A roundup of news from around the world about bitcoin finds reports of a major hack, wide-spread skepticism among world leaders at Davos, and a U.S. Treasury exec wanting more regulation.
A Japanese exchange has lost 58 billion yen ($530 million) in cryptocurrency because of hacking, according to Japanese media reports.
The Coincheck exchange said on its website Friday that it had halted sales and withdrawals of the currency, which is called NEM. It later added that it had restricted dealings in most other cryptocurrencies too.
At a Friday night news conference, Coincheck President Koichiro Wada bowed and apologized. He said the company may seek financial assistance, according to Kyodo News service. Japanese TV footage showed a small group of customers standing outside the company’s Tokyo head office Friday night.
Coincheck, which calls itself the leading Bitcoin and cryptocurrency exchange in Asia, said it detected the unauthorized access to its system about 3 a.m. Friday.
The reported loss tops the 48 billion yen that Mt. Gox, a Japan-based Bitcoin exchange, lost in 2014.
Davos consensus: Bitcoin not currency
Davos is clear on bitcoin: It’s an interesting investment, but please don’t call it a currency.
Bitcoin’s volatile ascent has transformed it from a tech industry curiosity to a major topic of discussion at this year’s World Economic Forum.
Yet the consensus in Davos, Switzerland, is that bitcoin will never be as useful as the dollar or yen in the real world.
“The central banks have been nurturing the [financial] system for centuries… we’ve got a good thing going on,” Nobel laureate Robert Shiller said at a debate about the cryptocurrency.
Cecilia Skingsley, deputy governor of Sweden’s central bank, said she had “no problem with people using [bitcoin] as an asset to invest in.”
“But it’s too volatile to be used as currency,” she added.
Bitcoin prices, which peaked near $20,000 in December, have fallen sharply to under $11,000 after a series of exchange closures and talk of increased regulation raised concerns over the digital currency’s future.
Even Davos attendees who have invested in bitcoin said its utility as a currency is limited. Jennifer Zhu Scott, an entrepreneur and cryptocurrency investor, described it as a “store of value.”
“I don’t think it’s a currency, it’s disrupting gold,” she said. “A cryptocurrency can do what gold is doing much better.”
The comments reflect growing anxiety over the real world applications for bitcoin, which is accepted at a smattering of retailers but has failed to find widespread acceptance.
Leading online payments company Stripe said this week that it will stop processing bitcoin transactions in April. It said the huge volatility in bitcoin prices has made it impractical for making and receiving payments.
Top government officials in Davos also signaled that digital currencies have a long way to go.
“We encourage fintech, we encourage innovation, but we want to make sure that all of our financial markets are safe and aren’t being used for illicit activities,” said U.S. Treasury Sec. Steven Mnuchin.
British Prime Minister Theresa May echoed that sentiment, telling Bloomberg that her government would look “very seriously” at cryptocurrencies “because of the way they are used, particularly by criminals.”
Larry Fink, chief executive of BlackRock, offered the most damning assessment, likening bitcoin to an “index of money laundering.”
US Treasury exec: Tighten cryptocurrency oversight
A senior U.S. Treasury official touring Asia has urged banks and financial regulators in the region and elsewhere to do more to tighten oversight of booming trading in bitcoin and other crypto currencies.
Sigal Mandelker, the Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said Friday that more needs to be done to prevent money laundering and other criminal activities using such transactions.
Speaking to reporters in Tokyo after visiting China, Hong Kong and South Korea, she lauded recent moves to keep closer tabs on such dealings.
“We feel very strongly that we need to have this kind of regulation all over the world,” Mandelker said. She noted that Japan and Australia are already regulating crypto currency trading.
“The EU, I understand, is moving very quickly in that direction and we think it’s very important that similar regulations are happening in a number of other countries.”
Mandelker said she expects the issue to be discussed at meetings of the Group of 20 industrial economies. She recently told Congress that money laundering related to crypto currencies was “an area of high focus” for the Treasury Department.
The U.S. started regulating such transactions in 2013 and considers traders and administrators of cryptocurrencies as “money transmitters” who are required to have strong anti-money laundering and other controls to prevent their use for illegal purposes, she said. It has imposed fines for violations of those regulations.
Financial regulators in Asia have struggled to keep up with a regional boom in crypto currency investing.
Japan, the world’s largest market for bitcoin trading, is the only major advanced economy with a licensing system for digital currency intermediaries such as exchanges and payment providers. It moved to impose order on the gray zone for such dealings after a major trading platform, Mt. Gox, filed for bankruptcy protection, after masses of Bitcoin went missing, worth millions of dollars at that time.