Since November 2021, when Bitcoin hit its all-time high of $69,000, the original cryptocurrency has lost 70 percent of its face value. And when Bitcoin falters, it takes everything else in crypto down with it. 

The entire crypto space has been a Jenga stack of interconnected time bombs for months now, getting ever more interdependent as the companies find new ways to prop each other up.

Which company blew out first was more a question of minor detail than the fact that a blow-out was obviously going to happen. The other blocks in the Jenga stack will have a hard time not following suit. 

Here’s a quick handy guide to the crypto crash — the systemic risks in play as of June 2022. When Bitcoin slips below $20,000, we’ll officially call that the end of the 2021 bubble.

Recent disasters

TerraUSD collapse — Since stablecoins — substitutes for dollars — are unregulated, we don’t know what’s backing them. In the case of TerraUSD (UST), which was supposed to represent $18 billion … nothing was backing it. UST crashed, and it brought down a cascade of other stuff. [David Gerard; Foreign Policy; Chainalysis Report]

Celsius crumbles — Celsius was the largest crypto lender in the space, promising ridiculously high yields from implausible sources. It was only a matter of time before this Ponzi collapsed. We wrote up the inevitable implosion of Celsius yesterday. [David Gerard]

Exchange layoffs — Coinbase, Gemini, Crypto.com, and BlockFi have all announced staff layoffs. Crypto exchanges make money from trades. In a bear market, fewer people are trading, so profits go downhill. Coinbase in particular had been living high on the hog, as if there would never be a tomorrow. Reality is a tough pill. [Bloomberg; Gemini; The Verge]

Stock prices down — Coinbase $COIN, now trading at $50 a share, has lost 80% of its value since the firm went public in June 2021. The company was overhyped and overvalued.

US crypto mining stocks are all down — Bitfarms ($BITF), Hut 8 Mining ($HUT), Bit Digital ($BTBT), Canaan ($CAN), and Riot Blockchain ($RIOT). Miners have been borrowing cash as fast as possible, and are finding the loans hard to pay back because Bitcoin has gone down.

UnTethering

Crypto trading needs a dollar substitute — hence the rise of UST, even as its claims of algorithmic backing literally didn’t make sense. What are the other options?

Tether — We’ve been watching Tether, the most popular and widely used stablecoin, closely since 2017. Problems at Tether could bring down the entire crypto market house of cards.

Tether went into 2020 with an issuance of 4 billion USDT, and now there are 72 billion USDT sloshing around in the crypto markets. As of May 11, Tether claimed its reserve held $83 billion, but this has dropped by several billion alleged “dollars” in the past month. There’s no evidence that $10.5 billion in actual dollars was sent anywhere, or even “$10.5 billion” of cryptos.

Tether is deeply entwined with the entire crypto casino. Tether invests in many other crypto ventures — the company was a Celsius investor, for example. Tether also helped Sam Bankman-Fried’s FTX exchange launch, and FTX is a major tether customer.

Tether’s big problem is the acerbic glare of regulators and possible legal action from the Department of Justice. We keep expecting Tether will face the same fate as Liberty Reserve did. But we were saying that in 2017. Nate Anderson of Hindenburg Research said he fully expects Tether execs to end the year in handcuffs. 

Other stablecoins — Jeremy Allaire and Circle’s USDC (54 billion) claims to be backed by some actual dollars and US treasuries, and just a bit of mystery meat. Paxos’ USDP (1 billion) claims cash and treasuries. Paxos and Binance’s BUSD (18 billion) claims cash, treasuries, and money market funds.

None of these reserves have ever been audited — the companies publish snapshot attestations, but nobody looks into the provenance of the reserve. The holding companies try very hard to imply that the reserves have been audited in depth. Circle claims that Circle being audited counts as an audit of the USDC reserve. Of course, it doesn’t.

All of these stablecoins have a history of redemptions, which helps boost market confidence and gives the impression that these things are as good as dollars. They are not. 

Runs on the reserves could still cause issues — and regulators are leaning toward full bank-like regulation.

Sentiment

There’s no fundamental reason for any crypto to trade at any particular price. Investor sentiment is everything. When the market’s spooked, new problems enter the picture, such as: 

Loss of market confidence — Sentiment was visibly shaken by the Terra crash, and there’s no reason for it to return. It would take something remarkable to give the market fresh confidence that everything is going to work out just fine.

