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Financial rules for the algorithm age

Published in the Australian Financial Review

A lot has changed in cryptocurrency since the last bull run in 2017. And these changes have made the regulatory regime that emerged in Australia since the invention of bitcoin look decidedly creaky – if not completely incoherent – and a serious barrier to fintech innovation and investment.

For the most part, Australian policymakers have preferred to squeeze digital assets into existing regulatory frameworks rather than create new frameworks.

For tax purposes, cryptocurrency has been treated as a traditional financial asset subject to capital gains tax – unless it is used in regular transactions, then it is treated like currency. An initial coin offering, where tokens are sold to early investors and users, is generally treated as a share offering or managed investment scheme.

This was the right approach. Entrepreneurs may not have loved the heavy compliance burdens, but at least those burdens were well understood. And we have avoided regulatory disasters like New York’s “BitLicense”, which led to cryptocurrency firms fleeing the city almost the moment it was introduced.

But where in 2017 cryptocurrency users and investors were limited to a relatively small number of digital assets trading on a couple of centralised exchanges, a new class of decentralised finance (DeFi) products have enabled the development of complex financial products and services that are completely decentralised. DeFi completely undermines Australia’s regulatory approach to cryptocurrency and blockchain.

Everything from loans to derivatives to exchanges are being rebuilt as autonomous digital products outside the traditional finance system. These are not niche innovations. Some estimates have upwards of $50 billion locked up in DeFi products right now.

Consider one of the most innovative financial services in the DeFi space: automated market makers. These AMMs allow users to trade one digital asset for another without going through a traditional central orderbook. Investors – “liquidity providers” – put assets into a pool. People who wish to trade one asset for another make exchanges with the pool, which reprices each asset automatically to keep the pool in balance. Investors get fees and bear risk if the external price of the assets change.

AMMs are a brilliant innovation and a regulatory nightmare. Let us start with tax. The Australian Taxation Office treats any token-to-token exchange as a capital gains event, where profits and losses incur a tax liability is incurred, just like a normal exchange of financial assets. This regime makes sense for traditional finance. But it creates huge burdens for DeFi.

Imagine a relatively simple DeFi investment – putting bitcoin in an AMM. First, you have to bring your bitcoin onto a smart contract network like ethereum. Bitcoin can only truly exist on the bitcoin blockchain, so you vouchsafe your coins with a provider who then mints a digital representation of your bitcoin on the ethereum network. You deposit this “wrapped bitcoin” token (and usually another token) into the AMM. You get a receipt – just another token – that represents your share of the pool.

Each of these exchanges are capital gains events. None of them are denominated in Australian dollars. Even the most diligent DeFi user will inevitably make mistakes when trying to account for the capital gains and losses. Few users even realise they are actually performing a token-to-token exchange when they make AMM investments. It is hard to describe the capital gains treatment of DeFi as a functioning part of the tax system at all.

The tax regime may be a compliance nightmare, but at least it is navigable. There are even harder compliance questions in our imagined DeFi investment. For instance, what actually is an AMM, in law? It looks a lot like a managed investment scheme – that is probably what ASIC will think. Like a traditional managed investment scheme, investors pool money in return for profits and don’t have day-to-day control of the investments. But if an AMM is a managed investment scheme … well, it doesn’t have a manager. Algorithms can’t hold financial licences. Nor on a censorship-resistant blockchain can they be shut down.

There are solutions to these problems. Capital gains events should be limited to when cryptocurrency is converted to fiat or used to buy goods or services. My colleagues Darcy Allen, Aaron Lane and I have called for a new exemption to the managed investment scheme framework – what we call “autonomous investment products”. Where a product is entirely algorithmic, has no ongoing responsible party, and is completely open source and auditable by investors, the heavy compliance burdens of a managed investment scheme don’t make sense.

But these solutions will almost certainly require legislative change. Until now, Australia’s cryptocurrency policy has been made via regulatory guidance. That approach has reached its use-by date. Fintech innovation can’t be left to suffocate under regulatory uncertainty and incoherence.

Response to Questions on Notice: Senate Select Committee on Financial Technology and Regulatory Technology

With Darcy W.E. Allen and Aaron M. Lane

Response to questions on notice at Senate Select Committee on Financial Technology and Regulatory Technology.

The capital gains taxation regime as it applies to cryptocurrency
is no longer appropriate

The Australian Taxation Office’s position that cryptocurrency is an asset for capital gains tax purposes and that every exchange between two cryptocurrency tokens should be treated as a “disposal” creates substantial regulatory compliance burdens on taxpayers, hinders fintech adoption, and achieves no policy objective.

