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Breaking: ECB to Scale Down Massive Stimulus Program, but Prolong Its Duration

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The European Central Bank (ECB) has decided to scale back the size of its massive bond-buying program but extend its duration, a sign that policymakers were encouraged by the economy’s performance through much of 2017.

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ECB Decision

Officials voted to maintain zero-bound interest rates on Thursday following a high-profile Board meeting. The deposit rate was also left at -0.4%, continuing its policy of negative deposit facility first introduced back in 2014.

In reaching the decision, the ECB said it would scale back the size of its monthly asset purchase program beginning in January. From that point on, the net asset purchases will be limited to €30 billion from the current rate of  €60 billion, and continue until the end of September. However, the Governing Council has given itself the scope it needs to extend the bond-purchase program beyond that point if necessary.

The ECB is just one of several central banks looking to introduce gradual policy tightening. Earlier this summer, the Bank of Canada (BOC) joined the U.S. Fed in raising interest rates. The Bank of England (BOE) is also expected to follow suite sometime this year.

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Euro Drops

The euro declined sharply after the decision was publicized. At press time, the EUR/USD exchange rate was down roughly half a percent to 1.1756. The common currency had rallied sharply during the previous session as the dollar pared back its most recent advance.

The euro has been one of this year’s best-performing currency, as investors took cues from a resilient regional recovery. Gross domestic product (GDP) expanded at a quarterly rate of 0.6% between July and September, following an increase of 0.5% and 0.6% in the previous two quarters.

Annual inflation rose sharply at the start of the year, but has since moderated. The consumer price index (CPI) came in at 1.5% year-over-year in September, unchanged from August but higher than the rates seen for much of the summer.

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Federal Reserve Hikes Interest Rates for Third Time This Year, Keep 2018 Policy Outlook Unchanged

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Federal Reserve Building

The Federal Reserve moved ahead with its third rate hike of the year Wednesday, signaling renewed confidence in the domestic economy. In doing so, policymakers affirmed their outlook for three more upward adjustments in 2018.

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Fed Vote

As expected, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) voted to raise the federal funds rate by 25 basis points to 1.5% on Wednesday. That was the third quarter-point adjustment of the year, with the previous occurring in June.

Seven FOMC members voted for the measure while two dissented.

The central bank also confirmed it would increase the monthly pace of reducing its balance sheet beginning to $20 billion beginning in January from $10 billion currently.

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“This change highlights that the committee expects the labor market to remain strong, with sustained job creation, ample opportunities for workers and rising wages,” central bank Chair Janet Yellen told reporters Wednesday following the decision.

Although Wednesday wasn’t Yellen’s final rate decision as head, it was the last to feature the quarterly projection materials. Yellen will step aside in February as Jerome Powell takes a the chair.

Growth Outlook

Policymakers upwardly revised their outlook on the domestic economy, arguing that volatile weather failed to tame a deepening recovery. The data certainly corroborate that point after the Commerce Department confirmed a faster pace of expansion in the third quarter. In fact, the U.S. economy strung together its fastest six-month expansion in years betwen April and September.

The Fed revised its 2018 growth outlook to 2.5% from 2.1% previously.

“Hurricane-related disruptions and rebuilding have affected economic activity, employment and inflation in recent months but have not materially altered the outlook for the national economy,” the central bank said.

Despite a more bullish outlook, the Fed gave no indication it would adopt a more hawkish rate-hike path. This moderate approach is expected to continue under the guidance of Jerome Powell in February. The Fed’s median forecast pegged the benchmark interest rate at 2.1% at the end of 2018. Analysts say that could reflect ongoing concern over sluggish inflation and wage growth.

Average hourly earnings have lagged behind the historic average throughout the recovery, raising concerns about the quality of jobs being created in the labor market. Meanwhile, the Fed’s preferred gauge of inflation – the core personal consumption expenditures (PCE) index – averaged just 1.6% annually in October. That’s below the Fed’s target of 2% annually.

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Swiss Banks Join Forces to Launch Ethereum Platform

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Switzerland’s largest banks have converged on a new blockchain initiative powered by the Ethereum network. The new program will be implemented just in time for new regulations related to counter-party reference data.

