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Financial Services Regulation is Here to Stay….and We all Need to Play – Thought Leaders

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Financial Services Regulation is Here to Stay….and We all Need to Play - Thought Leaders

Regulations are the operating system of the financial world. Strategy in finance starts with the market needs of the ecosystem parties (whose existence is often based in the regulatory structure), the regulations, and only then, the choice of technology. There is a necessary feedback loop in here, as new technology can make new products possible and change the structure of the ecosystem by changing the roles of firms. We are currently in an exciting era because of the potential blockchain technology has to do exactly that.

The most common statements we see about regulations are complaints, particularly from new entrants to this space. The purpose of this article is to examine how regulations fit into the securities industry.

Financial regulations come into existence because governments deem certain behaviors to be unacceptable. Some cause direct harm to other people, like fraudulent securities practices; some are unacceptable because they have consequences in a larger societal context, like payments to fund terrorists. Governments pass laws against these acts and then turn them over to regulators to see that these laws are carried out.

In the securities business, we have two primary types of regulations. The first type constrains the movement of value, both currencies and securities, to hinder all sorts of crime, including terrorism. Another element of this control is monitoring and reporting to ensure that the government receives tax revenues that are due. For decades, governments have been eliminating bearer instruments to further both of these objectives.

The second type, regulations around securities, seeks to make sure that the offerings are genuine, that sales practices are appropriate, that risks are made public to the marketplace, and that investors’ assets are protected all along the way. All nations with significant securities markets have enacted voluminous legislation in this area.

In order to carry out their mandates in the financial markets, regulators create the requirements for individuals and firms to be registered in order to operate and then supervise their conduct. A company operating any of the processes where there is a risk of violating these financial regulations must expect that they will have to be registered and perform regulatory functions as part of their daily operations.

Note that the regulators mostly supervise, while the actual ongoing regulatory activity is generally performed by the industry. In other words, the cost of regulation is borne by the party that has a profit interest in offering the product or service. This means that the regulatory cost is embedded in the price to all customers of that product. It also means that for-profit firms have the same incentive to find regulatory efficiencies as they do for other costs, benefiting customers in the long run.

As Alvin Roth, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2012, wrote in his book Who Gets What – and Why, “When we speak about a free market, we shouldn’t be thinking of a free-for-all, but rather a market with well-designed rules that make it work well.” We will have a lot to say at another time about market design, but in spite of excesses resulting in the need to find and even prosecute firms and individuals, requiring participants to perform the necessary regulatory functions has worked extremely well in the securities markets. The participation, liquidity, and efficiency of transactions are a huge success and a source of competitive advantage for developed nations.

As painful as it may be, the industry should generally embrace this role. Where regulators are part of the direct operations of a regulatory function, the result, from an industry perspective, is less positive. One example is the approval by the SEC of prospectuses. The SEC does not have any market incentive to make the process friendlier or easier to navigate. As a result, they logically see any eventual criticism as a failure on their part that they have to avoid, thus drawing out the process and making it more expensive for issuers. A market-based process would recognize that perfection is impossible and balance the important role of encouraging the growth of the market while putting a focus on those issues that really have a significant impact on investors.

We are regularly amused at statements that crypto market regulations are finally becoming clear. While it is true that governments took some time to issue statements on cryptocurrencies and other tokens, it has never been unclear to knowledgeable securities market players where the regulations would end up. The only questions were when and exactly how the existing regulations would be applied.

I was once told by a securities attorney that every regulation exists because somebody lost money. None of us likes the prospect of telling a client “No,” and it’s way more fun to just get on with the business that got us interested in the first place. However, faults and all (and you should hear our private conversations), the $170 trillion of compliant capital in OECD countries continues to grow because of the web of regulation that creates confidence in the liquid global market where we all participate.

To sum this up, the purpose of securities regulation is to protect investors and create an environment where markets can flourish. We, as industry leaders, are active participants and we have the opportunity to proactively include regulatory operations in our new ventures. If we choose not to, then the technology will either be discarded as too unsafe and expensive to operate, or outside parties will impose them, most likely in less elegant ways than we would have done ourselves. Blockchain technology and more specifically distributed ledgers can have significant advantages for the securities industry. We see the potential for exciting developments like changing the relationships between issuer and investor and enabling new products, as well as more basic opportunities to create market efficiencies, increase transparency, and lower risk. In order to reach the lofty heights though, it’s of equal importance for all of us to work to make sure that we simultaneously achieve the aims of our regulatory framework

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Joel Blom is the Co-founder & COO of ABE Global, an exchange that merges new distributed ledger technology (DLT) and traditional financial technology. Previously, Joel was the founding COO of Thinkorswim Group, Inc, an online brokerage/money management/software development company now owned by TD Ameritrade. His other experience in the fintech sector includes founding PBF Solutions (acquired by European Fintech 50 company Raisin GmbH), acting as a mentor for incubator F10, and serving on the boards of NYCE Corporation and Mondex USA (Mastercard’s global ecash venture). He has also acted as Head of Channel Management for the National Australia Bank’s US subsidiary, and holds an extensive operations background in cash management, commercial/consumer credit, and strategy consulting.

