heard of offshore fund managers looking to launch a crypto-based ETF for distribution in Japan.

Finally, at the risk of blowing our own trumpet, Japan’s leading financial vendor, Quick is now quoting the Bitcoin Liquid Index (BLX) alongside other FX data it distributes from around the world:

 

NOTE: The comments above are made in a purely personal capacity, and do not purport to represent the views of Brave New Coin, its clients or any other organisations I work with. These comments are intended as opinion only and should not be construed as financial advice.

Next week: Tech, Travel and Tourism

 

 

Bitcoin – to fork or not to fork?

Anyone following the crypto-currency markets this past two weeks will be fully aware that this has been a turbulent time for Bitcoin and other blockchain assets. First, the SEC published its Report on the DAO.  Second, there was a significant arrest in connection with the Mt Gox failure. And third, Bitcoin underwent a fork which has resulted in a new version, known as Bitcoin Cash. Meanwhile, at the time of writing, the price of Bitcoin itself is testing renewed highs, and continues to enjoy a 3-month long rally.

What implications do each of these developments have for the digital asset industry?

Photo by Andre Chinn – Image sourced from Flickr under Creative Commons

The Mt Gox-related arrest came as Japanese authorities began separate criminal proceedings against the former head of the failed exchange. These developments underscore two things: 1) as with any complex financial fraud investigation, bringing the culprits to justice takes time. 2) exploiting the financial system for ill-gotten gain is not exclusive to crypto-currencies – just ask investors in Australia’s CBA bank how they feel about losing nearly 4 per cent of the value of their shares in one day on the back of a money laundering scandal.

It also means that as regulators play catch-up, exchanges, brokers and other participants in the crypto-currency markets will need to ensure that they are updating their security and privacy systems (to prevent future hacks) while ensuring they comply with AML/KYC/CTF provisions. No bad thing, to instil confidence and trust in this emerging asset class, which is entering a new phase of maturity.

The SEC Report on the DAO, meanwhile, has put ICO’s (Initial Coin Offering) and TGE’s (Token Generation Event) on notice that in some cases, these products will be treated as securities, and will be subject to the same regulation as public offers of shares etc. As a result, token issuance programs will need to structure their sale processes to be either fully compliant with, or exempt from, the regulations; at the very least, they must remove any suggestion that these tokens are capable of creating security interests in financial or dividend-bearing assets, unless that is the express intention. (In some cases, these tokens are sold as membership services, software and IP licenses, or as network access permits. Any “return” to the buyer comes from the network value effects, service discounts or user rewards, similar to frequent flyer schemes and customer loyalty programs.)

Again, this suggests a coming of age for digital assets, and a growing maturity in the way token sales can be used as an alternative to VC funding and other traditional sources of raising operating capital and project financing.

The Bitcoin fork was hugely anticipated, with a mix of fear and excitement – fear because of the unknown consequences, excitement at the prospect of Bitcoin holders getting “free money” in the form of “Bitcoin cash“, via a 1:1 issue. Without getting into the technical details, the fork was prompted by the need to increase Bitcoin’s blockchain processing speed and transaction capacity; and while nearly everyone connected to Bitcoin’s infrastructure agreed on the need to accelerate block performance, there was a schism as to how this should be achieved. Some exchanges said they would not recognise the new currency, and only some Bitcoin miners said they would engage with it (especially as the cost of mining the new asset was more expensive than Bitcoin core). In addition, most exchanges were advising their customers not to attempt performing any Bitcoin transactions for several days, before and after the fork, until the system settles down again.

In the aftermath of the fork, at least one more exchanges has said it will probably offer some support Bitcoin cash; while due to the nature of the fork, Bitcoin cash’s own block processing time was something like 6 hours – meaning transactions could not be confirmed, and holders of the new asset could not easily transfer or sell it, even if they wanted to. It feels like a combination of a liquidity squeeze, a trading halt, and a stock split resulting from a very complex corporate action.

So far, the value of Bitcoin has held up, while the value of Bitcoin cash has steadily declined (despite an early spike), almost flat-lining to less than one-tenth of the value of Bitcoin:

Relative value of Bitcoin cash (BCH) to Bitcoin (BTC) – Market Data Chart sourced from Brave New Coin

I’m not a “Bitcoin absolutist“, as I think different currency designs and technical solutions will continue to emerge based on specific use cases. These products will continue to co-exist as markets come to understand and appreciate the different attributes and functionality of these digital assets.

As a consequence of recent events, some new token projects are refining the design of their issuance programs, more legal opinions are being commissioned, and raise targets are being adjusted in light of the current climate. But the number of new projects coming to market shows no sign of abating, and the better projects will have successful and sustainable sales. The total market cap of all digital assets is now well over $100bn (although the data reveals something of an 80:20 scenario – the top few assets account for the bulk of that value); and more institutional investors and asset managers are taking a greater interest in this new asset class.

NOTE: The comments above are made in a purely personal capacity, and do not purport to represent the views of Brave New Coin or any other organisations I work with. These comments are intended as opinion only and should not construed be as financial advice.

