Cryptocurrency exchanges are growing in the Philippines, despite a downturn last year in the value of the virtual currencies, due to growing popular demand and lenience among regulators.

Authorities in the developing Southeast Asian country have permitted at least 29 exchanges of cryptocurrency following three that the central bank said it approved this week, according to domestic media reports. 

That count, which is high for Asia, follows a total of 10 exchanges permitted by the central bank. The Cagayan Economic Zone Authority in the archipelago’s far north has issued 19 additional permits, the zone’s website said in October. 

These exchanges feed into the development of a fast-growing financial technology, or fintech, sector in the Philippines, said Jonathan Ravelas, chief market strategist with Banco de Oro UniBank in Metro Manila.

“Fintech appears to be very advanced in the Philippines,” he said. Consumers, he said, “eventually look at the mobility of having it in mobile wallets, [which] gives them flexibility to use money.”

Uses for cryptocurrency

Cryptocurrency, most notably its standard bearer Bitcoin, became an investment vehicle in much of the world about a decade ago. But a 70% drop in Bitcoin prices last year weakened enthusiasm for crypto overall. 

​Filipinos generally pick more traditional investments such as equities, Ravelas said, but young companies are eyeing cryptocurrency to raise capital, a process called initial coin offerings. Seven in 10 Filipinos have no bank account, he added, so virtual currency gives those consumers a new option for making payments.

That population would be able to jump on a currency source that’s open to anyone and transparent because of its online transaction ledger called the blockchain.

Government support

The central bank governor may see the cryptocurrency trade as part of his bigger plan to advance the country’s electronic payment systems, analysts say.

Cryptocurrency “probably goes toward those efforts at facilitating electronic payments. I think that’s the key point,” said Christian de Guzman, vice president and senior credit officer with Moody’s Sovereign Risk Group in Singapore.

The 2016 National Payment Systems Act, among others, “bolsters the central bank’s capacity to foster the efficiency of payment systems as pipelines of funds in the financial market,” the authority’s governor Benjamin Diokno said in a speech last month.

The central bank and Securities and Exchange Commission are “working towards regulating cryptocurrencies to protect the Filipino people,” domestic Bitcoin and blockchain news website Bitpinas said in November. “This is a positive step towards adoption as this move will give users security and confidence in dealing with it.”

Said de Guzman: “A certain segment of the population is certainly very technically sophisticated.” 

First mover advantage?

The Philippines, though later than much of East Asia in picking up cryptocurrency, would eventually stand out if regulators embrace rather than restrict it.

China and South Korea have placed curbs on certain types of crypto trade. Both banned initial coin offerings in 2017, and China ordered the closure of cryptocurrency exchanges as part of that move. South Korea has at least 21 exchanges.

​Japan is widely seen as Asia’s most liberal place for cryptocurrency. That country, which has let 17 exchanges fully register, overtook China in 2017 as the biggest Bitcoin market in the world with 58 percent of the global volume. Japan declared Bitcoin legal tender in 2017.

The Philippines in its current groove should take a “first mover advantage,” said Kenneth Ameduri, financial analyst and CEO of the crypto-specialized news website Crush the Street in the United States.

“I think the Philippines understand that it’s going to be a very big deal to be involved with cryptocurrency, because it’s going to happen no matter what, and if they’re the ones to treat this capital best, the capital is going to flow there and the other jurisdictions are just going to completely miss out,” Ameduri said.

The Philippines might eventually look harder at the role of cryptocurrency in falsifying tax payments and paying for illegal drugs, de Guzman said. Taxation and drugs are already sticky issues without crypto.

Exchanges contacted for this report declined comment.