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Tom Rodgers
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ETC Group Crypto Minutes Week #44

Trillions of purchasing power washes into crypto with Mastercard payments deal, the US regulatory turf war hots up over stablecoins, while Australia vows to become the latest crypto-friendly nation with ETP and policy moves.

Mastercard enters crypto payments with Bakkt

It was inevitable, really. Once Visa crossed the Rubicon to throw its weight into crypto, the payments giant’s competitors were bound to follow. Mastercard (NYSE:MA), the 27th-largest company in the world with a $328bn market cap, announced it was partnering with Bakkt (NYSE:BKKT), the cryptoasset company recently spun off from Intercontinental Exchange, as a custodial partner.

The move means that any of the thousands of banks and millions of merchants on its network will soon be able to integrate crypto products into their daily services.

Customers will be able to buy, sell and hold digital assets, convert airline and hotel points into bitcoin, earn ‘cryptoback’ rewards from their credit and debit cards. And Mastercard is achingly keen to be speaking their customers’ new language, casually dropping ‘fungibility’ into a press statement from 25 October.

Mastercard will enable its partners to offer cryptocurrency as rewards and create fungibility between loyalty points and other digital assets. This means that consumers can earn and spend rewards in cryptocurrency instead of traditional loyalty points and seamlessly convert their crypto holdings to pay for purchases. This is the latest move by Mastercard to bring innovative loyalty options to consumers that align with their passion points. Sherri Haymond, executive VP for digital partnerships, Mastercard

Mastercard and Visa comprise the top two credit, debit and pre-paid card payment systems worldwide outside of China. According to industry data specialists Nilson Report, Mastercard processed more than $4.5 trillion in payments volume in 2021.

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Bakkt shares jumped 350% from $8 to $36 on the news, just weeks after its highly-touted reverse merger SPAC deal to list on the New York Stock Exchange.

This is not Mastercard’s first move in the space. In September, the credit card company agreed a dealto buy Ciphertrace, the crypto forensics startup which specialises in tracking blockchain payments for law enforcement and anti-money laundering purposes. Rivals companies include London’s Elliptic, whose investors include Wells Fargo, and Chainalysis, which raised $100m in a Series D round for a $4bn+ valuation earlier this year.

Mastercard initially dipped its toes into cryptocurrency in February 2021, following the likes of Paypal (NASDAQ:PYPL) and Square (NYSE:SQ) by supporting cryptocurrencies on its network. The company has moved aggressively to counter competitors, filing and winning 89 blockchain patents in the past three years.

Digital assets have the potential to reimagine commerce, from everyday acts like paying and getting paid to transforming economies, making them more inclusive and efficient. Ajay Bhalla, president of cyber and intelligence, Mastercard.

SEC vs CFTC: US regulatory turf war hots up over stablecoins

A war is coming, and the outcome is not going to be pretty. On 25 October reports emerged via Bloomberg that the US Treasury was planning to give the SEC jurisdiction over stablecoins. SEC chair Gary Gensler reportedly threw his political weight behind the decision, calling for wider powers to regulate the $130bn market.

The Treasury Department and other agencies will specify in a highly-anticipated report that the SEC has significant authority over tokens like Tether [USDT], said people familiar with the matter. The report will also urge Congress to pass legislation specifying coins should be regulated similarly to bank deposits. Language was added to emphasise the SECs powers after its chair Gary Gensler pushed for changes behind closed doors, the people said. Jesse Hamilton, Joe Light and Benjamin Bain, Bloomberg

This means the SEC and the CFTC are now locked in a power struggle over the nascent crypto space in the US. It’s a battle not just for future budget funding from Congress but for total relevance, in a revolution of the financial services industry that will impact the world for decades to come.

Stablecoins are digital assets pegged to a particular national currency like the dollar, the Korean won, or the pound sterling, and normally backed 1:1 by the underlying asset.

