- By Amy Castor and David Gerard
“hello I am Don’t Kwoff, yes I may look like Do Kwon with a fake moustache and wig but rest assured I am a completely separate person.”
Deploying more capital — steady, lads
Do Kwon, co-founder of Terraform Labs and creator of the failed UST/luna cryptocurrency pair that took down the rest of crypto when it collapsed, was arrested in Montenegro on March 23. Kwon was detained at Podgorica Airport with falsified documents. [Twitter; CoinDesk; YNA, in Korean]
Also arrested was Han Chang-Joon, Terraform’s former chief financial officer. The two were sitting in a private plane bound for Dubai when authorities nabbed them. They used forged travel documents from Costa Rica and also had documents from Belgium and South Korea on them. Three laptops and five mobile phones were also seized. [Pobjeda, in Montenegrin; DLNews]
Kwon was wanted by South Korea for violating capital market rules (by stealing everyone’s money). South Korea had also issued a “red notice” via Interpol, asking global law enforcement for help finding him. Kwon has been tweeting, talking to reporters, and insisting he was not on the run since September.
After South Korea stripped him of his passport, Kwon was suspected of being in Serbia. He was likely trying to flee the region before authorities caught up to him. [YNA, 2022, in Korean]
Here’s a video of Kwon and Chang-Joon leaving the Montenegrin court in handcuffs. [Twitter, video]
In February, the SEC charged Kwon with securities fraud over the UST/luna/Anchor Protocol scam.
Following Kwon’s arrest in Montenegro, the US Department of Justice also charged him with conspiracy to defraud, commodities fraud, securities fraud, wire fraud, and conspiracy to engage in market manipulation. [Complaint, PDF]
Dark Brandon has had it with your blockchain malarkey
The 2023 Economic Report of the President is out, with Chapter 8 devoted exclusively to digital assets: “This chapter primarily examines crypto assets, whose proponents have been relearning the lessons from previous financial crises the hard way.” [White House, PDF, pp 237-272]
This chapter lays out the Biden administration’s policy toward crypto. It is strident, as you’d expect just after a huge disaster like FTX. This is the no-coiner view coming from the highest levels of power.
Crypto bros and their pet politicians have long claimed that if you overregulate crypto, you’ll kill innovation. The White House is saying that, for all the promises and hot air, there is no innovation here — so the path is clear to regulate the hell out of you.
The chapter begins with crypto’s promises. Crypto assets could be investment vehicles. Crypto could offer money-like functions. Crypto could enable fast digital payments. Crypto could increase financial inclusion. Crypto assets could improve the US’s current financial structure.
“Could” is a word that means “doesn’t.” The report contrasts crypto’s claims with “the reality of crypto assets” — in which crypto falls flat in every instance.
Crypto is mostly used for speculative trading, the report states. The reason tokens are volatile is that many “do not have a fundamental value.” Bitcoin was supposed to be a hedge against inflation — but “as inflation increased globally in the second half of 2021 and in 2022, the prices of crypto assets collapsed, proving them to be, at best, an ineffective inflation hedge.”
The report also goes through bitcoin’s failure as money — in part because you can’t have something both serve as a speculative asset and as money: “the riskier an asset is, the less likely it can effectively serve as money.”
Crypto’s main role in finance is to create new and ever-riskier derivatives with poor regulation. That’s where the “innovation” is. This carries a tremendous risk of economic contagion. The other innovative financial use cases are ransomware and money laundering.
Stablecoins are subject to run risk — just like a bank run — which could “lead to disruptions in the markets for the reserve assets and reduce the market value of the issuer’s remaining reserves because the sales of the reserve assets put further downward pressure on the prices of remaining reserves.”
The report doesn’t miss the horrors of crypto mining either: massive energy waste, e-waste, and noise pollution. “Evidence suggests that cryptomining has substantial costs for local communities and has few, if any, attendant benefits.”
Blockchain, or digital ledger technology (DLT), isn’t magic either. It’s stupendously inefficient for supply chains — if the blockchain bit even does anything. Helium, the fraudulent wireless network project, was an a16z-funded token pump-and-dump.
DLTs are at best experimental. They could be of economic value in the future! Which means they aren’t at all in the present. A private, centralized blockchain is just a clunky, slow database.
One bit of actual news from the report: FedNow, the Fed’s new instant payment service due in July, shoots the idea of a US CBDC through the head, despite all of CBDC’s ill-specified hypothetical potential — “the benefits of circulating digital money after FedNow is launched may be minimal.”