Next week: Bringing Back Banter   

 

 

More on #FinTech, #Bitcoin and #Blockchain in Melbourne

The Melbourne FinTech community brought together a bunch of interested parties recently to find out what’s happening locally in Bitcoin and Blockchain. Organised by the Melbourne Bitcoin, FinTech and Silicon Beach Meetups, and hosted by the Melbourne Bitcoin Technology Centre (MBTC), the evening was part open house, part info sharing, and part pitch night.

BitcoinThe MBTC is now a recognised hub for Bitcoin and Blockchain activities, and currently hosts around a dozen startups within its co-working space. Offering a “full service” facility (it even has a Bitcoin miner on site), complete with staffed reception, meeting rooms, event space, a pod cast studio and an outdoor barbecue area, it’s something of a hidden gem in Melbourne’s Southbank. Regulars also get to attend Bitcoin “swap meets”…..

Last week’s event also featured a number of micro-pitches from Bitcoin and Blockchain startups, a few of the MBTC staff and tenants, and a couple of student projects from RMIT.

Given this was almost “speed pitching“, it’s probably not appropriate to go into too much detail:

  • Toodles – a dating app on a decentralized network, using a Blockchain solution for additional security and privacy
  • Blockfreight – the Blockchain for global freight, enabling cargo containers to be shipped around the world with minimal legacy documentation, based on smart contracts, RFID and Blockfreight tokens
  • blockTRAIN – a training provider and consultancy on Blockchain, smart contracts and digital currencies
  • Bitcoin Buskers v2 – sort of MySpace/Bandcamp/SoundCloud for Buskers, to promote their merchandise and to secure international festival bookings, all powered by Bitcoin
  • ACX – Australian Crypto Exchange, offering the largest single Bitcoin order book in Australia
  • Bitcoin Group – explaining that most Bitcoin mining is currently done in China due to cheaper electricity
  • Antstand – portable laptop stand (which you can buy with Bitcoin!)
  • Think Bitcoin – providing consulting and education services, particularly in schools
  • Lyra – an app to track and reduce your personal environmental impact, sort of Fitbit and Smart Meter combined
  • ImagineNation – innovation consultancy, backed by training and coaching, and featuring a 2-day startup game to help organisations transform cultural mindsets around agile, lean, design thinking, UX and incubator/accelerator concepts
  • Brave New Coin – the “Bloomberg for Bitcoin”, providing market data (prices, rates, indices, news) for Bitcoin and other digital currencies*

With the next Bitcoin halving due soon, and a significant uptick in FinTech, Blockchain and Digital Asset investments announced during Q2, this sector is going to look very interesting for some time to come, and it’s good to know that Melbourne, whose fortunes were founded on gold, is staking a claim in these new asset classes.

* Declaration of Interest: I have recently joined the team at Brave New Coin as Head of Business Development – more news to follow….

Next week: University Challenge – Startup Victoria’s Student Pitch Night

Latest #FinTech Round-Up

The first quarter of 2016 has seen some significant FinTech developments in Australia. It feels the sector has finally “come of age”, at least in terms of government policy, as well as some significant deals. For anyone who may have missed the action, here is a very brief round-up:

FinTech_AustraliaThe formation of FinTech Australia as an umbrella group in late 2015 was seen as an important step in reducing inter-state rivalry. Following its first AGM in March, hopefully it will help the industry to attract further visibility, gain critical mass and co-ordinate the debate around legislation, funding, compliance and regulatory licensing, as well as fostering innovation and collaboration.

At the same time, the Federal Government has established the FinTech Advisory Group composed of some heavy hitters and key influencers. One of the first outcomes has been the Treasury’s response to a number of regulatory changes that the industry is prioritizing.

Having spoken to several members of both the Advisory Group and the FinTech Australia Committee, there is a clear sense that the industry has finally “broken through” to get on the ideas and innovation agenda.

FinTech Melbourne hosted a very interesting Meetup on Women in Fintech, set against the backdrop of the continuing gender diversity debate (in particular, across tech startups). An all-women panel comprising Charlotte Petris from Timelio and Jemma Enright from MoneyBrilliant, and facilitated by Anita Kimber from EY, explored some of the opportunities and challenges (and the struggles along the way) of being a startup co-founder, their experiences of launching new businesses and products, and how they go about hiring the right talent and building great teams.

Meanwhile, in London, The FINTECH Book was being launched, which includes a contribution written by DragonBIll‘s Melbourne-based CEO, Luke Hally.

Over at the MBTC , the Melbourne Bitcoin Meetup group hosted Brave New Coin‘s CEO, Fran Strajnar. Fran gave a detailed presentation on the market news, financial data and analytical infrastructure that Brave New Coin is building to support crypto-currencies and block chain technology, including the new Bitcoin Weighted Average Price (aka B-WAP). This new analytic will likely prove to be a key component for real-time and historical pricing data on specific bilateral transactions (e.g., calculating end of day evaluations or annual tax reconciliations), as well as providing underlying reference data (e.g., for index-linked instruments and associated derivatives, swaps, options and forwards). Exciting stuff indeed!

Finally, ASIC, as part of its work in building a more supportive regulatory environment (under its Innovation Hub) has announced a bilateral agreement with the UK’s FCA on greater co-operation between the respective market regulators, that may lead to mutual recognition for FinTech companies. Another similar deal is being explored with Singapore.

Next week: 4 more #startup hopefuls pitch at Startup Victoria