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Hong Kong new rules for cryptocurrency funds

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Hong Kong’s securities watchdog unveiled new rules for cryptocurrency funds and said it may regulate digital-asset exchanges, joining a global push to improve supervision of an industry whose rapid expansion has attracted everyone from mom-and-pop investors to Wall Street banks.

Fund managers that invest more than 10 percent of their portfolio in crypto assets will need to be licensed, the Securities and Futures Commission said in a statement Thursday. Trading platforms that serve only professional investors can opt to move into a so-called sandbox, where they will be free to experiment subject to anti-money laundering and other rules.

Hong Kong joins a growing number of jurisdictions where authorities are trying to improve oversight of an industry whose most famous creation, Bitcoin, just turned 10 years old. The moves come as institutional investors begin to invest in the asset class, with some betting that virtual currencies and their underlying blockchain technology will find commercial uses, despite this year’s collapse in crypto prices.

“The market for virtual assets is still very young and trading rules may not be transparent and fair,” the SFC chief Ashley Alder told a Hong Kong fintech forum on Thursday, explaining the need for oversight. “Outages are not uncommon as is market manipulation and abuse. And there are also, I am afraid, outright scandals and frauds.”

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Hong Kong has seen a spurt in crypto use in recent years as some of the world’s largest exchanges — including Binance, OKEx and BitMEX — based staff in the former British colony.

Law firms and consultancies developed sidelines advising the sector and there has long been an expectation that local authorities would craft a formal framework. Crypto exchanges that join the sandbox will be monitored to see how they handle risks and ensure compliance. The firms may be able to apply for a license if the trial is successful, the SFC said.

Karen Chen, former president of UBS (China) Ltd., and now chief executive officer at crypto exchange operator Coinsuper Fintech (HK) Co. Ltd., said her firm would consider joining the sandbox and that a governance framework would better protect investors and promote new technology.

However, the rules may be strict enough to deter others. Firms won’t be allowed to offer users any financial incentives, or trade futures and derivatives contracts. The SFC also asked exchanges to comply with rules for fair treatment of clients and make efforts to stamp out market manipulation.

The norms are similar to existing regulations covering automated trading or dark pools, SFC’s Alder said.

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The SFC’s move is good news for the Hong Kong crypto industry though this will not be a light touch regime, said Urszula McCormack, Hong Kong-based partner at King & Wood Mallesons, a law firm that has advised on initial coin offerings and blockchain projects.

“Realistically there are two possible ways forward — regulate or ban — and it’s a smart move that Hong Kong has chosen to regulate,” she said.

Oliver Smith

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