The crypto-asset bull run continued, with Bitcoin hitting a new all-time high ($61,557) before settling back to close the month at $59,483 (+28%). The main drivers were moves by Visa and PayPal to bring crypto to the people, and continuing interest in decentralized finance (DeFi) reflected in the strong performance altcoins (market capitalization up +50%) although the Financial Action Task Force appears to be taking aim at DeFi applications. On the central bank digital currency front, the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank launched a 12-month pilot, and the Bank of Jamaica will launch an 8-month one in May.
Crypto-Asset Markets (see also the Annex in the PDF version)
Crypto-asset market capitalization increased by about 37% from February 28 to $1,972 billion with the price of Bitcoin finishing up 28% ($59,483) after hitting an all-time high of $61,557 (Figure 1). Altcoin markets led the way with capitalization up 50%. Providing overall impetus were moves by Visa and PayPal to bring crypto to the “people”.
Visa will allow the use of USD Coin stablecoins to settle transactions on its payment network. Visa piloted the program with payment/crypto platform Crypto.com and plans to offer the option to more partners later this year. It used the Ethereum blockchain and strips out the need to convert digital coin into traditional money for settlement. Crypto.com sent USDC to Visa’s Anchorage Ethereum address.
PayPal launched Checkout with Crypto that will allow U.S. PayPal Bitcoin, Litecoin, Ethereum or Bitcoin Cash holders to check out with crypto seamlessly within PayPal at millions of global online businesses. Customers pay no transaction fees, but a spread will be built into the conversion from crypto to USD. There are no additional integrations or fees required by the business. All transactions are settled in USD and converted to the applicable currency for the business at the standard PayPal conversion rates.
One of the hottest crypto-assets in March was Terra (LUNA) finishing at about $18.81 (+252% over the month) likely due to the launch of Anchor, a savings protocol on the Terra blockchain. Anchor offers a principal-protected stablecoin savings product that accepts TerraUSD deposits and pays a stable interest rate. According to its white paper, Terra combines the price stability and wide adoption of fiat currencies with Bitcoin’s censorship-resistance to offer fast and affordable settlements. This article presents an overview of the Terra ecosystem and where it’s heading.
Stablecoin market capitalizations continue to increase (see Annex). Almost all are USD-pegged, and Tether’s USDT remains dominant ($40.5 billion), followed by USDC ($10.8 billion), BUSD ($3.5 billion), DAI ($3.0 billion) and UST ($1.6 billion). Tether released an attestation dated February 28, 2021 and delivered by accounting firm Moore Cayman that shows that its stablecoins are fully backed, to assuage rumors that it was not. However, the report doesn’t describe how Tether’s reserves are held.
The Bank of Thailand (BOT) issued a warning against baht-denominated stablecoin Thai Baht Digital (THT), citing a sixty-year-old law, that makes the “creation, issuance, usage or circulation of any material or token for money is a violation of Section 9 of the Currency Act 1958.” The BOT will is also planning to introduce stablecoin regulations as soon as this year. They will only cover stablecoins, and not crypto-assets. However, the purview of the framework will not only include Thai baht-backed stablecoins, but also all digital currencies backed by foreign currencies and other assets.
Crypto-related regulatory developments
The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is going after decentralized finance (DeFi) applications in its recent draft guidance. The FATF said its standards may not apply to the DeFi platform underlying software or technology, but entities involved with the decentralized application (DApp) such as owners or operators that may now be considered virtual asset service providers (VASPs). Virtual asset (VA) escrow services, including services involving smart contract technology, brokerage services, order-book exchange services, advanced trading services, and custody providers will all considered VASPs.
The upper chamber of Wyoming’s legislature reportedly passed a bill that, if approved, would clear the way for decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) to become incorporated under state law. The legislation would make it easier and cheaper to set up a DAO and give legitimacy to many crypto-asset projects. DAOs are entities that operate through smart contracts, with financial transactions and rules encoded on a blockchain, effectively removing the need for a central governing authority.
Other digital asset market developments (see also Table 1)
U.S. crypto-asset fund managers are applying with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to launch crypto-asset exchange-traded funds (ETFs). The SEC has until April 29 to deliver an initial decision on the VanEck Bitcoin ETF filing (45 days after the March 15 submission’s official publication on the SEC website on March 15). The Chicago Board Options Exchange filed with the SEC to list the Bitcoin ETF that Van Eck filed for SEC approval in January. Fidelity Investments has filed to list a new Bitcoin ETF. The Wise Origin Bitcoin Trust aims to track Bitcoin’s daily performance using the Fidelity Bitcoin Index PR, an index that is derived from several price feeds. Also, Grayscale Investments has posted at least nine ETF related positions to LinkedIn.
Meanwhile, the CI Galaxy Bitcoin ETF launched on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSE). The new ETF will join the Purpose Bitcoin and Evolve Bitcoin ETFs, both of which launched in February. And less than two months after launching its Bitcoin trust, Canada’s Ninepoint Partners is planning to change its offering to an ETF on the TSE. Deutsche Borse’s electronic trading platform, Xetra launched its first Ethereum-based exchange-traded products (ETPs). The products are physically backed and listed on the Regulated Market of the Frankfurt Stock Exchange and cleared by Deutsche Börse Group’s Eurex Clearing.
Valkyrie Digital Assets filed with the U.S. SEC for a new ETF that would invest in companies that hold bitcoin on their balance sheets. And JPMorgan has filed a request with the U.S. SEC to approve a debt instrument linked to 11 firms that have all invested in Bitcoin and other crypto-assets. The debt instrument will enable investors to have direct exposure to a basket of cryptocurrency-focused firms.
