This week the PBOC decreed that its plebes may not invest or trade Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs). However when one engages in critical thought, it appears this ban has more bark than bite. Examining the way in which the ban was presented to the public, and the actions that were not taken, leads me to believe that this ban is for publicity only.
What Is Banned
ICOs are considered an illegal form of financing by the PBOC. Exchanges must stop supporting any trading of the tokens. Almost immediately most of the Chinese ICO trading platforms shut down. Over the past few days, many exchanges delisted any tokens from their platform. As you can imagine, without the cannon fodder of retail punters, token prices initially collapsed.
Projects that raised money from Chinese nationals must refund them their Bitcoin or Ether. Since in practice, this is impossible to accomplish, the PBOC now has a nice excuse to shut down any exchange it wishes for violating the law.
Token exchange owners must take their butt finessing with a smile on their face. They must bend over again when asked, or the PBOC will find them in violation of a law that is impossible to abide by.
Similar to the large exchanges that deal with RMB to Bitcoin or Ether trading, the PBOC now has token trading platforms firmly under their control. That is the primary reason for these new regulations.
What Is Not Banned
The PBOC might have banned the issuance and trading of ICOs in China; however, they did not outlaw the way in which ICOs are funded. The revolutionary aspect of ICOs is that the money raised is in the form of a non-governmentally aligned currency. Usually that is Bitcoin or Ether.
If Chinese punters can still convert RMB into Bitcoin or Ether legally, and withdraw their digital currency from the exchange, they can still subscribe for any ICO they wish. Once the trader’s assets are purely in the crypto space, it is very difficult for the PBOC to control where that money goes.
The PBOC isn’t stupid. They are very informed on how money flows into and out of ICOs. Therefore, this was a deliberate omission from the new ICO regulations. What the PBOC did is construct a beautiful piece of PR.
The PBOC demonstrated that it cares about the wellbeing of retail investors. The PBOC has prevented investors from losing money in this risky and volatile new asset class. If the PBOC really cared about the financial health of China it would stop propping up the property market by continuing to allow banks to issue credit. But that will never happen, so another industry was targeted to prove their good intentions.
By allowing the big three exchanges to continue business as usual, the PBOC is allowing the ICO market to limp along in China. The high priests recognise that a vibrant ICO market in China is valuable. It helps promote entrepreneurs to create the next wave of useful technological applications that could propel China forward.
The National Congress
The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party begins in October. Every aspect of life in China is affected by this pow-wow. Xi Jinping must present a country that is chugging along towards greatness. No outward crack in the veneer of harmony and prosperity is allowed.
The once vibrant ICO industry in China was a liability. The amounts of money raised grew and grew, and the risk of a high profile project absconding with hundreds of millions of dollars could not be ignored. The last thing Beijing needs before the all-important National Congress is a horde of destitute punters protesting about losing their money in one or more shitcoins.
One day after the ban, CCTV ran a piece about the cessation of ICO trading in China. They claimed that 60 ICOs raised 2.616bn CNY, across 47 platforms, involving 105,000 investors. The highly coordinated nature of the announcement and than a prime time television piece about the new regulations is good theatre. Insecure governments will create good theatre in advance of important jamborees. The plebes must feel the love.
The Future, BTFD!
The crypto market does not respect the PBOC like it once did. Bitcoin and Ether declined 15% and 20% respectively immediately following the ban. However, both have almost paired Monday’s losses. To many traders, this ban presented a perfect opportunity to increase their exposure to the asset class.
While the PBOC banned ICOs, it did not address the root cause of why Chinese investors are desperate to hand their savings to teams with slick websites. The property market is still too expensive for most traders, and after the 2015 carnage, many traders avoid the A-share market. The PBOC continues to allow domestic banks to expand the money supply through aggressive lending. This unabashed money printing creates a fear amongst comrades of a massive upcoming devaluation of the RMB. Any asset or scheme that can generate inflation beating returns excites desperate Chinese savers.
After experiencing a modicum of freedom over the investment of their savings, Chinese investors will chafe under these new regulations. The forbidden fruit tastes sweeter. By banning ICOs, the PBOC just created the industry’s best marketing tool.
The ICO asset class is still very niche. But now that CCTV is educating everyone in China about what they are. More people will attempt to purchase this taboo asset. Far from negative, this is one of the best things that could happen to any alternative asset.
ICO fundraising in China will move underground. After the National Congress, the restrictions on ICO fundraising will loosen. Remember the “crackdown” on the big three exchanges earlier this year. After a few months, the PBOC relented and allowed trading and withdrawals to function normally again.
Savvy offshore trading platforms will profit from the gap in the market caused by the closure of the leading onshore Chinese trading platforms. While overt fundraising through WeChat and QQ groups will cease for now, motivated ICO promoters will create innovative ways to access the insatiable demand for alternative savings products from Chinese investors.