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Editorial:Tighten regulations on cryptocurrencies before it is too late

【明報專訊】The prices of cryptocurrencies have gone on rollercoaster rides, and different governments have announced tighter regulations on them. The Hong Kong government has also started to draft legislation to regulate the virtual asset markets. Among the cryptocurrencies introduced more than a decade ago, bitcoin is the most widely known. Its supporters believe that cryptocurrencies can increase the efficiency of transactions and be used as an important payment and settlement tool in the new era. However, there is growing scepticism about them, as some argue that cryptocurrencies like bitcoin do not have any intrinsic value, and are, at best, a substitute for gold. They contend that their highly volatile prices show that they are nothing more than a highly risky speculative instrument at the current stage.

The emergence of cryptocurrencies was closely related to the economic crisis in 2008. The European Central Bank (ECB) and the Federal Reserve adopted quantitative easing (QE) policies in response to the crisis, which were in essence a form of money printing. Bitcoin was launched the next year and became the world's first "decentralised" cryptocurrency with blockchain technology. Unregulated by centralised institutions, its issuance is limited. During the outbreak of the pandemic last year, Europe and the US adopted QE and printed money more ferociously, which caused an overflow of hot money in pursuit of high returns. Thus, the prices of cryptocurrencies surged even more rapidly.

Over the past month, the price of bitcoin plunged by more than 50% at one point, inflicting hefty losses on many investors. The People's Bank of China ordered that mainland financial and payment institutions must not accept cryptocurrencies as a payment and settlement tool. The US Treasury Department also announced that it would require transactions of cryptocurrencies worth US$10,000 or above to be reported to the Internal Revenue Service. Early this year, the Hong Kong government launched a public consultation exercise on the regulations of virtual asset trading platforms, with the major direction being the introduction of a licensing regime.

Cryptocurrencies make transactions on digital platforms easy. Free from geographical restrictions, they can enhance the efficiency of transactions. The anonymous and untraceable nature of private cryptocurrencies, however, can be a double-edged sword. Supporters argue that there have been many misunderstandings and negativities concerning cryptocurrencies, and those who criticise them have failed to identify their potential and value. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that cryptocurrencies can be a very convenient money laundering tool for a handful of unscrupulous people.

The wild swings in the prices of bitcoin and Dogecoin in recent months were attributable to not only legislation proposed in numerous countries but apparently also the U-turns of some super-rich people. Tesla, a US electric vehicle maker, bought a large number of bitcoins earlier. Its CEO Elon Musk announced that customers could buy cars with bitcoins, but soon he backtracked on the promise. Renowned American economist Nouriel Roubini pointed out bluntly that some of Musk's tweets were tantamount to market manipulation attempts.

A report from the ECB warns that bitcoin may be the biggest economic bubble of this century. Roubini and Nobel laureate in economics Paul Krugman have even questioned whether the current situation of cryptocurrency speculation amounts to a "Ponzi scheme". As investment products, cryptocurrencies are extremely risky and not suitable for retail investors. The Hong Kong government intends to establish a licensing regime for virtual asset service providers. The licensed exchanges can only provide services for professional investors with eight million dollars in liquid assets. This will in effect prevent retail investors from investing. The authorities must be prudent when drafting the relevant regulations rather than rush things through.

明報社評 2021.05.27:加密貨幣監管從嚴 莫待出事才來後悔

加密貨幣價值暴升暴跌,多國宣布加強規管,港府亦着手草擬法例,監管虛擬資產市場。加密貨幣面世10多年,比特幣最廣為人知,支持者認為,加密貨幣可以提升交易效率、成為新時代重要支付結算工具,然而亦有愈來愈多聲音質疑,比特幣等加密貨幣本身並無內在價值,充其量只是類近黃金的替代品,價格大幅波動反映它們現階段不過是高風險投機工具。

加密貨幣出現,跟2008年金融海嘯息息相關。歐美央行量化寬鬆應付金融危機,變相狂印銀紙。翌年比特幣上線,借助區塊鏈技術,成為全球首款「去中心化」的加密貨幣,毋須中央機構管理,發行量有限度。去年疫情爆發,歐美量寬印鈔變本加厲,熱錢氾濫追逐高回報,加密貨幣漲勢更急。

過去一個月,比特幣價格一度暴挫逾半,不少投資者損失慘重。人民銀行下令內地金融及支付機構,不得接受加密貨幣作為支付結算工具;美國財政部則宣布,但凡涉及過萬美元的加密貨幣交易,均須向美國國稅局報備。今年初,港府就規管虛擬資產交易平台等問題公開諮詢,大方向是引入發牌制度。

加密貨幣方便數碼平台交易,沒有區域限制,有助提升交易效率,不過民間加密貨幣的匿名及不可追蹤特性,既是優勢,亦是缺點。提倡者認為,外界對加密貨幣有很多誤解和負面形象,看不到其發展潛力和價值,然而必須承認的是,加密貨幣對小撮不法之徒而言,確是非常便利的洗錢工具。

近月比特幣、狗狗幣等價格大起大跌,除因多國提出規管,明顯亦與超級富豪言論朝三暮四有關。美國電動車生產商特斯拉早前大手購入比特幣,行政總裁馬斯克宣布顧客可以比特幣購車,未幾又反口;美國著名經濟學家魯比尼直指馬斯克一些推文,形同市場操縱行為。

歐洲央行一份報告警告,比特幣可能成為本世紀最大泡沫,魯比尼和諾貝爾經濟學獎得主克魯曼甚至質疑,現時加密貨幣炒作情况,儼如「龐茲騙局」。加密貨幣作為一項投資產品,風險極高,絕不適合散戶。港府打算建立虛擬資產服務提供者發牌制度,持牌交易所只可向擁有800萬元流動資產的專業投資者提供服務,變相阻止一般散戶沾手。當局草擬相關監管法例,必須審慎為先,好過急於求成。

■Glossary 生字

scepticism : an attitude of doubting that claims or statements are true or that sth will happen

emergence : the fact of beginning to be known or noticed

inflict : to make sb/sth suffer sth unpleasant

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