How 2020 set the stage for the 2021 bitcoin bubble

  • By Amy Castor and David Gerard
  • Be sure to subscribe to our Patreon accounts — Amy’s is here; David’s is here.

We often get asked by reporters: “Why are crypto markets crashing?” The short answer is because there’s no money left, and no more coming in. The long answer is more complicated.

Bitcoin peaked at $64,000 in April 2021 and again at $69,000 in November 2021. Many of the network effects that drove the price of bitcoin to those heights were put into place in 2020.

The same network effects are now working in reverse. Markets take the stairway up and the elevator down.

The 2017 bubble was fueled by the ICO boom and actual outside dollars entering the crypto economy. Bitcoin topped out just below $20,000 in December 2017.

The crash that followed over the next 12 months was like air being slowly let out of a balloon — much like the 2014 deflation after Bitcoin’s prior 2013 peak. ICO and enterprise blockchain promoters tried to keep going through 2018 like everything was fine, but the party was clearly over.

In contrast, the 2022 crash is like a wave of explosive dominoes all crashing down in rapid succession. How did we get here?

A long, cold crypto winter

Let’s start in early 2020. It was the crypto winter. Bitcoin’s price had spent two years bobbling up and down from infusions of tethers, and traders on BitMEX rigging the price to burn margin traders. (And, allegedly, BitMEX itself burning its margin traders.) [Medium, 2018]

But the dizzying price rises were peculiarly bloodless. There was little evidence of fresh outside dollars from retail investors — the ordinary people. The press would write how bitcoin had just hit $13,000 — but they’d also call people like us, and we’d tell them about Tether.

Throughout 2019 and into 2020, crypto pumpers were desperately trying scheme after scheme — initial coin offerings, initial exchange offerings, bitcoin futures, selling to pension funds — to lure in precious actual dollars and get the party re-started.

Then Corona-chan knocked on the door.

Act I, Scene I: Pandemic Panic

On March 13, 2020, the US government declared a pandemic emergency. The panic drove down stocks and crypto. Investors sold everything and flew to the safest, hardest form of money they could find: the US dollar! Bitcoin dropped from $7,250 to $3,858 over the course of that day.

It was an edge-of-the-cliff moment for bitcoin. Any further drop could force liquidations and create a ripple effect across dozens more crypto projects. For bitcoin miners, the price of bitcoin was now below the cost of mining.

Worse, only two months away was the bitcoin “halvening” — an every-four-year event when the number of bitcoins granted in each freshly-mined block halves. If bitcoin dropped too low in price, the miners wouldn’t be able to pay their enormous power bills. The crypto industry desperately needed to push bitcoin’s price back before May.

Tether spins up the printing press

Tether, launched in 2014, is an offshore crypto company that issues a dubiously backed stablecoin of the same name. Tether works like an I.O.U. — Tether supposedly takes in dollars and issues a tether for each dollar held in reserve. Since Tether has never had an audit, nobody knows for sure what’s backing tethers. The company has an extensive history of shenanigans — see Amy’s Tether timeline.

The issuance of tethers in March 2020, was 4.3 billion, but that’s when the Tether printer kicked into overdrive — minting tethers at a clip nobody had ever seen before. 

Tether minted 4.4 billion tethers in April 2020 — crypto’s version of an economic stimulus package. By May, Bitcoin reached $10,000, just in time for the halvening.  

Once the price of bitcoin goes up, though, there’s no way to turn off the Tether printing press. It has to keep printing. If the price of bitcoin goes down, people will sell, creating an exodus of real dollars from the system. So Tether kept printing, pushing the price of bitcoin ever skyward. 

In May, June, and July 2020, Tether issued a combined total of 3 billion tethers. In August, when the price of bitcoin reached $12,000, Tether issued another 2.6 billion tethers. In September, when bitcoin slid below $10,000, Tether issued another 2.2 billion tethers. 