Crypto could be all manner of fabulous things. It just isn’t actually any of those things in practice.
Crypto cannot be allowed to break laws in the pursuit of hypothetical tech-magic benefits — “regulators must apply the lessons that civilization has learned, and thus rely on economic principles, in regulating crypto assets.”
Coinbase guesses wrong about Earn
The SEC has sent Coinbase a Wells notice — a threat that action is imminent. This notice is about the current version of the exchange’s Earn product — the one that Coinbase said in its 10-K earnings call was definitely not a security, probably.
Coinbase’s previous Earn product got a Wells notice before launch, in September 2021. Coinbase didn’t post the notice itself that time — they blustered, then folded. But they posted the notice this time. [blog post; Wells Notice, PDF; 8-K]
Rarely do companies receiving a Wells notice make those notices public. The last crypto firm to disclose a Wells notice was Canadian chat app Kik in 2018, as it geared to do battle with the SEC over whether its KIN token was a security. The SEC sued. Kik went to court, and the judge ultimately ruled against Kik.
Paul Grewal, Coinbase’s chief legal officer, complains that Coinbase spoke to the SEC more than thirty times. Sure — but it turns out that if you sit down with a cop and tell him all the bad things you’re doing, he might be taking notes, and then he might tell you to stop doing the bad things.
Matt Levine thinks the SEC wants Coinbase to stop trading in securities at all, and possibly just go away: [Bloomberg]
If Bernie Madoff came to the SEC and said “if you want a higher class of more trustworthy Ponzi schemes, you will need to write a few new rules adapting the disclosure regime to Ponzi schemes,” the SEC would have said “no we absolutely do not want that, we want much less Ponzi scheming, and we certainly do not want to give our approval to Ponzi schemes by writing rules for them.” One gets the sense the attitude to crypto is similar.
… If you run a crypto exchange and you want to set up a meeting with regulators to talk about how to write regulations to prevent a repeat of the recent crypto collapses, they will not trust you, because that is what FTX was saying too. There is not much goodwill left.
John Reed Stark goes through Coinbase’s public response and why it’s nonsense. “Not only are Coinbase’s argument weak, misguided, and more akin to public relations than legal positions, but Coinbase’s arguments are also proven failures of crypto-mumbo-jumbo and ludicrous jaundiced rhetoric.” [LinkedIn]
Dirty Bubble is shorting $COIN because it’s “a cash-burning regulatory nightmare with limited upside.” [Substack]
In a class action against the Uphold exchange, Judge Denise Cote in the Southern District of New York has found that the Electronic Funds Transfer Act applies to crypto, specifically Reg E of the act. This is a finding that this complaint in the class action can go ahead — but the order is very clear, and if this order isn’t used in later cases we’ll be amazed. Reg E provides consumer protections over unauthorized transactions, error resolution, and provision of receipts and periodic statements. Crypto exchanges are not at all set up for dealing with any of this — so they might want to get onto it. [Credit Slips; Order, PDF; Consumer Finance]
In a letter calling Binance a “hotbed” of illegal activity, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) along with two other Senators had asked Binance to provide balance sheets, data on the number of US users, internal policies relating to AML, as well as written policies regarding the relationship between Binance and Binance US. Binance responded with a 14-page letter describing its compliance history — and saying it has a team of 750 compliance staffers! — without addressing financials. [Bloomberg]
Crypto advertising in Belgium will need to be submitted to the Financial Services and Markets Authority ten days in advance for approval, from May 17. [FSMA]
The SEC has issued a new alert to investors: “Those offering crypto asset investments or services may not be complying with applicable law, including federal securities laws.” [SEC]
Fun in the Sun
The SEC’s really going for it lately. It’s charged Justin Sun of Tron with issuing unregistered securities — the TRX and BTT tokens — and wash-trading those securities.
Eight celebrities have also been charged, including YouTuber Jake Paul and actress Lindsay Lohan, for illegally touting TRX and BTT without making the proper disclosures. You have to say what you’re being paid to tout for securities, as Kim Kardashian found out previously. [SEC press release; complaint, PDF]
Paul, Lohan, and four of the other celebrities agreed to pay a total of $400,000 to settle the charges. Sun did not settle. Instead, he tweeted that the charges lack merit. So, he’s going to fight this? [Twitter, archive]
Selling Signature for its organs
Signature Bank has been sold! Well, mostly. Flagstar Bank has acquired most of Signature’s deposits and some of its loans. Flagstar did not acquire $4 billion of deposits from Signature’s crypto operations — those are being left with the FDIC. The Signet inter-crypto-exchange network is also being left behind. [FDIC; Bloomberg]
The FDIC anticipates losses on its insurance fund of up to $2.5 billion. Approximately $60 billion in likely-bad loans will remain in the receivership for later disposition by the FDIC.
