Why North American investors are gobbling up booming bitcoin

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Updated 04 December 2020

Why North American investors are gobbling up booming bitcoin

  • Digital currency soars to record high amid dramatic $3.4bn global market shift

LONDON: Bitcoin has grabbed headlines this week with its dizzying ascent to an all-time high. Yet, under the radar, a trend has been playing out that could change the face of the cryptocurrency market: A massive flow of coin to North America from East Asia.

Bitcoin, the biggest and original cryptocurrency, soared to a record $19,918 on Tuesday, buoyed by demand from investors who variously view the virtual currency as a “risk-on” asset, a hedge against inflation and a payment method gaining mainstream acceptance.

But the boom represents a shift in the market, which has typically been dominated by investors in East Asian nations like China, Japan and South Korea since the digital currency was invented by the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto over a decade ago.

It is North American investors who have been the bigger winners in the 165 percent rally this year.

Weekly net inflows of bitcoin — a proxy for new buyers — to platforms serving mostly North American users have jumped over 7,000 times this year to over 216,000 bitcoin worth $3.4 billion in mid-November, data compiled for Reuters shows.

East Asian exchanges have lost out.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • North American exchanges win out in bitcoin boom.
  • Huge bitcoin flows to that region from East Asia.
  • Market players cite demand from large US investors.
  • Fewer retail punters in Asia another factor at play.

Those serving investors in the region bled 240,000 bitcoin worth $3.8 billion last month, versus an inflow of 1,460 in January, according to the data from US blockchain researcher Chainalysis.

The change is being driven by an increasing appetite for bitcoin among bigger US investors, according to Reuters interviews with cryptocurrency platforms and investors from the US and Europe to South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan.

“The sudden influx of institutional interest from the North American region is driving a shift in bitcoin trading, which is rebalancing asset allocations across different exchanges and platforms,” said Ciara Sun of Seychelles-based Huobi Global Markets, whose parent company has roots in China and operates in several Asian markets.

East Asia, North America and Western Europe are the biggest bitcoin hubs, with the first two alone accounting for about half of all transfers, according to Chainalysis, which gathers data by region with tools such as tagging cryptocurrency wallets.

Industry experts caution it is too early to call a fundamental shift in the market, particularly in an unprecedented year of pandemic-induced financial turmoil.

Growing flows to North America this year are not necessarily “an indication that the center of gravity is tilting toward the US,” said James Quinn of Q9 Capital, a Hong Kong cryptocurrency private wealth manager.

Others also point out that cryptocurrency trading is highly opaque compared with traditional assets and patchily regulated, making comprehensive data on the emerging sector rare.

Nonetheless, Chainalysis found North American trading volumes at major exchanges — those with the most blockchain activity — had eclipsed East Asia’s this year. This is not unheard of, with North America having moved ahead on occasions in the past, but never by such a large margin.

Volumes at four major North American platforms have doubled this year to reach 1.6 million bitcoin per week at the end of November, while trading at 14 major East Asian exchanges have risen 16 percent to 1.4 million, according to the data.

By comparison, a year before, East Asia led the way with 1.3 million a week versus North America’s 766,000.

Those interviewed said compliance-wary US investors, many of whom had been deterred by the opaque nature of the market in the past, are being attracted by the tightening oversight of the American crypto industry.

US exchanges are in general more tightly regulated than many of those in East Asia, and there have been several moves by American regulators and law-enforcement agencies this year to clarify how bitcoin is overseen.

A leading banking regulator said in July, for instance, that national banks could provide custody services for cryptocurrencies. The justice department also outlined an enforcement framework for digital coins in October.

“You’re increasingly starting to see distinctions in the market between those that have no regulatory or little regulatory clarity, versus those that do,” said Curtis Ting of major US exchange Kraken.

“Larger institutions seek the predictability that a regulated venue offers.”

Assets under management at New York-based Grayscale, the world’s largest digital currency manager, have soared to a record $10.4 billion, up more than 75 percent from September. Its bitcoin fund is up 85 percent.

“A lot of US funds are trading with large US counterparties,” said Christopher Matta of 3iQ, a Canadian digital asset manager with clients in the US, citing exchanges such as California’s Coinbase that are overseen by New York financial regulators.

“It tells you right there how important the regulatory nature of the space is, and having venues to trade on that are regulated — it’s definitely something that institutional investors are thinking about.”

Another factor behind the 2020 trend is a decline in the armies of retail investors in Asia who drove bitcoin’s 2017 boom, which pushed it to its previous peak.

In South Korea, strict regulations have been discouraging such investors, according to In Hoh of Korea University’s Blockchain Research Institute.

Concerns that major retail exchanges linked to China but based elsewhere could be caught up in a crackdown by Beijing may have pushed down demand, said Leo Weese, co-founder of the Hong Kong Bitcoin Association.

In October, for instance, Malta-headquartered OKEx, which was founded in China, suspended crypto withdrawals for nearly six weeks because an executive was cooperating with an investigation by Chinese law enforcement.


