Canadian Regulators Take Stance on Binary Options in Canada

All 13 regulators in Canada warn residents to beware of binary options.

The Canadian Securities Administrators (CSA), comprised of the country’s thirteen key financial market regulators across their respective provinces, today issued a release that warns Canadians to ‘beware of binary options platforms’, as the CSA said there is no company currently registered in Canada to carry out such offerings to residents and labeled it as illegal in the country.

The coordinated effort appears to be driven by a number of clients that have been the victim of the scams of binary options providers purporting to be legitimate and based in either Canada or other jurisdictions. This follows recent related challenges that have surfaced.

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The fact that the stance has been reached simultaneously shows that trading binary options is becoming more popular for Canadians despite its illegal status. This status is something residents may not even be aware of, however, increasing awareness may be exactly what the regulators are trying to do with this latest circular.

Industry challenges highlighted

“Canadians are exposing themselves to the high risk of identity theft and fraud when signing up for these platforms that often request their credit card information,” said Louis Morisset, Chair of the CSA and President and CEO of the Autorité des marchés financiers, commenting in the CSA press release.

Mr. Morisset added: “The CSA warns investors that if they deal with these platforms, they risk the threat of thousands of dollars in unauthorized withdrawals on their credit cards and of being stuck with high-interest payments for a non-existent investment.”

The announcement referenced a url for clients to check the registration status of investment companies and financial services providers via the website, and the CSA listed a number of steps clients can take when conducting due diligence on financial services providers in general.

Some of the examples in the CSA announcement really highlighted some of the darkest sides of online brokerage corruption with regard to ethics. The announcement noted cases where clear market manipulation was employed, such as noting how firms would arbitrarily extend the options time-value if it was already in the money at expiration, in the hope that it would subsequently turn into a loss (instead of booking the winning profit that the client had rightfully earned).

In the FX market this could be compared to stop-hunting, or asymmetrical slippage, or less directly “spoofing” in securities markets with the intent to deceive for a financial gain. It is wrong in any form, and not a fault of the product but rather its facilitator.

CSA warns Canadians

The CSA compared this popular form of retail financial market speculation to gambling and “all or nothing” bets, and added that clients often cannot access profits in cases when gains are realized as the watchdog alleged such winnings didn’t exist.

Unfortunately, this can be true for firms that are not employing best practices or maintaining high standards of commercial honor, and that employ a more subtle form of scamming – this can go undetected for long periods of time until it’s too late.

It’s hard to really tell what standards a firm has when it has no regulatory status and just a website, and conversely, even regulated firms can partake in actions that harm clients financially. Thus proper due diligence is needed, but it is far more difficult to ascertain for unregulated firms.

This conundrum is further complicated when there are companies soliciting in jurisdictions where the product is not even permitted, such as in Canada. This trend of warnings has been paralleled elsewhere as regulators have been tormented by the clones and purported providers that aim to dupe investors, as evidenced by the large number of announcements, many of which have been covered by Finance Magnates.

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Product not regulated in Canada

While the regulator’s claims have merit, it appears that the CSA is perhaps also unaware of the legitimate providers that exist outside of Canada, regulated in other jurisdictions, and not recognized as gambling (although at the same time the CSA is not alone in taking this view). Binary options trading is coming under scrutiny for best-practices considering that related rules are still new and evolving in some places.

Nonetheless, the strong stance taken by the CSA today means that whether a firm is regulated elsewhere or not, the product is not regulated in Canada at the moment, and therefore the watchdog’s cannot protect clients, and any firms soliciting these products are doing so illegally.

Excluding the firms that are giving binary options trading a bad name, regarding to the real binary options industry that exists, if we compare certain exchange-traded index options in the US, a similar argument could be made that trading US stock options could be akin to gambling. One example is when a premium is wiped out due to an adverse market move which could create a 100% loss scenario while the same move in the other direction could have doubled the options intrinsic value.

It really depends on the trading strategy and style (and contract specifications) with regard to whether trading is more akin to gambling or investing (I think the same can be said for almost any asset class where leverage and fast trading can be employed).

Trading or gambling?

Since many binary options contracts have embedded profit/loss targets (in order to appeal to beginners and simplify trading), from a different context this can be considered all or nothing (for the amount invested) and thus appear like a gamble or roll of the dice.

Yet, even highly calculated day trading in blue chip stocks, with pre-determined risk/reward ratio, may either have their stop-loss triggered or limit-hit, in a very small amount of time, such as during a large trade size from a proprietary day trader looking to scalp a quick price movement. The context here is important for differentiating between investing and trading, and trading versus gambling.

Nonetheless, the CSA is aiming to protect its residents and the move is understandable as Canadian investors would be taking huge risks potentially with binary options firms where there is no oversight or remedial options, and even worse, potential scam artists – as described in the update from CSA.

Future prospects in Canada

While some binary options providers may be regulated elsewhere yet soliciting in Canada, the CSA doesn’t recognize the difference, and thus it is putting those providers into the same pool of potentially flagrant companies.

Yet the CSA really doesn’t have any other choice, without proper regulatory guidelines in place that could potentially create a legitimate offering in Canada and which could improve market integrity while protecting clients through education and enforcing best practices for binary options providers. At the moment, this is all wishful thinking, yet the hard stance today could be a stepping stone for future action(s).

Unfortunately, as is the case in most financial markets and industries, the acts of a few unscrupulous firms and people can make it more difficult for legitimate providers and the existing marketplace. Just yesterday, Israel’s financial markets watchdog issued a similar order.

Ideally, the CSA could conduct research on how binary options could be regulated and add revenue for Canadian regulators, while opening new markets, if a new licensing segment was established. But that seems to be the furthest thing from the current tone of today’s announcement, yet a valid future potential course of action if binary options continue to be embraced by other regulators – it could maybe one day be legal in Canada.

From a larger context, the aspects of best-execution, among other areas, are still a challenge as accurate price and fair dealing underline the goals of market integrity.

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