Hong Kong Securities Watchdog Delivers a Stark Warning on ICOs

Jordana Sacks

In a speech given on Friday, Hong Kong’s securities regulator made it clear that they had adopted a sceptical view of initial coin offerings (ICOs). 

Talking at an investment industry function, the deputy head of the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission (SFC), Julia Leung, delivered a stark warning, advising the public against certain fundraising activities, namely ICOS..    

Acknowledging that blockchain and its ilk had the potential to increase efficiency and promote financial inclusion, she nonetheless cautioned that this did not entitle individuals to carry out ICOs that violate securities law. 

She further warned that many ICO projects may simply be disguised as blockchain technology, whilst offering no real technological innovation and posing significant risks to investors.  

Explaining these comments, Ms Leung said:

“Further complicating matters, many of these fundraising [activities] are dubious, if not downright frauds. The issuers escape the scrutiny of the police or securities regulators because of their cross-border nature and the way the crypto assets are structured to fall outside any regulator’s permit.”

Julia Leung

This statement comes in the wake of scrutiny by the SFC of a particular ICO project, which the agency was forced to halt following worries over its offering of unregistered securities in Hong Kong. 

It has also had to step in with regards to several other exchanges in earlier incidents of a similar nature, forcing the delisting of numerous ICOs which the agency believed were more accurately classified as securities.     

This has led the SFC to implement a campaign intended to better educate the public about the technology, with their primary focus being to make people aware of the risks associated when investing in cryptocurrencies.   

As part of this drive, a media-focused campaign was launched in January. Concentrating its efforts on the region’s subway system, the SFC said that it will cool the ever-increasing hype surrounding such investments.

Weekly Newsletter

BitMEX Slammed as Roubini Raises the Stakes in War Against Crypto

Neil Dennis

Every new concept has its critics and there's none so vehemently opposed to cryptocurrencies as New York University academic Nouriel Roubini, who has just taken his most vicious swipe yet at the emerging asset class.

In an essay entitled "The Great Crypto Heist", published this week on the website Project Syndicate, the NYU Stern Business School professor accuses financial regulators of "being asleep at the wheel" while an army of unregulated exchanges, propagandists and scammers commit "rampant fraud and abuse".

He singles out crypto-derivatives exchange BitMEX as being a particular threat to retail investors. Roubini clashed earlier this month with Arthur Hayes, the chief executive of BitMEX.

Regulation

But first, the professor explains why the sector needs to be more closely monitored. The broader financial sector came under increased regulatory scrutiny following the 2008 financial crisis, to protect investors and society. 

The regulatory regime does not capture cryptocurrencies, however, which are launched and traded outside the domain of official financial oversight, he says.

The result is that crypto land has become an unregulated casino, where unchecked criminality runs riot.

BitMEX

He rounds on BitMEX, registered in the Seychelles, which offers highly-leveraged bets on the rises and falls of cryptoassets: products more broadly known as derivatives.

These investment products have come under the microscope of regulators in many countries. The UK's Financial Conduct Authority would like to ban the sale of cryptoasset derivatives and exchange-traded notes to retail customers, saying they are too difficult to value and are prone to extreme price movements due to the volatile moves of the underlying cryptoassets.

Other global regulators have made moves to reduce the amount of leverage offered by crypto-derivatives exchanges. Roubini points out that with a 100-1 leverage, even a 1% price move in the underlying assets could trigger a margin call that wipes out the investor's entire account and leave them owing the exchange.

Hayes, boasted openly that the BitMEX business model involves peddling to 'degenerate gamblers' (meaning clueless retail investors) crypto derivatives with 100-to-one leverage.

BitMEX aslo runs a proprietary trading desk - an internal, for-profit desk that trades cryptocurrencies with its own money - that has been accused of front-running its own clients, Roubini asserts. He adds:

Hayes has denied this, but because BitMEX is totally unregulated, there are no independent audits of its accounts, and thus no way of knowing what happens behind the scenes.

Perhaps his most grand accusation in the essay, however, is that exchange is being used for criminal activity:

BitMEX insiders revealed to me that this exchange is also used daily for money laundering on a massive scale by terrorists and other criminals from Russia, Iran, and elsewhere; the exchange does nothing to stop this, as it profits from these transactions.

Tiff in Taipei

Roubini accused Hayes this month of holding back the broadcast of a video recorded of their clash at conference in Taipei - to which Hayes had secured exclusive right to.

In the essay, he continues this accusation, saying:

I suppose this is par for the course among crypto scammers, but it is ironic that someone who claims to represent the 'resistance' against censorship has become the father of all censors now that his con has been exposed.

Crypto Cancer Metastasized

In his final dig at the industry, Roubini says crypto trading has created a multi-billion dollar industry that does not just include the exchanges, but also "propagandists posing as journalists, opportunists talking up their own books and lobbyists seeking regulatory exemptions.

It is time global regulatory bodies stepped in, he concludes:

So far, regulators have been asleep at the wheel as the crypto cancer has metastasized. At a minimum, Hayes and all the others overseeing similar rackets from offshore safe havens should be investigated, before millions more retail investors get scammed into financial ruin.

So far, Hayes appears to have remained silent following the article's publication. No activity on his Twitter account. But the ball is now firmly in his court as the war of words heats up.