By the end of 2020, Tether had reached a market cap of 21 billion. The printer kept going. In 2021, Tether pumped out 60 billion more tethers. By May 2022, Tether’s market cap had reached 83 billion. Bitcoin’s price peaks in April 2021 ($64,000) and November 2021 ($69,000) both coincided with an influx of tethers into the market. 

You can’t just redeem tethers. Only Tether’s big customers — it has about ten of them — can redeem. You can try to sell your tethers on an exchange. But you can’t just go up to Tether to redeem them for dollars. There were no redemptions of tethers, ever, until May and June 2022 — the present crash.

Curiously, Tether’s reserve as declared to New York in April 2019 contained $2.1 billion of actual money — cash and US Treasuries. But Tether’s reserve attestation as of March 31, 2021, still contained just $2.1 billion of cash and treasuries!

This suggests that the rest of the reserve over that time was made up of whatever worthless nonsense Tether could claim was a reserve asset — loans of tethers, cryptocurrencies, and dubious commercial paper credited at face value rather than being marked to market.

Dan Davies, in his essential book Lying for Money, marks this as the key flaw in frauds of all sorts: they have to keep growing so that later fraud will keep covering for earlier fraud. This works until the fraud explodes.

Tether marketcap, CoinGecko

GBTC’s ‘reflexive Ponzi’

Grayscale’s Bitcoin Trust (GBTC) played a huge role in keeping the price of bitcoin above water through 2020. It offered a lucrative arbitrage trade, an exploitable inefficiency in markets, that a lot of big players went all-in on.

GBTC was an attempt to wrap Bitcoin in an institutionally compatible shell. All through 2020 and into 2021, GBTC was trading at a premium to bitcoin on the secondary markets. Accredited investors would acquire GBTC at net asset value — some large proportion being in exchange for direct deposits of bitcoins, not purchases for cash, although all the accounting was stated in dollars. After a six-month lock-up, the accredited investors would sell the shares to the public at a 20 percent premium, sometimes more. Rinse, repeat, and that’s a 40 percent return in a year. 

GBTC functioned like a “reflexive Ponzi.” When Grayscale bought more bitcoin for the trust, that drove up the price of bitcoin, which pushed up the GBTC premium, which resulted in investors wanting more GBTC and Grayscale issuing more shares. 

Grayscale ran a national TV advertising campaign at the time, targeted at ordinary investors. The ads warned that disaster was imminent, inflation would eat your retirement, and bitcoin was better than gold — so you should buy bitcoin. Or, this shiny GBTC, which was implied to be just as good! [YouTube, 2019]

In a bull market, retail investors didn’t mind paying a premium — because the price of bitcoin kept going up. The market treated GBTC as if it was convertible back to bitcoins, even though it absolutely wasn’t. [Adventures in Capitalism]

Grayscale ultimately flooded the market with GBTC. When an actual bitcoin ETF became available in Canada, GBTC’s premium dried up. Since February 2021, GBTC has been trading below the price of bitcoin. As of March 2022, the trust holds 641,637 bitcoins. And they’re staying there indefinitely — leaving GBTC holders locked in on an underwater trade.

The rise of decentralized finance

Decentralized finance, or DeFi, didn’t directly pump the price of bitcoin in 2020. But DeFi was one of the stars of the 2021 bubble itself, and eventually caused the bubble’s disastrous explosion. All of the structures to let that happen were set up through 2020.

DeFi is an attempt to put traditional financial system transactions — loans, deposits, margin trading — on the blockchain. Regulated institutions are replaced with unknown and unregulated intermediaries, and everything is facilitated with smart contracts — small computer programs running on the blockchain — and stablecoins.

All through 2019 and 2020, DeFi was heavily promoted as offering remarkable interest rates. At a time of low inflation, this got coverage in the mainstream financial press. Here’s the diagram the Financial Times ran, depicting DeFi as a laundromat for money: [FT, paywalled, archive

The key to DeFi is decentralized exchanges, where you can trade any crypto asset that can be represented as an ERC-20 token — such as almost any ICO token — with any other ERC-20 token.

