‘Gulf will lead digital currency world’

Saudi Arabia and UAE embrace blockchain despite a crash in coin prices. (AFP)
Updated 23 March 2019

‘Gulf will lead digital currency world’

  • Saudi Arabia and the UAE have agreed to pilot a shared digital currency for cross-border bank transactions
  • Bitcoin prices have plummeted by more than 50 percent in the last year

LONDON: The Gulf is overtaking Asia as the global leader in cryptocurrencies, as countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE embrace blockchain technology despite the crash in coin prices, according to the cofounders of a new digital-currency exchange.
Bitcoin prices have plummeted by more than 50 percent in the last year, from a high of $9,683.54 on May 4, 2018 to under $4,000 on Thursday afternoon. Ethereum, another prominent digital currency, lost 83 percent of its value over the same period.
That has not deterred the founders of the Abu Dhabi-based Hayvn, who believe digital currencies are still in their infancy and are yet to benefit from big bucks being pumped in by institutional investors. A move by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to pilot a shared digital currency for cross-border bank transactions also points to the longer-term potential of cryptocurrencies, said Hayvn cofounders Ahmed Ismail and Christopher Flinos.
“We see the Gulf leading digital currencies going forward, globally,” said Flinos. “It started in Asia, and we now see the GCC taking over from Asia as the global leader in digital currencies and their integration into the financial system.”
Flinos said there was an appetite for cryptocurrencies among big regional investors, but that they lack a safe and secure platform on which to trade. 
“Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest cryptocurrency markets, potentially, within the region,” he said. “Middle Eastern high-net-worth individuals generally have a higher risk tolerance … they like equities, they are used to volatility. They’re not afraid of new things, they’re not afraid of chasing yield.”
Flinos and business partner Ismail, who met while working at Merrill Lynch in the mid 2000s, plan to launch Hayvn soon and have had discussions with the Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM) authority about regulating the platform. The executives say that regulation, along with cryptographic security provided by a company called nCipher, will make Hayvn stand out from other global exchanges, some of which have been hit by high-profile cyberattacks. The Tokyo-based Mt. Gox exchange, notably, filed for bankruptcy in 2014 after losing some 850,000 bitcoins — then worth about $500 million — and $28 million in cash from its bank accounts.

 

The Hayvn exchange will be aimed at institutional investors with more than $500,000 of investable funds, such as hedge funds, private banks and high-net-worth individuals. Its founders have not yet disclosed which cryptocurrencies it will trade, but confirmed the majors will be there. They have also held initial discussions about being an exchange for “intra-GCC trading coins” of the sort being piloted by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Despite the roller-coaster ride in crypto prices, Hayvn cofounder Ismail said that there is a gap in the market for a well-regulated and secure exchange. 
“Cryptocurrency exchanges right now, globally, are effectively just casinos,” he said. “We saw that (in) a lot of the exchanges around the world, it was pretty much the Wild West … there was a lot of price manipulation, there was a lot of money laundering, institutional money was still not convinced.
“We saw what was going on in the digital currency market. And we saw this massive gaping hole.” 
Ismail described the ADGM’s regulatory framework as “rigorous” and said the planned security on the trading platform means it is “completely unhackable.”
“We’re not simply an exchange — retail exchanges are a dime a dozen, it’s very easy to set one up,” he said, pointing to the research the company plans to conduct with a London-based university.
Ismail acknowledged the crash in prices of bitcoin and ethereum, but said that it was still early days for cryptocurrencies, which until now have been traded mainly by small individual investors. 
“The reason there has been massive amounts of volatility in (bitcoin) or ethereum or any of the large coins is the fact that it’s been pretty much retail (investors),” he said. “Institutional money is still waiting on the sidelines to get into cryptocurrency. It’s moving. There are paradigm shifts that are happening right now in the whole cryptocurrency world. But it’s still not there yet. We’re still at the very very beginning of the digital currency revolution.” 
So will cryptocurrency prices recover in the short term?
“Who knows? It may be overvalued, it may be undervalued,” said Ismail. 
“We ultimately don’t care. We’re looking at this as a real asset class that has long-term probability. It might not be bitcoin, it might be another cryptocurrency that’s going to emerge in the short to medium term.”

FASTFACTS

Bitcoin prices have lost about half their value over the past year.


Struggling Victoria’s Secret sold as women demand comfort

Updated 22 February 2020

Struggling Victoria’s Secret sold as women demand comfort

  • Chairman calls time following difficult year of Epstein links and controversy over chief marketing officer comments

NEW YORK: Victoria’s Secret has a new owner. Now, the big question is whether the once sought after but now struggling brand can be reinvented for a new generation of women demanding more comfortable styles.

