HONG KONG – Crypto firms rushing into Hong Kong after the city opened its doors to the battered sector are finding a surprising source of potential support: China’s state-owned banks.
Chinese banks have been directly reaching out to crypto businesses over the past few months, adding to signs that the city’s push to become a major digital asset centre has backing from Beijing, even though trading of crypto has been banned on the mainland for well over a year.
The Hong Kong arms of Bank of Communications, Bank of China and Shanghai Pudong Development Bank have either started offering banking services to local crypto firms or have made inquiries to the field, according to people with knowledge of the matter. On at least one occasion, sales representatives from one Chinese bank even visited the office of a crypto company to pitch its services, said one person.
The olive branch is notable as the sector has been shunned by major banks and faced difficulties in securing normal banking services, such as opening an account to pay staff and vendors. It’s also an opportune time, with the lenders filling a void after the failures of US tech banks Silicon Valley Bank, Silvergate Capital and Signature Bank.
The push by Chinese lenders “means a lot to us because it’s something you’d never expect at this point, even around the globe,” said Sung Min Cho, founder and chief executive of beoble, a provider of a messaging system for decentralised applications. “A cryptocurrency account at a tradfi bank is something groundbreaking.”
Banking for crypto businesses has never been easy. Its anonymous nature has been a major red flag for traditional banks, where know-your-client (KYC) procedures are standard for compliance. Digital asset firms have been forced to find various workarounds to meet operational banking needs, according to Hong Kong-based crypto firms who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.
It can easily take three months for crypto-focused companies to secure a corporate bank account, compared to one month for non-crypto firms. This means firms often try out more than a dozen lenders, including niche choices such as Indian or Japanese banks, or virtual banks like ZA Bank. Even with an account, banks often flag transactions related to digital asset firms and can suddenly suspend accounts after an initial warning call.
For those dealing in crypto tokens, it’s even harder. Almost no traditional banks offer help to transfer tokens to fiat currencies as a regular service, so many had turned to crypto-friendly banks abroad such as Signature or alternatives in Switzerland and the Middle East. Signature’s payments network real time crypto network was still operational even after the lender was put into receivership, Bloomberg News reported earlier.
Those without bank accounts need to be even more creative. That can mean setting up a separate Hong Kong company without a crypto link to apply for bank accounts for payroll purposes, or by outsourcing human resources and payroll to a third party. To cash out tokens, some have turned to over-the-counter crypto exchanges such as OSL and Hashkey, the only two licensed in Hong Kong, or used physical crypto money exchanger counters in the city.
“It would be great if local banks could start some trial program to support crypto firms and more professional service providers that understand our native environment,” said Dominic Law, chief Metaverse officer of Neopets Metaverse, a game backed by Chinese firm NetDragon Websoft Holdings. “The business landscape would certainly be more welcoming and easier to support more startups to develop in this field.”
Jack Chou, founder of the blockchain technology company CNHC Group, is one founder who’s seeking to establish in Hong Kong in the aftermath of the collapse of the crypto friendly banks in the US. The firm, which offers an offshore Chinese yuan-pegged stablecoin, was able to recover about US$10 million (S$13.3 million) of its more than US$12 million deposits in SVB, Signature Bank and First Republic Bank. A majority of that was transferred to an offshore bank account in China’s Hainan’s pilot free trade zone and a small portion to DBS in Singapore.
Mr Chou and his business partner have traveled to the city five times since Hong Kong announced its new crypto push last year and plan to visit again in April. “Opening bank accounts is one of the top priorities,” Chou said.
So far Mr Chou has approached DBS Hong Kong, HSBC, Standard Chartered, Bank of China (Hong Kong) and Hang Seng Bank but there was not much progress. “Crypto is still sensitive,” the banks told him.
“That’s the conflict. On the one hand the government is pushing the development of the industry, on the other hand, the city’s banking system does not offer us any services,” Mr Chou said.
Still, the general feeling is that Hong Kong banks are more open to crypto firms than they were a few years ago, but that there is yet to be a big shift since background KYC and anti-money laundering rules remain a mainstay in the finance world. Rather, there is a sense that banks are more open to engagement when sales are quiet, including enabling bank accounts after previous attempts failed.
A spokesman for the The Hong Kong Monetary Authority said the authority has a dedicated team that follows up on inquiries from the business community, including the virtual asset industry, regarding bank account opening and maintenance matters.
Banks in Hong Kong are well-positioned to tap into the capital inflows following the banking failures in the US, said Sean Lee, the Hong Kong-based co-founder and executive director of the decentralized wallet startup Odsy Network. While many Asian companies banked with tech-friendly US banks in the past, this is unlikely to be the case going forward due to regulatory concerns.
“Hong Kong will benefit tremendously,” he said. “But questions remain whether the geopolitical climate will deter non-Asian projects to bank with Chinese banks.”
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