DeFi also lets you take illiquid tokens that nobody wants, do a trade, assign them a spurious price tag in dollars, then say they’re “worth” that much. This lets dead altcoins with no prospective buyers claim a price and a market cap, and attract attention they don’t warrant. If you put a dollar sign on things, then people take that price tag seriously — even when they shouldn’t.

You can also create a price for a token that you made up out of thin air yesterday and use DeFi to claim an instant millions-of-dollars market cap for it. 

This was the entire basis for the valuation of Terraform Labs’ UST and luna tokens — and people believed those “$18 billion” in UST were trustworthily backed by anything.

You can also use those tokens you created out of thin air as collateral for loans to acquire yet more assets. An unconstrained supply of financial assets means more opportunities for bubbles to grow, and more illiquid assets that you can dump for liquid assets (BTC, ETH, USDC) when things go wonky.

By September 2020, five hundred new DeFi tokens had been created in the previous month. DeFi hadn’t hit the mainstream yet — but it was already the hottest market in crypto. [Bloomberg]

The problem was that in 2020, to use DeFi you had to know your way around using the actual blockchain. Retail investors, and even most institutional investors, haven’t got the time for that sort of dysfunctional nonsense.

Retail was more attracted to the “CeFi” (centralized DeFi) investment firms, such as Celsius and 3AC, offering impossible interest rates. These existed in 2020 but didn’t gain popularity until the following year when the bubble had started properly.

A new grift: NFTs 

By late 2020, crypto promoters were searching for a new grift to lure in retail money, one that would have broader mainstream appeal. They soon found one. 

NFTs as we know them got started in 2017, with CurioCards, CryptoPunks, and CryptoKitties. NFT marketing had continued through the crypto winter — in the desperate hope that ordinary people might put their dollars into crypto collectibles.

The foundations of the early 2021 burst of art NFTs were laid in late 2020, when Vignesh Sundaresan, a.k.a. Metakovan, first started looking into promoting digital artists, such as Beeple — whose $69 million JPEG made international headlines for NFTs in March 2021, and officially kicked off the NFT boom. 

Late 2020 also saw the launch of NBA Top Shot, the only crypto collectible that ever got any interest from buyers other than crypto speculators. Top Shot traders were disappointed at how incredibly slow Dapper Labs was at letting them withdraw the money they’d made in trading — and became some of the first investors in the Bored Apes.

Coiner CEOs 

By late 2020, several big company CEOs started promoting the concept of bitcoin on the company dime. These included Jack Dorsey at Twitter, Dan Schulman at PayPal, and Michael Saylor at business software company MicroStrategy.

In October 2020, Saylor revealed his company had bought 17,732 bitcoins for an average of $10,000 per coin. Over the next 18 months, Microstrategy would plow through its cash reserves and take on debt to funnel more money into bitcoin, spending $4 billion in the process. Buying MSTR shares become the newest way for retail investors to bet on bitcoin. Saylor also put himself forward as bitcoin’s latest prophet and crazy god.

PayPal set up bitcoin trading in 2020, though only as a walled garden, where you couldn’t move coins in or out. Still, it made gambling on crypto more accessible to retail investors. 

Bitcoin miners start ‘hodling

By late 2020, we suspect there was very little actual cash in crypto. But bitcoin needed to continue its upward ascent. 

The biggest tip-off that the fresh outside dollars had stopped flowing was when bitcoin miners stopped selling their coins. Bitcoin miners mint 900 new bitcoins per day. They typically sell these to pay their energy costs — power companies don’t accept tether — and buy new mining equipment, which becomes obsolete every 18 months. At $20,000 per bitcoin, that would equate to $18 million, in actual dollars, getting pulled out of the bitcoin ecosystem every day.

In October 2020, Marathon Digital (MARA), one of the largest publicly traded miners, stopped selling its bitcoins. They took out loans, which allowed them to buy their equipment and hold their bitcoins. Marathon even bought additional bitcoins!  

