Crypto-currency crackdown spreads from Dubai to London

A computer screen displays a site featuring cryptocurrency token sales in Berlin on Nov. 26, 2017. Bypassing oversight of any kind, Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) have sprung from nowhere to become a hugely popular way for start-ups to raise funds online, offering self-created digital ‘tokens’ or coins to any willing buyer. (AFP)
Updated 28 November 2017
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Crypto-currency crackdown spreads from Dubai to London

NEW YORK: When US entrepreneur Bharath Rao looked around for the best place to raise money for his crypto-currency derivatives trading business, the US did not make his list. Instead he chose the East African island nation of the Seychelles to sell the trading platform’s tokens.
Rao, a San Diego-based technology veteran who has worked for major Wall Street banks, is not alone.
Confronted with national regulators’ intensifying scrutiny of digital currency fund-raising, known as initial coin offerings, many entrepreneurs are moving businesses to locations more welcoming to crypto-currencies and known for low taxes.
Dozens of start-ups have flocked to Singapore, Switzerland, Eastern Europe and the Caribbean this year, according to interviews with entrepreneurs and company registration data made available to Reuters.
Like bitcoin, the best-known crypto-currency created in 2009, the coins use encryption and a blockchain transaction database enabling fast and anonymous transfer of funds without centralized payment systems.
The numbers compiled by crypto-currency research firm Smith + Crown show how national regulators’ attempts to curb coin sales may just shift business elsewhere.
The US leads with 34 digital currency start-up registrations so far this year, but that reflects Silicon Valley’s role as a technology hub and the depth of US financial markets rather than a welcoming regulatory climate.
Singapore registered 21 entities, up from one in 2016, followed by 19 in Switzerland, up from three last year, according to Smith + Crown. Central Europe saw 14 companies registered this year, compared with one in 2016, and the Caribbean hosted 10, up from two last year.
“The data affirms our sense that Switzerland and Singapore remain go-to locations, but the US could remain for companies raising large amounts of money,” said Matt Chwierut, Smith + Crown’s research director.
Switzerland does not have specific rules on digital coin sales, but some parts of an offer may fall under existing regulations, the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority (FINMA) said in September.
So far, four of the five largest token sales, raising a total of over $600 million, were carried out by firms registered in Zug, a low-tax region south of Zurich known as the “crypto-valley” of the world.
In contrast, China and South Korea banned digital coin sales this year and regulators in the US, Malaysia, Dubai, UK and Germany warned investors that current scant oversight exposed them to risks of fraud, hacking or theft.
Soaring registrations in “friendly” jurisdictions show how hard it is for national watchdogs to regulate digital coin sales. It is a challenge regulators are beginning to recognize.
“We are talking to other regulators, and we know that there are a lot of bilateral discussions taking place,” the Dubai Financial Services Authority told Reuters.
The US Securities Exchange Commission declined to comment about the migration of coin issuers to remote jurisdictions.
The UK’s Financial Conduct Authority and Securities Commission Malaysia reiterated their stance that digital coin sales are high-risk, speculative investments and that retail investors should be aware of that.
A spokesman for Germany’s Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (BaFin) told Reuters “hopping” within the European Union would be “largely futile” since the EU supervisory authority has adopted the same stance as BaFin on the issue.
The Dubai regulator pointed out that seeking out friendly jurisdictions was not unusual, but regulators still needed to warn about the inherent risks in digital coin sales.
Financial regulators from South Korea and China were not immediately available for comment.
In the US, the SEC’s July 25 ruling that digital coins should be regulated as securities had a short-lived chilling effect on the crypto-currency market. Short-lived, because many US startups thought they could avoid such scrutiny by selling “utility tokens,” which gave buyers access to products or services rather than a stake in the company.
Still, concerns that regulators’ views might evolve have made potential US coin issuers consider sales overseas.
“Our lawyers certainly think regulations on utility tokens could change. So for safety, the ICO should be done outside the US,” said Arran Stewart, co-founder of Job.com, an online employment platform which plans a token offering in the Cayman Islands in February.
In fact, out of 15 start-ups interviewed by Reuters, only one, Airfox, sold digital tokens in the US, raising $15 million last month. Others have either carried out a coin sale overseas or are planning one.
Rao, who started Leverj, a decentralized crypto-currency futures trading platform, said he picked the Seychelles for fund-raising because of its openness to crypto-currencies.
“It has not issued anything negative on crypto,” Rao said.
Digital coin sales soared to about $3.6 billion by mid-November, compared with just over $100 million in the whole of 2016, according to Autonomous NEXT, which tracks technology in the financial services industry. Typically, issuers publish a “white paper” describing their business plan and the news of new coin sales spread via online forums and websites tracking new offers. Investors pay for them with bitcoins or ether — two most widely accepted crypto-currencies — via a company’s website.
The ease with which start-ups can raise millions of dollars with little scrutiny in as little as minutes has alarmed regulators, but without a unified approach they hold little sway over that new funding market.
“It’s very difficult for governments to work together in any organized fashion,” said Lewis Cohen, a partner at Hogan Lovells in New York, which has a team of lawyers specializing in blockchain.
“Different jurisdictions will look at token sales through different lenses and it would be very difficult to get on a completely harmonized place.” Nimble and lightly-regulated crypto-currency companies can straddle borders with ease.
For example, BANKEX, which aims to convert illiquid assets into tokens to be traded on its crypto-currency platform, is registered in Delaware and plans a coin offering in the Cayman Islands this month, said the company’s CEO, Igor Khmel.
Hogan Lovell’s Cohen said that while it would be foolish to shut token sales down, they should be regulated, or self-regulated.
“We may need to have some guard rails,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s really fair for legitimate platforms that are trying to create new and innovative business models to be thrown in with other less scrupulous parties who may see token sales as a way of making a fast buck.”
— REUTERS