This treatment of tokens poses unique challenges for cryptocurrency users. As each tokento-token exchange is treated by the ATO as a capital gains tax event, taxpayers are required to record gains or losses in the Australian dollars. However, token-to-token exchanges often occur at multiple times removed from Australian dollar-denominated markets. For many cryptocurrency tokens, liquid token-AUD exchange markets do not exist. In addition, the volume and complexity of some of these token exchanges make precise accounting of gains and losses on a per-transaction basis unrealistic, even for honest taxpayers seeking to fully ensure compliance.

Token-to-token exchanges of cryptocurrencies and other digital assets are foundational to the development of the digital economy, contributing to price and business model discovery. The current capital gains tax treatment to token-to-token exchanges imposes significant and unnecessary uncertainty and regulatory burden on cryptocurrency users, investors and the blockchain industry more generally.

The capital gains tax regime may have been appropriate five years ago when the cryptoeconomy was smaller, less complex and when there were relatively few places to make token-to-token exchanges. However, recent developments make the current policy regime inappropriately narrow and imposing. For example, the rise of decentralised finance (‘defi’) means that token-to-token exchanges are now commonly occurring through a vast ecosystem of decentralised protocols that operate at multiple levels removed from Australian dollar-denominated markets and provide no easy-to-use tools for the granular record keeping required by the ATO.

Additionally, the tokens that are being exchanged are also changing as the cryptoeconomy has developed. Defi activity can result in tokens being locked up in exchange for ‘governance’ tokens. Tokens that represent claims on other tokens through smart contracts – often necessary to acquire in order to participate in economic activity across multiple blockchains – can trade at a premium or discount. Treating these token-to-token swaps as capital gains events serves no policy purpose, and adds significant ambiguity and uncertainty to the Australian tax system.

The current regime also risks cryptocurrency users accumulating an Australian dollar-denominated tax liability that might be tied up in illiquid tokens.

The committee should understand that compliance with this regime in the Australian public is likely to be very low and the risk of taxpayers making errors in attempting to comply with the current legislation is very high.

Recommendation:

We recommend that CGT events be limited to exchanges where it is reasonable to comply with the capital gains tax regime. These would be when:

  • Cryptocurrency is exchanged with fiat currency (most commonly the Australian dollar),
  • Cryptocurrency is used in the acquisition or disposal of a tangible good or service, or a non-fungible token (such as a piece of digital art). Depending on the CGT classification of the respective token (for example a personal use asset or collectable), these transactions may yield the normal concessional treatments.

The burden of demonstrating compliance with these rules would remain with the taxpayer. This approach would significantly simplify the capital gains tax regime while reducing regulatory burdens, encourage innovation and the expansion of blockchain and cryptocurrency jobs in Australia, and be revenue neutral to the Commonwealth government.

The managed investment scheme regime doesn’t suit autonomous (algorithmic) financial products

A managed investment scheme (MIS) is an investment structure where a “responsible entity” manages investments for unit holders. In summary, the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) provides that a MIS will exist where (i) members contribute money or money’s worth as consideration to acquire rights to benefits produced by the scheme; (ii) any of the contributions are to be pooled, or used in a common enterprise, to produce financial benefits, or benefits consisting of rights or interests in property, for the members; and (iii) the members do not have day-to-day control over the operation of the scheme. Generally, a MIS is required to be registered with ASIC if it has more than 20 members. A registered entity is required to be a public company and hold an Australian Financial Services License.

There is a significant risk facing blockchain companies in Australia that the MIS regime will be inappropriately applied, particularly as it pertains to decentralised finance (‘defi’) products. There is approximately US$41.5 billion worth of tokens in the defi ecosystem. Inappropriate and high cost regulation threatens the viability of the defi industry in Australia and will send entrepreneurs and job-makers overseas.

For example, popular defi applications include a class of automated market makers (AMMs) that allow users to make token-to-token exchanges outside ‘traditional’ centralised exchanges like Binance or Coinbase. Investors pool tokens in these automated exchanges, earning profit through fees. The pool automatically prices exchanges in a way that rebalances the pool, guaranteeingthat each asset is always available.

It is likely an AMM would be considered a MIS within the legal definition outlined above. However, there are several regulatory problems in applying the MIS regulatory framework to defi products like AMMs:

  • These schemes have no manager – that is, there is no responsible entity on whom the obligations of a financial services licence could be meaningfully imposed or exercised. The scheme – and thus the return on the investment – is determined entirely algorithmically.
  • Automated market makers like this have no responsible agent. Amendments to the protocol (for example, varying the fee for investors) are entirely controlled by the voting behavior of governance token holders (typically investors).

