The head of the UK financial services regulator has issued a stark warning about the risks facing retail investors in cryptocurrency, saying that social media channels are amplifying the danger.
“It’s difficult for regulators around the world to stand by and watch people, sometimes very vulnerable people, putting their financial futures in jeopardy, based on disinformation and fear of missing out,” Charles Randell, chair of the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the Payment Services Regulator (PSR), said today.
Randell was speaking at a conference in Cambridge devoted to the subject of economic crime.
The FCA has repeatedly warned about the risks involved in investing in cryptocurrency. Its chair reiterated today that investors should be prepared for the worst if speculating on the price movements of crypto tokens.
“You should be prepared to lose all your money”
“At the FCA we have repeatedly warned about the risks of holding speculative tokens,” Randell said.
“To be clear: these tokens are not regulated by the FCA. They are not covered by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. If you buy them, you should be prepared to lose all your money.”
Randell also cited the pernicious role of social media influencers in promoting such tokens to their followers, citing a recent case involving Kim Kardashian as an example.
“When she was recently paid to ask her 250 million Instagram followers to speculate on crypto tokens by ’joining the Ethereum Max Community‘, it may have been the financial promotion with the single biggest audience reach in history,” Randell said.
“In line with Instagram’s rules, she disclosed that this was an #AD. But she didn’t have to disclose that Ethereum Max—not to be confused with Ethereum—was a speculative digital token created a month before by unknown developers – one of hundreds of such tokens that fill the crypto-exchanges,” he said.
“Of course, I can’t say whether this particular token is a scam. But social media influencers are routinely paid by scammers to help them pump and dump new tokens on the back of pure speculation. Some influencers promote coins that turn out simply not to exist at all.”
“We now need other online platforms—Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, TikTok—to do the right thing too”
Randell called for online platforms to step up and stop publishing and profiting from fraudulent content.
“Google has committed to stop promoting advertisements for financial products unless an FCA authorised firm has cleared them,” Randell said.
“Google is doing the right thing and we will monitor the impact of its changes closely. We now need other online platforms—Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, TikTok—to do the right thing too. And we think that a permanent and consistent solution requires legislation.”
In his speech, the FCA chair stressed the challenges facing global regulators when seeking to rein in fraudulent activity associated with the ongoing crypto boom.
In the UK, the FCA only has a limited role in registering UK-based cryptoasset exchanges for anti-money laundering purposes, he said.
However, he went on, the regulator would refuse to award any stamp of approval to crypto firms which refuse to explain basic issues, such as who is responsible for key functions or how they are organised.
This comment appeared to reference the regulator’s interactions with Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange.
In August, the FCA published a supervisory notice regarding Binance Markets Limited, the exchange’s UK subsidiary, which the FCA banned in June from conducting any regulated activity in the UK.
In its notice, the FCA said that Binance had refused to answer questions about its global business model, refused to provide information about the products offered by its main website, binance.com, and failed to answer questions about its own stock tokens, called BNB.
“Action against businesses which choose not to bring themselves within the reach of an effective national regulator needs to be international”
Randell called for international cooperation from regulators to address the challenge presented by firms, such as Binance, who appear to want to place themselves outside the remit of national rules.
“Action against businesses which choose not to bring themselves within the reach of an effective national regulator needs to be international, with regulators across the world working together to limit the harm,” said the FCA chair.
“IOSCO (the International Organisation of Securities Commissions) has recently published reports on how to educate consumers about the risks of crypto and considerations for regulating crypto exchanges, and I hope this is the start of a consistent collaborative effort,” Randell said.
The FCA chair said that two areas of cryptocurrency offered particular promise for consumers, however—stablecoins and securities tokens.
Stablecoins are ‘pegged’ to units of traditional fiat currency and used to make payments outside traditional payments infrastructures, while securities tokens are digital tokens that represent existing securities, such as shares or bonds.
However, stablecoin issuers would need to conform to the rules of the existing financial system, Randell said, in order to avoid the risk of another Wirecard—the German payments firm whose collapse last year raised broader concerns about the safety of financial technology companies.
“The Bank of England is considering the risks that stablecoins could pose to the financial system and monetary policy, but we saw with the UK operations of Wirecard that a player in payments does not have to be systemically important to cause significant consumer distress,” Randell said.
“So, any stablecoin business we may come to regulate, even if it is not systemic, will need to assure that end users would be able to easily exchange them, access them and use them to make payments safely and securely, with the same level of protection we expect from other types of payment instruments. And for this to be assured even during times of financial distress.”
Sign up here for the New Money Review newsletter
Click here for a full list of episodes of the New Money Review podcast: the future of money in 30 minutes
Related content from New Money Review
Binance plays cat and mouse with regulators
FCA warns of more payment firm failures