Ed Tuohy, CEO of MERJ Exchange Limited – Interview Series
Edmond Tuohy is the CEO of MERJ Exchange. MERJ Exchange is an innovative end to end, multi-market global financial exchange for equities, debt and derivatives.
MERJ is soon to launch its Digital Assets and Security Token markets along with the opportunity to invest in MERJ Exchange.
Antoine: MERJ Exchange is a securities exchange that currently offers an Equities, a Derivatives, and a Debt Market. What’s the inspiration with expanding to digital securities?
ED: We strongly believe in the potential of digitization to transform the capital markets. Quite simply we think it is the future. There are 3 headline reasons why we are moving in this direction:
1) This technology can streamline everything we do in the securities markets, from issuance, to shareholder registers, compliance, distributions, voting etc. The opportunity to streamline big chunks of this workstream is very attractive and would benefit everyone involved.
2) We can dramatically reduce frictions for people who may not have participated in the capital markets in the past. By frictions I mean you won’t need a computer, or a stock broking account, or even a bank account. Many emerging markets have been empowered by the “mobile first” revolution. We want to build an access point to the capital markets that integrates seamlessly with that ecosystem.
3) We are perfectly set up for it. We operate a Regulated Market with integrated post trade infrastructure, which is quite unusual If you look at other Regulated Markets around the world, they are tied into a central clearing / central depositary model. This means lots of disparate organisations are going to have to agree on exactly how to process digital assets. We have the infrastructure and regulatory approval to bring both institutional and retail investors into the world of digital assets in a way that is compliant from end to end.
Antoine: What does the name MERJ symbolize?
Ed: I’m glad you asked that. I love the name MERJ. As much as we strongly believe in tokenization, we also strongly believe in the principles of securities laws, investor protections and regulation. MERJ is a reference to the idea of combining the best of the old world and the new. The best of traditional market protections with all the potential benefits of this digital technology. It is also a reference to the idea of merging all the layers of the settlement and custody chain. Instead of multiple reconciliations taking a few days we can look forward to one almost instantaneous transaction.
Antoine: MERJ Exchange Limited is currently the only licensed securities exchange in the Republic of Seychelles. What made you choose this domicile versus other popular offshore jurisdictions?
Ed: We are a Regulated Market – in that we provide the same function in the Seychelles as the LSE in the UK and the NYSE in the US. It’s not so much that we chose the Seychelles, more that the Seychelles needed a stock exchange and we were the right people to do it. This story began post GFC, when the IMF and the World Bank sat down with the Seychelles government and encouraged them to develop the financial services sector here. Part of that was to establish a stock exchange. We put ourselves forward to do it and have been working hand in hand with regulators here since 2011 to build an international exchange. Our listings now account for more than 20% of the national GDP, which is a key metric in evaluating the maturity of an economy. The FSA Seychelles is now an associate member of IOSCO and MERJ is an affiliate member of the World Federation of Exchanges. These are not trivial achievements and are very important when it comes to institutional investment mandates, so we are able to open this market up to widest possible pool of global capital.
Antoine: How many securities are currently listed on the exchange?
Ed: 29 equity and 2 debt. We have issuers from 5 continents and investors from 7.
It takes time to build the kind of infrastructure and regulatory standing we have here – and there are no shortcuts. We now have a great foundation for a very exciting phase of growth.
Antoine: Most of the companies listed on the MERJ exchange are African, which makes complete sense since Seychelles is often portrayed as the Cayman Islands of the African continent. Most investors in Europe will be familiar with Seychelles, but the same cannot probably be said for North American and Asian investors. Do you believe that you will need to educate STOs on the benefits of being listed on an exchange in this jurisdiction?
Ed: We adhere to the standards of IOSCO and the WFE, international investors don’t mind whether we are in London or Seychelles. We already have issuers from North America, Asia, Australia, Europe and Africa. We are going to be providing something that isn’t available elsewhere and Issuers will go where the liquidity is.