Applying the rules governing managed investment schemes to these autonomous and algorithmic financial products is a category error.

In any case, treating a defi product as an MIS would not achieve the government’s policy goals. Defi products are censorship resistant and fully digital. Australian investors are able to interact with defi products developed around the world at almost zero cost. Regulatory avoidance is trivially easy because these products can be freely “forked” (that is, their code copied, modified, and re-deployed permissionlessly). Applying the MIS framework to Australia-built defi products means that Australian companies are highly reluctant to innovate in this frontier fintech field.

The committee might consider amending the government’s enhanced fintech sandbox or develop a new blockchain technology specific sandbox to deal allow for defi products. However, we do not recommend this approach. One problem is that the current sandbox rules (such as limitations on the amount of money invested, or persons involved) would be inappropriate for defi because of the absence of centralised management, the ease of forking, and the quantum of funds. For example, automated exchanges have no mechanism to limit the size of the total pool (doing so would potentially reduce the stability of the pool) and even if limits were implemented they could be avoided through forking the pool and re-deploying it. Furthermore, if regulators were to determine that the defi product no longer compliant with the sandbox rules, given the uncensorable nature of blockchain, there would be no mechanism by which regulators could insist that the product could cease trading.

Recommendation:

We recommend that the Corporations Act be amended to exempt “autonomous financial products” from the existing definition of a MIS. To qualify as an autonomous financial product, the product needs to be:

  • Fully algorithmically deterministic (that is, all investment decisions are made by an algorithm rather than a responsible human entity);
  • Governance decisions are sufficiently decentralised and made solely by those who have invested; and
  • Fully open source, with its code published on a recognised platform (such as
    GitHub), allowing investors to scrutinise the code themselves.

This change would be straightforward and is consistent with the existing legislative approach of the Act. While legislative change is preferred to provide certainty, we note that this approach could also be achieved through regulation as section 9 of the Act provides a mechanism for the Regulations to declare that a scheme is not a MIS.

PDF version with references and footnotes available in here.

After GameStop, the rise of Dogecoin shows us how memes can move markets

Published in The Conversation with Jason Potts

One of the most difficult problems in finance right now is figuring out the fundamental economic value of cryptocurrencies. And the past week has complicated this further.

For many cryptocurrency investors, the value of Bitcoin is based on the fact it is artificially scarce. A hard cap on “minting” new coins means there will only ever be 21 million Bitcoin in existence. And unlike national currencies such as the Australian dollar, the rate of release for new Bitcoin is slowing down over time.

Dogecoin, a cryptocurrency that takes its name and logo from a Shiba Inu meme that was popular several years ago, have a cap. Launched in 2013, there are now 100 billion Dogecoin in existence, with as many as five billion new coins minted each year.

But how can a currency with a seemingly unlimited supply have any value at all? And why did Dogecoin’s price suddenly surge more than 800 per cent in 24 hours on January 29?

At the time of publication, the “memecoin” was worth about $5.6 billion on the stockmarket.

Dogecoin is one of the original “altcoins”: cryptocurrencies released in the few years after the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto first released Bitcoin into the wild.

From a technical perspective, Dogecoin isn’t very innovative. Like many early altcoins, it’s based on the original source code of Bitcoin.

Or more technically, it’s based on Litecoin, which in turn was based on Bitcoin — but with some small modifications such as faster transactions and the removal of the supply cap. But Dogecoin is much more interesting when seen through a cultural lens.

The cryptocurrency was created by software engineers Billy Markus and Jackson Palmer — although Palmer, an Australian, has since walked away from the project. They branded it with the Doge meme partly to be funny, but also to distance it from Bitcoin’s then questionable reputation as a currency for illicit transactions.

Now, Dogecoin has outlasted almost all the early derivative altcoins and has a thriving community of investors. In 2014, Dogecoin holders sponsored the Jamaican bobsled team. Soon after, they sponsored a NASCAR driver.

Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, is among the cryptocurrency’s high-profile advocates. In December last year, a tweet from Musk sent Dogecoin’s price soaring.

Reddit threads proclaim Dogecoin’s value as a new global currency. Musk himself shared a similar sentiment a few days ago. Speaking on the app Clubhouse, he said:

Dogecoin was made as a joke to make fun of cryptocurrencies, but fate loves irony. The most ironic outcome would be that Dogecoin becomes the currency of Earth in the future.