Retail Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) developments (see also Table 2 in the PDF version)
The Eastern Caribbean Central Bank launched its DCash CBDC pilot on March 31. Consumers can sign up to use DCash through participating financial institutions and authorized DCash agents. The 12-month pilot will roll out initially in four countries; Saint Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, and Saint Lucia.
The city of Chengdu launched China’s largest digital currency trial to date, following those already completed in Beijing, Suzhou and Shenzhen. Prior to Chengdu, there had been six trials of the “Digital Currency, Electronic Payment” (DCEP) project in China, with a total distribution of 120 million digital yuan. Chengdu’s trial, which will conclude March 19, is for an additional 40 million digital yuan.
The Bank of Jamaica will be piloting a retail CBDC from May to end December 2021, using eCurrency Mint’s centralized ledger technology platform. Issuance and distribution will be fully integrated with the Bank of Jamaica’s JamClear Real Time Gross Settlement System. It will be issued to deposit-taking institutions and authorized payment providers in the same manner that it issues cash. The Bank of Jamaica Act is to be amended, giving the central bank the sole authority to issue digital currency.
The Bank of Japan will start experimenting with retail CBDC, by first testing the technical feasibility of the core functions and features required for CBDC through proof of concepts (PoC). It has established a “Liaison and Coordination Committee on Central Bank Digital Currency” through which it will share details of and provide updates on the PoC with the private sector and the government and will seek consultation on future steps to facilitate smooth PoC implementation.
The Bank of Thailand provided a preliminary assessment of its exploration of the use of a CBDC and distributed ledger technology (DLT) for business-to-business invoice payments. The tests demonstrated that DLT can increase payment efficiency for businesses by allowing users to set various conditions on the CBDC (programmable money) to enhance flexibility in handling business activities. However, they encountered some limitations with their DLT set up, particularly in supporting large transaction volumes and preserving transaction privacy, but explorations will continue.
International Monetary Fund (IMF) staff concluded that the issuance of the sovereign digital currency (SDC) SOV by the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) as a second legal tender would raise risks to macroeconomic and financial stability as well as financial integrity. Also, SOV issuance could jeopardize the RMI’s last US dollar corresponding banking relationship. This combined with anti-money laundering and combatting the financing of terrorism risks could disrupt external aid and other important financial flows, resulting in significant economic drag.
Ripple is piloting a private version of the public, open-source XRP Ledger to provide central banks with a secure, controlled, and flexible platform for issuing and managing digital currencies. Moving money on the CBDC Private Ledger will reportedly be cost-effective, reliable, and close to instantaneous. It will initially handle tens of thousands of transactions per second but can scale to hundreds of thousands.
Wholesale CBDC developments (see also Table 2 in the PDF version)
A Bank for International Settlements (BIS) paper explored how interoperating multi-central bank digital currency (mCBDC) arrangements could reduce cross-border payment inefficiencies. This could be especially relevant for emerging market economies poorly served by the existing correspondent banking arrangements. Yet competing priorities and history show that these benefits will be difficult to achieve unless central banks incorporate cross-border considerations in their CBDC development from the start and coordinate internationally to avoid the mistakes of the past.
General Fintech Developments (see also Table 3 in the PDF version)
State Street launched a peer-to-peer repo program for the buy-side that they say enables competitive financing costs across a broader range of collateral types and yield enhancement opportunities compared to traditional repo markets. State Street guarantees the payment obligations of cash borrowers to cash lenders within the program following a default, thus facilitating bilateral trading by counterparties with varying credit and capital strength. Program participants trade with one another pursuant to a common master repurchase agreement, negotiating trade terms with approved counterparties within the program’s broader requirements guidelines.
Banco Central do Brasil cleared the way for Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service to let its users send each other funds using the Visa and Mastercard card networks, months after vetoing WhatsApp’s initial attempt. However, WhatsApp is only allowed to do peer-to-peer payments, not involving merchants, unlike the free Pix service, which can be used to pay businesses and individuals. Facebook is still seeking approval to operate with merchants.
The Bank of Thailand (BOT) and the State Bank of Vietnam (SBV) have deployed a retail payment connectivity system that makes use of an interoperable QR Code in order to simplify cross-border payments between the two countries.
SPAC issuance surpassed last year’s fundraising record just halfway through March. At that point SPACs had raised $79.4 billion globally since the start of the year (versus $79.3 billion over all of 2020), and 264 new SPACs have been launched (versus 256 over all of 2020). SPACs are listed shell companies that raise funds to acquire a private company with the purpose of taking it public, allowing targets to sidestep a traditional initial public offering. The U.S. SEC reportedly opened an inquiry into SPACs, asking banks to provide the information on deal fees, volumes, and what controls banks have in place to police the deals internally. Also, the U.K. Financial Conduct Authority will be consulting on amendments to its Listing Rules and related guidance to strengthen protections for SPAC investors.
Miscellaneous commentary and research (see also Table 4 in the PDF version)
The GSMA annual State of the Industry Report on Mobile Money revealed a dramatic acceleration in mobile transactions attributed to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions limiting access to cash and financial institutions. The number of registered accounts grew by 13% globally in 2020 to more than 1.2 billion. The fastest growth was in markets where governments provided significant pandemic relief to their citizens, value of government-to-person payments quadrupling during the pandemic.