Regulating virtual currency in the Philippines

By Paula P Plaza, ACCRA Law Offices
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Virtual Currency (VC) collides with the current monetary system that is in place all over the world. VC is any type of digital unit that is used as a medium of exchange – a veritable currency that exists in the digital world. Unlike cash, however, VC is neither issued nor guaranteed by a central bank, nor backed by any commodity. The value of VC depends solely on its supply and demand, and the integrity of its system.

Paula P PlazaAssociateACCRA Law Offices
Paula P Plaza
Associate
ACCRA Law Offices

Since it is electronic currency, VC is easily transferable and can be used to pay for goods and services sold through the internet. VC transfers may be made with nominal processing fees as they do not require a lot of facilities and intermediaries.

Bitcoins may be purchased from an online exchange, and then traded from one personal “wallet” to another. This wallet is a small database that you can download and store on your mobile phone or computer. Each wallet is anonymous since neither names nor personal information is exchanged, which safeguards its users from identity theft.

When bitcoin is transferred between different wallets, each transaction is added to a shared public ledger or blockchain which is available to every computer in the network. This ledger is made public to prevent fraud, and protected by cryptography.

As such, VCs may have a significant impact on the way that ordinary Filipinos do commercial transactions. First, overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who send remittances to the Philippines may benefit from VCs’ minimal processing fees. Second, according to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), 86% of Filipino households do not have bank accounts due to a lack of sufficient capital and proper identification requirements. That 86% will now have access to the facilities of VC exchanges, which do not require such capital or identification requirements. Third, being the fastest growing smartphone market in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with more than 40 million internet users, the Philippine economy will definitely benefit from increased mobile commercial transactions.

On 19 January 2017, the BSP approved BSP Circular No. 944, known as the Guidelines for VC Exchanges (BSP circular). This is an official recognition of the legitimacy of VCs – a progressive stance similar to the favourable cryptocurrency regulations issued by the US, Canada, Belgium, and Germany. In contrast, China banned the use of cryptocurrencies in its capital markets, while Malaysia cautioned its citizens and has yet to decide if it will ban the trading of cryptocurrencies.

The BSP circular regulates VC transactions, and governs its operations and reporting obligations.

  • The circular governs VC exchanges in the Philippines that engage in activities that provide facility for the conversion or exchange of legal currency to VC or vice-versa. A VC exchange must obtain a certificate of registration (COR) to operate as a remittance and transfer company. To date, two companies in the Philippines have been issued a COR for this purpose.
  • VC transaction amounts are no longer unlimited. Payouts of more than PhP500,000 (US$9,750) or its foreign currency equivalent, in any single transaction, must only be made via checque payment or direct credit to bank deposit accounts.
  • To ensure the safety of its customers and the stability of the system, a VC exchange is required to adopt risk management and security control mechanisms (ex: install anti-malware solutions, conduct backups) and maintain an internal control system.
  • To support the costs of regulation, a VC exchange must pay registration and annual service fees.
  • Finally, a VC exchange must comply with notification and reporting requirements. Violation of these requirements (i.e. erroneous, delayed, or unsubmitted reports) will subject the VC exchange to penalties ranging from monetary penalties, fines, cancellation of registration, and sanctions to enforcement actions.

On 29 December 2017, the BSP issued a warning advisory on the use of VCs. The BSP clarified that notwithstanding its previous circular, it does not endorse VCs as legal tender, store of value or an investment vehicle. The advisory was issued after the BSP observed that an increasing number of individuals or entities may be tempted to “invest” in VC pyramid schemes disguised as initial coin offerings or VC investment products.

According to BSP governor Nestor Espenilla Jr, the Philippines already ranks third globally in terms of bitcoin use. The monthly trading volume in the country is estimated to be about US$6 million from only US$2 million in the previous year.

Financial regulators must remain vigilant to ensure that VC transactions will not be used for money laundering, terrorist financing, and other illegal purposes. While financial innovation must definitely be encouraged, the ordinary Filipino users of VCs must always be protected.

Paula P Plaza is an associate in the Litigation & Dispute Resolution Department of ACCRA Law Offices

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ACCRA Law Offices

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