Crypto collapse: Bittrex files chapter 11, Binance loses market makers, FTX gets a tax bill, bitcoin gets apes 

  • By Amy Castor and David Gerard

Bittrex takes a dive

Bittrex’s US entity, Desolation Holdings LLC, and Bittrex Malta filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in Delaware on May 8. The move came just weeks after Bittrex shut down its US operations, which was soon after they were sued by the SEC for trading securities without registering as a securities exchange. [Bloomberg; Bittrex; case docket

The bankruptcy is apparently the fault of the SEC. The first-day declaration cites several SEC actions against other firms — and harps on about a “lack of regulatory clarity.” [Doc 9, PDF; first day declaration, PDF]

Bittrex says the bankruptcy will totally not impact its non-US operations, and funds are safe! Surely Bittrex didn’t do any commingling of company and customer funds like every other crypto exchange in trouble keeps turning out to have done.

The debts are largely fines levied against Bittrex by US government agencies — who are the only named creditors. OFAC is the largest creditor, owed $24.2 million. FinCEN is also a top 50 creditor with a $3.5 million claim. The SEC is listed with an undetermined amount of claims. [Doc 1, PDF]

Bittrex wishes to avail itself of a debtor-in-possession loan of 700 BTC so as to wind down Desolation and Bittrex Malta in an orderly manner and return customers’ funds. The loan will be from themselves — Aquila Holdings Inc, Bittrex’s parent entity, which is not in bankruptcy. [Liquidation plan, PDF]

The precedence of creditors (who gets paid back first) would be: themselves, then the customers, then the US government. That’s novel.

Michel de Cryptadamus notes several other interesting wrinkles. Bittrex’s US gross (not net) revenue for 2022 was $17 million, against the $30 million in government fines. “Several states alleged that BUS was undercapitalized and demanded that BUS immediately surrender its money transmitter licenses in those states.” Bittrex’s complicated corporate structure is reminiscent of FTX. And Bittrex may also be trying to protect the salaries of Bittrex executives from being seized by the SEC. [Twitter, archive]

Michel thinks the whole filing is a massive troll. We concur. The idea seems to be for Bittrex to set up a sacrificial entity to pay back their customers but stiff the US government. We are unconvinced that the government agencies will be inclined to let this one slide.

Good news for Binance

Market makers are leaving Binance US. Jane Street Group in New York and Jump Trading in Chicago — two of the world’s top commodities market makers — are pulling back from crypto in the US as regulators crack down on the industry. Their business in normal commodities is much larger, and they could do without the regulatory heat. [Bloomberg]

The Department of Justice is investigating Binance for possible violations of US sanctions against Russia. There’s already plenty of evidence that Binance has committed sanctions violations. Binance was the final destination for millions in funds from Bitzlato, an exchange shut down for money laundering. Now Dirty Bubble writes that Binance partner Advcash may be facilitating transfers from Russian banks. [Dirty Bubble]

Binance is withdrawing from Canada, owing to a surfeit of regulatory clarity. [Twitter, archive; Reuters]

Bitcoin has been trading at a premium of up to $650 on Binance US. A premium like this is usually an indication that people can’t get their dollars out of the exchange, so they buy bitcoins and move those to another exchange to cash out. [CoinDesk

We also saw bitcoin trading at a premium on Mt. Gox just before that exchange collapsed in 2014, and the same with QuadrigaCX, which imploded in 2019. Naïve traders who don’t understand what’s happening will often move their BTC to the dying exchange, thinking it’s an arbitrage opportunity.

Trading at a premium is not a good sign, but a worse sign is when people complain they can’t get their crypto off an exchange. Binance US has long had a reputation for demanding arbitrary new KYC documentation when users try to withdraw.

Monkey laundering comes to bitcoin

Binance paused withdrawals twice on Sunday, May 7. The first time was due to a “congestion issue.” Later in the day, Binance paused withdrawals again due to a “large volume of pending transactions.” [Twitter, archive; Twitter, archive]

For once, Binance might have been on the level. On May 7, the bitcoin mempool was clogged with 400,000 transactions waiting to be processed, and transaction fees surged.  

In bitcoin, the mempool, or memory pool, is where pending transactions pile up before a miner selects the most profitable ones and puts them together as a proposed block. If your transaction stays in the mempool too long, it gets dropped.

The best way to break a blockchain is to try to use it for something. In this case, some idiot worked out how to do NFTs on bitcoin.