Having said that the Seychelles is actually a great story of international cooperation. There are so many reasons why Seychelles is a good jurisdiction and any STO issuer that is serious will do their research and quickly realise that. In the last 10 years the Government and regulators have worked with international agencies like the OECD and FATF to bring the Seychelles up to the highest international standards. The OECD now ranks it with the UK, Japan, Germany, USA and Australia. Since the IMF and World Bank stepped in the country has gone from a B- rating to BB. That really underlines the trajectory of the economy. Our view is that the STO market is likely to be quite borderless, but issuers are not going to want to go to a jurisdiction that doesn’t meet these high international standards, because it will attract greater scrutiny from other regulators. In the securities markets there is no regulatory arbitrage, people want clarity and simplicity, not added hassle. The Seychelles offers that in abundance, as well as an advantageous tax regime, many double tax agreements, a thriving corporate services sector, competitive pricing. If all of that isn’t enough for you it’s not the worst place to have to visit for business.
Antoine: What will be the onboarding and listing requirements for new STOs?
Ed: Our onboarding procedure follows the same KYC/ AML process as for clients wishing to trade any listed securities. As for the listing requirements, the chosen token standard has to be to be compatible with our regulations but otherwise they are exactly the same as for our traditional securities. We have 3 equity boards, a main board, an SME board and a venture board. An STO would have to choose which board was most appropriate and then meet the listing requirements. We work on a sponsor advisor model, so STO’s will work with one of our global network of sponsors to prepare them for listing. The sponsor undertakes responsibility for due diligence and making all the relevant disclosures. This is the same process that an issuer would go through to list on AIM in the UK or the Toronto venture exchange in Canada. We think it’s a great model and will work well for STO issuers.
Antoine: You recently announced that you will be launching your own security token, which will then be traded on your own exchange. What’s the expected date of this STO launch? Also do we know the hardcap yet?
Ed: First we have to list our equity by introduction on the exchange. This is imminent, and when done it will be the first equity to be listed on a national stock exchange in tokenized form. It’s really quite a major watershed point for the digital asset community. The subsequent STO will be a public offering of ~15% of that tokenized stock. We don’t want to launch the STO into peak summer so we will probably wait a couple of months now. The funds are for growth capital, largely to bring more people on board. We are very confident of our pipeline and we need additional people in operational and compliance roles to service the demand.
Antoine: What benefits will investors receive from this investment?
Ed: The benefit is a stake in an exchange which we think is one of a kind. We have the flexibility to trade, clear, settle and register securities ourselves, or plug into any other global infrastructure if it makes better sense. This in itself is unusual, and a deliberate piece of Seychelles law, which was designed to be outward looking. Consider our regulatory status, licenses, permissions, the structure of our business, the combination of regulated exchange/clearing/depositary entities, the clarity provided by our regulator and the fact Seychelles is a well respected jurisdiction with a modern financial services industry. When you look at all these factors in combination, you realise it is a very compelling, and entirely unique proposition. We have an opportunity here to build a truly world class piece of infrastructure for the next generation of capital markets. Our competitors around the world are the likes of LSE and NYSE and they are not in a position to move so quickly and decisively. There are big fish and there are little fish, but we like to think we are a fast fish! Our investors will own an equity stake in a very exciting company that is spearheading the next generation of financial markets infrastructure.
Antoine: When do you expect your first security token offering to go live?
Ed: We have a number of issuers that are keen to push the button as soon as possible. I am quietly confident that we will have done a handful before the end of the year and a couple of dozen within the next twelve months.
Antoine: Is there anything else that you would like to share about MERJ Exchange?
Ed: We have a tremendous team based in the Seychelles, Cape Town, Johannesburg and London. We are looking for experienced market professionals to join us and help deliver on our vision. If anyone would like to work in the Seychelles or Cape Town, or represent us in another region then drop us a CV at [email protected]
Antoine: Thank you for the great interview. Anyone who wishes to learn more should visit Merj Exchange.