Hong Kong is stepping up its efforts to formally regulate cryptocurrency exchanges in the city. On Nov 6, 2019, The Securities and Futures Commission just released a newly drafted regulatory framework, which allows the securities watchdog to issue licenses to crypto trading platforms. Could this be a game-changer for the crypto industry? As a leading global financial hub, what does the new regime means to the city?
A Comprehensive Framework
A year ago, the SFC announced a regulatory sandbox amid providing a confined environment for fintech companies to push forward for regulatory innovation. After a year at the latest HK FinTech Week, Ashley Alder, head of the SFC announced that the city’s securities watchdog has now established a new comprehensive set of regulations for cryptocurrency exchanges in Hong Kong.
Alder said the rules are tailormade for the crypto industry, covering all the key investor protection concerns including the safe custody of assets, KYC requirements, anti-money laundering, and market manipulation. Concepts that don’t exist in traditional financial markets like hot and cold wallets, forks, airdrops are also included.
Cryptocurrencies and virtual assets traded on an SFC-licensed platform will not be subject to the same kind of regulation which applies to traditional offerings of securities or investment funds.
Besides, all licensed platforms must have insurance covering the risk of virtual assets being lost or stolen.
He stressed that “Virtual assets have been moving further into conventional financial markets”, and highlighted stablecoins in particular, saying that some projects are “capable of being adopted extremely rapidly on a global scale” which have led “serious concerns among politicians and central bankers and financial regulators.”
Exchange Licensing: An Opt-in Solution
The new regulatory framework allows the SFC to grant a license to exchange operators that wish to opt-in to regulation. In other words, it is not a must for crypto exchanges in the city to acquire a license to operate. Alder explained that the reason for choosing an opt-in solution because the existing legislation was not designed with the crypto world in mind. He believes that markets can wait until new legislation covers the entire virtual assets sector, although no timeline is provided.
Given that many of the major crypto exchange operators have a presence in Hong Kong, we believe that there will be a handful of exchanges will take the invitation to opt-in into SFC’s regulation plan, however, we do not expect to see a large number of exchanges rushing into the regulation net.
Professional Investors Only, no Retail
The new licensing program stated that exchange operators can only provide services to professional investors, which means still no retail services can be provided. Under the Securities and Futures (Professional Investor) Rules (Cap. 571D), “professional investor” means
- An individual having a portfolio of not less than HKD 8 million or its equivalent in any foreign currency at the relevant date or as ascertained by referring to any one or more of the following documents issued or submitted within 12 months before the relevant date.
- A trust corporation having been entrusted under one or more trusts of which it acts as a trustee with total assets of not less than HKD 40 million or its equivalent in any foreign currency at the relevant date.
That’s only part of the definition, nevertheless, it doesn’t mean any retail investors will be involved. The new rules continue to make cryptocurrency trading in Hong Kong to only a small group of investors. Alder stressed that the reason behind this is virtual asset futures contracts to the public, especially contracts with leverage, they are volatile and could be “extremely risky”.
Bitcoin and Others: Not Securities
How the SFC sees the nature of bitcoin and other crypto-assets is another highlight from the announcement. Alder clearly said, “bitcoin and the other, more familiar crypto assets are not securities.” And that the SFC “only has the power to regulate a platform that trades virtual assets or tokens which are legal “securities” or “futures contracts”. SFC’s stance is largely in-line with other regulatory bodies in the world such as the SEC in the US.
The SFC crypto exchange regulation announcement came after China’s blockchain initiatives, and we can expect that China and, broadly speaking, Asia, would be front and center when it comes to blockchain-based crypto development. As crypto investment getting more mainstream, and the everyday application and usage of virtual assets have been rapidly increasing, no doubt that a complete set of regulation of crypto assets is much needed. We believe that a well-regulated environment will benefit both investors and crypto industry stakeholders. The regulatory development in Hong Kong is considered a positive move for the overall crypto industry.