News: Tether surpasses $26B, Elon Musk pumps BTC, Gregory Pepin’s magic trick

It’s been three years since the last bitcoin bubble. And as I write this newsletter, I can’t help but feel this is getting so tiring. Where are the regulators? Why did they not step in long ago to put an end to so much nonsense in the crypto space? Things just seem to keep getting crazier.

Tether has now surpassed 26 billion tethers—after minting 1.3 billion last week alone. How does an outfit get away with creating $1.3 billion worth of a stablecoin without being subjected to an audit? Without a cease and desist? It’s been more than two years since the NY attorney general started investigating them.

Bitcoin slipped below $30,000 on Wednesday, but then climbed to $37,800 on Friday after Elon Musk added #bitcoin to his Twitter bio, apparently just for the lulz. The move sparked $387 million worth of short liquidations on Binance, Bitfinex, BitMEX, ByBit, Deribit, FTX, HuobiDM and OKEx.

Today Bitcoin is back down to $32,800.

In general, it’s been a week of madness in the markets. Reddit group WallStreetBets has been pushing up lousy stocks like GME and AMC to squeeze the shorts and wreak havoc on certain hedge funds. And to take the joke even further, they even pushed up the price of dogecoin 800% in a 24-hour period. Unsurprisingly, the DOGE pump was fueled mainly by tethers.

Still sore about that Bit Short story?

Are tethers backed? Nobody will give you a straight answer and certainly not Stuart Hoegner, Tether’s general counsel, who spends all day retweeting tweets and trying to convince folks that tethers are worth real money.

He is apparently still upset about the anonymous “Bit Short” article, which I mentioned in my previous newsletter. He keeps saying it’s all FUD, and now claims it’s not only hurting Tether, but all of bitcoin. Of course, the reason the story is gaining popularity is because it is largely true.

“But beyond its false claims about @Tether_to, this post really amounts to an attack on the entire cryptocurrency ecosystem. Bitcoin has a market cap of above US$600B, and the growing number of major institutions investing in bitcoin is a tribute,” he said in a Twitter thread.

Hoegner keeps complaining. (Also, we already know market cap is nonsense when it comes to bitcoin and the reason institutions have been jumping in is mainly because they see an attractive arb opportunity via GBTC.) But the one thing Tether won’t do is come clean and audit its reserves, which would put the whole matter to bed once and for all. Do those reserves consist of cash that Tether got from real clients? Or is Tether simply buying bitcoin with tethers and selling them for USD on OTC desks and banked exchanges?

Instead of giving out real answers, Stuart and Paolo and their friends at Deltec keep trying to obfuscate, distort, and push the blame on “disbelievers” and “salty nocoiners.”

Gregory Pepin’s disappearing act

Tether is a perpetual PR disaster machine. After delivering a disastrous interview with Laura Shin, where he tries to convince listeners Tether is legitimate, but comes off sounding like a used car salesperson, Gregory Pepin, the deputy chief executive officer at Deltec (where Tether does its off-shore banking), suddenly disappeared from Deltec’s website. But after Twitter noticed and started making jokes, he suddenly reappeared again.

Clearly, Deltec was monitoring Twitter and thought, well, maybe removing Pepin from the website wasn’t such a good idea after all? So they put him back. But his brief disappearance brought up questions: Were Pepin’s colleagues upset with him? Did he even consult with his colleagues before he went on the podcast? Surely they would have worked out a plan for what he would say and all come to an agreement on it. Did he forget to follow the plan? 

For the last time, Tether is NOT regulated

Tether keeps telling everyone that it’s regulated. Well, it’s not. No government agency is overseeing Tether and making sure they behave properly, which is why Tether and its sister company Bitfinex have been for years doing whatever they want. They make up the rules of the game as they go along, and put forth whatever nonsense narrative they feel like, simply because they can.

JP Kroning wrote a piece in Coindesk, where he points out that Tether is not regulated. Tether has made numerous claims that it is regulated because it is registered with FinCEN. But “registered” and “regulated” are two different things. “Tether isn’t regulated by FinCEN,” Kroning writes. A registration is not a seal of regulatory approval, and it shouldn’t be advertised as such. “Yet, this is what Deltec and Tether executives seem to be doing on Twitter and in podcasts.”

Ripple responds to SEC; the XRP pump

As I wrote in a recent post, Ripple responded to SEC charges that XRP is a security. They are using the same lame defense that Kik used to try and convince the SEC that kin wasn’t a security. It’s a strategy that is likely to fail miserably, and Ripple will most likely end up settling. It’s just a matter of when.

In the meantime, a group on Telegram called Buy and Hold XRP pumped the price of XRP to its highest number since December. The group’s membership hit Telegram’s 200,000 limit within hours, forcing everyone to head over to a new channel with a similar title. The granddaddy pump is scheduled to start on Feb. 1 at 8:30 EST. (Update: The organized pump turned out to be a miserable failure.)

