A worrying trend

DUBLIN: The rising popularity of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin is “of great concern,” according to Derville Rowland, one of the top officials at Ireland’s central bank.

“Crypto assets are quite a speculative, unregulated investment,” and people should be “really aware they could lose the whole of that investment,” the central bank’s director general for financial conduct said in an interview.

Rowland, whose department at Ireland’s central bank is known for having imposed heavy fines on some of the nation’s biggest financial firms, joins a host of central bankers who have raised the alarm on crypto investments.

Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey has warned cryptocurrencies have no intrinsic value and that people should only buy them if they’re prepared to lose their money.

Last week Bank of Japan governor Haruhiko Kuroda added his voice to the chorus of concern, noting bitcoin’s “extraordinarily high” volatility. Bitcoin has risen about 30% year to date.

Rowland is formidable voice in regulation. In July she will take over as chairwoman of the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA)’s investment management standing committee – the group which helps prepare regulations for the funds industry.

Her rise to prominence has been as the face of the Irish central bank’s enforcement investigations. The regulator has recently fined or is investigating most of Ireland’s retail banks for mortgage overcharging.

In March it fined Davy, the nation’s biggest securities firm, for breaches that ultimately resulted in the resignations of the CEO and other executives.

That firm is now for sale as a result of the fallout. Rowland said at the time Davy “need only look in the mirror” when it “asks itself how things went so catastrophically wrong.”

Cryptocurrencies aren’t the only digital investments causing unease for regulators.

Attention is also focused on the so-called “gamification” of stock investing, which Rowland expects to become an issue for Europe soon.

Online brokerages such as Robinhood Markets Inc have brought a slew of mom and pop investors into the US market and critics accuse them of turning trading into a social activity.

Readers of online platforms like Reddit have played havoc with shares of firms such as GameStop Corp and AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc and people could be exposed if they are effectively using message boards as a substitute for investment advice.

The European Securities and Markets Authority has held discussions on the issue, as well as Ireland’s central bank, Rowland said.

While there’s not yet a time-line for any new rules, regulations need to be “technology neutral,” she said, “so that you’re not getting better protections in older paper based processes then you are in more online processes.”Rowland has long been a champion of greater diversity in financial services, which she says could help improve regulation of the industry.

Decision making, risk control and performance are all improved with diversity, she said, adding that the industry has “has a very long way to travel.”

“The investment management sector is not diverse, and needs to work considerably harder on this topic. It’s something that we have brought to the attention of boards, and it’s something that is dear to my heart.” —Bloomberg

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