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Treasury official urges regulation of cryptocurrencies

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A senior U.S. Treasury official touring Asia has urged the region's banks and financial regulators to do more to tighten oversight of booming trading in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Sigal Mandelker, the Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said Friday that more needs to be done to prevent money laundering and other criminal activities using such transactions. 

Speaking to reporters in Tokyo after visiting China, Hong Kong and South Korea, she lauded recent moves to keep closer tabs on such dealings. South Korea, for one, has banned anonymous trading in cryptocurrencies. 

"We feel very strongly that we need to have this kind of regulation all over the world," Mandelker said. She noted that Japan and Australia are already regulating cryptocurrency trading.

"The EU, I understand, is moving very quickly in that direction and we think it's very important that similar regulations are happening in a number of other countries."

Mandelker said she expects the issue to be discussed at meetings of the Group of 20 industrial economies. She recently told Congress that money laundering related to cryptocurrencies was "an area of high focus" for the Treasury Department.

The U.S. started regulating such transactions in 2013 and considers traders and administrators of cryptocurrencies as "money transmitters" who are required to have strong anti-money laundering and other controls to prevent their use for illegal purposes, she said. It has imposed fines for violations of those regulations. Closer scrutiny in the U.S. is a negative for those who want to use the digital currencies, wrote Cowen & Co. analyst Jaret Seiberg in a research note. 

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"We continue to believe the long-term threat to crypto currency will be on national security grounds as the government is not going to want a currency that it cannot track," Seiberg noted. "Consumer issues also drive toward a ban on their use."

Financial regulators in Asia have struggled to keep up with a regional boom in cryptocurrency investing.

Japan, the world's largest market for bitcoin trading, is the only major advanced economy with a licensing system for digital currency intermediaries such as exchanges and payment providers. It moved to impose order on the gray zone for such dealings after a major trading platform, Mt. Gox, filed for bankruptcy protection, after masses of Bitcoin went missing, worth millions of dollars at that time.

South Korea, which is also among the biggest bitcoin markets, has been looking for ways to regulate trading. In December its financial regulator ruled out using bitcoin for derivative products such as futures.

The government said it was focusing on curbing tax evasion, money laundering and other criminal activities through crypto trading, requiring banks to identify who the investors are and where their money comes from and ending use of anonymous accounts for such dealings.

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