Is XRP a security? All cryptocurrencies are investment contracts because they pass the Howey test. You can’t buy anything with XRP, BTC, ETH, or any of them. There is virtually no merchant adoption for crypto. For most people, a cryptocurrency is an investment of money in a common enterprise with an expectation of profit to be derived from the efforts of others. But the SEC has accepted the claim of bitcoin fanatics and cultists that Bitcoin is not a security, therefore, putting BTC outside of its jurisdiction.  

Coinbase going public via direct listing

Coinbase says it plans to go public via a direct listing. The U.S. crypto exchange confidentially filed its registration with the SEC in December. Now we know for sure they are not going the traditional IPO route.

In an IPO, a block of new shares are created and sold to institutional investors at a set price. The advantage of an IPO is it gives companies a way to both go public and bring in fresh capital at the same time. If a company doesn’t need fast cash, it can go with a direct listing, in which only existing shares are sold.

Direct listings have become popular of late because it gives companies a way to go public without the bank’s help. Palantir, Asana, Slack, and Spotify all went public without a traditional IPO. (Coinbase blog, Techcrunch)

The big question: What will Coinbase stock be worth once Tether is shut down and the price of BTC collapses?

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News: Tether extends doc deadline, resumes printing; GBTC’s premium melts away; Ken Kurson pardoned

We are three-quarters of the way through the first month of the new year. We have a new president in the Whitehouse, and people are getting vaccinated—a glimmer of hope at the end of a long dark tunnel. I’m doing some volunteer work for VaccinateCA, making calls to pharmacies. (I saw @patio11 tweeting about the project and wanted to contribute.)

Maybe toward the end of 2021, we’ll see more in-person crypto conferences, but for now, it looks like Coindesk’s big money-maker Consensus will be virtual again—only $50 to register compared to $2,500 for the real thing in past years. Currently, bitcoin is trading at around $32,000 after climbing to an all-time high of nearly $42,000 earlier this month, and Tether is closing in on $25 billion worth of tethers.

A reminder that I have a Patreon account. If you find my work useful, informative, entertaining, please become a subscriber for as little as $5 a month. I could certainly use the support.

Tether needs 30 more days, restarts presses

Jan. 15, the big document deadline day for Bitfinex/Tether in the NY AG fraud investigation, came and went. On Tuesday, after a three-day weekend, Tether’s law firm requested a 30-day extension to give them more time to turn over documents. The request was on behalf of all parties, so NYAG was apparently okay with this.

We won’t get another status update until mid-February. Until then, Tether has agreed to maintain the status quo, meaning the injunction is still in effect, and Bitfinex cannot dip into Tether’s reserves. (Court filing)

For now, it’s back to business as usual. After what appeared to be a short reprieve, Tether is once again printing tethers with abandon. (On Jan. 19, Tether printed another 400 million USDT.) They literally can’t stop, won’t stop, because they are too deep into the game.

In lieu of an audit, which would put this whole matter of “Are tethers backed?” to rest, Tether continues to recruit reporters, bank execs, and other gullible parties to profess to the world that tethers are fully backed. Meet the next actor in this ongoing charade: Gregory Pepin, Deltec Bank’s deputy CEO. Deltec is an offshore bank in the Bahamas where Tether has been doing its banking since 2018

“Every tether is backed by a reserve and their reserve is more than what is in circulation,” Pepin told Laura Shin on the Unchained Podcast. “We can see it firsthand, so I can confirm that,” he said, while repeatedly dismissing the anonymous “Bit Short” article,” mentioned in my last newsletter, as FUD.

Tethers are fully backed, but backed with what? Before they were called tethers, realcoins were supported by “one-to-one fully auditable stores of dollars,” according to a July 2014 article in the Independent Investor. “The bearer of these realcoins will have the first right to redeem them for subsequent U.S. currency.”

A reasonable assumption at this juncture is that tethers are backed by loans to third parties, bitcoins, equity in an offshore bank, a pile of shit coins, and increasingly fewer real dollars.

So far, we’ve heard from Stuart Hoegner, Paulo Ardoino, and a reporter from The Block, all talking up Tether lately, while the triad—Phil Potter, J.L. van der Velde, and Giancarlo Devasini—have slid off into the hills. (Granted, Potter claims he stepped down a while back.)