They are very widely used to buy and sell digital assets on cryptoexchanges without traders and investors having to revert to fiat currencies. Depending on the regulatory system in one country or another, banks can veto deposits from customer accounts into cryptoexchanges and generally make the whole process of investing far more difficult and frustrating than it needs to be.

Of the stablecoins, Tether in particular has drawn the strongest regulatory scrutiny. It is the fourth-largest cryptoasset by market cap at $70bn, and accounts for by far the most daily trading volume of any digital asset, with 24-hour volumes of more than $100bn. That’s three times larger than Bitcoin, and between 20 and 50 times more than popular top-10 assets Polkadot and Cardano.

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Tether used to claim that all of its tokens were backed 1:1 by US dollars held in cash reserves, but an April 2019 affidavit to investigators at the New York attorney general’s office, its general counsel Stuart Hoegner revealed that in fact only 74% of USDT were backed by cash and cash equivalents. As such, its size and growing influence makes market watchdogs rather nervous.

Neither regulator would appear to be particularly well set-up to oversee the stablecoin market. The SEC has oversight over securities, while the CFTC deals with commodities, futures and options. Stablecoins don’t fit into any of these camps. Yes, Bitcoin futures — the basis for the first crypto ETF in the United States — are regulated by the CFTC, but in truth, stablecoins are little more than a commercial bank liability, or to put it another way, a bank deposit that changes hands on a blockchain.

It would make much more sense for a banking regulator, perhaps the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) or the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) to oversee stablecoins. However, neither of these has the political sway nor the prominence of the SEC.

The Treasury’s decision is not a normal situation by any stretch of the imagination, and it’s a move that has surprised even ardent market analysts.

It’s very convenient for the Treasury to assert that the SEC has jurisdiction over these things, typically you’d look for that designation in law. Nic Carter, co-founder, Castle Island Ventures

CFTC acting chair Rostin Benham also testified in front of Congress, asserting that 60% of cryptocurrencies are commodities, pushing for the CFTC to have a broader mandate in regulating digital asset markets.

The hotly-awaited report by the President's Working Group on Financial Markets dropped on the mat on Monday 1 November and urged Congress to regulate stablecoin issuers like banks. Financial regulators should also assess whether stablecoins pose a systemic risk to the US and global economy, the report said.

What is likely to happen here, though, is another long delay on cryptocurrency legislation according to Reuters.

The report said Congress should also require stricter oversight of stablecoin wallet providers which hold the digital currency on behalf of customers. The conclusion is likely to disappoint advocates of stronger oversight, since it can take years for Congress to pass such laws. Pete Schroeder and Michelle Price, Reuters

Australia vows to become latest crypto-friendly nation

Australia is the 13th-largest economy on earth with a GDP of $1.33 trillion. It is also one of the top 10 in GDP per capita, behind Switzerland, Monaco, Qatar and Luxembourg. Any move it makes to become more crypto friendly is a huge deal. And so it was with some trepidation that markets watched the progress of the country’s securities regulator deciding whether investors could take part in the this new regime change.

Finally, after months of deliberation, on 29 October the Australian securities regulator (ASIC) issued clear and unambiguous guidelines as to how issuers could release crypto exchange traded products (ETPs) to the general public.

Cryptoassets must meet a threshold of five strict criteria to be a permissible asset to back an ETP, the ASIC said.

  • A high level of institutional support and acceptance
  • Reputable and experienced service providers to support the products
  • A mature spot market
  • Regulated futures markets for trading derivatives
  • Robust and transparent pricing mechanisms

Given this outline, both bitcoin (BTC) and ether (ETH) “appear likely to satisfy all five factors to determine appropriate underlying assets for an ETP” , the regulator said.

Just two weeks prior, the Senate Select Committee on Australia as a Financial and Technology Centre released its highly-anticipated Final Report, with recommendations on developing a nationwide regulatory framework to incorporate all cryptoassets. The committee started its investigation back in May 2021 and has drawn in participants from across the technology and finance sectors.

