New Articles

BUILDING TRUST IN THE CRYPTO MARKET

BUILDING TRUST IN THE CRYPTO MARKET

The cryptocurrency (‘crypto’) market is on the rise. Bitcoin, the main altcoin with a market share of over 60%, has seen its price increase from around $4,000 in April 2019 to over $10,000 in July 2019, despite the recent Congressional hearings on Facebook’s Libra.

In tandem with increasing prices, institutional investors are getting more involved in the market. Last year, we saw institutional investors surpass high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) for the first time in terms of purchasing cryptocurrencies. It’s fast becoming part of a diversified investment strategy. Whilst there is still a strong UK/US footprint, we’re seeing deals in Switzerland, Hong Kong and Canada.

The speed of professionalization in the cryptocurrency market has ramped up, with much of the recent growth driven by more efficient financial infrastructure. This is helping financial institutions to take a more considered look at crypto, and use it to revamp their portfolios. As of July 2019, the total market capitalization for these digital assets in circulation is just under $300bn. It’s likely that this will rise above $300bn in the near future, though longer-term prospects depend on how the industry adapts to upcoming regulatory framework, with the likes of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) looking to apply rules that will provide a stable platform to trade digital assets while reducing risk.

Trading volumes have been boosted by a sharp rise in over-the-counter (OTC) trading as crypto projects look for liquidity. In the so-called ‘Crypto Winter’ of 2018, crypto-centric OTC desks, including Genesis Trading and Circle (backed by Goldman Sachs) started reporting tremendous growth and this trend is continuing. According to research by Diar, over 25% of Bitcoin in circulation now sits in addresses that have a balance of between 1,000 and 10,000 BTC – volumes that point to financial institutions.

These institutional investors opt for OTC trading as opposed to spot exchanges for a number of reasons. Exchanges often have low liquidity in their order books which rules out large orders, OTC allows large orders without an unfavorable impact on the price, and exchanges limit the total number of Bitcoins that can be traded in one go – Coinbase, for example, has a daily trading limit of $25,000.

That said, there are a few complications that both buyer and seller could run into when they want to set up an OTC trade. There is often no guarantee that the asset (altcoin) will be delivered or cash paid. Most OTC brokers don’t provide an appropriate custody solution, which increases this settlement risk. It’s also worth noting that current OTC trading doesn’t include suitable Know Your Customer (KYC) procedures as it lacks the monitoring and surveillance tools of traditional trading systems.

A Safer Trade

However, there is a different avenue that institutional investors can explore. OTC trading via escrow can effectively tackle these risks and issues. This more robust approach benefits both sides of the trade as the escrow agent will follow everything to the letter. The seller benefits from dealing with a party that has funds to make the purchase, whilst the buyer can be confident a trusted independent party won’t release funds until the altcoins have been received. Crucially, by trading via escrow there is no need for participants to seek out an additional custody solution – it’s already in hand – and the escrow agent will perform KYC as part of the service provided.

If you go down this route, it’s important to select a global partner to avoid any multi-jurisdictional issues cropping up. The right partner will always start with a rigorous KYC process. Once both parties have been positively identified and no red flags are raised, they will move to exchange the cryptocurrency and the cash.  In most cases, it is best to first run a simulated deal with a small exchange of cryptocurrency, backed by cash in escrow, between the address of the seller and that of the buyer to establish a working link to build on.

Crypto represents a good opportunity for investors and it has a big future. There will undoubtedly be market consolidation, with a small number of the 1,500+ altcoins in circulation emerging as a favored core. As institutional investor appetite increases, bigger names will enter the arena. You can stay ahead of the game by using an escrow agent to implement custodial arrangements and manage the risks associated with this emerging asset class.

BREAKING BAD TRADE: FENTANYL FROM CHINA

The Real Poison Pill in U.S.-China Trade

Following a historic dinner between President Trump and President Xi last December in Argentina on the margins of the G20 Summit, many of us awaited news on tariffs. We were surprised when, as part of a trade announcement, President Trump hailed a commitment from China to step up its regulatory oversight of fentanyl, the opioid that the Centers for Disease Control says has caused a “third wave” of drug-related overdose deaths in the United States.

It seems the seedy underbelly of e-commerce involves a steady stream of online purchases of deadly variants of the drug fentanyl, made in China and shipped to American doorsteps through the U.S. postal service.

Deadly Parcels from China

Fatal drug overdoses have doubled over the last decade, rising from 36,010 in 2007 to 70,237 in 2017. Synthetic opioids other than methadone – mainly fentanyl – now account for 40 percent of all drug overdose deaths and 60 percent of opioid overdose deaths.

China is the primary source of illicit fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, and fentanyl precursor chemicals in the United States. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, almost 80 percent of fentanyl seized in 2017 was interdicted at U.S. Postal Service and express consignment carrier facilities, having been shipped in small quantities from China.

Fentanyl precursors are also shipped from China to Mexico, and to a lesser degree Canada, before being synthesized, often mixed with heroin or cocaine, repackaged, and then trafficked over U.S. land borders in the southwest.