Egypt has given $9.87bn to low-income families

Updated 37 min 26 sec ago

Egypt has given $9.87bn to low-income families

  • The National Bank of Egypt topped the list of banks that provided the most funding for low-income people

CAIRO: Egyptian banks and mortgage finance companies have provided a total of EGP37.02 billion ($9.87 billion) in real estate financing to 364,900 low-income customers since the government launched the initiative seven years ago.

The Central Bank of Egypt launched a mortgage finance initiative in February 2014, offering subsidized low-interest mortgages to low-income citizens. Interest ranged from 5 to 7 percent, with the price of the homes provided to customers set by the Mortgage Finance Fund.

In total, EGP35.2 billion was provided by 22 banks to 348,700 customers, and EGP1.83 billion was given by eight mortgage finance companies to around 16,200 customers.

The National Bank of Egypt topped the list of banks that provided the most funding for low-income people, with a total of EGP9.85 billion given to 95,900 customers. Second on the list was Banque Misr with total financing amounting to EGP7.7 billion given to around 74,800 clients.

In third place was the Housing and Development Bank with EGP5.74 billion given to 63,700 customers, followed by Banque du Caire in fourth place with total financings amounting to EGP2.7 billion and 30,900 customers. Rounding out the top five was the Commercial International Bank with EGP2.04 billion and 17,700 customers. The Industrial Development Bank came in sixth, with total financing of EGP1.48 billion and around 14,000 customers, followed by the United Bank of Egypt with EGP967.5 million for about 7,900 customers and the Arab African Bank with EGP939.2 million for about 8,600 customers.

Qatar National Bank Al-Ahli contributed funds amounting to EGP881.8 million for 7,800 customers, followed by BLOM Bank Egypt in 10th place with total funds of EGP483.9 million provided to more than 4,600 customers.


Saudi Arabia’s female-only rival to Uber sees growth in first year of operations

Updated 44 min 13 sec ago

Saudi Arabia’s female-only rival to Uber sees growth in first year of operations

  • Leena started business June 2020 and has already seen average monthly growth of 25 percent

JEDDAH: June 24, 2018 was a changing point in Saudi Arabia. As the ban on women driving was lifted, and female drivers got behind the wheel, it was one of the standout moments for the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 program.

Female-only car showrooms followed; thousands of women signed up for lessons and driving licenses, Saudi women competed in professional racing competitions and American carmaker General Motors told Arab News last month that 65 percent of the buyers for one of its models were all women.

Therefore, with the advent of disruptive digital platforms like Uber and Careem, it was only a matter of time before a female-only version, with female drivers for passengers, was born.

Leena was officially granted a license by the Saudi government in April 2019 and began operations in June last year.

The company provides taxi services for women, and the drivers — named “Captainahs” — are, like global rival Uber, all freelance operators. However, the difference here is the passengers are all exclusively women as well.

Despite launching at the height of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, demand has been high, with the company reporting average month-on-month growth of over 25 percent.

Leena was founded by a small group of young colleagues whose primary objective was to offer women a comfortable alternative, while also maintaining their independence. 

“We came up with the idea in 2018, around the time women were granted the right to drive,” the CEO and co-founder of Leena, Mohammed Al-Aqeel, told Arab News. “We were debating all the pros and cons of creating an organization centered around women and driving, and found an overwhelming amount of pros — one of which would be to contribute in decreasing the percentage of unemployment among women.”

Despite all the positives, Al-Aqeel’s research found that common negatives from women were complaints about harassment, a lack of privacy and, at worst, even violence, when they took regular taxis.

While everything was ready to launch in 2019, Al-Aqeel said the pandemic did create a lot challenges, but the team has addressed them.

“Every registered ‘Captainah’ is immediately informed of the new regulations and terms related to COVID-19 that they must adhere to,” he said, adding that while the authorities have not made it mandatory for drivers to be vaccinated, Leena has encouraged all “Captainahs” to do so, and the majority have had their injections.

HIGHLIGHT

Leena provides taxi services for women, and the drivers — named ‘Captainahs’ — are, like global rival Uber, all freelance operators. However, the difference here is the passengers are all exclusively women as well.

Initial demand has proved positive, to the extent that the company often does not have enough drivers to meet the number of ride requests. “Our demographic of drivers are women and we have to understand that a lot of them have familial responsibilities which they will prioritize, and since ‘Captainahs’ are freelance workers, they have the freedom to choose their own working hours to help accommodate their personal lives,” Al-Aqeel said, adding that the company is working on this issue, and has a backlog of new drivers waiting approval to receive their licenses and join the team.

Leena is also planning to launch a marketing recruitment campaign soon to attract more drivers. “We expected to do well just based on the surveys and studies we did when Leena was only an idea, and we found an overwhelming majority of people like the idea and are in support of it,” Al-Aqeel said.

Leena has been self-financed but in order to expand to the next level it will need to look at external options. “As of today, all finances that have gone into Leena are from our own initial capital. The team and I are about to embark on an investment round to find investors to sell shares to,” Al-Aqeel said.

Looking to the future, regional rival Careem was bought by Uber for $3.1 billion. Al-Aqeel said he would be interested in an approach, but he is reluctant to sell Leena outright.