Borrowing against mined bitcoins, and not selling them, reduced selling pressure on bitcoin’s price in dollars. US-based miners used this model heavily from July 2021 onward — taking low-interest loans from their crypto buddies, Galaxy Digital, DCG, and Silvergate Bank. Although, in 2022, the loans started running out and they had to start selling bitcoins.

This also set Marathon up for potential implosion when energy prices went up and the price of bitcoin dropped in 2022. Marathon is presently losing $10,000 on every bitcoin they mine. 

Easy money?

2020 was a weird year of market panics, bored day traders, and easy money — for some.

The Federal Reserve dealt with the pandemic panic by showering the markets with stimulus money. At the retail end, $817 billion was distributed in stimulus checks (Economic Impact Payments), $678 billion in extended unemployment, and $1.7 trillion to businesses, mostly as quickly-forgiven loans. [New York Times]

Bored day traders, stuck at home working their email jobs and unable to go out in the evening, got into trading stocks on Robinhood as the hot new mobile phone game. Car rental firm Hertz, a literally bankrupt company, whose stock was notionally worth zero, started going up just because Robinhood users thought it was a good deal. Instead of crypto becoming a more regular investment like stocks, the stonks* had turned into shitcoins.**

What isn’t clear is how much of this money found its way to the crypto market. At least some of it did. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland noted: “a significant increase in Bitcoin buy trades for the modal EIP amount of $1,200.” This increased BTC-USD trade volume by 3.8%! [Cleveland Fed]

But the trades only seemed to raise the price of bitcoin by 0.07%. And the dollars in question were only 0.02% of the money distributed in the EIP program.

* A cheap and nasty equity stock; the term comes from a meme image. [Know Your Meme]
** We are sorry to tell you that this is literally a technical term in crypto trading.

The final push over the line

A lot of channels into crypto were put into place in 2020. But the last step was to pump the price over the previous bubble peak of $20,000.

With that bitcoin number achieved, the press would cover the number going up — because “number go up” is the most interesting possible story in finance. That would lure in the precious retail dollars that hodlers needed to cash out.

The push started in late November, with deployments of tethers to the offshore exchanges. On December 18, 2020 — exactly three years after the previous high — bitcoin went over $20,000 again. And that’s when a year and a half of fun started.

News: Jennifer Robertson speaks (QuadrigaCX), BTC tumbles, Crypto.com hacked, SEC shoots down another Bitcoin ETF

“Bitcoin Widow” went on sale this week. Jennifer Robertson was busy giving interviews to promote her book. It’s the first time we’ve gotten to see her live and hear her voice.   

Robertson was married to Gerald Cotten, who ran QuadrigaCX like a Ponzi. He mysteriously died in India just before things fell apart. Robertson was clever enough to go to college and start a business, but somehow remained completely clueless when it came to her partner’s shenanigans. The lavish vacations, the houses, and private plane trips were nice, though. 

Globe and Mail interviewed Robertson. Actually, they interviewed the journalists who interviewed her. You still get to hear a little of Jen’s voice. The interview is pretty dry. No tough questions. (Globe and Mail) 

The National, CBC’s flagship current affairs program, was a lot tougher. As politely as possible, they asked why she wouldn’t simply allow Cotten’s body to be exhumed and checked to make sure it’s really him. I make an appearance on the show. (YouTube)

Matt Galloway on The Current spoke with Robertson at length. (The Current)

Galloway: “Did you ever ask why hundred dollar bills were scattered around your house?” 

Robertson:  “It was kind of a Gerry thing.”

As a follow-up to Galloway’s interview, CBC On The Coast interviewed me about QuadrigaCX and asked me what I thought about the book. Worth a listen! (CBC, My review of the book

BTC keeps falling

Bitcoin is down to $35,000 from its November record of nearly $70,000. The sell-off has outpaced that of the U.S. stock market. David Gerard opines his thoughts on what is driving down the price. (blog post)

He notes the crypto miners are holding on to their bitcoin. If they sell, they know they will crash the markets, so they’ve got to sit tight on their piles of BTC.