Regulation

New Framework Passed in Cayman Islands, Addressing Virtual Assets

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New Framework Passed in Cayman Islands, Addressing Virtual Assets

Legislative Framework

The Cayman Islands government has recently passed new framework, addressing the treatment of virtual assets, and AML, within the nation.

This framework, which was first put forth in early May of 2020, is comprised of 5 bills; each of which has the goal of facilitating a transparent, and safe, environment for market participants.  Finance Minister, Tara Rivers, noted the following points, elaborating on the goals of this framework.

  • Innovate financial services
  • Provide regulatory clarity
  • Protect consumers
  • Comply with FATF recommendations

By passing this framework, the Cayman Islands have put a good foot forward in their treatment surrounding virtual assets.

The Highlights

Found within this new framework are two notable highlights.

  • The Virtual Asset Service Provider Law
    • Under this newly passed law, virtual asset service providers (VASP) must register with the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority (CIMA)
  • Regulatory Sandbox
    • This ‘sandbox’ is essentially a program which allows for companies to test/prove the viability of new products and services, without the need for full licensing.

Legitimate Business

When commenting on the purpose of these bills, Finance Minister, Tara Rivers, indicated that one of the reasons behind this move is to attract ‘legitimate businesses’.

Cayman Islands has long been noted as a tax haven nation.  Due to friendly regulations surrounding taxation, businesses world-wide seek to ‘set-up-shop’ in the tiny Caribbean nation.

While this may have been the case at one point in time, regulators have been working hard to change this narrative/perception.  This new framework is just one such example, as it is structured to enforce compliance with international AML practices; in doing so, it is hoped that criminal activity, which often makes use of new technologies, will be abated.

Cayman Islands

With a population of roughly 65,000 people, Cayman Islands is one of the larger island nations found in the Caribbean.

On island, multiple regulatory bodies work together to ensure companies employ safe practices.  Two of these, which had a hand in the passing of this new framework, include:

  • The Caribbean Financial Action Task Force
  • The Cayman Islands Monetary Authority (CIMA)

In Other News

While a newly established sandbox within Cayman Islands is a good thing, they are not the first to take the leap in establishing such a program.  We recently took a look at another sandbox program, established by industry leading, Vertalo.  While the former is overseen by government regulators, the latter offers similar benefits; the ability to test out services in a low-risk environment.

Playing in the Tokenization Sandbox with Vertalo

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Regulation

Facebook’s Libra Wallet Calibra Rebrands to Novi Financial

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Calibra Rebrands to Novi Financial

This week, the company responsible for Facebook’s Libra wallet services, Calibra, announced a rebranding. The blockchain-based provider will now go by Novi. The rebranding demonstrates Facebook’s continued commitment to introduce the Libra project to the market, despite heavy opposition from lawmakers. Additionally, it signals a fresh marketing strategy on the part of the Libra team.

As part of the rebranding, Facebook created a new subsidiary – Novi Financial. Interestingly, the word Novi is derived from the Latin words “Novus via” which means “New way”. The name seems fitting as Libra developers search for a new way to get regulator approval for their advantageous project.

In a recent interview, company executives spoke publicly about the decision to rebrand the firm. Importantly, they stated that the name change didn’t change the companies commitment to bring financial service to all parts of the world. Executives explained that the rebrand was part of a larger strategy to bring the company more in line with the fluidity of cryptocurrencies and the overall goal of the Libra project.

Novi Details

According to developers, the Novi crypto wallet features a host of helpful features to support the Libra ecosystem. The Dapp will function as a standalone feature. However, it will have full interoperability within Facebook’s sphere of influence. This strategy would see the Novi wallet available to all Facebook, Messenger, and WhatsApp clients.

Potential Novi Wallet Users via Facebook

Potential Novi Wallet Users via Facebook

Notably, the wallet will offer users near-instantaneous transaction times. Additionally, users can send funds between each other at a fraction of the costs of traditional money sending services. Executives didn’t sate how the fee structure for the system will work, but they did say there would be no hidden fees. One is left to assume that the company intends to take a small percentage of each transaction.

Importantly, the Novi Wallet features built-in AML and KYC compliance mechanisms. Speaking on these systems, developers stated that users will need to verify their identity in various ways. These verification systems can include providing government-issued ID and verification video chats. Novi executives also didn’t give any details on a potential release date.

Their hesitant is well warranted as the Facebook Libra project continues to go through court proceeding with SEC regulators. To date, regulators have shown no sign of budging on their anti-Libra stance. Despite the current atmosphere of distrust, Facebook believes it has the capability to sway the tides.