But Dogecoin is best thought of as a cultural product, rather than a financial asset. The reality is few cryptocurrency users hold it as a serious investment or to use in regular transactions. Instead, to own Dogecoin is to participate in a culture.

People buy it because it’s fun to have, is inherently amusing and comes with a welcoming and enjoyable community experience.

If we start thinking of the cryptocurrency as a cultural product, last week’s sudden jump in Dogecoin’s price makes sense. The boost came just after a meme-centric community managed to drive the share price of videogame retailer GameStop from US$20 to US$350 in mere days.

This swarm behaviour was unlike anything seen before — and it frightened global financial markets.

One particularly interesting aspect of the Reddit forum r/WallStreetBets — which coordinated the attack on the hedge fund that had effectively bet on GameStop’s share price falling — was how many users were having fun.

It’s no surprise activity surrounding Dogecoin has a similar vibe; it was designed to be fun right from the start.

Some people participate in financial markets as a form of consumption — meaning for entertainment, leisure and to experience community — just as much as they do for investment.

Cultural assets such as Dogecoin are hard to systematically value when compared to financial assets, a bit like how we don’t have a fundamental theorem for pricing art.

Almost by definition, the demand for a memecoin will fluctuate as wildly as internet culture itself does, turning cultural bubbles into financial bubbles. RMIT professor and crypto-ethnographer Ellie Rennie calls these “playful infrastructures“.

By inspecting Dogecoin closely, we can learn a lot about the interplay of technology, culture and economics.

Moreover, cryptocurrencies are extraordinarily diverse. Some are built for small payments or to be resilient holders of value. Others protect financial privacy or act as an internal token to manage smart contracts, supply chains or electricity networks.

Under the hood, Bitcoin and Dogecoin look almost exactly the same. Their code differs in only a few parameters. But their economic functions are almost entirely opposite.

Bitcoin is a kind of “digital gold” adopted as a secure hedge against political and economic uncertainty. Dogecoin, on the other hand, is a meme people add to their digital wallet because they think it’s funny.

But in an open digital economy, memes move markets.

Quantum crypto-economics: Blockchain prediction markets for the evolution of quantum technology

With Peter P. Rohde, Vijay Mohan, Sinclair Davidson, Darcy Allen, Gavin K. Brennen, and Jason Potts

Abstract: Two of the most important technological advancements currently underway are the advent of quantum technologies, and the transitioning of global financial systems towards cryptographic assets, notably blockchain-based cryptocurrencies and smart contracts. There is, however, an important interplay between the two, given that, in due course, quantum technology will have the ability to directly compromise the cryptographic foundations of blockchain. We explore this complex interplay by building financial models for quantum failure in various scenarios, including pricing quantum risk premiums. We call this quantum crypto-economics.

Available at arXiv

Submission to Select Committee on Financial Technology and Regulatory Technology (Response to Interim Report and Second Issues Paper)

With Darcy W. E. Allen and Aaron M. Lane

A submission to the Senate Select Committee on Financial Technology and Regulatory Technology (‘Committee’) following the tabling of the Committee’s Interim Report and the publication of the Second Issues Paper, focusing on the regulatory implications of blockchain technology.

Available in PDF here.

Commitment voting: a mechanism for intensity of preference revelation and long-term commitment in blockchain governance

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

Abstract: Commitment voting is a mechanism for signalling intensity of preferences and long-term commitment to governance decisions in proof of stake blockchains. In commitment voting, the voting weight of a vote in any given election is determined by 1) the amount of tokens under a voters control and 2) the time that the voter is willing to lock their tokens up for that election. Winning votes are locked up for the nominated amount of time. Losing votes are released as soon as the election has results. Commitment voting requires voters to commit to the decisions they make while still allowing those who disagree with the majority to exit the community.

Available at SSRN and in PDF here.

The Hart asset at the heart of your organisation

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

Abstract: What assets does a firm need to hold to develop a profitable business model? A ‘Hart asset’ is an asset that a firm cannot strategically afford a rival firm to own or control due to the risk of hold up, and therefore must be held within the firm, and upon which a profitable business model can be built. We tie the Hart asset to the problem of complementarities in profitable innovation, and conclude with an example Hart asset in digital platforms.

Available in PDF and at SSRN

Time to reject Trump’s legacy and to back free trade and immigration

Donald Trump’s failure to win a second term as president isn’t just important for the future of the United States. It has significant implications for centre-right politics in Australia too.

