Asia fuels crypto market resurgence

Hello and welcome to the latest edition of the FT's Cryptofinance newsletter.

If you haven't noticed, bitcoin is down a bit this month.

Its 16 percent gain in December alone takes the year's gains to more than 160 percent and the price of $44,000 was last seen 20 months ago.

As Dorothy discovered in He Wizard of Oz, all was a dream. The crashes, corporate bankruptcies, criminal charges and lawsuits that piled up against cryptocurrencies in that period suddenly seem like a distant memory.

People like Sam Bankman-Fried and Changpeng Zhao are no longer the top bosses, but are seen as the departing old guard and associated with past crimes and misdemeanors.

Throughout the industry, trust is tangible. Want invest In a private bitcoin credit fund run by a Sam Altman-backed startup? How about buying a crypto fund that trades up to eight times its price? underlying value?

The tide continues into the future, in the form of a spot bitcoin exchange-traded fund in the US. Wrongly or not, the expectation is that it could arrive next month.

There is an unheralded aspect to this latest rally: the influence of Asia. The region has not been as aggressive as the United States in cracking down on bad behavior.

For example, both South Korea and the United States want to extradite Do Kwon, the businessman behind the $40 billion collapse of the TerraUSD crypto token, to answer the charges. But while South Korea wants to talk to him for allegedly violating capital market rules, the United States has charged him with eight criminal counts, including securities, commodities and wire fraud.

“Much of the regulatory crackdown we have seen this year has been firmly in the United States. Singapore, Japan and South Korea are more hospitable to cryptocurrencies,” said Ram Ahluwalia, chief executive of investment advisor Lumida Wealth Management.

"These markets are more speculative and crypto subsectors, such as gaming, are much more popular," he added.

So much so that the main sovereign currency that people use to trade crypto tokens is now the Korean won, not the US dollar.

The won accounts for 41 percent of the market, according to CCData, up from 24 percent in September. In the same period, the US dollar's market share fell from 51 percent to just under 40 percent.

“The fact that bitcoin has broken through resistance on Asian time is a testament to how important retail volumes are becoming in that region, specifically South Korea,” said Michael Safai, CEO of trading firm Dexterity Capital.

"Institutional gets the headlines, but retail flow is the lifeblood of crypto markets," he added.

That resurgence is also shown in the market shares of OKX and Bybit, two of the most popular exchanges in Asia.

Volume in spot markets on OKX jumped to more than $71 billion last month, more than double the $33 billion in October, and a level not seen since May 2022, CCData said. OKX's monthly derivatives volume also jumped to $659 billion in November, up from $429 billion in October.

Bybit volumes are at a level last seen in February 2022. Last month it recorded $56 billion in spot volumes, while derivatives volumes soared to $375 billion, up from $262 billion dollars from the previous month.

Line chart of monthly spot volume ($ billion) showing Bybit enjoying year-end momentum

“Much of the speculative and retail power of cryptocurrencies remains intact in Asia,” Ilan Solot, co-head of digital assets at Marex, told me.

And notably, its gains have come at the expense of Binance. OKX and Bybit started the year at 4 and 1 percent and Binance at 55. Now OKX is at 8, Bybit at 6 and Binance at just 31 percent.

"Wall Street's adoption of cryptocurrencies not only boosts institutions, but can reignite retail trading, even in other parts of the world, it's like a positive feedback loop," Solot added.

What is your opinion on the recent bitcoin rally and Asia's role in crypto markets? As always, email me your thoughts at scott.chipolina@ft.com.

Weekly highlights

  • Late Thursday, a US judge ruled that former Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao will remain in the United States until his sentencing, which will take place in February. The judge said that while Zhao offered a significant bail package, it was “inadequate to ensure [Zhao’s] return when considering the vast resources and assets at their disposal.”

  • Kristin Johnson, commissioner of the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission, said the hefty $4.3 billion fine imposed on Binance should serve as a warning to others. Speaking at the FT Crypto and Digital Assets Summit, Johnson said: “Get the hint, you could save a lot in lots of different ways.”

  • France's third-largest bank, Société Générale, this week launched trading of its EUR stablecoin CoinVertible on cryptocurrency exchange Bitstamp, becoming the first major bank to launch its own dollar-pegged token on a cryptocurrency exchange.

Fragment of the week: Do you want answers?

At the Financial Times Crypto Summit on Tuesday I spoke with Richard Teng, the new CEO of Binance.

He has been in office for just over two weeks since CZ resigned as part of the Justice Department settlement and has promised that Binance will learn from past mistakes. He also emphasized that users should feel confident in the robustness, security and stability of the exchange.

With this commitment in mind, I asked Binance's boss some of the questions that have dogged the company in recent years, such as where its headquarters are or the status of an audit. Unfortunately, those questions remain unanswered. At one point he said:

“Why do you feel so entitled to these answers?” And: “Do we need to share all this information publicly? No."

Data mining: hunger for more

A decent indicator of the durability of a rally is whether investors are buying a lot of something.

The numbers shared by CCData suggest that may be the case. Average weekly trading volumes in 25 major digital asset investment products, such as Grayscale Bitcoin Trust or ProShares Bitcoin Strategy ETF, have hit the $3 billion mark twice this quarter.

Volumes are also showing some consistency and have remained comfortably above $2 billion for four consecutive weeks, suggesting there is some real appetite.

Column chart of weekly average volumes of digital asset investment products ($ billion) showing that volumes of digital asset investment products are consistently higher than throughout the year

FT Cryptofinance is edited by Philip Stafford. Please send your thoughts and comments to cryptofinance@ft.com.

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