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

 

 

FinTech and the Regulators

What’s the collective noun for a group of financial services regulators? Given the current focus on FinTech sand box regulation and the cultivation of innovation, but also the somewhat ambiguous (and sometimes overlapping) roles between policy implementation, industry enforcement and startup monitoring, may I suggest it should be an “arbitrarium”?

Whatever, a panel of regulators (ASIC, RBA, APRA and AUSTRAC) came together at the recent FinTech Melbourne meetup to showcase what they have been working on.

First up, ASIC talked about their Innovation Hub and Sandbox, designed to accelerate the licensing process. Most of the FinTech startups engaging with the Innovation Hub are operating in marketplace lending, digital/robo advice, payment solutions and consumer credit services. Meanwhile, ASIC is seeing a growing number of enquiries from RegTech startups, and as a result, the regulator will be running a showcase event in Melbourne in the near future.

Next, the RBA gave an update on the new payments system (NPP), which will operate under the auspices of the Payments System Platform Mandate. A key aspect of this “pay anyone, anywhere, anytime” model is ISO 20022, the data standard that covers “simple addressing” as part of the payment interchange, clearing and settlement protocols. The system is due to go live later in 2017.

The biggest news came from APRA, in their role of licensing Authorised Depository Institutions (ADIs). According to APRA statistics, 26 new ADIs have been approved in the last 10 years. Most licenses come with significant conditions attached, so APRA is looking to simplify the process and encourage more competition. Similar to ASIC’s sandbox model, new entrants will be able to apply for “restricted ADI” status, under a 2-year license, with certain limitations on the size and volume of their book of business. Essentially, there will be a less onerous startup capital requirement, and the new regime is expected to be operational in the second half of 2018.

Finally, AUSTRAC gave an update on their responsibilities under the AML/CTF Act 2006. While AUSTRAC has selective oversight of FinTech startups, it has responsibility for 14,000 reporting entities, including businesses holding gambling permits. Acknowledging there is something of regulatory lag when compared to new business models and new technology, AUSTRAC pointed to the Fintel Alliance, launched earlier this year, and which may run its own pilot sandbox. Currently undertaking a legislative review and reform exercise, a key aspect of AUSTRAC’s work is undertaking product and sector risk assessment.

During the audience Q&A (including some interesting contributions from ASIC Chairman, Greg Medcraft) there was discussion of cryptocurrencies and blockchain solutions vis-a-vis the NPP, and how to address the potential conflict of laws, for example between KYC and privacy and data protection.

Next week: YBF FinTech pitch night

 

Do we need a #FinTech safe harbour?

As part of the recent FinTech Melbourne Meet Up, there was some discussion on the regulatory challenges startups face when trying to validate an early-stage concept. The notion of a safe harbour or “regulatory sandbox” has gained some momentum, with ASIC’s Innovation Hub, and a commentary by Deborah Ralston, of the Australian Centre for Financial Services, who is also inaugural Chair of ASIC’s Digital Finance Advisory Committee.

If we assume that the main purposes of financial regulation are: system stability, minimum professional standards, consumer confidence, investor protection, market transparency and risk mitigation, then I doubt anyone can deny the benefit of a formal and robust compliance regime. However, technology and innovation are combining to challenge and disrupt the inherent inefficiencies that can accrue within a static regulatory environment (especially one that is reactive, rather than pro-active), which is largely designed to monitor legacy frameworks and incumbant institutions.

While the ASIC initiative is not the same as obtaining an ATO private tax ruling, it does at least show that the regulator is keen to be more consultative in helping startups test new ideas. But the reality is the cost of initial compliance and licensing can be a barrier to a new venture, before the concept has even been market-tested. So perhaps there is an opportunity to ring-fence emergent FinTech ventures, so they can explore real-world applications, but limited by market scope, number of participants, transaction values and timeframes. (Such a model already exists for private equity offerings….)

As it stands, in the case of P2P lending platforms, a startup might find itself having to be licensed and regulated as a financial services provider, an approved consumer credit provider, an authorised depository institute and possibly a licensed financial planner as well. That’s a lot of compliance for a new business that might not even have a single customer.

From my own experience, what constitutes “financial advice” is subject to very wide interpretation. Several years ago, I was responsible for introducing a new financial product to the local market – a bond pricing information service. The service was aimed only at institutional investors (not retail customers), based on collated and published data supplied by existing market participants. Nor was it a real-time data feed; rather, it delivered intraday and end of day prices calculated on actual traded bonds. Yet the regulator determined this constituted “financial advice”, even though no trading recommendation or investment decision was inherent in the data. It was also designed to offer a more transparent and objective process for pricing portfolios of less liquid or rarely traded securities, where mark-to-market solutions are unavailable or inappropriate – thereby providing some clarity to market participants.

Meanwhile, the responses to shady advice and other malfeasance inflicted upon retail investors by “established” financial institutions and “traditional” financial planners usually take years to work their way through the legal and regulatory processes of investigation, mediation, settlement and prosecution. (And if anyone wants to understand what actually caused the GFC, well before the term FinTech had been coined, check out John Lanchester’s book “Whoops!”)

Next week: What I want from a mobile banking app.