Hong Kong, rule of law and the free market

In general, Hong Kong has a reputation as a reliable and predictable non-interventionist regulator. Most rules are clearly laid out and easy to comprehend and follow for people with little legal training (like me).

Rules rarely contradict each other and while government agencies do not closely coordinate with each other or share common goals, there are few power plays and power grabs between different agencies and departments.

However, some license regimes are restrictive and tied to control over real estate, which makes them only accessible to an oligopolistic cartel of property developers. Other licenses are no longer given out and have to be bought from existing license holders.

The result of this means that while Rule of Law and Free Market Principles prevail in Hong Kong, markets are highly duopolized and uncompetitive.

While Bitcoin in general is not yet regulated other existing regulations might apply and the above mentioned realities shape Bitcoin markets and businesses in Hong Kong. It is important to understand the political and economical limitations and obscurities of Hong Kong to understand how Bitcoin fits in. Sadly this greatly exceeds the scope of this article.

Hong Kong Bitcoin Regulation

Bitcoin did not get onto the radar of the Hong Kong regulators until late 2013. Until then there was little Bitcoin activity in Hong Kong. Bitfinex was likely the first exchange to open bank accounts in Hong Kong and offering exchange and trading services largely to international customers in 2012.

ANX and Bitcashout followed in 2013, and Bitcoin prices continued to rally througout November 2013, reaching a high of US$1153.27 on European exchange Bitstamp on December 4, 2013.

The then Financial Secretary John Tsang 曾俊華 mentioned Bitcoin for the first time in a blog post on December 1, 2013 (referenced here). In this article Tsang gives a good summary of how Bitcoin works and warns about its volatile nature and the lack of support from a state or issuer. He warns of a bubble bursting and sees many opportunities for software developers.

On December 4, 2014 the issue was picked up by Hong Kong’s parliament, the Legislative Council.

Legislator Christopher Cheung 張華峰, representing the financial services asks: “Will the Government state its position on the Bitcoin clearly and openly, so that the industry can have something to go by?”

John Tsang ultimately defines Bitcoin as “a commodity generated in the cyber world” and “neither electronic money nor a stored value payment facility.”

This policy, likely developed in coordination with Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA), Securities and Futures Commission (SFC), Financial Treasuries Bureau (FTB), the Customs and Excise Department (C&ED) in consultation with their Mainland Chinese counterparts, has become the cornerstone of Hong Kong’s Bitcoin regulation and is unlikely to change.

The stance was repeated in a meeting of the Legislative Council on January 2014 (Press Release from January 8, 2013), adding “We have branded bitcoins as a highly speculative product and we call upon the public to be very careful.”

Bitcoin as a Virtual Commodity

Being defined as a virtual commodity rather than a currency, Bitcoin is per se not regulated by any of the financial regulatory bodies, such as the HKMA or the SFC.

Trading activities are controlled by the Customs and Excise Department, including commodities trading. Being a “free port” Hong Kong places little restriction on imports and exports and does not charge tariffs.

Some financial regulatory principles such as “Know Your Customer” may still apply to commotities trading. What this means precisely for Bitcoin trading remains unknown.

The only guidance available is a document from the Customs and Excise Department from January 30. In short, people dealing with Bitcoin might have a duty to:

  • obtain information on the customer and keeping it up to date

  • obtain information on the business relationship,

  • the source of wealth and source of funds

  • monitor the business relationship

  • make reports to the Financial Intelligence Unit about suspicious activity

While not carrying legal status, the Joint Financial Intelligence Unit (JFIU) references a 2014 report by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on cryptocurrencies. The document may be interesting as a reference point.

In March 2015 the Secretary for Financial Services & the Treasury, Prof KC Chan 陳家強 reiterated the government’s stance that Bitcoin regulation is “not needed”.

Taxation

Hong Kong’s tax regime remains simple and taxes are generally low. There is no Value Added Tax (VAT) or Capital Gains tax, making many of the taxation nightmares around Bitcoin known from other countries non-existent.

Income tax needs to be paid independent of whether payments are made in cash, cheque or Bitcoin and it is generally up to a business if they want to do their accounting in Hong Kong Dollars or Bitcoin.

The Right to Exchange HKD

Article 112 of the Basic Law states:

“No foreign exchange control policies shall be applied in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. The Hong Kong dollar shall be freely convertible. Markets for foreign exchange, gold, securities, futures and the like shall continue.

