MAS Cautions Investors on Risks in Trading Binary Options with Unregulated Platforms

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Binary options are inherently risky and complex products and are often traded speculatively. ESMA and NCAs have also observed that their offer to retail clients has been increasingly featured by aggressive marketing techniques as well as a lack of transparent information that do not allow retail clients to understand the risks underlying these products.

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ESMA and NCAs have expressed widespread concerns on the increasing number of retail clients trading in these products and losing their money. These concerns are also supported by the numerous complaints received from retail clients across the EU who have suffered significant detriment when trading binary options. The call for evidence disclosed a general concern from the first category of respondents and, in particular, product providers, that the proposed measure would adversely impact their business.

A number of individuals also complained about the proposed measure and expressed their willingness to continue trading in binary options. In reviewing this measure, ESMA will tackle any evasive practices that may emerge. If the measure is not renewed after 3 months, it will expire. Reference is made, for example, to all-or-nothing options, up-or-down options, trend options, digital options and one-touch options.

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Furthermore, several NCAs have voiced concerns about the risks related to the inherent features of binary options as well as the in-built and unmanageable conflicts of interest related to the offer of these products to retail clients.

These risks are often amplified by the aggressive marketing techniques used by binary option providers.

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Several NCAs have also indicated that these products attract compulsive gambling behaviour. A study which binary options are better reviews the UK-FCA demonstrated that some investors place many bets within the space of a few days or weeks, despite losing money on a cumulative basis.

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After taking the relevant criteria and factors into consideration, ESMA has concluded that there is a significant investor protection concern for the following reasons. The complexities of the border trading on binary options structure pose a risk of significant information asymmetries between providers and retail clients and hence raise significant investor protection concerns.

Furthermore, there are a number of inherent features of binary options that make them complex and difficult for retail clients to understand. In particular, the pricing structure requires retail clients to accurately assess the value of the option in relation to the expected probability of the reference event occurring.

Although retail clients may use common research and border trading on binary options tools, such as the Black-Scholes formula, to price binary options, retail clients face significant information asymmetries compared to providers.

Providers have much greater access to information and systems to properly price and value these products. In particular, binary option providers have access to historical price data — for example, recorded price feeds from an exchange or commercial data provider in relation to a given underlying — which is not generally available to retail clients.

Binary option providers also have much more experience in pricing contracts than retail clients typically do and are more likely to have developed sophisticated pricing methodologies. Furthermore, retail clients may not appreciate that if a trade has a very short term, or if a position is closed close to expiry, factors used to price options such as historic volatility have little impact on the option's value.

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This limits the ability of retail clients to properly value the option, even when using available pricing tools. Therefore, in ESMA's view, it is difficult for retail clients to make an informed assessment of the risk-return profile of the product.

In such a case, a client can exit their position prior to the binary option's expiry by selling it back to the provider or otherwise forfeiting the conditional payment at expiry. In return, the client receives some payment from the provider, as per the continual price offered by the provider depending on the difference between the current market price and the fixed strike price of the underlying and the time to expiry. This feature adds a further layer of complexity, which makes it difficult for retail clients to value these products accurately or make a positive return on investment.

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This is because retail clients would need to continuously monitor the pricing and estimate the expected outcome. As such the pricing, performance and settlement of binary options is not standardised. This impairs retail clients' ability border trading on binary options understand the terms of the product.

In addition, providers often require clients to acknowledge that the prices used to determine the value of the binary option may differ from the price available in the respective underlying market. This means that it may not always be possible for retail clients to check the accuracy of the prices received from the provider.

These factors make it extremely complex for retail clients to value binary options objectively. The high level of complexity and poor degree of transparency associated with binary options therefore confirms that a significant investor protection concern exists. Some trade organisations asked for an explicit exclusion for securitised derivatives, touch-options and digital options, on the grounds that these products were used as an alternative for a stop-loss order or could serve as a hedge.

However, the features and characteristics of binary options, which are the fundamental source of the identified detriment to retail clients, remain the same whether border trading on binary options not these products are traded on a trading venue or securitised. In other words, binary options on a trading venue would still present a negative expected return to investors, while offering a payoff structure which is not well-suited to hedging or to performing other economic functions that could form a compensating benefit.