Senator Warren wrote another one of her letters to bankers, this time to Joseph DePaolo, the former CEO of Signature, on March 15. Warren asks DePaolo to describe the full scope of his lobbying efforts to roll back Dodd-Frank. She also wants to know details of executive bonuses, including if DePaolo received bonuses related to his efforts to limit the regulation of Signature. [Warren, PDF]
In 2018, President Trump signed into law the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act, scaling back Dodd-Frank regulations. The Act exempted mid-size banks with under $250 billion in assets from strict regulatory scrutiny. By the time Signature collapsed, it was over the old threshold of $50 billion, but under the new one. Warren sees this as the main cause of Signature’s failure.
Patrick McHenry is chair of the House Financial Services Committee, which is investigating the collapse of Signature and SVB. Signature threw a fundraiser for McHenry 10 days before it collapsed. McHenry’s campaign has said it won’t process any of the donations from the event. [Bloomberg]
The Wall Street Journal tells the story of the last days of Signature. “On Sunday afternoon, March 12, the Fed told Signature that it wouldn’t lend it any more money.” [WSJ]
Why was Signature shuttered? Maybe it was insolvent, but insolvency isn’t the only reason regulators take over a bank. Dirty Bubble suspects the takeover relates to misuse of Signature’s Signet payment network. As well as FTX, the bank “collected a laundry list of other bad actors in the crypto space despite their allegedly strict KYC practices.” [Dirty Bubble]
Freeing crypto from the legacy fiat system
After the demise of Silvergate and Signature, US crypto firms lament that they can’t find new banking partners. CoinDesk asked several banks about crypto — and those that bothered replying said they didn’t want crypto customers. [Bloomberg; CoinDesk]
The Kraken crypto exchange will no longer support ACH transfers following the implosion of Silvergate. “Beginning March 27th, you’ll no longer see a deposit option via Plaid or withdrawal option via ACH Silvergate.” [Twitter; Reddit; CoinDesk]
The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority has told banks to improve their reporting on crypto assets and provide APRA with daily updates. [AFR]
The Federal Reserve has just published its full order denying Custodia Bank’s application for an account at the Fed. We’ll detail this more next time, but we’d summarize it as: “no way are we letting you bozos near the financial system.” [Federal Reserve, PDF] (Update, April 9: Our Custodia report is finally out!)
Return of the FTX Bahamas party fund
FTX US says that FTX Digital Markets (FTX DM) — FTX’s Bahamas entity, whose main practical role was to fund Sam Bankman-Fried’s partying — is a legal and economic “nullity,” and that its bankruptcy should just be folded into the US proceeding in Delaware.
The joint provisional liquidators (JPLs) in the Bahamas have apparently been threatening avoidance actions over payments made by the entities in US bankruptcy. The JPLs also applied in the Bahamas for a ruling that FTX US does not own “core assets.”
FTX US is asking Judge Michael Dorsey for declaratory judgments that FTX DM has no ownership interest in FTX’s cryptos, money, intellectual property, or customer information. In an adversarial preceding, FTX wants the court to assert that the assets lodged under the Bahamas unit were “fraudulent transfers,” and are therefore rightfully owned by FTX US. [Complaint, PDF]
We covered the tale of FTX’s very dodgy Bahamas entity previously. FTX US had reached an agreement with the JPLs, but that agreement appears to have failed.
The US Trustee is appealing Judge Dorsey’s refusal to appoint an examiner in FTX. The bankruptcy appellate panel — three bankruptcy judges from another district within the circuit — will hear that appeal. [Doc 1123, PDF]
The FTX bankruptcy estate is set to get back $404 million from Modulo Capital, a hitherto-unknown Bahamas hedge fund that received $475 million in seed capital from Sam Bankman-Fried in 2022. The court needs to approve the deal. [Bloomberg]
Crypto is really a large derivatives market propped up by an ever-shrinking spot market. Traders want leverage. We predicted in December that a new crypto futures exchange would spring up to replace FTX. A new one hasn’t sprung up yet — but a number of existing exchanges are thinking of buying FTX-owned LedgerX to do this job for them. [Bloomberg]
Image: Dont Kwoff