“Of course, if we had an offer we would consider it and discuss it as a team, but we won’t compromise or dispense Leena’s initial mission and cause.

We will have conditions, one of them being that Leena stays exclusive to women,” he said. “We have thought of an exit strategy, but we will preserve some shares in the company. We won’t sell the entire company.”


UAE’s RAW Coffee Co. expands to Saudi Arabia

Updated 52 min 50 sec ago

UAE’s RAW Coffee Co. expands to Saudi Arabia

  • The company is not planning to distribute through supermarkets but instead plans to replicate its business model in the UAE

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia is the fastest-growing coffee market in the Middle East, expanding at an annual rate of 9.6 percent, according to research in late 2019 carried out by the organizers of the Middle East Coffee Conference held in Riyadh.

As a result, UAE-based RAW Coffee Co. has expanded its distribution network to Saudi Arabia and is eventually hoping to set up a physical presence in the Kingdom.

“We would say that the KSA specialty coffee scene is catching up to the more established UAE industry both in quality and knowledge, which is a very exciting time,” Kim Thompson, the co-owner and managing director of RAW Coffee Co., told Arab News. The company has teamed up with DHL to process its orders in the Kingdom.

“We have completed establishing our KSA business licensing and are currently exploring opportunities based out of Riyadh. At the moment, we roast and deliver fresh from our roastery in Dubai to the commercial customers in KSA that we supply, one of which is L’ETO Cafe, which has branches in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam,” Thompson said.

The company is not planning to distribute through supermarkets but instead plans to replicate its business model in the UAE, where it will distribute directly to customers and through third-party cafes, before eventually setting up its own operations in the Kingdom and potentially a chain of branded cafes.

RAW is not the first UAE-based coffee brand to announce expansion plans in the Kingdom this year. Emirati Coffee in April told Arab News it plans to open its first Saudi branch in July. CEO Mohammed Ali Al-Madfai reported that the company had seen a 3,135 percent increase in online sales in 2020.


Startup of the Week: Botola Meals offers healthy diets

Updated 57 min 42 sec ago

Startup of the Week: Botola Meals offers healthy diets

JEDDAH: Obesity is a growing issue in Saudi Arabia. A study by the Sharik Association for Health Research found that the rate of obesity among Saudi adults totaled 35.6 percent in 2020.

Besides health issues, another study by the US-based University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in collaboration with Saudi Health Council and the World Bank, found that obesity increases the risk of death by COVID-19 by 48 percent, and may make vaccines against the disease less effective.

In a bid to help those suffering with their weight, entrepreneurs Mohammad Faden, Nofal Al-Jefri and Mohammad Al-Harthi in November 2019 set up Botola Meals, a healthy meal-prepping service. 

Botola is the Arabic word for heroism. “It may directly symbolize athletes and achievements, but in fact it is a deep philosophy,” Faden told Arab News. “Whatever the individual’s ambition to reach that goal is, it is in itself an achievement and a mark of heroism,” he added. Al-Jefri highlighted the fact that consumers are prone to purchasing meals that are quick to prepare. “We believe that the market needs and lacks this type of project specialized in healthy fast food, and when you specialize in a particular field, it enhances consumer confidence in your product,” Al-Jefri said. “Clean Eating Matters” is the restaurant’s slogan. Al-Harthi said that Botola Meals offers healthy diets that are not about depriving yourself, but about balance. “We also want to educate people about the importance of investing in themselves and their health in an easy and convenient way,” he said. Botola Meals also prepares customized plans to cater to the specific needs of customers, such as monitoring ingredients that cause allergies and eliminating carbohydrates if a customer is following a paleo diet.

“We sit down with the customer and cooperate as much as possible in providing what suits them,” Faden said.

The startup meal service sold about 45,000 meals in 2020 — roughly 120 meals a day.Botola Meals has one branch in Jeddah’s Al-Salama district, and is planning to open a second branch in Riyadh in 2023. The startup’s long-term plan is to expand across the Gulf and beyond.


Saudi Arabia aims to be Egypt’s top trading partner

Updated 14 June 2021

Saudi Arabia aims to be Egypt’s top trading partner

  • Saudi investors are especially interested in the water desalination and water treatment sector, says Egyptian Trade Minister

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia plans to be Egypt’s top trading partner within five years, said Saudi Commerce Minister Majid Al-Qasabi.

He made the pledge at the Egyptian-Saudi Joint Trade Committee on Monday.

The minister highlighted the presence of 6,225 Saudi companies operating in Egypt with investments amounting to some $30 billion.

At the same time, 518 Egyptian are estimated to operate in the Saudi market, with 285 Egyptian brands in the Kingdom.

Saudi investors are especially interested in the water desalination and water treatment sector, Egyptian Trade Minister Nevine Gamea told Asharq Business.

She added that the cooperation between the two countries was reflected in the trade volume, which exceeded $5.5 billion in 2020.

The volume of Egyptian investments in the Kingdom reached $1.4 billion at the end of last year, she added.