Tether invests in Fleet

Tether has invested $1 million of its customer’s money into an ICO. Game publisher Exordium, the company behind Infinite Fleet—a name perhaps borrowed from a popular saline enema product—has launched a public security token offering. It is unclear if Tether invested USDT or real dollars, but public participants can put in euro, BTC, or USDT, according to a company press release. (Decrypt, Infinite Fleet)

Infinite Fleet is Samson Mow’s blockchain game. Coincidentally, Mow is the chief strategy officer at Blockstream, a company responsible for a huge chunk of Bitcoin’s source code. Bitfinex is also a Blockstream investor. These types of incestuous relationships help explain why so many Bitcoin-related company execs are so fiercely defensive of Tether.

Is Tether partnering with startup exchanges?

There is reason to suspect Tether is partnering with startup exchanges by giving them USDT. Over the past year, all kinds of smaller exchanges have been announcing sizable tether giveaways. Alex Dreyfus, CEO and founder of Chiliz, for instance, said he was preparing for a 100,000 USDT giveaway. He also admitted he is a client of Tether and Deltec Bank.

Do a search for “USDT” and “giveaway” on Twitter and plenty will come up. Kucoin is one example. (Binance, an established Tether customer, is also giving away tethers.)

GBTC’s premium melts away

Here is something that hasn’t gotten enough attention. Grayscale Investments has played a role in fueling the bitcoin bubble. By convincing institutional investors they could buy into GBTC at net asset value and sell on secondary markets at a 20% to 30% premium after a six-month lock-up, it has created a self-reinforcing market dynamic.

Accredited investors looking to take advantage of an arbitrage opportunity, bought into GBTC, pushing up GBTC assets under management, which was then used to promote the idea that institutional investors, dominated by hedge funds, were scooping up bitcoin products. All this, in turn, lured more retail suckers into the market. “Look, all the big companies are rushing in! This must be a safe bet!”

But now that premium has dried up as fewer retailers are showing an interest in bitcoin, given the price has dropped by $10,000 in recent weeks. GBTC was recently trading at just 2.8% over NAV, leaving accredited investors stuck with GBTC in an illiquid market. (Bloomberg, Trolly’s thread)

Meanwhile, it looks like Barry Silbert has left the chatroom. He stepped down as CEO two weeks ago.

Just like that, Kurson off the hook

Surprise, surprise. Former Ripple board member Ken Kurson was one of the 74 people Donald Trump pardoned at the last minute on Jan. 19. Kurson is also the co-founder of crypto rag Modern Consensus, where I worked for an intolerable six weeks. It’s just unbelievable this guy, who was criminally charged with cyberstalking, got a pardon. (Full list of pardons, NBC)

While many of Trump’s pardons went to political pals—including Steve Bannon, another pro-bitcoin guy—Kurson’s was an obvious favor to Jared Kushner, whose father, Charles, also received a pardon. Kurson’s pardon stands out, in part, because of the risk it poses to some of the women he stalked and harassed. (The Daily Beast, paywalled) 

“Suffice it to say, what he was actually arrested for was part of an ongoing pattern of abuse, revenge, & sociopathy,” Deborah Copaken, a contributing writer at the Atlantic, said on Twitter. She worked for Kurson in the past, wrote about the experience, and helped the FBI with their investigation. “All jokes aside, I am worried about my own safety. @FBI – How do you protect those who helped you but who are now totally exposed because of a presidential pardon?”

Other newsworthy bits

“How can $24 billion worth of tethers move a $650 billion bitcoin market cap?” The is an insufferably dumb question, and I explain why in a recent blog post. (My Blog)

David Gerard wrote about the history of wildcat banks and early “stablecoins” with excerpts from an 1839 Michigan Bank Commissioner report. (Gerard’s blog)

Craig Wright is at it again. He is now claiming the Bitcoin white paper and Bitcoin.com are his. He is trying to force Bitcoin.org to take down the white paper, which they now refuse to do. (Coindesk)

Balaji Srinivasan outdid himself on Twitter when he compared bitcoin, one of the world’s biggest energy hogs, to a battery, setting off the “bitcoin is a battery” meme.

Stephen Diehl, a programmer, compares crypto to a “giant smoldering Chernobyl sitting at the heart of Silicon Valley which a lot of investors would prefer you remain quiet about.” His thread went viral.

Gary Gensler is officially named for SEC chair. (NYT) We can expect greater crypto oversight from him. (Bloomberg)

Meanwhile, Allison Herren Lee was sworn in as SEC acting chair until Gensler takes over. (SEC, Decrypt)

MicroStrategy bought another 314 bitcoins for $10 million cash. Saylor’s company now holds 70,784 bitcoins acquired at an aggregate $1.135 billion. (SEC Filing, Coindesk)

Circle has surpassed $5 billion worth of its USDC stablecoin. They produce regular monthly attestations. But as Frances Coppola points out, if Circle/Centre were a bank, they would have to produce actual audited accounts.

Updated on Jan 24 with more info on Kurson’s pardon and a quote from Deborah Copaken. Also added the bit about Craig Wright.