Regulation — The US Treasury and the Federal Reserve were keenly aware of the spectacular collapse of UST. Rumour has it that they’ve been calling around US banks, telling them to inspect anything touching crypto extra-closely. What keeps regulators awake at night is the fear of another 2008 financial crisis, and they’re absolutely not going to tolerate the crypto bozos causing such an event.

GBTC — Not enough has been said about Grayscale’s Bitcoin Trust, and how it has contributed to the rise and now the fall in the price of bitcoin. GBTC holds roughly 3.4 percent of the world’s bitcoin.  

All through 2020 and into 2021, shares in GBTC traded at a premium to bitcoin on secondary markets. This facilitated an arbitrage that drew billions of dollars worth of bitcoin into the trust. GBTC is now trading below NAV, and that arbitrage is gone. What pushed bitcoin up in price is now working in reverse.

Grayscale wants to convert GBTC into a bitcoin ETF. GBTC holders and all of crypto, really, are holding out hope for the SEC to approve a bitcoin ETF, which would bring desperately needed fresh cash into the crypto space. But the chances of this happening are slim to none.

The bitcoins are stuck in GBTC unless the fund is dissolved. Grayscale wouldn’t like to do this — but they might end up being pressured into it. [Amy Castor]

Whales breaking ranks — Monday’s price collapse looks very like one crypto whale decided to get out while there was any chance of getting some of the ever-dwindling actual dollars out from the cryptosystem. Expect the knives to be out. Who’s jumping next?

Crypto hedge funds and DeFi

Celsius operated as if it was a crypto hedge fund that was heavily into DeFi. The company had insinuated itself into everything — so its collapse caused major waves in crypto. What other companies are time bombs?

Three Arrows Capital — There’s some weird stuff happening at 3AC from blockchain evidence, and the company’s principals have stopped communicating on social media. 3AC is quite a large crypto holder, but it’s not clear how systemically intertwined they are with the rest of crypto. Perhaps they’ll be back tomorrow and it’ll all be fine. [Update: things aren’t looking good. 3AC fails to meet lender margin calls.] [Defiant; Coindesk; FT]

BlockFi — Another crypto lender promising hilariously high returns. 

Nexo — And another. Nexo offered to buy out Celsius’ loan book. But Nexo offers Ponzi-like interest rates with FOMO marketing as well, and no transparency as to how their interest rates are supposed to work out.

Swissborg — This crypto “wealth management company” has assets under management in the hundreds of millions of dollars (or “dollars”), according to Dirty Bubble Media. [Twitter thread]

Large holdings ready for release

Crypto holders have no chill whatsoever. When they need to dump their holding, they dump.

MicroStrategy — Michael Saylor’s software company has bet the farm on Bitcoin — and that bet is coming due. “Bitcoin needs to cut in half for around $21,000 before we’d have a margin call,” Phong Le, MicroStrategy’s president, said in early May. MicroStrategy’s Bitcoin stash is now worth $2.9 billion, translating to an unrealized loss of more than $1 billion. [Bloomberg]

Silvergate Bank — MicroStrategy has a $205 million loan with Silvergate Bank, collateralized with Bitcoin. Silvergate is the banker to the US crypto industry — nobody else will touch crypto. Silvergate is heavily invested in propping up the game of musical chairs. If Silvergate ever has to pull the plug, almost all of US crypto is screwed. [David Gerard]

Bitcoin miners — Electricity costs more, and Bitcoin is worth less. As the price of Bitcoin drops, miners find it harder to pay business expenses. Miners have been holding on to their coins because the market is too thin to sell the coins, and borrowing from their fellow crypto bros to pay the bills since July 2021. But some miners started selling in February 2022, and more are following. [Wired]

Mt. Gox — at some point, likely in 2022, the 140,000 bitcoins that remained in the Mt. Gox crypto exchange when it failed in 2014 are going to be distributed to creditors. Those bitcoins are going to hit the market immediately, bringing down the price of bitcoin even further.

Feature image by James Meickle, with apologies to XKCD and Karl Marx.

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2 thoughts on “The Latecomer’s Guide to Crypto Crashing — a quick map of where we are and what’s ahead

  1. Terra was backed by a very unstable coin called Luna.
    So basically it was a split-capital investment trust but on a block chain, and without any actual investment, or trust.

    Anyone who remembers the early 2000s will know that split capital investment trust were a disaster, and it wasn’t due to the lack of block chains, or the fact that they had investments or trusts. It was due to them trying to create low-risk assets out of high risk assets.

    See also collateralised debt obligations in the late 2000s. The very problem that crypto was supposed to solve.

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