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Founded in 2013, Beijing-based Houbi Group operates one of the world's biggest cryptocurrency exchanges. Photo: handout

How Chinese cryptocurrency exchange Huobi is weathering the prolonged bitcoin bear market

  • Beijing-based Huobi is still profitable each month but is laying off people, says exchange unit CEO

One year can make a lot of difference in the roller-coaster world of cryptocurrencies.

At the start of 2018, China’s Huobi Group offered one senior executive the highest year-end bonus of 300 bitcoin, worth around US$3 million at the time. Now the digital-asset exchange is letting people go, after bitcoin plunged 80 per cent from its peak.

But despite trading volumes shrinking to just a tenth of its record at one point, the Beijing-based company is still profitable each month, according to Livio Weng Xiaoqi, chief executive of Huobi Global, the company’s main exchange business.

“We do not know how long the bear market will last, so it is still possible that we will struggle to survive,” Weng said in an interview at his Beijing office. “We have to plan in advance and spend money carefully.”

He declined to specify Huobi’s revenue, but said it is mostly generated from transaction fees.

Livio Weng Xiaoqi, CEO of Huobi Global, Huobi's main exchange business. Photo: handout

Exchanges are among the first and most obvious victims of the prolonged bear market in cryptocurrencies, which have wiped out more than US$600 billion in the total value of some 2,000 digital tokens since January 2018, according to data from CoinMarketCap, which ranks cryptocurrencies by their market value.

Last year’s market crash has been blamed on the bursting of a bubble in initial coin offerings, a largely unregulated crowdfunding method involving digital money, as well as the bitcoin cash “hard fork”, which led to a split in the fourth-largest cryptocurrency into two separate entities due to fundamental disagreements among its developers.

The cryptocurrency crunch has begun to bite. Leading ventures like Beijing-based Bitmain Technologies, the world’s biggest maker of specialised computers used for creating new units of digital money, and Switzerland-based software production studio ConsenSys have all announced plans for lay-offs.

While Huobi is still seeking to expand its main exchange business, which contributes over 70 per cent of its total revenue, the company is cutting staff in loss-making units like venture funding and news aggregation, according to Weng.

Earlier this month, Huobi shut down its subsidiary in Shenzhen, which employed about 30 people to do research and build new applications. The Huobi Info news app is now maintained by just a few staff, down from a couple of dozens at its peak. In total, the company still has a workforce of 1,300 employees globally, after cutting about 100 positions over the past weeks, Weng said.

Founded in 2013, Huobi was at one point the world’s biggest bitcoin exchange by trading volume, as the platform offered zero transaction fees to attract risk-loving Chinese retail investors. In September 2017, Beijing’s ban on cryptocurrency trades forced Huobi to migrate its exchange business to Singapore.

Huobi hosts a daily trading volume of US$370 million, about half of the trades on leading exchange Binance, according to CoinMarketCap.

More than 70 per cent of Huobi Global users are Chinese who live outside China or use a virtual private network service, judging from their user interface language settings. They are followed by Russian and English speakers, Weng said.

“Our greatest advantage over competitors is that we have licenses in all major countries – we are the only one among top global exchanges,” Weng said.

Regulators around the world are gearing up to regulate cryptocurrency exchanges, especially when they deal with real money. Aside from its main digital-asset trading platform, Huobi has obtained licenses to operate fiat-to-crypto exchanges in markets including the US, Japan, and Europe. By comparison, Binance has quit the US and Japan amid regulatory concerns, and instead expand into smaller nations like Malta and Uganda.

“Despite their success overseas, I think it would be very hard for them [Huobi] to compete with US exchanges locally,” said Joyce Yang, founder of New York-based Global Coin Research, which focuses on Asia’s cryptocurrency market.

“They can have a very successful business focusing on Asia and China, and they should really just double down there,” Yang said. “But in the exchange space, everyone is trying to hedge themselves and compare themselves with each other.”

Huobi rolled out a new platform for futures trading in December to challenge the likes of OKEx and BitMEX, and claimed to have accumulated over US$20 billion in trading volume within a month.

The company released a new app earlier this month called Huobi Chat, which is a mix of cryptocurrency wallet and messenger app, and aims to attract 1 million users within the first 50 days of its launch. Red banners hanging over Huobi’s Beijing offices remind employees of that target, and describe them as an “iron army”.

At the end of the day, such efforts need “a window of opportunity, another bull run, to pay off”, Weng said.