SEC Taking Wins

Surely, Libra has a rocky road ahead of it. For one, the SEC continues to block any cryptocurrency projects presented from large social media platforms. A perfect example of their entanglement strategy occurred this week when Telegram withdrew its application for the TON blockchain ecosystem.

Novi to Bank

Regardless of the fate of Libra, Novi may still find a comfy home in the crypto sphere. For now, the entire crypto community awaits to see how Facebook plans to transform the mood of regulators and bring the Libra concept to light.

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Gold & Natural Resources

A First: Cryptoassets and Gold in EU Benchmark Compliant Index

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A First: Cryptoassets and Gold in EU Benchmark Compliant Index

CoinShares Group, the digital asset management firm took another step forward in establishing the presence of digital assets in the institutional investing space. 

CoinShares Launches New Digital Asset Index

The CoinShares Group announced the launch of the Coinshares Gold and Cryptoassets Index (CGCI). This is the first index that has exposure to a digital asset and is also compliant with the EU Benchmark Regulations (EU BMR).

A huge milestone for cryptoassets, as Bitcoin which is often touted as the digital version of gold as an asset class, becomes an integral part of a financial product for institutional investors that seek to have exposure to digital assets.

Moreover, the pairing with gold in this index is done to combine the high volatility of cryptoassets with the low volatility of the precious metal. The risk profile of the index is smoothed out considering that there is no high correlation between gold and Bitcoin, according to CoinShares Group.

The index methodology maintains a basket of 5 equally-weighted cryptoassets weighted against gold. There is no fixed list of cryptoassets eligible for being included, but the criteria is based on 6 month-rolling market capitalization and excludes any ERC-20 tokens and privacy-focused cryptoassets. 

The financial product goes through a re-balancing process, which occurs monthly, with the cryptoasset basket rebalances to include the top 5 eligible market cap weighted cryptocurrencies as of the time of rebalancing. The calculation of the index relies on Kaiko cryptocurrency market data along with Messari’s supply data – two leading data providers in the digital asset space.

Meanwhile, the weights between the cryptoasset basket and gold is determined based on a weighted-risk allocation scheme.

The development of the CGCI resulted from research conducted between CoinShares and Imperial College London, published in 2019, identifying that the pairing of gold and cryptoassets delivers a risk and return profile that is superior to holding either alone.

Cryptoassets Paired with Gold for Better Risk-Reward Profile

The index methodology was created from the research and experimentation conducted with the EU registered benchmark administrator, Compass Financial Technologies to ensure a robust and benchmark compliant index. As the first EU BMR compliant index, the CoinShares Gold and Cryptoassets Index is also live on popular financial data providers like Bloomberg Terminal and Refinitiv.

There are already several options for institutional investors to get exposure to cryptoassets, but with the high volatility of the market, investors may shy away from committing. This new weighted pairing with gold – one of the assets that is known to have a low volatility – allows investors to enter the digital asset space and benefit from higher returns while minimizing their exposure to volatility risk. 

The CoinShares Group already has a great track record in the cryptocurrency space with several financial products which include the first regulated Bitcoin hedge fund and the first exchange-traded Bitcoin product.

Daniel Masters, Executive Chairman of CoinShares believes this is a major step forward for the digital asset space drawing parallels with the institutional adoption of commodities, stating:

“Robustly researched and documented index products were the catalyst for institutional adoption of commodities in the late ’90’s through the advent of the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index. This crypto and gold index aims to do the same, by using academic research and its benchmark regulated status to pass muster with even the most stringent investment committees.”

The Evolving Space of Digital Assets

The digital asset space has been longing for the attention of institutional investors for some time. In the last couple of years there have been several incursions by big institutions into cryptoassets. Established traditional financial institutions like Fidelity or ICE have launched separate entities for the digital asset industry since then.

However the crown jewel for the crypto space remains to be an approved Bitcoin ETF by the SEC, which would cement the asset’s place in its separate category. Nonetheless this goal seems to be as elusive as two years ago.

Several applications from different asset management firms have been rebuffed by the regulatory authority, and each one of them citing reasons related to the supply side of the cryptocurrency market – the lacklustre custody options, the inaccurate price data and uncertainty over exchange volumes.

Even though the cryptocurrency space developed ever since and more custody solutions appeared for institutional investors, and data providers seem to have built more robust price indices, there is no talk of progress towards approval of  a Bitcoin ETF.

Maybe the key lies in the demand – when there is a sufficiently high institutional demand for digital assets, regulators may quickly change their tune.

CoinShares is part of this cohort of companies working to improve the infrastructure for digital asset financial products. With this new product, the company not only has the potential to generate institutional demand for cryptoassets, but also blazes a trail for further product innovation for others in the space.

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