There are still $78 billion tethers out there. Tether hasn’t minted any new tethers in 2022, for some reason. And the Tether transparency page has a new look and feel. 

The Grayscale Bitcoin Trust is now trading at 28% below NAV, its lowest ever. (YCharts)

MicroStrategy stock is dropping in tandem with the price of BTC. MSTR tumbled nearly 18% this week. (And the SEC doesn’t care much for the company’s crypto accounting methods, either.) (CNBC)

Another exchange hack

Fortune favors the brave, or does it? Maybe not.

Crypto.com, the fourth largest crypto exchange, was hacked on Jan. 17 in a 2FA compromise. All told, the thieves got away with $34 million in crypto — 4,836 ETH, 443 BTC, and about $66,000 in another crypto. All funds are SAFU.

The hack was confirmed by Crypto.com CEO Kris Marszalek, but otherwise, the company has been murky on the details, noting “suspicious activities,” and referring to the event as an “incident.” (Crypto.com announcement, Techcrunch)

Crypto derivatives trading platform BitMEX aspires to become a “regulated crypto powerhouse” in Europe. Its European arm BXM Operations AG wants to purchase Bankhaus von der Heydt, a bank in Munich. BaFin, Germany’s financial watchdog, has yet to approve the transaction. The purchase price is undisclosed. (Bitmex blog, Decrypt)

Last summer, BitMEX agreed to a $100 million settlement with FinCEN and the CFTC. Regulators accused the Seychelles-based exchange of failing to maintain a compliant AML program.  

In an effort to clean up its image, BitMEX has hired former Coinbase managing director ​​Marcus Hughes as its chief risk officer. (Bitmex blog, WSJ)

Everybody still despises Binance.

Armed with fake credentials, journalist Hary Clynch went undercover to interview for a top position at Binance. Naturally, he was offered the job. Part two of his three-part story is up. (Disruption Banking)

In her latest blog post, Carol Alexander, professor of finance at Sussex, provides visual proof that price manipulation bots on Binance caused massive liquidations on July 25-26, 2021. (blog post

In public, Binance CEO CZ welcomes regulatory oversight and boasts about his sparkly AML program. Behind the scenes, he withholds information about finances and corporate structure from regulators, according to a report in Reuters.

Everything is “FUD,” says CZ. (Twitter)

Regulations

The SEC shot down a spot market Bitcoin ETF from First Trust Advisors and SkyBridge. The ETF didn’t meet “the requirement that the rules of a national securities exchange be ‘designed to prevent fraudulent and manipulative acts and practices’ and ‘to protect investors and the public interest,’” the regulator said.

In other words, all the things that the SEC previously objected to—wash trading, whale manipulation, mining manipulation, manipulative activity involving Tether, fraud and manipulation on exchanges, and so on—were never addressed in the proposal. (SEC, p. 15; Decrypt)

Meanwhile, in Europe, regulators are clamping down on crypto advertising.

Spain’s market regulator issued a mandate that ads for crypto assets must carry a warning that investors risk losing all their money. (Bloomberg)

In Singapore, the city-state is getting rid of bitcoin ATMs as it moves to dramatically limit consumer marketing of crypto. (Bloomberg)

In Italy, Consob, the country’s financial services regulator, has warned of risks linked to an increasing number of financially illiterate Italians investing in crypto. (FT)

And in the UK, the Treasury wants to bring advertising for the crypto industry under the same standards as other types of financial products. (Official statement, FT)  

Bitcoin miners running out of places to go

The bitcoin network consumes vast amounts of energy, mainly fossil fuels. As countries in Eastern Europe struggle to rein in electricity use in the coldest months of winter, they want the miners out. 

