FCA proposes ban on cryptocurrency products

A Bitcoin logo is seen on a cryptocurrency ATM in Santa Monica, California, US.

 A Bitcoin logo is seen on a cryptocurrency ATM in Santa Monica, California, US. Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

The UK’s markets regulator has proposed a ban on financial instruments linked to digital “cryptocurrencies” such as Bitcoin, warning that such products could cause huge losses for retail consumers unlikely to understand their risks or value.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) said products such as derivatives and exchange traded notes (ETNs) that reference cryptoassets were “ill-suited” to small investors.

It cited their “extreme volatility”, the difficulty in valuing them, consumers’ patchy understanding of what they were buying and the increased risk of financial crime.

Investors might “suffer harm from sudden and unexpected losses if they invest in these products”, the FCA said, estimating that a ban would benefit consumers to the tune of between £75m to £234.3m a year.

The proposed ban would affect complex financial products such as contracts for difference (CFDs), options and futures, as well as exchange traded notes.

Christopher Woolard, the executive director of strategy & competition at the FCA, said: “As with our work on the wider CFD and binary options markets, we will act when we see poor products being sold to retail consumers. These are complex contracts built on top of complex assets.

“Most consumers cannot reliably value derivatives based on unregulated cryptoassets. Prices are extremely volatile and as we have seen globally, financial crime in cryptoasset markets can lead to sudden and unexpected losses.

“It is therefore clear to us that these derivatives and exchange traded notes are unsuitable investments for retail consumers.”

Woolard has previously warned social media firm Facebook that its plans for a new cryptocurrency called Libra, due to be launched next year, will warrant intense scrutiny from regulators.

One of Facebook’s co-founders, Chris Hughes, said earlier this month that Libra could allow corporations involved in the scheme to wield power over nation states.

One of the FCA’s concerns is the volatility in the price of digital currencies, with fluctuations in the value of bitcoin proving a prime example.

The price of bitcoin fell back below $10,000 on Tuesday, down 30% from last week’s peak of nearly $14,000.

Bitcoin had languished below $6,000 for months, but was galvanised by Facebook’s Libra plans.

It has a history of wild swings and some analysts say it could rise back to $20,000 again – or fall as low as $3,000. In late 2017, it nearly reached $20,000, before a spectacular collapse in 2018.

Its instability is among the factors that have dampened expectations about its ability to disrupt the global financial system.