“Ordinals” are a new way to create NFTs on bitcoin by linking a JPEG, video, or another image type to a satoshi, the smallest denomination of a bitcoin. Ordinals came out in January, and bitcoin has been filled with monkey pictures since. Bitcoin maxis condemn ordinals as a conspiracy to destroy bitcoin by using the network for a purpose. [Decrypt]

Child genius, adult moron

Sam Bankman-Fried’s defense team is trying to strike 10 of the 13 criminal charges against their client. They argue that the Bahamas did not agree to several of the charges — including one claim that Sam hid millions of dollars in political donations — while other claims didn’t meet the legal requirements of the underlying criminal statutes. [Docket, see filings 137-147]

The facts against SBF are solid. There’s no reason to doubt that Sam did everything the US claims. So the defense seems to be going for unreasonable doubt and hoping they have a dumb enough jury member or two.

Former federal prosecutor Sean Shecter of Lewis Brisbois says SBF’s lawyers want to preserve an appeal, so they have to try everything they can think of, “even if it involves throwing spaghetti against the wall.” He thinks the defense is likely hoping that the government gives up “nuggets of information” in response to the motions. [Law360, paywall]

Prosecutors have until May 29 to respond. Judge Lewis Kaplan will hear oral arguments on June 15. 

The IRS has hit the FTX companies with a $44 billion tax bill, with the largest chunk being $20.4 billion for Alameda. It looks like the IRS reclassified all FTX employees from contractors to employees and charged for unpaid employment taxes. [Docket, see filings April 27, 28; IRS Alameda claim, PDF; CoinDesk]

The IRS has not released its calculations in detail, but we’d assume the bill is inflated by fraud (fictitious profits), penalties, and interest. John Jay Ray is sure to fight this. But even if Ray gets that amount substantially reduced, this is still sure to be a huge hit for FTX creditors.

The IRS claims are treated as unsecured — but they will receive priority status as ordinary and necessary business expenses of the bankruptcy estate. So the IRS will come before ordinary unsecured creditors.

The searing light of regulatory clarity

Ishan Wahi will spend two years in prison for insider trading as a former product manager at Coinbase. He previously admitted to passing on confidential information from Coinbase to his brother and friend, who profited from the tips. [WSJ, paywall; DOJ press release]

In Estonia, nearly 400 VASPs (“virtual asset service providers,” the FATF term for companies dealing in crypto) have shut down or had their licenses revoked after the government’s recently enhanced terrorist financing prevention and anti-money laundering laws came into effect in March. [Protos; Estonia Financial Intelligence Unit

Bakkt has delisted a bunch of tokens from the institutional crypto business they bought from Apex Crypto, including several that the SEC has indicated it considers securities. “Our review process ensures those interests are best served when we contemplate the most up-to-date regulatory guidance.” [CoinDesk]

John Reed Stark thinks an SEC action against Coinbase is imminent. He explains the regulations and how they work in detail and why Coinbase doesn’t stand a chance.

Stark notes also that Coinbase’s “regulatory estoppel” claim — that the SEC approving their S-1 public offering means the SEC must have approved the exchange dealing in securities — is directly contradicted by the mandatory “no approval clause” in the S-1: “Neither the Securities and Exchange Commission nor any other regulatory body has approved or disapproved of these securities or passed upon the accuracy or adequacy of this prospectus. Any representation to the contrary is a criminal offense.” Whoops. [LinkedIn]  

Unvaxxed bitcoin is the new bitcoin

QuadrigaCX bankruptcy claimants will get 13% on the dollar. They will be paid out the dollar value of their crypto at the time Quadriga filed for bankruptcy — April 15, 2019, when bitcoin was in the toilet.

It’s amazing that creditors will even get back that much. Most of the Quadriga money was gambled away by cofounder Gerald Cotten and filched by shady payment processors. We’re surprised no criminal charges were filed — but then, most of the money was stolen by a guy who is supposedly dead. [EY notice, PDF; CoinDesk]

Arthur Hayes of BitMEX has been tweeting at Three Arrows Capital co-founders Su Zhu and Kyle Davies because 3AC owes him $6 million following its collapse in June 2022. Rather than returning Hayes’ money, 3AC cofounder Su Zhu has filed a Singapore restraining order to prohibit Hayes from using “threatening, abusive or insulting words” and “making any threatening, abusive or insulting communication, that would cause the Applicant harassment, alarm or distress.” [Twitter, archive; Twitter, archive; CoinDesk]

BlockFi users discover that BlockFi owned their coins. Bankruptcy Judge Michael Kaplan ruled that BlockFi users who had money in BlockFi’s interest-bearing accounts gave up ownership of their bitcoins — all they owned was a liability from BlockFi — and all of the $300 million in crypto deposits is now the property of the bankruptcy estate, as is normal. [Bloomberg]   