Fentanyl third wave of overdoses

STOP

Last March, the White House stepped up its campaign against opioid abuse, seeking to address factors driving both demand and supply. The Initiative to Stop Opioid Abuse (referred to as STOP) includes education programs, measures to curb over-prescription, expanded access to treatment and recovery, and – a focus on cutting off the flow of illicit drugs from China.

According to Homeland Security, more fentanyl in larger volumes is seized at land crossings, but the fentanyl seized from mail and express consignment carrier facilities is far more potent with purities of over 90 percent versus Mexico-sourced fentanyl that is often diluted to less than 10 percent.

The president’s initiative would require the postal service to provide advance electronic data for 90 percent of all international mail shipments within the next two years, offering data that will help law enforcement identify and seize illegal substances shipped through mail. Private shippers such as UPS and FedEx routinely require such electronic data.

The administration is also scaling up the Department of Justice’s “darknet” enforcement efforts. Fentanyl in its various forms is relatively cheap and easy to buy from China online paying with cryptocurrencies, or even credit cards or money transfers.

fentanyl shipments from China

Over One Million Pills a Day – In One Factory in China

China has grown to become the largest mass producer of generic drugs and pharmaceutical ingredients in the world with over 5,000 pharmaceutical manufacturers. Upwards of 90 percent of the active pharmaceutical ingredients used in U.S. production of finished dosage forms of medical pharmaceuticals is imported from just two countries: India and China.

In addition, China has over 160,000 chemical producers and hundreds of thousands of pharmaceutical and chemicals distributors. The explosion in volume and number of producers has far outstripped China’s FDA (CFDA) from adequately regulating and monitoring them.

Faster Than Can Be Regulated

Unlike opioids derived from the poppy plant, fentanyl is a synthetic painkiller produced in a laboratory. It is 50 times more potent than heroine and 50-100 times more potent than morphine. Inhaling just two milligrams of pure fentanyl can be lethal.

In the United States, most fentanyl products are classified either as Schedule I chemicals, those that have no accepted medical use and high potential for abuse, or as Schedule II chemicals, those with medical use but only available through a non-refillable prescription.

Fentanyl’s molecular structure can be easily modified to create new derivatives, putting regulators constantly behind in evaluating and classifying each new variant one-by-one. From furanyl fentanyl, acetyl fentanyl, acryl fentanyl, to carfentanil — to name just a few — fentanyl has hundreds of analogues that differ slightly from the original, enabling criminal producers to operate in a gray territory while regulators struggle to ban the new substances. Legislation passed in 2017 now allows U.S. FDA to schedule fentanyl analogues immediately on a temporary basis while the agency conducts its investigations.

President Trump has urged President Xi to implement a similar approach. China currently controls around 25 types of fentanyl-related products. President Trump wants China to establish fentanyl as its own class of controlled substances, restricting all fentanyl analogues, including future fentanyl-like substances. Doing so would be a start.

Busting Drug Trade

Such a commitment by China is not, however, likely to put a dent in its fentanyl exports to the United States absent real enforcement. In recent years, CFDA has imposed stricter licensing requirements for pharmaceutical and chemical producers, but diversion, adulteration, and clandestine production remain significant problems.

“Chinese chemical manufacturers export a range of fentanyl products to the United States, including raw fentanyl, fentanyl precursors, fentanyl analogues, fentanyl-laced counterfeit prescription drugs like oxycodone, and pill presses and other machinery necessary for fentanyl production.” — U.S China Economic and Security Review Commission Staff Research Report

CFDA has undergone several reorganizations in the last few years. In the most recent, some of its regulatory responsibilities have devolved to provinces and counties with little accountability. Pre-marketing approvals will be managed separately from post-market inspections and surveillance. With just a little over 2,000 inspectors, authorities have little hope of effectively overseeing legal compliance, let alone spotting even a fraction of criminal activity.

The central government has assisted U.S. drug and law enforcement agencies, sharing information and intelligence that helps U.S. agencies target Chinese nationals trafficking illicit drugs in the United States. To alleviate the free flow of fentanyl from China, the Chinese government should also prosecute transnational criminals operating in China in high-profile cases with severe penalties.

Soybeans, Tech Transfer, and Fentanyl

Trade talks over soybeans and intellectual property protections for American technologies seem an unlikely setting for addressing illicit trade in deadly fentanyl.

There are some in the United States who are frustrated with this administration’s willingness to toss out the traditional trade policy playbook, but this is one case where it can welcomed by everyone.

 

 

Interested to read about fentanyl trade in more detail?

See two key reports produced by U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission analyst Sean O’Connor: Fentanyl: China’s Deadly Export to the United States, February 2017 and Fentanyl Flows from China: An Update, November 2018

Andrea Durkin is the Editor-in-Chief of TradeVistas and Founder of Sparkplug, LLC. Ms. Durkin previously served as a U.S. Government trade negotiator and has proudly taught international trade policy and negotiations for the last fourteen years as an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service program.

This article originally appeared on TradeVistas.org. Republished with permission.