Dubai property developer Damac on hunt for land in Saudi Arabia

Hussain Sajwani
Updated 18 March 2019
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Dubai property developer Damac on hunt for land in Saudi Arabia

  • Brexit a “concern” for UK property market says Sajwani
  • Developer mulls investing “up to £500 million” on London project

LONDON: The Dubai-listed developer Damac says it is scouting for additional plots of land in Saudi Arabia, both in established cities and the Kingdom’s emerging giga-projects such as Neom.
Hussain Sajwani, chairman of Damac Properties, also said the company would look to invest up to £500 million ($660 million) on a second development in the UK, and that it is on track to deliver a record 7,000 or more units this year.
Amid a slowing property market in Dubai, Damac’s base, the developer is eying Saudi Arabia as a potential ground for expansion for its high-spec residential projects.
Damac has one development in Jeddah, and a twin-tower project in Riyadh — and Sajwani said it is looking for additional plots in the Kingdom.
“It’s a big market. It is changing, it is opening up, so we see a potential there … We are looking,” he said.
“In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is the biggest economy … They have some very ambitious projects, like the Neom city and other large projects. We’re watching those and studying them very carefully.”
The $500 billion Neom project, which was announced in 2017, is set to be a huge economic zone with residential, commercial and tourist facilities on the Red Sea coast.
Sajwani said doing business in Saudi Arabia was “a bit more difficult or complicated” that the UAE, but said the country is opening up, citing moves to allow women to drive and reopen cinemas.
He was speaking to Arab News in Damac’s London sales office, opposite the Harrods department store in Knightsbridge. The office, kitted out in plush Versace furnishings, is selling units at Damac’s first development in the UK, the Damac Tower Nine Elms London.
The 50-storey development is in a new urban district south of the River Thames, which is also home to the US Embassy and the famous Battersea Power Station, which is being redeveloped as a residential and commercial property.
Work on Damac's tower is underway and is due to complete in late 2020 or early 2021, Sajwani said.
“We have sold more than 60 percent of the project,” he said. “It’s very mixed, we have (buyers) from the UK, from Asia, the Middle East.”
Damac’s first London project was launched in 2015, the year before the referendum on the UK exiting the EU — the result of which has had a knock-on effect on the London property market.
“Definitely Brexit has cause a lot of concern, people are not clear where the situation will go. Overall, the market has suffered because of Brexit,” Sajwani said.
“It’s going to be difficult for the coming two years at least … unless (the UK decides) to stay in the EU.”
Despite the ongoing uncertainty over Brexit, Sajwani said Damac was looking for additional plots of land in London, both in the “golden triangle” — the pricey areas of Mayfair, Belgravia and Knightsbridge, which are popular with Gulf investors — and new residential districts like Nine Elms.
Sajwani is considering an investment of “up to £500 million” on a new project in the UK capital.
“We are looking aggressively, and spending a lot of time … finding other opportunities,” he said. “Our appetite for London is there.”
Damac is also considering other international property markets for expansion, including parts of Europe and North American cities like Toronto, Boston, New York and Miami, Sajwani said.
The international drive by Damac comes, however, amid a tough property market in the developer’s home market of Dubai.
Damac in February reported that its 2018 profits fell by nearly 60 percent, with its fourth-quarter profit tumbling by 87 percent, according to Reuters calculations.
Sajwani — whose company attracted headlines for its partnership with the Trump Organization for two golf courses in Dubai — does not see any immediate recovery in the emirate’s property market, or Damac’s financial results.
“(With) the market being soft, prices being under pressure, we are part of the market — we are not going to do better than last year,” he said. “This year and next year are going to be difficult years. But it’s a great opportunity for the buyers.”
But the developer said Dubai was “very strong fundamentally,” citing factors like its advanced infrastructure, safety and security, and low taxes.
In 2018, Damac delivered over 4,100 units — a record for the company — and this year, despite the difficult market, it plans to hand over even more.
“We’re expecting north of 7,000,” Sajwani said. “This year will be another record.”