P2P exchange Paxful has resumed operations after it shut down last month amidst a messy dispute between cofounders Ray Youssef and Artur Schaback. The entire operation has been comedy gold. Youssef and Schaback say the exchange is now owned by a custodian — who they never actually name — and the custodian, Schabeck, and Youseff all serve as directors. [Paxful, archive; CoinDesk]

In the crypto bubble, Miami crypto companies boomed with the enthusiastic support of Mayor Francis Suarez. Now there’s empty real estate and lawsuits. “Most of crypto was a pyramid scheme,” said local businessman Ryan Kirkley. Suarez is now trying to lure tech startups into Miami instead. [WSJ, paywalled]  

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is running for US President on the gibbering insane Twitter blue check conspiracy theorist ticket, will be making the first appearance of his campaign giving the keynote at Bitcoin 2023 in Miami later this month. So, on brand then. [Twitter; NBC]

A propaganda movie is in the works for bitcoin mining — because consuming a country’s worth of electricity is actually good news for bitcoin. Based on the trailer, the film is amazing, but not in a good way. [Dirty Coin the Movie]

Media stardom  

Amy spoke to Bloomberg about the growing ranks of crypto skeptics after the crypto collapse: “There were a handful of us before, screaming into the abyss. Now there’s a lot more.” We’ll just be over here, quietly being right. [Bloomberg]

News: MicroStrategy needs more cowbell, Tether surpasses $34B, those laser eyes, Tether collapse doomsday scenario

I nearly ventured to Austin Wednesday, but my flight was canceled due to the storm, havoc, and general disaster in the area. I found another flight later in the day and was headed out the door, when I thought, nah. Turned out to be a good decision, since I probably wouldn’t have survived more than a day without wifi.

Last week, Tether issued another 2.2 billion tethers, so you can buy bitcoin with real cash at a higher price. As of today, Feb. 21, there are now $34 billion worth of tethers in circulation—all backed by Tether’s good word. Oh, and they just printed another 800 million this morning.

More lulz for Mr. Musk—this time a double entendre.

Bitcoin is over $57,000. Why? Because it is a Ponzi scheme, and people who put their money into a Ponzi or MLM scheme get excited when numbers go up because they think they are getting hilariously rich. When bitcoin reached $1 trillion market cap earlier this week, it was an occasion for celebration in the bitcoin world. All of the bitcoiners on Twitter gave themselves laser eyes—in the hopes of pushing bitcoin to $100,000—and posted pictures of raw, juicy steaks.

Market cap, as I have explained, is a delusional number when it comes to crypto. A trillion-dollar market cap assumes everyone who owns bitcoin bought it for $55,000 and could sell it for that. That is nowhere near the truth. Many bitcoiners bought bitcoin for a fraction of what it is today. And if everyone sold at once, the market would collapse. It’s all fantasy.

My weekly reminder that I have a Patreon account. Thank you to my new patrons, who pushed me up over $600 last week. You can subscribe for as little as $5 a month. It’s like buying me a beer or a latte every four weeks.

Okay, let’s talk about bitcoin’s newest crazy god, who also has laser eyes on his Twitter profile.

MicroStrategy: More cowbell

Every single day, MicroStrategy chief Michael Saylor is on Twitter—or elsewhere—shilling bitcoin. This has literally been his new day job since he staked the future of his entire company and his reputation on “number go up.” His tweets are bizarre and often make no sense. Lately, he has been taking random quotes from famous people and attributing them to bitcoin.

In his latest move, Saylor has taken MicroStrategy deeper down the debt hole. Last week, the company sold $1.05 billion in convertible senior notes, which it plans to invest in more bitcoin. The notes mature in February 2027. (Decrypt, MicroStrategy PR)

This is on top of the firm’s $650 million bond offering in December, which MicroStrategy also used to buy bitcoin. Those notes mature in December 2025. The company owns 72,000 bitcoin per a February regulatory filing. And don’t forget, Saylor has his own personal stash of bitcoin, though we don’t know how much he still has—or if he was selling when MicroStrategy was buying.

If the price of bitcoin collapses, MicroStrategy could literally go bankrupt. But remember, Saylor owns 70% of the company’s voting stock, so he calls the shots. The other MicroStrategy board members can only sit back and watch in horror.

