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


Saudi energy minister recommends driving down oil inventories, says supply plentiful

Updated 19 May 2019
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Saudi energy minister recommends driving down oil inventories, says supply plentiful

  • Oil supplies were sufficient and stockpiles were still rising despite massive output drops from Iran and Venezuela
  • Producer nations discussed how to stabilise a volatile oil market amid rising US-Iran tensions in the Gulf, which threaten to disrupt global supply

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih said on Sunday he recommended “gently” driving oil inventories down at a time of plentiful global supplies and that OPEC would not make hasty decisions about output ahead of a June meeting.
“Overall, the market is in a delicate situation,” Falih told reporters before a ministerial panel meeting of top OPEC and non-OPEC oil producers, including Saudi Arabia and Russia.
While there is concern about supply disruptions, inventories are rising and the market should see a “comfortable supply situation in the weeks and months to come,” he said.
The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, of which Saudi Arabia is de facto leader, would have more data at its next meeting in late June to help it reach the best decision on output, Falih said.
“It is critical that we don’t make hasty decisions – given the conflicting data, the complexity involved, and the evolving situation,” he said, describing the outlook as “quite foggy” due in part to a trade dispute between the United States and China.
“But I want to assure you that our group has always done the right thing in the interests of both consumers and producers; and we will continue to do so,” he added.
OPEC, Russia and other non-OPEC producers, an alliance known as OPEC+, agreed to reduce output by 1.2 million barrels per day (bpd) from Jan. 1 for six months, a deal designed to stop inventories building up and weakening prices.
Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak told reporters that different options were available for the output deal, including a rise in production in the second half of the year.
The energy minister of the United Arab Emirates, Suhail Al-Mazrouei, said oil producers were capable of filling any gap in the oil market and that relaxing supply cuts was not “the right decision.”
Mazrouei said the UAE did not want to see a rise in inventories that could lead to a price collapse and that OPEC would act wisely to maintain sustainable market balance.
“As UAE we see that the job is not done yet, there is still a period of time to look at the supply and demand and we don’t see any need to alter the agreement in the meantime,” he said.
US crude inventories rose unexpectedly last week to their highest since September 2017, while gasoline stockpiles decreased more than forecast, data from the government’s Energy Information Administration showed on Wednesday.
DELICATE BALANCE
Saudi Arabia sees no need to boost production quickly now, with oil at around $70 a barrel, as it fears a price crash and a build-up in inventories, OPEC sources said, adding that Russia wants to increase supply after June.
The United States, not a member of OPEC+ but a close ally of Riyadh, wants the group to boost output to bring oil prices down.
Falih has to find a delicate balance between keeping the oil market well supplied and prices high enough for Riyadh’s budget needs, while pleasing Moscow to ensure Russia remains in the OPEC+ pact, and being responsive to the concerns of the United States and the rest of OPEC+, the sources said earlier.
Sunday’s meeting of the ministerial panel, known as the JMMC, comes amid concerns of a tight market. Iran’s oil exports are likely to drop further in May and shipments from Venezuela could fall again in coming weeks due to US sanctions.
Oil contamination also forced Russia to halt flows along the Druzhba pipeline — a key conduit for crude into Eastern Europe and Germany — in April. The suspension, as yet of unclear duration, left refiners scrambling to find supplies.
Russia’s Novak told reporters that oil supplies to Poland via the pipeline would start on Monday.
OPEC’s agreed share of the cuts is 800,000 bpd, but its actual reduction is far larger due to the production losses in Iran and Venezuela. Both are under US sanctions and exempt from the voluntary reductions under the OPEC-led deal.
REGIONAL TENSIONS
Oil prices edged lower on Friday due to demand fears amid a standoff in Sino-US trade talks, but both benchmarks ended the week higher on rising concerns over disruptions in Middle East shipments due to US-Iran political tensions.
Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are running high after last week’s attacks on two Saudi oil tankers off the UAE coast and another on Saudi oil facilities inside the Kingdom.
Riyadh accused Tehran of ordering the drone strikes on oil pumping stations, for which Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi militia claimed responsibility. 
Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for foreign affairs said on Sunday that the Kingdom wants to avert war in the region but stands ready to respond with “all strength” following the attacks.
“Although it has not affected our supplies, such acts of terrorism are deplorable,” Falih said. “They threaten uninterrupted supplies of energy to the world and put a global economy that is already facing headwinds at further risk.”
The attacks come as the United States and Iran spar over Washington’s tightening of sanctions aimed at cutting Iranian oil exports to zero, and an increased US military presence in the Gulf over perceived Iranian threats to US interests.