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Banking giant UBS announced Monday it has united with Barclays, KBC, SIX and Thomson Reuters to advance the MiFID II data collection project. MiFID II is a revamped version of the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive, which is intended to offer greater protection for investors. MiFID II officially comes into force Jan. 3, 2018.

The joint program will be powered by Ethereum smart contracts, and will be run on the Microsoft Azure cloud platform. Specifically, it will allow participants to align their Legal Entity Identifier (LEI) reference data against industry consensus. In other words, it will allow financial institutions to identify and sort out anomalies. The smart contracts will reconcile anonymized reference data on the blockchain without compromising the bank’s exclusive access to the source data.

The program was incubated in London at a UBS blockchain development lab.

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“Traditionally, a firm such as ours quality checks data against multiple sources but we do not have a quality baseline against peers”, Christophe Tummers, Head of Data at UBS, said in a statement released Monday. “Through using blockchain-inspired smart contracts, the reconciliation of data can happen in almost real-time for all participants, anonymously.”

UBS blockchain strategist Emmanuel Aidoo said this was an important project because it “establishes blockchain benefits in a broader context than clearing and settlement.”

Blockchain technology has been well received by the traditional banking community, which views the new technology as a conduit for future growth, transparency and resiliency. However, these same institutions have been much more critical of blockchain-based cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin and ether.

The announcement had no discernible impact on ether prices. The world’s second-largest cryptocurrency by market cap continued to trade around $470 U.S. Ether briefly traded at record highs over the weekend before giving up gains ahead of the planned launch of bitcoin futures. Ethereum continues to be the platform of choice for developers, startups and financial institutions looking to leverage smart contract capability.

Disclaimer: The author owns bitcoin, Ethereum and other cryptocurrencies. He holds investment positions in the coins, but does not engage in short-term or day-trading.

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South Korea Loosens Grip on ICOs

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Initial coin offerings (ICOs) will not be banned in South Korea after all, according to a recent decision by the central government. Although the market will still be governed by strict regulations, institutional players will have the opportunity to invest in the burgeoning market.

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ICOs Will Not Be Banned

South Korean newspaper Chosun reported Friday that the government is looking to regulate the ICO market and will allow institutional investors to participate in the controversial crowdfunding model. Chosun revealed that several government agencies have formed a task force to sort out a regulatory framework for ICOs. They include the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, Financial Services Commission, Fair Trade Commission, Financial Supervisory Commission and Ministry of Justice.

The task forces are investing the possibility of taxing cryptocurrency investors, as well as implementing Know Your Customer (KYC) and Anti-Money Laundering (AML) policies for institutional investors. These protocols have already been adopted elsewhere and currently form the basis of the Simple Agreement for Future Tokens (SAFT) protocol.

A task force spokesperson told Chosun:

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“Currently, the task force is considering imposing stricter regulations for investor and consumer protection within the cryptocurrency market.” The spokesperson added “in regards to ICOs, the government will likely impose regulations to enable institutional investors to invest in ICOs.”

That being said, South Korea will still keep a tight lid on public access to ICOs, with the spokesperson clarifying that only institutional investors will be able to enter the market.

The spokesperson added: “It is not possible to allow any citizen of South Korea to invest in ICOs. However, the government may allow institutional investors that meet capital requirements established by the Financial Supervisory Commission.”

South Korea has adopted a fairly laissez faire approach to cryptocurrency, which has made the Asian nation a prime destination for traders. The South Korean yuan is the third most traded fiat currency involved with cryptos, behind only the Japanese yen and U.S. dollar. South Korean exchanges were at the center of the latest bitcoin rally that took prices north of $19,000.

Last month, South Korea’s Financial Supervisory Service (FSS) said it had no plans to monitor cryptocurrency exchanges. According to FSS head Choe Heung-sik, “supervision will come only after the legal recognition of digital tokens as a legitimate currency.”

Disclaimer: The author owns bitcoin, Ethereum and other cryptocurrencies. He holds investment positions in the coins, but does not engage in short-term or day-trading.

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock. 

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