Big companies buying bitcoin and putting them into cold storage means more bitcoin getting pulled out of circulation so that the already small supply of circulating bitcoin grows smaller and the market becomes easier for whales to manipulate—even if those whales bought their hoards of BTC via alias accounts funded with tethers.

So what if MicroStrategy puts another $1 billion into bitcoin and Tesla buys $1.5 billion worth? Tether issues that much fake money in a week. Meanwhile, all the real cash in bitcoin goes out the door as miners sell their 900 newly-minted bitcoin per day for fiat. Bitcoin itself generates no revenue. It’s simply investor money going in one end and out the other.

Jorge Stolfi, a Brazilian computer scientist, estimates that the accumulative amount that bitcoin investors have lost so far is at least $15 billion. When you invest in bitcoin, you immediately lose money, just like all those who invested in Bernie Madoff’s fund, though they went on for years thinking they were making money.

NYAG / Bitfinex—status update

We should be hearing something soon on the New York attorney general’s investigation into Bitfinex/Tether, but probably nothing big, or earth moving—not yet at least.

Bitfinex’s law firm Steptoe filed a letter on Jan. 19, saying Bitfinex/Tether needed more time to send in their documents. Here is what they said exactly: “We will plan to next contact the Court in approximately 30 days to either provide a final status update or to schedule a conference with the Court to discuss any open items.”

The office of the attorney general still has to take a position on the material it receives, and Bitfinex boasted that it had spammed them with some 2.5 million documents. My guess is that Bitfinex, like failed Canadian crypto exchange QuadrigaCX, hasn’t kept accurate records of their financial dealings and they are flying by the seat of their pants. Quadriga operator Gerald Cotten kept no books, commingled funds, and viewed customer money as his personal slush fund.

Tether doomsday scenario

Some people—Nouriel Roubini in particular—have predicted that Tether will get taken down this year, though it will take a much larger effort than the NY AG alone. Still, what will happen if Tether’s operators are arrested and its bank accounts seized? If Tether collapses, we may see something like the following unfold:

  • Panic ensues on offshore exchanges, like Binance and Huobi, as traders begin dumping USDT and buying up BTC at any price.
  • The price of BTC on banked vs. unbanked exchanges begins to diverge. BTC goes up on unbanked exchanges and drops on banked exchanges, like Coinbase, as people start selling their BTC for cash en masse.
  • Banked exchanges face liquidity crises as they can’t keep up with withdrawals. We start to see system outages and paused trading—similar to what happened with Robinhood on Jan. 28.
  • The price of BTC collapses to the point where bitcoin miners cannot pay their monstrous power bills.
  • At some point, the bitcoin hash rate will drop, and bitcoin will go into a death spiral. When miners can’t pay their electric bills, they unplug from the network. This leaves bitcoin vulnerable to attacks, and the virtual currency becomes worthless.

Mind you, bitcoin will never die off completely. Unlike other Ponzi schemes, which disappear when they collapse, bitcoin will spring back to life from time to time. This is the fourth—and by far the biggest—bitcoin bubble since 2009.

Bitcoin’s sick energy consumption

After Tesla announced it bought 1.5 billion worth of BTC, bitcoin’s grotesque energy consumption has come under fire. Based on some estimates, the network consumes as much energy as the entire country of Argentina with 45 million people. Christmas lights are literally a more productive use of electricity to bring joy to people’s lives than bitcoin. (This is a joke. In 2018, bitcoiners claimed that Christmas lights consumed more energy than bitcoin.)

Bitcoiners like to argue this is all green energy, but that is simply not true. Two-thirds of bitcoin mining is based in China, a country that relies heavily on coal-fired electricity. Some miners in the Sichuan province get power from hydro, but only during the wet season. The rest of the time, they turn to fossil fuels. (My blog)

And for those still claiming bitcoin uses clean energy, Trolly had a few more points to add: 

  • The Three Gorges Dam—a gargantuan structure straddling the Yangtze River in China’s Hubei province—has long been criticized for its environmental impact and displacement of two million people. The dam generated a record 112 terawatt hours of electricity in 2020. According to Digiconomist, bitcoin consumes 79 TWh of electricity per year—more than half that.
  • You need one million Bitmain’s Antminer 19s Pros to reach the current bitcoin hashrate of 110M TH/s. That means there are at least one million nodes on the bitcoin network—more if miners are using Bitmain’s outdated S17 model. These machines are good for two years max before they get tossed into landfills and replaced with more efficient ASIC rigs.
  • Bitcoin processes 300,000 transactions per day. The all-in cost of a single bitcoin transaction is $20 for infrastructure and $40 for electricity. Miners currently break even when the BTC price is $20,000. (That’s based on energy and other costs.)

