Exchange in the context of finance often conjures up images of busy trading floors where traders gesticulate and shout in deafening din. In the world of Bitcoin, things are much quieter. The Bitcoin exchanges, as many of them are, can be little more than a website and a piece of program running behind it. Many of these exchanges, often registered in offshore tax havens such as British Virgin Islands, dont have much of a physical existence.
Given how new Bitcoin is, it may not be surprising that the Bitcoin exchanges at large resemble the banking industry in the early days a little bit They often fail. This year, the industry is stigmatised by the fall of Mt. Gox, the longest lasting and erstwhile largest Bitcoin exchange based in Tokyo, Japan. In the aftermath, there was a wave of criticism of incumbent exchanges, which were referred to as single point of failure. Contrary to the popular demand, however, the single point of failure persisted. On the ruins of the failed Mt. Gox, new exchanges emerge and many prosper. Among them, China-based OKCoin and Huobi impress many with their meteoric rise from obscurity.
Both Huobi and OKCoin, the largest Chinese exchanges, had been questioned over the veracity of their claimed trading volumes. After one of the first accusations being reported by Bitcoin news website CoinDesk last year, despite consistent denials from these exchanges,similar suggestions popped up fairly regularly on the social media. However, skepticism notwithstanding, the China-based exchanges, exemplified by the two aforementioned, are making strides. Both have grown from nothing to be relatively large companies within a period of a year Both Huobi and OKCoin have over 150 employees each. Both appear to be on solid ground financially, at least judging by the way they spend and speed of expansion. In a recent interview, OKCoins CEO Star Xuconfirmed that his company had been profitable.
From left to right: Yan Chuan, Elon Zhao, Mike Gropp
All these lead to a question: Are the Chinese exchanges, despite their shortcomings, possess some special quality that makes them more successful?
Will Chinese Exchanges Dominate The World?
In a high-rise office building in Sanyuanqiao, Chaoyang district in Beijing, I met Elon, Mike, and Yan Chuan, three cofounders of BitBays, a new Bitcoin exchange. I first met Mike and Elon at the Shanghai Bitcoin Expo a week before, where they gave a presentation. Although a secure and globalized Bitcoin exchange sounded to me just vanilla marketing talk, I was curious as to how they implemented the concept. I was also interested to learn what they have to say about the exchange environment as well as other questions that many are concerned with.
I started the interview by asking what are the competitive advantages and disadvantages of the large Chinese exchanges such as Huobi and OKCoin. Acknowledging the success of the two, Elon listed three factors that he believed are behind the growth: The appeal of zero-fee, general lack of speculative assets in China and a highly developed Internet industry.
In spite of these advantages, Elon didnt believe that any of the two, in their current shape, stand much of a chance to be global leaders. First, there is the negative image associated with being Chinese. It is like an American sees an Arabic exchange or a North Korea exchange. Then, Chinese companies generally performed badly in terms of globalisation. Elon cited the example of WeChat: despite its phenomenal success in China, the mobile communication app remains a Chinese phenomenon. It is hard to imagine that a Bitcoin exchanges can do what Tencent, a much larger and deeper-pocketed company, cant.
However, Elon believed BitBays had the advantage as a late-starter. The company had little burden; it would be much harder to switch direction when you are halfway in the journey. Elon compared BitBays that he envisioned with Blockchain.info. Blockchain.info is the worlds largest online Bitcoin wallet service. Headquartered in Luxembourg, the wallet provider has employees distributed in many countries across the globe. According to an email reply from Roger Ver, cofounder of Blockchain.info: People help from Blockchain from all over the world. North and South America, Europe, Asia, and even South America. I dont think we have anyone in Africa yet though.