The Bank of Russia is doing all it can to pull the plug on crypto and make bitcoin mining and crypto trading illegal. (Bloomberg)

In Kosovo, where the government has temporarily banned bitcoin mining, miners are now rushing to get out of the business, selling their mining equipment at bargain-basement prices. (Guardian

And in the Ukraine, authorities bust another crypto mining farm illegally stealing power from the grid. (SSU)

NFTs and more NFTs

Every celebrity and big business wants to get into the NFT market, it seems.

Gamers won’t have it. They don’t like NFTs because they’re already familiar with broadly similar exploitative paid weapons, skins, loot, etc. When their favorite online games announce plans to incorporate NFTs, gamers push back. (NYT)

If only consumers would push back on this nonsense with a similar passion as gamers.

Dan Davies, author of “Lying for Money,” says gamers are more aware than most of AML compliance issues. He pointed out that Tencent shut down its online version of Call of Duty, after discovering the platform was being widely abused by criminals. (Twitter)

Scammers set up a new server at the URL previously used by Ozzy Osbourne’s NFT project, stealing over a hundred thousand dollars in ETH. (The Verge)

Flyfish Club is an exclusive NFT restaurant in New York City. When it opens in 2023, you can only enter if you buy an NFT. You still have to pay for your food in dirt fiat, because they won’t accept crypto in the establishment. Parent company Crypto VC Group has raised $14 million selling Flyfish tokens, which are being flipped on OpenSea. (Fortune

What would you expect from an NFT restaurant? Stephen Colbert investigates. (YouTube)

I see a new trend developing, and the SEC is not going to like it. BrewDAO just announced it wants to start a brewery. (Twitter)

Coinbase is teaming with Mastercard, so you can purchase NFTs with your credit card on its soon-to-launch NFT marketplace. (Coinbase blog, CNBC)

Walmart is considering creating its own crypto and selling NFTs. Of course, it is. (Bloomberg)

Meta wants to profit on NFTs as well. Facebook and Instagram are prepping a feature that will allow users to display their NFTs on their profiles. Meta is also working on a prototype for minting NFTs. (FT)

After spending $3 million on a rare Dune book, SpiceDAO is still looking for a way to justify the expense. It failed to negotiate IP rights. Now it wants to develop an entirely independent animated series. (Twitter)

RatDAO, which wants to accumulate blue-chip art, says it’s bought an unsigned Banksy print. Most DAOs I’ve looked at tend to focus on NFTs. (Twitter)

Cryptoland’s plans to buy a $12 million Fijian island have fallen through. The real estate agent selling Nananu-i-cake said the contract to sell it to Cryptoland’s backers fell through and the island is back on the market. Here is the listing, in case you’re interested. (Guardian)

One Jan. 18, Cryptoland founders Max Olivier and Helena López did an AMA. Molly White uploaded it to YouTube. It’s hysterical if you can stand to listen. If not, Molly has threaded the highlights.

Wikipedia editors have voted not to classify NFTs as art, sparking outrage in the crypto community. Beeple and Pak will not be included on its list of the most expensive art sales by living artists. (Artnet)

A women-led NFT project, Famed Lady Squad, is actually being led by guys, the same guys who are behind a bunch of failed NFT projects. (Input magazine

Other interesting bits

President Nayib Bukele, thinking Moody’s had downgraded El Salvador’s credit rating, said he “DGAF.” It turns out, Moody’s had not downgraded his country’s credit rating. Moody’s has rated El Salvador Caa1, a very high credit risk, since a downgrade in July. (Bloomberg)

Crypto media outlet CoinDesk is offering employees an equivalent of stock in its parent company DCG, which has its hands in hundreds of crypto companies. David Gerard notes that DCG has a history of pressuring CoinDesk employees to pump company interests. (Blog post) 

VC firm A16z wants more money for crypto investments. It’s seeking another $4.5 billion—more than double than what it raised less than a year ago. VCs are fueling the boom in everything crypto. (FT

MetaMask founder Dan Finlay acknowledges they’ve failed to remedy an IP address leak vulnerability that’s been “widely known for a long time.” (Twitter)

