Cryptocurrency industry faces insurance hurdle to mainstream ambitions

Last month, Mohamed El-Erian, Allianz’s chief economic adviser said that cryptocurrencies would gain wider acceptance as institutions began to invest in the space. (File/FAP)
Updated 20 December 2018
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Cryptocurrency industry faces insurance hurdle to mainstream ambitions

  • Over $800 million worth of crypto currencies were stolen in the first half of this year
  • Insurers struggled to understand the new technology and its implications

HONG KONG: Cryptocurrency exchanges and traders in Asia are struggling to insure themselves against the risk of hacks and theft, a factor they claim is deterring large fund managers from investing in a nascent market yet to be embraced by regulators.
Getting the buy-in from insurers would mark an important step in crypto industry efforts to show that it has solved the problem of storing digital assets safely following the reputational damage of a series of thefts, and allow it to attract investment from mainstream asset managers.
“Most institutionally minded crypto firms want to buy proper insurance, and in many cases, getting adequate insurance coverage is a regulatory or legal requirement,” said Henri Arslanian, PwC fintech & crypto leader for Asia.
“However, getting such coverage is almost impossible despite their best efforts.”
Many asset managers are interested in digital assets. A Greenwich Associates survey, published in September, said 72 percent of institutional investors who responded to the research firm believe crypto has a place in the future.
Last month, Mohamed El-Erian, Allianz’s chief economic adviser said that cryptocurrencies would gain wider acceptance as institutions began to invest in the space.
Most have held off investing so far however, citing regulatory uncertainty and a lack of faith in existing market infrastructure for storing and trading digital assets following a series of hacks, as well the plunge in prices.
The total market capitalization of crypto currencies is currently estimated at approximately $120 billion compared to over $800 billion at its peak in January.
“Institutional investors who are interested in investing in crypto will have various requirements, including reliable custody and risk management arrangements,” said Hoi Tak Leung, a senior lawyer in Ashurst’s digital economy practice.
“Insufficient insurance coverage, particularly in a volatile industry such as crypto, will be a significant impediment to greater ‘institutionalization’ of crypto investments.”
Regulatory uncertainty is another problem for large asset managers. While crypto currencies raise a number of concerns for regulators, including money laundering risks, few have set out clear frameworks for how cryptocurrencies should be traded, and by whom.
Insurance might allay some of the regulators’ concerns around cybersecurity. Hong Kong’s Securities and Futures Commission recently said it was exploring regulating crypto exchanges, and signalled that the vast majority of the virtual assets held by a regulated exchange would need insurance cover.
Custody challenge
Keeping crypto assets secure involves storing a 64 character alphanumeric private key. If the key is lost, the assets are effectively lost too.
Assets can be stored online, in so-called hot wallets, which are convenient to trade though vulnerable to being hacked, or in ‘cold’ offline storage solutions, safe from hacks, but often inconvenient to access frequently.
Over $800 million worth of crypto currencies were stolen in the first half of this year according to data from Autonomous NEXT, a financial research firm.
Some institutions have started working to solve this problem, and may provide fierce competition to the incumbent players.
This year, Fidelity, and a group including Japanese investment bank Nomura have launched platforms that will offer custody services for digital assets.
Despite the industry’s complaints, insurers say that they do offer cover. Risk adviser Aon, received some two dozen inquiries this year from exchanges and crypto vaults seeking insurance, according to Thomas Cain, regional director, commercial risk solutions, at Aon’s Asian financial services and professions group.
“It is not difficult to insure companies that hold large amounts of crypto assets, but given the newness of the asset class and the publicity some of the crypto breaches have received, applicants need to make an effort to distinguish themselves,” Cain said.
The industry also says it is getting closer to solving the custody problem.
“This year there have been a number of developments, and some providers have developed custody solutions suitable for institutional clients’ needs,” said Tony Gravanis, managing director investments at blockchain investment firm Kenetic Capital.
“Players at the top end of the market have also been able to get insurance,” he said.
But this is not the case for all.
One cryptocurrency broker, declining to be named because of the subject’s sensitivity, said insurers struggled to understand the new technology and its implications, and that even those who were prepared to provide insurance would only offer limited cover.
“We’ve not yet found an insurer who will offer coverage of a meaningful enough size to make it worthwhile,” he said.


Emirates NBD profit surges on asset sale and forex gains

Updated 11 min 49 sec ago
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Emirates NBD profit surges on asset sale and forex gains

  • Dubai’s largest bank reports 80 percent rise in net profit for second quarter

DUBAI: Emirates NBD, Dubai’s largest bank, reported an 80 percent rise in second-quarter net profit helped by the sale of a stake in Network International and strong non-interest income on foreign exchange gains.

The result included a gain of 2.1 billion dirhams ($572 million) from the sale of a stake in digital payment provider Network International in an initial public offering in London in April.

The earnings showed that top banks in the UAE have still withstood strains from a sluggish economy and a property downturn in Dubai.

Second-quarter net profit jumped 80 percent to 4.74 billion dirhams. EFG Hermes had expected a net profit of 4.06 billion in the second quarter.

The bank said net interest income rose 6 percent in the second-quarter from a year earlier, as growth in assets offset a drop in net interest rate margins.

Non-interest income surged 23 percent, helped by gains in foreign exchange income and investment banking activities.

Provisioning for bad debts more than doubled to 656 million dirhams in the second quarter from a year earlier.

The bank said the cost of risk had increased in 2019 to a more normalized level from relatively better credit quality conditions in 2018.

Cost of risk reflects the price a lender pays to manage its risk exposure. In 2018, Emirates NBD signaled that it expected cost of risk to revert to a long-term level of 80-100 basis points from the 63 basis points seen in 2018.

“The increased cost of risk of 82 basis points in H1 2019 is a result of an expectation of a reversion of credit quality to more normalized levels from the benign conditions in 2018, coupled with the expectation of lower write-backs and recoveries,” it said.

Credit-rating agency Moody’s had warned earlier this year provisioning charges for top banks in the UAE will increase in 2019 owing to pressure in the property and the retail sectors.

The Dubai lender said its net profit surged 49 percent in the first half of the year. “Core operating profit advanced 8 percent compared to the first half of 2018, helped by loan growth, higher foreign exchange income and increased investment banking activity,” the bank’s chief executive Shayne Nelson said in a statement.

Nelson said that the bank continued to make progress on the acquisition of Turkey’s Denizbank and expects this transaction to close in the third quarter of 2019.

Emirates NBD said in April that it was buying Denizbank from Russia’s Sberbank at a roughly 20 percent discount to a previously agreed price, after a steep fall in the Turkish lira.