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

 

Notes from Blockchain Week

Blockchain Australia, the national industry body, recently organised the first National Australian Blockchain Week – a mix of on-line and in-person events, hosted in Sydney and Melbourne. Overall, it was an impressive line up of speakers and topics, featuring key local figures and presenting some intriguing announcements from politicians, regulators and practitioners alike.

The recurring themes were: Regulation, Tax and Innovation.

Despite past pronouncements about adopting a light-touch regulatory regime when it comes to Blockchain technology, the absence of definite regulation risks stifling innovation and/or driving projects overseas to more receptive jurisdictions. (Irony of the week #1: contrast this with the early and positive regulatory engagement with Digital Currency Exchanges (DCE) and other market participants in Australia, not to mention previous progress in removing the absurd GST treatment on the purchase and sale of cryptocurrencies).

Now, the industry is (once again) asking policy makers: to clarify the law as it relates to decentralised protocols, digital assets and utility tokens; to streamline the confusing and over-complex tax system as it applies to DeFi: and to define a specific regulatory boundary (rather like the UK’s FCA perimeter) within which crypto assets need to be regulated. Sadly, the latter is extremely hard to acheive thanks to the very broad definition of “financial product” within the Australian Corporations Act.

Throughout the four days, there were several highlights: Senator Bragg’s keynote speech on driving the policy agenda to bring clarity to regulators and markets alike; a progress report on the National Blockchain Roadmap; tax and legal updates from Joni Pirovich and Michael Bacina; a showcase of local Blockchain start-up projects (more on that next week); and a couple of enterprise presentations on the ASX’s DLT replacement for CHESS and the Blockchain-based insurance project between the R3 consortium and Grow Super. But apart from a couple of other Blockchain-in-business sessions, there was a noticeable absence of corporates, major banks, traditional financial services and institutional investors.

There was a lot of commentary around the fact that many Blockchain businesses and crypto projects still find it challenging to access regular banking facilities in Australia (Irony of the week #2: Westpac’s windfall from the recent Coinbase IPO). There was also a lot of discussion about the need for investor education before crypto and digital assets can go “mainstream” – which I find surprising when plenty of people seem to be finding their way without any help from traditional financial advisors, and yet no-one is required to educate themselves before their money is put into compulsory superannuation or real estate assets. Even where crypto assets are being included in retail investor products, the allocation is very modest and is being transacted offshore (see Raiz’s 5% allocation via the US-based Gemini Trust). Why not use one of the several established and well-run exchanges, crypto funds and OTC providers here in Australia?

Regarding the potential offshore brain drain, much was made of the work that Singapore is doing to attract Blockchain and crypto businesses. But I think the focus on Singapore risks overstating the situation there, and overlooks what is actually happening (and could happen) in Australia. For example, while Singapore may have more favourable tax arrangements for new Blockchain projects, I understand that ordinary retail investors don’t have access to crypto funds (not even ETPs). The Singaporean issuance of digital assets via tokenisation has to be done via an SPV structure. And while many ICOs have been issued from Singapore, they could not be marketed to local investors. At least Australia has a robust DCE sector, e.g. Independent Reserve, BTC Markets, and Bit Trade (now part of Kraken); early on we saw some very successful retail products such as CoinJar; and the local industry continues to nurture innovative decentralisation projects – we just need to sort out those “policy settings”, and give more encouragement to local entrpreneuers and innovation. (Irony of the week #3 – when former ALP politician and self-styled crypto OG, Sam Dastyari, was asked if the private equity fund he works for was investing in Blockchain or crypto, there was a deafening silence…)

Finally, one of the main benefits of Blockchain Week has been to entice people out of hibernation, and to attend in-person events after months of lock-downs and restricted movement. It felt good to be back.

Next week: Blockchain Start-up Showcase