The specter of Facebook clicking “like” on Bitcoin adds fuel to what can best be called a resurrection rally. Left for near dead a few months ago, the best-known crypto asset boomed partly on reports Mark Zuckerberg would unveil a digital currency.
Now that Facebook’s Libra is out, it could be stellar news -– a badly-needed reassurance that cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are gaining currency in mainstream finance. But history may show that the Facebook founder’s approval was less impactful than the “like” the crypto world scored in Osaka on June 28 and 29.
There, top officials from the Group of 20 nations will engage in vital discussions about best practices for cryptocurrencies and initial coin offerings. Getting the G20’s “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval, and a transactional framework, has its pros and cons.
The latter concern is well understood. Pulling a medium of exchange too far into the conventional finance matrix runs counter to cryptocurrencies’ raison d’etre. Risks of regulatory overreach abound. So do demands for transparency by governments increasingly paranoid about money laundering. Hence worry among digital trading experts like Ricky Li of New York-based Altonomy about surging compliance costs that shutter “a lot of” exchanges, broker-dealers and funds.
Yet the pros are worth exploring as world leaders, including US President Donald Trump, jet into Osaka.
Kudos to Japan, first of all, for putting cryptocurrencies on the formal discussion table. That includes circulating some kind of best-practices manual that draws from Tokyo’s own experiences. Japan, after all, is the site of two of the biggest hacking scandals to date –- the Mt. Gox exchange in 2014 and Coincheck in 2018.
It’s fanciful to think that top officials from 19 countries and the European Union will emerge from Osaka with razor-focused and applicable mechanisms that foster the growth of crypto-assets without smothering their unique features. It’s a first crack at pulling off a daunting balancing act, one that, frankly, many practitioners view as impossible.
It’s not an exaggeration to view Osaka as a “Bretton Woods moment” for the crypto world. The reference here is to the 1944 conference of global economic powers in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. The monetary and payment mechanisms that emerged from that brainstorming session is the core of the exchange-rate system that dominates today –- one cryptocurrency evangelists seek to avoid, if not destroy.
And fair enough. Seventy-five seems long enough for a system that’s evaded disruption to its own detriment. The Bretton Woods scheme nearly came crashing down in 2008. Global elites, many of them soon flying to Osaka, spent the last 11 years frantically gluing, pasting and binding the cracks in an antiquated structure — the financial equivalent of an analog design in a digital world.
A key pillar of a framework built 40 years before Zuckerberg was born is the International Monetary Fund. The current head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, was in Fukuoka, Japan earlier this month, where G20 finance ministers and central bankers met to focus the message for Osaka. Lagarde’s comments there aptly captured the zeitgeist among G20 powers.
At issue, she said, is the “harmonization of different approaches from country to country, such as dealing with crypto assets and non-bank financial intermediaries, is important, but it also needs to aim for financial stability and consumer protection.” Lagarde concluded: “It is important to continue international dialogue, but it is not as easy as it looks.”
One shouldn’t downplay the learning curve for officials who spent decades in the analog finance game. Imagine the discussions in the office of Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso, 78, when Mt. Gox imploded five years ago. At the time, cartoonists had a field day depicting Aso at his desk Googling “Bitcoin” and “blockchain” and “hot wallet.”
The good news: Osaka will be awash in crypto exchange bigwigs. At present, the leaders of top officials from bitFlyer, Circle, Coinbase, Huobi, Kraken and myriad other crypto courses will be on hand to make their case. Osaka will host a “V20 summit” so that virtual asset boosters can head off regulations that might stymie their businesses.
Stakeholders must demand a voice as government officials home in on protecting customer assets, upping due diligence pressure on exchanges and find a common denominator on know-your-customer norms and transaction monitoring, says Junei Murai, a professor at University of Tokyo. The idea is not to illegalize what virtually everyone agrees is the future of money, but to strike a balance.
The real target is softening any blows from the Financial Action Task Force, or FATF. This intergovernmental group was founded in 1989 to combat money laundering. In 2001, following the Sept. 11attacks on New York and Washington, its mandate was expanded to include terrorism financing. This, it’s vital to recognize, is the fraught environment crypto assets are struggling to navigate.
It hardly helps that on the eve of Osaka, the United Nations is highlighting that North Korea’s main business has become stealing digital currency. The UN Security Council reckons Pyongyang has netted $571 million from such hacks. That raises the odds Trump and Japanese leader Shinzo Abe will favor heavy crypto regulation.
In Fukuoka earlier this month, Blockstream CEO Adam Back offered a kind of Crypto 101 for finance and monetary officials. He explained the unique qualities of blockchain assets, token offerings, and applications from remittances to hedging against volatility in global markets.
This latter point is especially timely as Trump’s trade war helps resurrect Bitcoin and other crypto assets. There are several possible forces driving Bitcoin’s price north of US$9,000: fears of global crisis that slams the dollar; the advent of crypto futures trading; the entrance of large-scale corporations into the arena.
Purists abhor the idea of mainstreaming assets meant to operate in their own realm. But as Facebook’s likely entrance reminded us, “more recently, crypto’s revolutionary air has in part given way to pragmatism,” says Steve LeVine of Washington-based news site Axios.
Look no further than a consortium of 14 Japanese banks now vying to mint their own digital currencies. As reported by Asia Times, the more than US$60 million project involves so-called utility settlement coins, or USCs, that are pegged to fiat money. Again, not an optimal scenario for evangelists steeped in Bitcoin counter-culture origins, but a step toward added stability to the market.
Facebook’s own cryptocurrency will be based in “stablecoins,” which also are linked to government-issued cash. Zuckerberg’s shop appears to be toying with its own consortium, which reportedly includes the likes of MasterCard, Visa, PayPal, Uber, travel site Stripe and Argentine e-commerce platform MercadoLibre.
Yet even purists have to wonder why Facebook is exciting the market. To Michael Imerman, co-director of the Financial Engineering program at Claremont Graduate University, Facebook, for better or worse, adds a burst of “trust in the court of public appearances.”
One irony: Zuckerberg may be coming to the aid of the Winklevoss twins who, from “The Social Network” infamy, claim they really invented Facebook.
But the real redemptive moment could come in Osaka. Again, purists will abhor any move by the financial establishment into the cyptoworld as an intrusion. The Catch 22, though, is that the only way to stop that establishment from killing the market is finding a third way. Posterity may recall is as the Osaka Way.