The company’s owner, L Brands, said that the private-equity firm Sycamore Partners would buy 55 percent of Victoria’s Secret for about $525 million. The company, based in Columbus, Ohio, will keep the remaining 45 percent stake. After the sale, L Brands will be left with its Bath & Body Works chain and Victoria’s Secret will become a private company.

Les Wexner, 82, who founded the parent company in 1963, will step down as chairman and CEO after the transaction is completed, and become chairman emeritus. Wexner has faced seperate troubles, including questions over his ties to late financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was indicted on sex-trafficking charges.

The selling price for Victoria’s Secret signifies a marked decline for a brand with hundreds of stores that booked about $7 billion in revenue last year.

In a statement, Wexner said the deal would provide the best path to restoring Victoria’s Secret’s businesses to their “historical levels of profitability and growth.” The deal will also allow the company to reduce debt and Sycamore will bring a “fresh perspective and greater focus to the business,” he said.

To successfully turn around Victoria’s Secret, Sycamore will need to change up the corporate culture, reinvent fashions and redesign the stores to make them more contemporary, experts say. Sycamore manages a $10 billion portfolio including retailers as Belk, Hot Topic and Talbots.

The management team at Victoria’s Secret essentially was designing what men wanted, and not catering to women’s tastes, said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail.

“The brand is very embedded in the past,” said Saunders. “It was always about men feeling good. It should be about making women feel good about themselves.”

Victoria’s Secret has an unparalleled history of success. The brand was founded by the late Roy Larson Raymond in the 1970s after he felt embarrassed about purchasing lingerie for his wife. Wexner, the founder of the then Limited Stores Inc., purchased Victoria’s Secret in 1982 and turned it into a powerful retail force. By the mid-1990s, Victoria’s Secret lit up runways and later filled the internet with its supermodels and an annual television special that mixed fashion, beauty and music.

That glamor has faded and so have sales in the last few years. The show was canceled last year, and shares of Victoria Secret’s parent have gone from triple digits less than five years ago to a quarter of that today.

Victoria’s Secret struggled to keep up with competition and failed to respond to changing tastes among women who want more comfortable styles. Rivals like Adore Me and ThirdLove, which have sprouted up online and marketed themselves heavily on social media platforms like Instagram, have focused on fit and comfort while offering more options for different body types. Meanwhile, American Eagle’s Aerie lingerie chain, which partners with women activists like Manuela Baron, has also lured customers away from Victoria’s Secret.

And in the era of the “Me Too” movement, women are looking for brands that focus on positive reinforcement of their bodies.

“Victoria’s Secret will need to empower women, not make them spectacles,” said Jon Reily, senior vice president and global head of commerce strategy at digital consultancy Isobar.

Stacey Widlitz, president of SW Retail Advisers, a retail consultancy, said that Victoria’s Secret designs in the last few years had gone in the opposite direction to what women wanted, ever sexier and poorer in quality.

And while last year Victoria’s Secret started featuring more diverse models, including its first openly transgender model, the moves fell short.

Victoria’s Secret suffered a 12 percent drop in same-store sales during the most recent holiday season. L Brands said on Thursday that same-store sales declined 10 percent at Victoria’s Secret during the fourth quarter. Bath & Body Works, which has been a bright spot, enjoyed a 10 percent increase. The skincare chain represents more than 80 percent of L Brands’ operating profit.

“The (Victoria’s Secret) brand has lost its way, while the lingerie market is not large or high growth, and has become commoditized,” Randal Konik, an analyst at Jefferies, wrote Thursday. “Furthermore, with athleisure taking over, the need for regular bras continues to wane.”

The company has also been beset by allegations of a toxic work environment and its founder recently apologized for his ties to Epstein, who was found hanged in his cell after federal indictment for sex trafficking of minors. L Brands’ Chief Marketing Officer Ed Razek resigned last August after making controversial comments about why transgender models shouldn’t partake in its annual fashion event.

Epstein started managing Wexner’s money in the late 1980s and helped straighten out the finances for a real estate development backed by Wexner in a wealthy suburb of Columbus. Wexner has said he completely severed ties with Epstein nearly 12 years ago and accused him of misappropriating “vast sums” of his fortune.

Wexner offered an apology at the opening address of L Brands’ annual investor day last fall, saying he was “embarrassed” by his former ties with Epstein.

Wexner is the longest-serving CEO of an S&P 500 company. He founded what would eventually become L Brands in 1963 with The Limited retail chain, according to the company’s website. Wexner owns approximately 16.71 percent of L Brands, according to FactSet.

Mike Robbins, a San Francisco-based corporate culture expert who has advised chains including Gap and Sephora, said the team at Victoria’s Secret would have to retrain workers and hire more people with diverse voices.

“They have a lot of work to do — within the company and also outside with the customers,” Robbins said. “The companies that are able to have (a) great culture attract the best employees.”