A representation of virtual currency Bitcoin is seen in front of a stock graph. Picture: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC
A representation of virtual currency Bitcoin is seen in front of a stock graph. Picture: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC

SA is moving with more urgency to stiffen oversight of cryptocurrency assets after a proliferation of scams.

A new regulatory timeline foresees finalising a framework in three to six months, after the publication of proposals earlier in June that requires public comment before approval, according to Kuben Naidoo, CEO of SA’s banking regulator known as the Prudential Authority.

“We are trying to put in place the regulatory framework quickly,” said Naidoo, who’s also a deputy governor of the SA Reserve Bank. “Our view is that crypto is a financial product and should be regulated as a financial product.”

The approach that’s taking shape means tougher rules could be imminent this year after a jolt of scandals that most recently included a suspected Ponzi scheme, which resulted in the disappearance of an estimated $3.6bn in bitcoin.

“Now we are defining this as a financial product and if there are scams where the public is being duped, given incorrect or false information, it is certainly a market conduct issue that should be taken seriously,” Naidoo said.

SA cryptocurrency service providers have been operating unchecked by regulatory powers even as the popularity of the asset class has taken off. In 2020, the collapse of Johannesburg-based Mirror Trading International was called the biggest crypto-related scam of 2020 by blockchain data platform Chainalysis.

“We are of the view that cryptocurrencies are risky and we want to ensure that the financial sector is aware of those risks and pricing for those risks properly,” Naidoo said.

SA is tightening the screws on the industry as digital currencies move from the periphery of the finance world to the mainstream and face deeper scrutiny worldwide.

In one of the most significant moves to date by a regulator amid a global crackdown, Binance Markets was banned on Sunday by the UK financial watchdog from doing any regulated business in the country. Huobi, one of the most popular cryptocurrency platforms in China, said on Monday that users in the country were prohibited from trading derivatives.

Under global regulators’ plans to ward off threats to financial stability from the volatile market, banks will face the toughest capital requirements for holdings in bitcoin. Earlier in June, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision proposed that a 1,250% risk weight be applied to a bank’s exposure to bitcoin and certain other cryptocurrencies.

Regulators in SA will first move to establish know-your-customer rules for crypto exchanges and create systems for the surveillance of the asset class to prevent money being laundered out of the country, Naidoo said. Thereafter, investor-protection guidelines and rules for managing capital risk in the banking sector should come into effect.

Firms offering services related to digital currencies in SA have been eager for better rules to take shape and drive up trust in the asset class.

“Any incidents of fraud draw attention to the importance of regulation and we hope that the clear guidelines in SA — and globally — could lead to wider adoption by enhancing stability and trust in the market,” said Marius Reitz, GM in Africa for Luno.

“Regulations will also raise standards and barriers to entry and weed out bad actors or service providers with a low regard and capability to safeguard customer information and money,” Reitz said.

Bloomberg. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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