Editor’s note: This piece was contributed by David Green, a Taipei-based writer and journalist covering the future of work in Asia.
In the words of Ben Delo, co-Founder and COO of Bitcoin derivatives exchange BitMEX, “You know if a startup is making money or has funding when it has Herman Miller chairs.” I recently sat down in said brand of chair at BitMEX’s Hong Kong office to discuss the issues facing Hong Kong’s attempts to become a regional fintech hub, China’s attempts to control its money supply, and how cryptocurrency could change the face of global finance.
Formed in 2014 with fellow Co-Founder and CEO Arthur Hayes following his departure from Citibank in Hong Kong, along with the third original member of the team, CTO Samuel Reed, BitMEX is now handling an average of $74 million per day in the total value of products traded. The platform, which was initially incubated by Chinaccelerator, has so far avoided being hacked or accused of dodging accountability to its customers and offers anyone with access to a bitcoin wallet the ability to trade Bitcoin against a wide variety of fiat and cryptocurrencies.
China has recently started to regulate in the cryptocurrency space, with exchanges hosted in China having their accounts frozen and the government requiring real-name registration, to bring them into line with mainstream financial institutions. Has that affected your operations at all?
Arthur Hayes: We are bitcoin only so we don’t take government issue fiat currency, so if a banking system gets shutdown it doesn’t really affect us because people can still move bitcoin in and out of the platform because it’s purely a tech protocol. If anything, China shutting down the exchanges helped increase our volume because if you want leverage trading, to predict the future price of bitcoin, you probably can’t do it anymore in China.
Ben Delo: I think the regulatory actions in China are not so much about bitcoin as they are about currency controls. They let you send RMB in and buy and sell bitcoin, you just can’t withdraw that bitcoin, you can’t take it out of China – it’s wanting to avoid the appearance of capital leaving the country by that mechanism – it does leave by other methods…
Do you think banks are shooting themselves in the foot by being so tardy in the fintech space?
BD: Ultimately, fintech is disruptive and if they’re not going to be disrupters themselves then they will be disrupted. It starts with payments, MoneyGram and Western Union, then will become regular banking, saving and insurance products. The competition will offer a better product at a lower price, probably with a snazzy app, and the banks will be left as the dinosaurs that they are. Of course, they will be embedded in the world economy but they will lose out on the retail side.
Can HK replicate the role as a bridge between East and West in fintech that it traditionally played in other markets?
BD: The only role HK plays as a bridge between the rest of the world and China in fintech is that you can land in HK and get a bus to Shenzhen. There are more fintech startups in Shenzhen than there are in Silicon Valley, and they’ve got bank accounts – no, they don’t need bank accounts – they’ve got Alipay. They’ve got another fintech app giving them the services we can’t get in Hong Kong.
What are your thoughts on how fast fintech is moving in China?
AH: I think it’s great. That people can go from no phone to a smartphone that’s cheaper than anywhere else in the world. They have in WeChat an app that gives them all the bank services they’ll ever need and they don’t ever have to step into a branch. Generally, wherever you are in the world, stepping into a bank is a hell of an experience, it’s cumbersome because they have no incentive to improve it. When you have a gaming company, turned instant messenger, turned one of the largest banks in China through an app, that’s super powerful. China is a beacon for that, you can see how Facebook is essentially copying WeChat, and you will see the same thing happening outside of China now, where Facebook Messenger or another app will be your bank. It’ll give you credit, send money to your friends, allow you to go to the store and buy products. You’ll never set foot in a JPMorgan Chase or a Citibank.
Hong Kong’s Financial Services Development Council recently urged the government to set up a fintech office and focus development on five key areas. What role if any should government play in fostering a finger ecosystem, and where do you think the greatest opportunity lies for fintech in HK?
AH: The only reason HK is valuable is that it has English common law and that it’s next door to China. If I am going to start a fintech startup in any of these verticals, the regulatory landscape in China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, the regulatory landscape is going to be diametrically opposed to what it is in HK. So how can you as a startup launch a pan-Asia regtech business when every single country has different regulations. If you’re trying to ingratiate yourself into the system of a country, you can’t sit in Hong Kong and twiddle your thumbs with regtech and figure out the Thai regulatory system without actually being in Thailand. I think it’s just a bunch of empty words.
