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)

 

 

Opening Up…

This week, Melbourne is trying to get back to some semblance of normality, following 11 weeks of the current lock-down. But it’s far from “business as usual”.

Based on casual observations, people were desperate to queue up for personal grooming services, restaurants and outdoor shopping. (I did see at least one classic mullet, but I wasn’t sure if it was a fashion statement or just another case of Covid hair…)

Despite the latest changes announced by the Victorian Government over the past week, the ongoing public health provisions mean there will still be a “work from home” directive, retail and restaurants will be subject to density limits (and vax certificates) and masks will be required indoors.

One cafe in my neighbourhood, which has kept going during lock-down with serving takeaways, is deferring opening up for dining-in because they can’t get enough staff. This demand for talent within the hospitality sector means that employers are having to offer sign-on bonuses and higher wages.

While this should be good news for job seekers, the resulting upward pressure on staffing costs will likely trigger a rise in inflation (and higher interest rates?), and possibly further disruptions in supply chains.

Added hiring shortages will come from those employees who have used the lock-down to reassess their career options, and have decided to change jobs – also known as the “Great Resignation”.

Even among those employees who are returning to the office, many of them are only intending to be there 2-3 days a week. This will create a mid-week bulge in the CBD, with various knock-on effects: traffic jams, cramped public transport, and erratic trading patterns for small businesses in retail and hospitality. Employers will also be stressing how they maintain productivity levels with the adoption of extended weekends.

Finally, some industries such as tourism and international travel will take several months to get back to pre-pandemic levels – expect to see steep prices while capacity and supply remain constrained.

Next week: Crypto Regulation in Australia

 

 

“What Should We Build?”

Over the past week, the Leader of the Federal Opposition has been asking a series of questions on Twitter and elsewhere, about “what should Australia be building?”. As well as building the foundations of Labor’s Federal Election policy platform for boosting jobs in the manufacturing sector, it also provides lots of photo ops for pollies in hard hats and hi-viz clothing. (I do wonder why the potential Prime Minister hasn’t thought of this idea before, or why he appears to not know the answer – isn’t that his job? It also makes me wonder whether we need Parliament anymore, since our elected representatives prefer to conduct their “debates” via Social Media and Press Conferences…. it would save a lot of time and money!)

By this time next year, Albo could be PM (Photo sourced from Twitter)

There has been no shortage of suggestions from the Twitterati, which fall into the following main categories:

  • Renewable energy
  • Trains
  • Trams
  • Ferries
  • High-end engineering

But there has also been commentary around Labor’s ambivalence on the coal and gas sector (especially in the key state of Queensland), and the irony that we export cheap raw materials and import expensive finished goods. Then there is debate on the amount of local manufacturing content that already exists in Australia’s state-based trains and urban trams/light rail systems (skewed by the question of local vs foreign ownership). Plus, there’s the thorny issue of high-speed inter-city trains…

As I commented recently, the manufacturing sector accounts for fewer than 1m local jobs (less than 10% of the working population), and 6% of GDP. It has been declining steadily as a contributor to GDP since the 1960s, and more rapidly in recent years since we abandoned key subsidies to the car industry. I don’t think anyone is suggesting we return to the days of metal bashing and white goods. And while we’ve got to be selective about the type of manufacturing base we want to to develop, we also have to be realistic about the manufacturing capabilities we want to encourage and enhance.

The latter involves developing transferable skills, creating interoperable production lines, deploying modular designs and inter-changeable components, and recycling/repurposing. All of which should mean we don’t need to make every part of every item domestically, but we know how to assemble, service, maintain, repair and replace goods locally, and we can focus on adding value that can be fed back into the supply chain, which in turn can be exported (via know-how and services). Australia has some decent research and development capabilities, but we are not always very good at raising domestic investment, or commerciliasing our IP (so this value ends up being transferred overseas, with little to no return accruing locally).

I’m not a huge fan of simplistic “buy local goods/support local jobs” campaigns, or local content quotas. The former can degenerate into trade protectionism and economic nationalism; while the latter tend to favour inefficient incumbents within cozy duopolies (see the broadcasting and media sector). The current debate has also raised questions about procurement policies, and I for one would welcome a total revamp of government IT purchasing and deployment at Federal, State and LGA levels.

There’s also the consumer angle: Australians are notoriously “cost conscious”, so will they be prepared to pay more for locally-made goods, even if they are better designed, well-made and energy efficient, compared to cheaper, less-sustainable imports? (This is also linked to the question of wage growth and restrictive trade practices.)

The recent pandemic has highlighted some challenges for the structure of the local economy:

  • Disruption to distribution networks and supply chain logistics
  • Food security
  • Energy self-sufficiency
  • Inability to service equipment locally or source spare parts
  • Different standards across the States
  • Medicine and vaccine manufacture, sourcing and distribution

For an up-to-date perspective on where Australian manufacturing policy needs to be heading, I recommend taking a look at the Productivity Commission’s latest submission to a current Senate enquiry. (Am I alone in thinking that the PC, along with the ACCC, is doing more to develop and advance economic policy than our elected representatives?)

The PC’s submission addresses a number of key points:

  • R&D incentives are hampered by complex tax treatment
  • Policies (and subsidies) favouring one industry create uncertainty for others
  • Need for IP reform (especially “fair use” of copyright)
  • The National Interest test needs clarifying
  • More effort on up-skilling through more relevant education and training
  • The role of manufacturing capabilities in supporting supply chain infrastructure

Finally, while I agree that there needs to be some focus on renewable energy and public transport, we should not ignore food and agriculture, bio-tech, IT, automation, robotics, materials science and other high-end capabilities in specialist design, engineering and recycling (including reclaiming precious minerals from obsolete equipment).