Coinbase behind Tesla’s BTC purchase

Coinbase facilitated Tesla’s recent $1.5 billion purchase of bitcoin, according to The Block. An unidentified source told the outlet that the San Francisco-based crypto exchange made the purchase on behalf of Tesla over the course of several days in early February. The price of BTC in the first week of Feb. was around $38,000.

Similar to how it helped MicroStrategy make its big BTC purchase, Coinbase broke up Tesla’s order into small pieces and routed those to over-the-counter trading desks to minimize the impact on the overall bitcoin market.**

Coinbase wrote up a case study on how it bought bitcoin for MicroStrategy.

Motley Fool’s ship of fools

Another ship of fools has headed off to sea.

The Motley Fool is a private financial and investing advice company based in Alexandria, Virginia. It’s been around since 1993, so you would think they actually do their due diligence. Apparently not. Also, regular folks rely on them for sage investment advice, which is why I was shocked to learn Motley Fool was putting $5 million into bitcoin. (Fool announcement)

Motley Fool justified the investment with these three reasons:

  1. We believe it will store value more effectively than gold over the long term.
  2. We believe it may become a medium for transactions, as/if pricing stabilizes in the decade ahead.
  3. We believe it can act as a productive hedge against inflation.

All three reasons are blitheringly stupid. Medium for transactions? If the price stabilizes in the future? Name one time in the past decade where the price of bitcoin has stabilized. As I explained earlier, the more people who hodl bitcoin, the less stable it becomes. It will never be a stable asset. And you can’t call bitcoin a “store of value” if you get only 20% of what you paid for it.

At least one sensible Motley Fool contributor explained why investing in bitcoin is a horrible idea.

GameStop hearing #1

I spent two hours on Thursday watching the first half of a five-hour GameStop House Financial Services Committee hearing. Most of the questions were not that interesting. This is the first of three hearings. I’m not sure I can watch anymore, unless someone from the SEC, such as Gary Gensler, joins in on the questioning.

The nut is that Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev apologized to his users for stopping customer trading during the peak of the madness, but says he wasn’t colluding with hedge funds. “We don’t answer to hedge funds,” he said. “We serve the millions of small investors who use our platform every day to invest.” (NPR)

He also would not admit there was a liquidity problem when he limited trades in January.

David Portnoy doesn’t like Vlad’s hair. He thinks it makes him look untrustworthy.

And Keith Gill (Roaring Kitty), who made $48 million from a $53,000 investment in GameStop, came off as a likable, honest guy. Although, he may need those profits to defend himself against at least one proposed class-action. (Complaint)

Other newsy bits

Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) added laser eyes to her Twitter profile pic, confounding the political press and turning bitcoiners into a bunch of cooing babies (Slate)

A few years ago, the SEC shut down the entirely fraudulent ICO market. A sudden shutdown of the DeFi money market (DMM) may be the start of the next regulatory wave. (David Gerard)

The U.S. Treasury Department accused crypto payments platform BitPay of facilitating over 2,100 transactions with individuals in sanctioned nations. BitPay will pay $500,000 to settle the charges. (Coindesk, enforcement notice)

JP Morgan calls Tether an unbacked wildcat bank. “A sudden loss of confidence in USDT would likely generate a severe liquidity shock to Bitcoin markets, which could lose access to by far the largest pools of demand and liquidity,” analysts said. (Bloomberg)

FTX, one of Tether’s biggest customers, claims on Twitter that its volume and customer numbers are real. All you need is an email to set up an account—no KYC for tier 0, 1 accounts with up to $9,000 USD daily withdrawal,* which means anyone can set up any number of alias accounts. Trading volume is a meaningless number due to robot trading and probably wash trading.

Stephen Diehl on Bitcoin mining: “The Crypto Chernobyl.” (blog post)

BitMEX’s Arthur Hayes—who was indicted in October and is still at large—has resurfaced to argue the Robinhood shutdown was orchestrated by financial elites. This is a sign that retail investors should buy crypto, he said. (Cointelegraph) (Tweet)

*Updated to note FTX has no KYC on both tier 0, 1 accounts. In an earlier version of this newsletter, I said you did not need KYC to withdraw up to $1,000. But it’s actually up to $9,000 per day for high-volume accounts.

**Updated March 2: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Coinbase routed the Tesla order to OTC desks, so as not to “crash” the price of BTC. This is incorrect. A large order would lift the market. Story has been altered to reflect that.

Feature image: Ship of fools depicted in a 1549 German woodcut