BD: I’m always suspicious of governments urging startups to be innovative in a particular area. They are not creative, they are not innovators. Startups, companies, should be innovative and they should flourish in the right environment but if a startup in HK can’t even get a bank account, then that’s something they should be fixing, not telling them where to innovate.
Having been here a few days it seems from the conversations I have had that there is a genuine worry about Hong Kong’s role as a financial hub, as well as over jobs as financial services are automated. Is that a vibe you are aware of?
AH: That’s not just HK, it’s global. If you look at trading floors in the 90s and early 2000s, compared with now, those football-field-size spaces are 10% full.
BD: I used to work in an algorithmic hedge fund so no humans did any trading, we were all writing algorithms that were making decisions based on data, without emotion, decisions that you could back-test and simulate with historical data. But HK is an international financial center, it has the banks, the education. For BitMEX, we like being in HK because we can hire staff with the skills we require. We like the environment, it’s dynamic and has people who understand tech and finance. HK will always have a role just maybe not this world leading finance center that it once claimed to be – which was only as a gateway to the mainland.
Looking around the region, where do you see there the most opportunity for fintech startups? Christian König, a fintech consultant and mentor, mentioned in a recent interview that he’s not terribly bullish on e-commerce in Vietnam because most of the population is unbanked, but there could be demand for a micro-PayPal service, for example.
AH: Usually there’s a reason a bank doesn’t offer a product – because the regulatory burden makes it extremely expensive for them to onboard that client and offer them that particular product. It may well be that no one has insurance in Vietnam, but why don’t they? Signing up this customer and filling out reams of regulations to sell a product costs, say, $1000, so can the customer afford that? No. A startup might not fully understand the regulations and go around offering the product and then the banks will say, “Hey government, they are not following section 5A of this regulation – shut-em-down. Not everyone’s Uber…”
BD: In some parts of Africa you’ve got some people using phone credit as a form of money. Tech like Bitcoin could provide the world with banking facilities without the need to actually setup infrastructure. At the moment you can’t do that because Bitcoin is a volatile, speculative currency. But once people build the next generation of cryptocurrency wallets, they will start offering something like a bitcoin-backed US dollar, that is worth a US dollar, and be transacted on a blockchain. Once you’ve got that you can start offering banking to the unbanked just on an app – then you can start offering products – peer to peer finance, insurance, investment products – that’s something we’re looking at. But it’s all about bypassing the local regulations – there’s a reason they’re unbanked – it can’t be done by the local rules.
How quickly can that transition happen?
AH: It can happen pretty quickly. Look at Kenya [where Safaricom launched the M-PESA form of mobile money in 2007]. The dominant mobile phone company launched their own form of payment so people could pay their phone bill and that became a currency and leapfrogged all the banks. The hope is that with cryptocurrencies that process is accelerating, and a lot of startups are trying to create utility out of whatever currency they think is the future and make it user-friendly. It will happen quickly because there is a lot of money and a lot of smart people looking at that problem. But there’s still an ingrained, cultural trust in major banks that will take time to overcome. Plus you have to overcome the analog behavior of our lives.
The People’s Bank of China is considering issuing digital RMB and has completed trials with a blockchain-backed form of currency. What is digital RMB and why is China’s central bank experimenting with it?
BD: They want to get rid of cash. The want to control it. Already people are using Alipay and WeChat pay to handle day-to-day transactions. They want to take it a step further. By introducing electronic RMB it may have certain blockchain elements but ultimately it will all be controlled by the government. They want to track every movement of every bit of cash – that’s what they want, that the value proposition will be so great and more convenient than people buying apartments with suitcases full of cash. It will give them a lot more control – the central bank will be able to wrestle control back from the other banks and regain control of capital.
AH: The China government’s control is tenuous at best, especially in lower tier cities. The banks don’t necessarily want to follow Beijing’s plans, which is why you have such a problem with lending. The government sets a quota and the banks find all sorts of ways to lend money outside the quota. They’ve even invented new statistics to represent how much money they’re lending – total social financing. If the currency is completely controlled by the PBOC, they know where all the money is, and if a bank lends too much, they can just shut them down. They will have control of the banks and who they lend to.