This relatively unusual constitutional provision makes it unlikely that we will ever see significant restrictions or even a “ban” on Bitcoin. The article however does not prevent the government from creating licensing regimes that favor monopolies and allow for significant rent seeking.

Bitcoin Exchanges, Forex and ATMS

As clarified by the Customs and Excise Department in January 2014, Bitcoin exchanges, forex booths or Bitcoin ATMs do not require a Money Service Operator License (MSO).

“Bitcoin is not “money” and does not fall within the regulatory regime administered by the C&ED”

The concern behind this is that Bitcoin exchanges might apply for MSO licenses and use them to create an illusion of legitimacy or government sanction.

However, there are strong concerns that do not require a MSO is interpreted as must not obtain a MSO. Regulated and licensed businesses have complained to us about being prevented from offering Bitcoin products, and Bitcoin ATMs have been removed from the premises of such businesses at the “suggestion” of the C&ED.

This puts police intimidation as the number one legal barrier to offering Bitcoin products. Note however that this only applies to companies under the C&ED licensing regime. Companies outside of that regime do not feel restricted or intimidated in offering Bitcoin products.

The HKMA and banks

The HKMA has no jurisdiction over Bitcoin. There is little information and no public documents that detail the HKMA’s position on Bitcoin outside of repeated warnings over its lack of state backing and volatile nature.

While it probably isn’t exactly a secret that the HKMA is highly skeptical and even dismissive of Bitcoin as a decentralized global currency, it’s guidence towards banks is publicly unknown.

It is likely that confidential notes, minutes and verbal instructions exist that limit the banks’ ability to engage with Bitcoin businesses.

In reality banks are highly hesitant to open accounts to financial services companies, and even more so cryptocurrency businesses. There are few reports of private banks accounts being shut down due to involvement with Bitcoin trading, but for company accounts this remains common.

Derivatives Products

While the trading of Bitcoins is currently is not specifically regulated, some trading products, particularly futures and derivates may still fall under the regulatory regime of the Securities and Futures Commission.

There is currently no precedent for this as no Hong Kong incorporated exchange offers such products.

Exchanges that do offer the product tend to reside in jurisdictions where these activities are not regulated. While these exchanges offer their products to customers in Hong Kong, it is unlikely the SFC will aggressively attempt to regulate overseas businesses.

Payment Processors

Currently there is no dedicated Bitcoin payment processor active in Hong Kong. While processors like Bitpay and Coinpayments are serving Hong Kong businesses, they aren’t exchanging Bitcoins into Hong Kong dollars for them. Hong Kong exchanges offer such services only on a limited on-demand basis.

While a payment processor’s services would be similar to that of an exchange or broker, it is possible the HKMA could attempt to claim jurisdiction over payment processors, for example as part of the Stored Value Facility (SVF) license.

Money Lending

Advertising money lending services requires a Money Lenders’ license issued by the Companies Registry. Whether Bitcoins are used or not is not relevant to the issuance of a license, and money lenders using Bitcoin have successfully obtained licenses.

Tokens

Securities law is incredibly complicated and Blockchain-based product are not excempt. Whether a cryptocurrency is a commodity or security, and whether a security is a legal security requires very careful examination.

Some tokens, especially those derived from “Token Creation Events” or “Initial Coin Offerings” are very likely securities, and their offering to unqualified investors in Hong Kong is illegal. It however currently seems unlikely that the SFC will go after securities not specifically offered or advertised to Hong Kong investors.

Future Outlook

Bitcoin will likely become more regulated as it becomes more popular. I expect concern over Bitcoin to remain with the C&ED, either through the creation of a “Virtual Currencies/Cryptocurrencies Dealer” license (VCD)” or the inclusion of provisions for cryptocurrencies into the MSO license.

Cryptocurrencies brokers, exchanges and ATM operators and anybody engaging in or facilitating the exchange of cryptocurrencies will have to apply with the C&ED and prove residency, physical locations, sufficient capitalization and a clean criminal record.

The SFC will clarify its rules towards derivatives and futures trading and enable its existing license holders to offer these products based on cryptocurrencies. Possibly ETFs and other funds will become possible and even listed.

I expect it to take a long time until the Hong Kong government reclassifies Bitcoin as a currency, which will allow the HKMA to clarify its rules, allow banks to offer Bitcoin-based investment products as well as allow SVF license holders to include Bitcoin into their products.

Notes

This post was written by Leonhard Weese, and for obvious reasons does not constitute legal advise. For corrections, suggestions and inquiries contact the author via @LeoAW or leo (at) bitcoinhk (dot) hk