At least since the Cold War the centre-right has been an alliance between conservatives and classical liberals. Sometimes this alliance has been awkward. But the result has been a balance between relatively free market economics and relatively conservative social policy that we broadly associate with John Howard, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher.

The Trump administration represented for many on the right a sharp ideological break with the past. Out went conservative-liberal fusionism. In came working class populism and a suite of starkly different policy priorities: anti-trade, anti-immigration, anti-big business, and anti-tech.

Virtually the moment polls closed in 2016, conservatives around the world started talking excitedly about the virtues of populism, the opportunities of ‘conservative nationalism’, and building their own domestic version of Trump’s America First.

Electoral realignment has led to intellectual realignment. One influential manifesto was published in the conservative magazine First Things in 2019. Titled “Against the Dead Consensus”, it declared that the “pre-Trump conservative consensus” had collapsed and it was time to reject globalism and “warmed-over Reaganism”. A bunch of new think tanks and political magazines have been established with names like American Compass and American Greatness to capture the Trump-era zeitgeist.

On the other side, some traditional fusionist institutions like the Weekly Standard have collapsed, only to be replaced by Trump sceptical publications like The Dispatch and The Bulwark.

Perhaps we should not overstate the ideological change. The Trump administration enacted many traditional Republican policies – appointing those originalist judges, pursuing all that deregulation and the deep corporate tax cuts.

But they set up the two big debates we’re going to see in the centre-right for the next few years. First: could have any Republican president gotten these policies through, or could it only have been someone as confrontational and singular as Donald Trump?

Second: might the political capital spent on tax cuts and deregulation have been better spent on more working class-focused policies like infrastructure investment and paid family leave? Some are already claiming Trumpism didn’t fail – Trumpism was never really tried. If the conservative-liberal consensus is dead, did the Trump administration trip over its corpse?

The result of these debates will have ramifications in Australia. For the most part, the Morrison government has avoided major ideological realignment in the Trump era. The Prime Minister played around with Trumpy language last year when he warned about “negative globalism”. But there’s a big difference between opposing ‘negative’ globalism (by which our prime minister was criticising corrupt international institutions) and the sort of globalism that Donald Trump is opposed to (immigration, free trade, and the network of traditional alliances). Anyway, who could support “negative” globalism?

Ultimately the Morrison government has tried to paint a soft populist tint over its traditional policy agenda. It still claims its free trade agreements as an achievement, for instance (although it has been notably less talkative about those agreements since 2016).

Even if Morrison had wanted to explicitly follow the Trump path, he would have struggled to do so. A small, open, productive economy like Australia is highly dependent on free trade and migration for our prosperity.

One issue where we might say that the Australian right has been influenced by Donald Trump is on China. But these last four years have seen the heavy oppression of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, the loss of free Hong Kong, and Xi Jinping’s tightening grip on the Chinese state. It is hard to imagine an alternative history in which Australia was not aware of these events.

The big question for us is whether the old conservative-liberal alliance can be rebuilt. If the Trump administration has permanently severed that alliance, the deep interactions between centre-right intellectuals and activists across the Pacific Ocean mean it will inevitably be severed in Australia too.

And when that happens, we will be faced with a serious long-term challenge for our economic wellbeing.

Unless the Democratic Party or the Labor Party pick up the classical liberal agenda of free trade, deregulation, low taxes, and openness to immigration, then that policy mix – and the prosperity it has created – is at risk.

The Political Economy of Australian Regulatory Reform

With Darcy WE Allen, Aaron M Lane and Patrick A. McLaughlin. Published in Australian Journal of Public Administration, 18 September 2020

Abstract: The problem of regulatory accumulation has increasingly been recognised as a policy problem in its own right. Governments have then devised and implemented regulatory reform policies that directly seek to ameliorate the burdens of regulatory accumulation (e.g. red tape reduction targets). In this paper we examine regulatory reform approaches in Australia through the lens of policy innovation. Our contributions are twofold. We first examine the evolutionary discovery process of regulatory reform policies in Australia (at the federal, intergovernmental and state levels). This demonstrates a process of policy innovation in regulatory mechanisms and measurements. We then analyse a new measurement of regulatory burden based on text analytics, RegData: Australia . RegData: Australia uses textual analysis to count “restrictiveness clauses” in regulation—such as “must”, “cannot” and “shall”—thereby developing a new database. We place this “restrictiveness clauses” measurement within the context of regulatory policy innovation, and examine the potential for further innovation in regulatory reform mechanisms.

Available at Australian Journal of Public Administration. Working paper available at SSRN