(And did I mention the “Innovation Agenda” and the revolving door at the Federal Ministry?)

Next week: Dead Pop Stars

Same, same – but different?

At the time of writing, Melbourne and the rest of Victoria are waiting to know when (if?) the current lock-down will be lifted.

Just to recap: Melbourne is presently in its sixth shut down since March of last year, and the fourth so far of 2021. All combined, Melbourne has now clocked up more than 200 days under lock-down. The present measures were introduced on August 5, originally scheduled to last one week, and came barely a week after the previous lock-down ended. Lock-down #6 was soon extended by another week, and then by another two weeks, and will now extend beyond September 2. This is not counting the “stay at home” directive that was in place for most of 2020, along with the various limits and restrictions on social interaction, workplace capacity, public gatherings, hospitality, events, sport, gyms, retail, schools, funerals and weddings. We also have a night-time curfew for good measure.

The following two pictures convey similar human sentiments, but they also represent very different responses to the situation we are living under. One is an example of the numerous messages of hope and encouragement that I see around my neighbourhood on my statutory daily walks. The other is a discarded placard seen a few days after an anti-lock-down protest.

The first reflects a “let’s grin and bear it” attitude – nobody likes being in lock-down, but we are all in this together, and if we can just remain positive, we will come through it OK.

The second is more reactive, and emotionally charged – the enforced isolation brought on by the lock-down is having an enormous effect on peoples’ mental health.

It’s hard to argue with either message….

I thought I would be able to cope better with each successive lock-down. Building a daily routine, maintaining some physical discipline (courtesy of the permitted daily exercise), managing at least 2-3 AFDs per week, treating myself to a nice restaurant-prepared meal now and then, catching up on films that I didn’t get to see at the cinema. But despite the recurring groundhog scenario, this lock-down seems different, and much harder to manage mentally.

First, the uncertainty of when it will end creates a sense of dread that we could be like this for 100 days or more (like lock-down #2). Second, the daily drip feed of data and the endless press conferences only reinforce the sense that we are not being given the full picture. Third, the sense of helplessness that for all our individual sacrifices of the past 18 months, we don’t seem to be any further ahead (if anything, we have gone backwards on so many counts). Fourth, State politicians seem to view this public health scare as a war of attrition between themselves and the voters (and their interstate and Federal counterparts). Gone is any sense that we are all in this together.

Quite apart from the cracks in Federation that the pandemic and its response has exposed, entire sections of the community are being driven apart and/or pitted against one another. Despite the so-called “National Plan” that the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments have all signed-up for, it’s clear that individual Premiers each reserve the right to interpret it differently, and will continue to impose internal border closures if they see fit. So, while Victoria and New South Wales seem aligned on this National Plan, Western Australia and Queensland in particular are more circumspect. Then there is the “race” to vaccinate their respective populations (or, as has been said a few times already, “our State citizens”, rather than “our Commonwealth citizens”).

At what point will the 70% and 80% vaccination levels be achieved to herald the promised social and economic freedoms? Is it the % of total population, or only the adult population, or only the eligible population, or only those between certain ages? Is it going to be calculated Federally, or at the State/Territory and/or LGA level? What about mandatory vaccinations for essential and front line workers, and those that have face-to-face dealings with the public? What about employers who require their staff to be fully vaccinated, but face resistance from unions?

Continued lock-down risks becoming a blunt instrument, and a tool of first (rather than last) resort. As such, it also risks alienating the majority of the population who are doing the right thing, in observing the public health directions and getting vaccinated (like, where’s the benefit?). And a prolonged lock-down risks undermining the efficacy of the vaccine, so we’ll need booster shots before we know it!

It seems that Covid19 is challenging our notions of the social contract between the government and the governed, and even testing the social license to operate we grant to big business (especially monopolies and cozy duopolies). The pandemic is also demonstrating the limits of individual responsibility and accountability, and potentially undermining the duty of care we owe to one another. If I knowingly, recklessly or carelessly (and as a result of breaching public health orders or OH&S measures) infect my family, my neighbour, my colleague or my customer, am I culpable? Does that mean I forfeit certain of my rights, especially if infection leads to death?

Just on the data, another reason the current lock-down seems different is because the information is being presented is not the same. Last year, everything was about the R0 number, flattening the curve, and “double-donut days”. There was also confusion over agreed terminology for “clusters”, “unknown cases”, “hot spots”, “red zones”, “complex cases” and “linked cases”. Politicians and bureaucrats talked about “settings”, “circuit breakers”, and “gold standards” for contact tracing. This year, it’s all about the “number of days infected”, “chains of transmission”, “mystery cases”, as well as the number of tests and vaccinations – much less analysis, it seems, on the number of confirmed cases per 1,000 tests or per 1,000 of the population, recovery rates or deaths as a percentage of cases.

From what I can glean, the stubborn levels of “mystery” cases can only be explained by the following:

  • more asymptomatic cases (are people building natural immunity?);
  • legacy cases shedding (a result of long Covid?);
  • longer incubation (and reporting) periods (less obvious initial symptoms?);
  • novel forms of transmission (or the virus is lingering longer on outdoor surfaces?);
  • QR codes and contact tracing not working (or the data is not usable?);
  • confusion over domestic/social/workplace/health/retail settings (e.g., extended families and multi-generational households?);
  • people being unclear about their movements (for fear of being victimised?).

Finally, I’m also not sure if lessons are being learned from elsewhere. We are still applying 14 day quarantine/isolation periods (albeit now with a day 17 test), yet in Hong Kong, for example, quarantine was extended to 21 days some time ago.

Next week: To be or NFT?