Notably, these properties hold true at any time prior to the expiry of the option.

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The existence of a secondary market in particular, therefore, does not change the fundamental characteristics that cause detriment to retail clients. The particular features or components of binary options 27 Binary options are typically very short-term investments, in some cases expiring minutes after being entered into, which makes them extremely speculative in nature.

This is exacerbated by the typical short term of binary options. Trades are mostly of very short terms and investors stand either to make a very large return or to lose their entire investment. These fundamental features are also found in gambling products, which are linked with addictive behaviour and poor outcomes for consumers. This business model places the provider's interests in direct conflict with those of its clients, which increases the risk that the provider may manipulate the price of the underlying at expiry of the binary option or extend the term of the binary option by seconds or milliseconds so as to avoid having to pay out on the option contract.

The risk of conflict of interest is particularly acute for binary options, as the payment structure of these products is determined by whether the underlying has reached the specified strike price at expiry. The size of potential detrimental consequences and the degree of disparity between returns for investors and the risk of loss 33 Client numbers in relation to these products are fluid due to the relatively short life span of binary options client accounts and the cross-border nature of activities.

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Reported figures indicate that clients made a profit from trading but made a loss when taking into account the impact of transaction fees. This indicates that clients may not understand the impact of transaction fees on the performance of their account. The type of clients involved 37 Binary options are widely marketed, distributed or sold to the retail mass market. However, the complexity of binary options, as described in this Decision, makes it difficult for the majority of retail unlike professional clients to properly understand and assess the actual risk they incur when dealing with these products.

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The evidence of losses observed by ESMA in retail client accounts described in this Decision demonstrates that binary options are unsuited to retail clients.

Marketing and distribution activities in relation to binary options 38 Although binary options are complex products, they are offered to retail clients most commonly via electronic trading platforms, without the provision of investment advice or portfolio management. However, this assessment does not prevent binary options providers or their clients or potential clients proceeding with a transaction, subject to a simple warning to the client.

This can occur where the client has provided no or insufficient information to the provider as to their knowledge and experience in the investment field relevant to the specific type of product as well as where the provider has concluded that the product is not appropriate for the client.

They include, for border trading on binary options, the use of sponsorship arrangements or affiliations with major sports teams, which give the misleading impression that complex and speculative products such as binary options are suitable for the retail mass market by promoting general brand name awareness.

Because the average life span of a client account can be relatively short, this can place a certain pressure on providers to maintain a steady stream of new clients, which could incentivise providers to adopt aggressive marketing and sales techniques that are not in the retail client's best interests.

They are typically targeted to attract retail clients and incentivise trading. Retail clients can consider these promotions as a central product feature to the point they may fail to properly assess the level of risks associated with the product. Given the feature of negative expected returns associated with trading in binary options, this often means that clients lose more money from trading more frequently than they otherwise would have without receiving a bonus offer.

Some examples that are not compliant with the obligation for information to be fair, clear and not misleading and which use techniques drawing clients' attention but not necessarily reflecting the suitability or overall quality of the financial instrument or practice relate to: i website content or information presented in a language that is not a national language of the Member State where the services are to be provided, or presented border trading on binary options the official language but based on translations of insufficient quality, such that this is likely to hamper the comprehension of the information presented; and ii presenting information that emphasises the possible benefits associated with investing in binary options without also giving a fair and border trading on binary options indication of the relevant risks, suggesting that these speculative products are suitable or appropriate for all investors or that making a return is a simple task.

The degree to which the financial instrument may threaten investors' confidence in the financial system 50 The combination of the degree of complexity and lack of transparency of binary options, the negative expected return of the product for investors, the lack of reasonable investment objectives; the misleading and aggressive nature of many marketing and distribution activities, conflicts of interest for providers as well border trading on binary options the size of potential detrimental consequences, all contribute to retail clients losing confidence in the financial system.