Among the 12 recommendations made to policymakers was a clear emphasis on regulatory clarity and certainty, noting that both would be of huge benefit to consumers and businesses.

On licencing: Australia should have a new form of markets licence for digital currency exchanges, custody and depository requirements, and a review of AML/CTF laws to ensure they are fit for purpose.

Exchanges currently must register with AUSTRAC, but today this process is extremely light touch compared to other jurisdictions. Of the 464 exchange providers to apply to the regulator since 2018, only 4 have been refused.

A special class should be created in law for digital currency exchanges “to ensure the regime is not business prohibitive” , the committee said.

On taxation: Crypto mining companies should receive a company tax discount of 10% if they source their own renewable energy for such activities, the committee said, adding that the Australian government should amend existing legislation as such. The Australian Tax Office does not consider cryptoassets to be a foreign currency for tax purposes, and that should change, especially where it impacts Capital Gains Tax (CGT).

Crypto-to crypto swaps and staking/loaning crypto should probably be exempt from CGT in the same way securities lending arrangements are not taxed other than for fees.

On DAOs: The committee put forth a new definition for Decentralised Autonomous Organisations (DAOs), the legal structure behind many cryptoasset projects, especially related to DeFi. If implemented, according to legal analysts:

This will result in a new dimension to corporate law where management and governance of a corporation is shared amongst its members through smart contract. This recommendation is a strong indication that Australia is serious about enabling the digital economy. Herbert Smith Freehills LLP, 25 October 2021

Markets

BTC/USD

Bitcoin set a fresh all-time high on 20 October on the back of a Bitcoin ETF debuting on the New York Stock Exchange; the structure of that futures-based ETF is under consideration now and the underlying cryptocurrency could not hold on to its $67,014.31 peak. In retrospect, despite the large swings in volatility across the fortnight — including an intraday capitulation to $56,404.37 — it was much ado about nothing, with Bitcoin creeping just 3.4% higher, from $61,830.83 to $63.936.62. The new ATH will give bullish market watchers much to discuss, but it is now far more important for Bitcoin to maintain momentum above $60,000.

BTC/USD graph
Data as of 2 November 2021 | Source: TradingView.com

ETH/USD

Ethereum careened to its own new all-time high, reaching the $4,500 milestone on 2 November 2021. The programmable money blockchain is showing no sign of slowing down as its fortunes decouple from its older cousin, and Ether added a total of 20.6% against the US dollar across the fortnight. At the moment, the blockchain is producing the kind of charts that can make bulls fall in love, ripping above its 50 day moving average and showing bullish momentum into new price discovery territory. The optimists content that $5,000 will be in sight in the not too distant future.

ETH/USD graph
Data as of 2 November 2021 | Source: TradingView.com

LTC/USD

Litecoin holders have enjoyed a rather cheerful October, pushing on through the mid-$100s and breaching the psychologically-important $200 barrier. There’s certainly less constancy to these trading sessions, as a little more volatility returned to the payments protocol’s march upwards. From a standing start at $184.60, Litecoin swung a total of 16.6% to its peak of $214.58. $172.19 was the lowest LTC went, but it swiftly rebounded back on course to the $200 mark, ending the fortnight 9.1% higher at $201.14.

LTC/USD graph
Data as of 2 November 2021 | Source: TradingView.com

BCH/USD

Bitcoin Cash didn’t really know where it was going as the two-week trading session wore on, pulled this way and that by bulls and bears with neither gaining much of an upper hand. BCH is at historically elevated levels in the $600 region, outpacing all of 2019 and 2020 by a considerable margin. But there appears little short-term appetite to have it approach the four-figure level that bulls crave. To its credit was a sharp 12.2% rebound from a low of $532.95. But as with Bitcoin, the volatility on show here mattered little by the end of the fortnight, as the payments blockchain slid a total of just 1.6% to finish at $597.99.

BCH/USD graph
Data as of 2 November 2021 | Source: TradingView.com

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