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Cryptoverse: Asian traders give bitcoin blast-off

Published 05/03/2024, 06:08
Updated 05/03/2024, 15:40
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A representations of cryptocurrencies in this illustration taken, January 24, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

By Jihoon Lee and Jaspreet Kalra

SEOUL/MUMBAI (Reuters) - Bitcoin's runaway rally is being driven by investors in Asia.

Traders in South Korea, China and other Asian countries are responsible for roughly 70% of bitcoin trading volumes, much like they were in 2021 when bitcoin last hit such heady highs, according to crypto exchange data from The Block.

Asia accounted for $791 billion of the $1.17 trillion worth of bitcoin traded in February, with North American investors lagging way behind with $113 billion, broadly reflecting a trend seen since November, the data shows.

In China, FOMO has gripped many small investors frustrated with an anaemic stock market. On popular messaging app WeChat, searches for "bitcoin" jumped 12-fold in February.

"I want to buy some bitcoin at a good price and hold," Mia Wang, a finance industry employee based in China's eastern province of Zhejiang, told Reuters. "It has jumped a lot and is expensive now, but I worry it won't have any correction."

Bitcoin rose above $69,200 on Tuesday, surpassing its November 2021 peak after an eye-popping 160% rise since early October, primarily driven by U.S. regulators approving spot bitcoin exchange-traded funds (ETFs). BlackRock (NYSE:BLK)'s iShares bitcoin trust has been a major beneficiary of such investment flows.

Traders have also poured into the world's biggest cryptocurrency ahead of April's "halving" event, which could reduce supply and push prices up. Supply of bitcoin is limited to 21 million, of which 19 million tokens have already been mined.

The legality of trading and owning of bitcoin varies across Asian jurisdictions, ranging from Japan which has comparatively liberal regulations to China where there's a ban. Spot bitcoin ETFs are banned in South Korea, but local brokers offer easy access to bitcoin futures ETFs.

KOREA GOES BIG ON BITCOIN

South Korea commands a 10% share of the bitcoin cash tokens and listed futures markets, estimates Hong Song-uk, a cryptocurrency analyst at NH Investment & Securities.

South Koreans have made a net investment of $23.4 million in the U.S.-listed 2X Bitcoin Strategy ETF this year, compared with $25.1 million in all of 2023, according to the Korea Securities Depository. In February, they also invested $6.89 million in Proshares Bitcoin Strategy ETF.

"Because trading of bitcoin ETFs has been banned here, more and more Koreans are buying bitcoin ETF futures, which is helping with its pop now," said Hong.

Bitcoin trading volumes on Upbit roughly trebled to 67,000 coins last week versus the previous week, the South Korean exchange said.

Yet U.S.-based exchanges such as Coinbase (NASDAQ:COIN), Bitstamp and Binance, which operate in some Asian markets, continue to have the biggest share of global volumes at 50%, according to research firm Kaiko.

Hong Kong has decriminalised crypto trading over the past year, while allowing bitcoin ATMs and shops to cater to small investors and even offshore Chinese financial institutions.

The city's largest bitcoin futures ETF, managed by CSOP Asset Management, has seen its assets under management swell five-fold in the past five months to over $100 million.

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A representations of cryptocurrencies in this illustration taken, January 24, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

There is also huge interest in India, where several local crypto exchanges operate legally, but more trading is done on offshore exchanges such as Binance and KuCoin which do not levy the 1% transaction monitoring tax that local operators do.

Between July 2022 and July 2023, Indians traded crypto worth 350,000 crore rupees via offshore crypto platforms, accounting for more than 90% of the total crypto trading volume by Indians, according to estimates from the Esya Centre, a local think-tank.

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