This concern is even more significant considering the high number of retail clients of binary option providers and the number of complaints in respect of these products. From the perspective of the risks and the investor detriment addressed in this Decision, several provisions have therefore remained substantially unchanged. However, disclosure-based rules alone — including improved information on costs — are clearly insufficient to tackle the complex risk arising from the marketing, distribution or sale of binary option to retail clients.

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Based on the description of investor protection concerns in relation to binary options in particular their complexity, riskiness and expected negative returnit is clear that such investor detriment cannot be entirely and adequately controlled through the mere application of these rules. This type of disclosure does not sufficiently draw clients' attention to the concrete consequences negative expected returns of investing in these products and does not address concerns inherent to the product's features.

However, this type of disclosure does not sufficiently draw retail clients' attention to the consequences of investing in binary options in particular.

For example, the performance ratio only relates to the individual binary option product and does not provide the client with the overall percentage of retail client accounts that lose money. However, the suitability requirements are only applicable to the provision of investment advice and portfolio management and hence they are usually irrelevant in relation to the marketing, distribution or sale of binary options, which mostly occurs via electronic platforms, without the provision of investment advice or portfolio management.

If the provider considers the product to be inappropriate for the client or potential client, the provider shall warn them. Furthermore, additional information has to be published by market participants and in particular investment firms are required to disclose the top five venues where they executed client orders and the outcomes achieved when executing those orders. Increased transparency around order execution helps clients to better understand and to evaluate the quality of the firm's execution practices and thus to better assess the quality of the overall service provided to them.

In addition, improved information on how firms execute clients' orders, assists clients when monitoring that the firm has taken all sufficient steps to achieve the best possible results for the client. The requirements in relation to best execution also strengthen the best execution standard in relation to OTC products by requiring firms to check the fairness of the price proposed to the client when executing orders or taking decisions to deal in OTC products, including bespoke products.

However, the best execution rules by themselves do not address the risks linked to the product's features, other than execution, and to the wide marketing, distribution or sale of these products to retail clients. Despite ESMA's extensive use of its border trading on binary options instruments to ensure a consistent and effective application of the applicable existing regulatory requirements, the investor protection concerns persists.

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This highlights that, for the reasons set out in this section, these requirements do not address the concern identified.

These rules require providers manufacturing financial instruments including therefore binary options for sale to clients to ensure that the products are designed to meet the needs of an identified target market of end clients within the relevant category of clients; that the strategy for distribution of the products is compatible with the identified target market; and that the providers border trading on binary options reasonable steps to ensure that the financial instruments are distributed to the identified target market and periodically review the identification of border trading on binary options target market and the performance of the product.

Binary options providers shall understand the financial instruments they offer or recommend, assess the compatibility of the instrument with the needs of the client to whom it provides investment services, also taking into account the identified target market of end clients, and ensure that financial instruments are offered or recommended only when it is in the interest of the client. Furthermore, binary options providers that would distribute a financial instrument not manufactured by them shall have appropriate arrangements in place to obtain and understand the relevant border trading on binary options concerning the product approval process, including the identified target market and the characteristics of the product.

Considering the features of binary options high degree of losses, negative expected return, short term of contracts, complexity of pricing structures, and in general the lack of reasonable investment objectivesNCAs and ESMA are of the view that no positive retail target market could be determined.

MAS Cautions Investors on Risks in Trading Binary Options with Unregulated Platforms

Therefore, this measure is necessary to address the threat. These entities have also been requested to ensure that clients are informed of the cost they would have to assume if they decided to close their position upon purchasing such products and, in the case of CFDs and forex products, that they are warned that, due to leverage, the losses could be greater than the amount initially paid to purchase the relevant product.

In addition, they must obtain from the client a handwritten or recorded verbal statement that allows them to prove that the client is aware that the product they are going to acquire is particularly complex and that the ES-CNMV considers that it is not suitable for a retail client.

Furthermore, the advertising material used by the entities subject to the CNMV's action to promote these products must always contain a warning about the difficulty of understanding the products and the fact that ES-CNMV considers that these products are not suitable for retail clients because of their complexity and the level of risk they carry.