A flood of crypto rich are moving to Puerto Rico for the tax breaks, driving up real estate prices and making the natives unhappy (CNBC)

Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin and Elon Musk exchange tweets about synthetic wombs. (Twitter)

Dan Olsen posted a two-hour YouTube video explaining NFTs and the problems with blockchain in general. The video is going viral. (YouTube)

Martin Walker explains Web 3.0 in a 20-minute interview. (YouTube)

Crypto promoters often tell us it’s still “early days.” Molly White says the nauseating phrase sounds like it’s coming from people with too much money sunk into a pyramid scheme. (blog post)

Stephen Diehl has a great take on Web3, if you haven’t read it yet. (blog post)

Cryptocurrency is a giant Ponzi scheme. (Jacobin

Fais Khan illustrates that Coinbase Ventures-backed coins tend to underperform bitcoin after an initial pop on crypto exchange Coinbase—when the VCs cash out. (blog post)

Laura Shin’s book “Cryptopians” is coming out next month. It’s nearly 500 pages long. Public Affairs is the publisher. If you don’t have the time to read it, Patrick McGinty, who teaches in the English Department at Slippery Rock University, wrote up a great review. (Baffler)

If you like my work, consider supporting my writing by subscribing to my Patreon account for as little as $5 a month. If you are feeling generous, you can always subscribe for more.

Are pixie fairies behind Bitcoin’s latest bubble?

Are the pixie fairies sprinkling gold dust on bitcoin’s market again? By the looks of things, you might think so.

Like in the bubble days of 2017, the price of bitcoin is headed ever upward. On November 18, 2020, it surpassed $18,000 — a number not seen since December 2017 when bitcoin, at its all-time peak, scratched $20,000.

Of course, the market crashed spectacularly the following year, and retailers lost their shirts. But here we are once again, trying to unravel the mysteries of bitcoin’s latest price movements.

Several factors may explain it — Tether, PayPal, and China’s crackdown on over-the-counter desks — but before we get into that, let me reiterate how critical it is for bitcoin’s price to stay at or above a certain magic number

Bitcoin miners — those responsible for securing the bitcoin network by “mining” the next block of transactions on the blockchain — need to sell their newly minted bitcoins for real money, so they can pay their massive energy bills.

Roughly $8 million to $10 million in cash gets sucked out of the bitcoin ecosystem this way every day. So, in order for the miners — the majority of whom are in China — to turn a profit, bitcoin needs to be priced accordingly. Otherwise, if too many miners were to decide to call it quits and unplug from the network all at once, that would leave bitcoin vulnerable to attacks. The entire system, and its current $345 billion market cap, literally depends on keeping the miners happy.

Now let’s jump to May 11, an important day for bitcoin. That was the day of the “halvening,” an event hardwired into bitcoin’s code where the block reward gets slashed in half. A halvening occurs once every four years.

Before May 11, miners received 1,800 bitcoin a day in the form of block rewards, which meant they needed to cash in each bitcoin for $5,000. But after the halvening, the network would produce only 900 bitcoins per day, so miners knew they needed to sell each precious bitcoin for at least $10,000.  

But trouble loomed. Just months before the halvening, the price of bitcoin went into free fall. Between February and March, when the world was first gripped by the COVID crisis, bitcoin lost half its value, dropping to a low of $3,858 on March 13 — barely enough to pay the system’s energy costs post-halvening. Miners were likely pacing, wringing their hands, wondering how they would stay in business. Who would guarantee their profits?

That is when Tether — a company that produces a dollar-pegged stablecoin of the same name — sprung into action and started issuing tethers in amounts far greater than it ever had before in its five years of existence.

Tethers, for the uninitiated, are the main source of liquidity for unbanked crypto exchanges, which account for most of bitcoin’s trading volume. Currently, there are $18 billion (notional value) worth of tethers sloshing around in the crypto markets. And nobody is quite sure what’s backing them.

