If 2017 was the year of the ICO, it seems as if 2018 is destined to become the year of regulatory reckoning. Things have already begun to heat up as countries around the world grapple with cryptocurrencies and try to determine how they are going to treat them. Some are welcoming, others are cautious. And some countries are downright antagonistic. Here is a brief overview of how different countries from various regions are treating cryptocurrency regulations.
Until recently, the finance and banking center of Asia has been relatively lax compared to many of its Asian counterparts on cryptocurrency regulation. The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), like many financial regulators, warned of risks of speculating in the cryptocurrency markets during the December 2017 peak in bitcoin prices. And Singapore’s International Commercial Court heard a trial that same month over a bitcoin trading dispute, seeming to legitimize the economic stakes in dispute.
On January 9, 2018, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that “the country’s laws do not make any distinction between transactions conducted using fiat currency, cryptocurrency or other novel ways of transmitting value.”
MAS fintech chief Sopnendu Mohanty on January 24, 2018 did state that he does not foresee a Lehman Brothers-like financial meltdown with Bitcoin at this point in time, adding that there is “a great indication that regulators are getting serious about this whole cryptocurrency market.”
Mohanty also stated regulators would need to apply consumer protections for digital currencies like bitcoin for it to continue to grow. While there has been no statement yet from the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the $530 million hack that attacked Japanese exchange Coincheck on January 26, 2018, targeted Singaporean-based NEM coins.
Venezuela is not a major world economy or a large portion of the cryptocurrency investing community. The country’s regulatory stance on cryptocurrencies, however, is noteworthy because the government, under the restrictive regime of Nicolás Maduro, is seeking to skirt economic sanctions imposed on Venezuela by announcing its own oil-backed “petro” cryptocurrency.
Under Maduro, the country has been divided for years by protests and clashes between opposition parties and the government. Venezuela started off 2017 seemingly seeking to crack down on cryptocurrencies as the Venezuelan Bolivar remained relatively unusable. And even as recently as December 13, 2017, the Maduro government sought to regulate cryptocurrency mining as the newly minted superintendent of cryptocurrencies, Carlos Vargas, announced the compilation of a detailed registry of cryptocurrency miners in the country.
In a country where the fiat currency is worth little and sanctions from the U.S. continue to mount, a state-sanctioned cryptocurrency may cause Venezuela — a typically restrictive regime — to become one of the most progressive countries on cryptocurrency regulations (even if only to further sales of petro).
Japan isn’t particularly liberal toward digital currency regulation; it’s merely winning the race to attract the best from Asia’s cryptocurrency industry, as China and South Korea have been creating hostile/uncertain environments. Whether or not Japan will allow for a cryptocurrency-themed J-pop band, the Japanese government has certainly been more welcoming of cryptocurrencies than its Asian neighbors.
Recent events may have tempered Japanese enthusiasm for cryptocurrencies, however. The hack of a Japanese exchange on January 26, 2018, resulting in the loss of $530 million worth of NEM coins, has prompted backlash from the community and closer oversight from the Financial Services Agency (FSA).
China has been taking ever-increasing actions to clamp down on all things cryptocurrency. Starting off by banning ICOs, China ordered a bank account freeze associated with exchanges, kicked out bitcoin miners, and instituted a nationwide ban on internet and mobile access to all things related to cryptocurrency trading. The People’s Republic of China appears to be the most stringent cryptocurrency regulator of the major economies regarding cryptocurrencies. This is an odd about-face given that, in 2017, Chinese bitcoin miners made up over 50 percent of the worldwide mining population and that cryptocurrency adoption in China increased at a rate higher than any other country.
Though strict, the regulatory actions of the People’s Republic of China, under the stewardship of Xi Jinping, makes contextual sense as the country has recently been focused on stemming capital outflows and stomping out corruption.
Where to begin with South Korean regulation? The country boasted a significant cryptocurrency presence in the past and was initially thought of as the country of refuge from the crackdowns occurring in China late last year. However, discord surfaced in January 2018 amongst top Korean officials on future regulatory actions for the digital currency industry, with declarations, clarifications, misinformation and ultimately some limited implementation. The uncertainty and potential negative regulatory impacts have now been cited as the cause for marketwide sell-offs on Red Tuesday as well as on January 30, 2018, when Korean officials began enforcing a January 23, 2018, rule disallowing anonymous accounts from trading cryptocurrencies.
To add external regulatory drama to the political dissonance demonstrated by a government less than a year out from ousting their former president, regulatory prospects for South Koreans have also been hindered by New York State’s Department of Financial Services (DFS), as they reportedly requested customer information on accounts associated with cryptocurrency trading among six commercial Korean banks with branches in New York on January 26, 2018.
India, once viewed as a burgeoning, friendly environment for cryptocurrencies, has been clamping down on cryptocurrencies in 2018. India’s tough stance stems from similar concerns that other, more stringent regulatory regimes have cited: money laundering, illegal activity proliferation, sponsorship of terrorism, tax evasion, etc. While the cash-reliant country is facing stern regulations, participants of the local cryptocurrency industry do not believe India can “ban” cryptocurrencies through regulations in the same way China has.
Last year saw Africa’s largest economy struggle through a recession that caused a “crunch” to its fiat currency. Bitcoin trading boomed as Nigerians used cryptocurrencies to end-run currency controls restricting access to the dollar put in place to curtail the recession. January 2017 started off with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) seeming to ban cryptocurrencies, only to have CBN Deputy Director Musa Itopa Jimoh walk back the position by stating, the “Central bank cannot control or regulate bitcoin. [the] Central bank cannot control or regulate blockchain. Just the same way no one is going to control or regulate the internet. We don’t own it.” Bitcoin trading boomed by 1500 percent during 2017.
Though the IMF report from December 2017 said the country has exited its recession, tepid GDP growth forecasts and reliance on crude oil exports make calls on January 25, 2018, from CBN Governor Edwin Emefiele to regulate cryptocurrencies seem tenuous. The CBN governor stated, “Cryptocurrency or bitcoin is like a gamble … We cannot, as a central bank, give support to situations where people risk their savings to ‘gamble.’”
The governor of the Bank of Ghana, Dr. Ernest Addison, stated on January 22, 2018, that “Bitcoin is not yet legal tender” at a media briefing. While there is a bill before Ghanaian parliament which will allow for the use of cryptocurrencies (seemingly with companies registered as “Electronic Money Issuers” by the government), the current stance of bitcoin (and other cryptocurrencies) is, according to Graphic Online, one of “six countries that have outlawed [bitcoin].” Addison’s statements come weeks after a recommendation from the Ghanaian investment bank, Group Ndoum, suggested that the Bank of Ghana invest 1 percent of its reserves in bitcoin.
South Africa is relatively progressive on the subject of cryptocurrencies compared to others on the list. While the 2014 position paper on virtual currencies issued by the South African Reserve Bank seemed promising for the industry, the South African government began in July of 2017 to work with Bankymoon, a blockchain-based solutions provider, on creating a “balanced” approach to bitcoin regulation.
The country has had valuation issues with its fiat currency, the South African Rand, being devalued several times over the past decade. The 2015 devaluation saw the rand drop 26 percent in response to the Chinese yuan devaluing by a mere 2 percent. Most recently, the country faced devaluation prospects again in March of 2017 as the president fired South Africa’s finance minister. The country has remained relatively mum on cryptocurrency regulation in January 2018, but it will be interesting to see if the reliance South Africa’s fiat currency has on China translates at all to its regulatory stance on cryptocurrencies.