Due to Tether’s lack of transparency, its failure to provide a long promised audit, and the fact that the New York Attorney General is currently probing the firm along with Tether’s sister company, crypto exchange Bitfinex, for fraud, a good guess is nothing. Tethers, many suspect, are being minted out of thin air. 

(Tethers were initially promised as an IOU where one tether was supposed to represent a redeemable dollar. But that was long before the British Virgin Island-registered firm began issuing tethers in massive quantities. And no tethers, to anyone’s knowledge, have ever been redeemed—except for when Tether burned 500 million tethers in October 2018, following the seizure of $850 million from its payment processor Crypto Capital.)

According to data from Nomics, at the beginning of 2020, there were only $4.3 billion worth of tethers in circulation. That number remained stable through January and February and into March. But starting on March 18, just five days after bitcoin dipped below $5,000, the tether printer kicked in.

BTC price and USDT supply. Image: Nomics.com

Tether minted 4.4 billion tethers in April 2020 — crypto’s version of an economic stimulus package. By early June, the price of bitcoin crossed $10,000. Yet the Tether printer kept printing, pushing the price of bitcoin ever skyward and giving bag holders an opportunity to cash out. 

In May, June, and July 2020, Tether issued a combined total of 3 billion tethers. In August, when the price of bitcoin reached $12,000, Tether issued another 2.6 billion tethers. In September, when bitcoin slid below $10,000, Tether infused the markets with another 2.2 billion tethers, although, even that couldn’t lift bitcoin up to $12,000 again. The price just hovered in the $10,000 range. 

And then in October — just after US prosecutors charged the founders of BitMEX, a Seychelles-registered, Hong Kong-based bitcoin derivatives exchange, for failing to maintain an adequate anti-money laundering program — the price of BTC started to soar. What happened?

Tether’s frenzied pumping

One theory is that Tether just kept issuing tethers, billions and billions of them, and those tethers were used to buy up bitcoin. A high demand drives up the price — even if it’s fake money. 

Only unlike in 2017, the effort to drive up bitcoin’s price is requiring a lot more tethers than ever before. (At the end of 2017, before the last bitcoin bubble popped, there were only $1.3 billion worth of tethers in circulation, a fraction of what there are today.)

Nicholas Weaver, a bitcoin skeptic and a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley, is convinced bitcoin’s latest price moves are 100% synthetic.

“The amount of tether flooding into the system is more than enough explanation for the price as it is well more than the amount needed to buy up all the newly minted bitcoin,” he told me. “If it was organic, there would at least be some significant increase in the outstanding amount of non-fraudulent stablecoins.”

What he means is, if real money was behind tether, we’d be seeing a similar demand for regulated stablecoins. But that is not the case. Only one regulated stablecoin has seen substantial growth — Circle’s USDC — but that growth is far overshadowed by Tether, and mainly a result of the growing decentralized finance (DeFi) market — a topic for another time.

Jorge Stolfi, a professor of computer science at the State University of Campinas in Brazil, who in 2016 wrote a letter to the SEC advising about the risks of a bitcoin ETF, which the SEC published, agrees.

“As long as fake money can be used to buy BTC, the price can be pumped to whatever levels to keep the miners happy,” he told me. He went on to explain in a Twitter thread that the higher the bitcoin price, the faster real money flows out of the system — assuming miners sell all their bitcoin for cash. Multiply bitcoin’s current price of $18,600 times 900, and that’s nearly $17 million a day. Investors will never get that money back, he said.

Klyith (not his real name) from Something Awful, a predecessor site to 4Chan, explains Tether this way:

“A bunch of pixies show up and start flooding the parchment market with fairy gold, driving prices to amazing new heights. But when any of the player characters try to spend the fairy gold in other towns or to pay tithes to the king, it turns into worthless rocks.

“If you denounce the pixies to the peasants or start using dispel magic to reveal that fairy gold is rocks, the price of parchments will collapse and the peasants may stop using them altogether. But if you ignore the pixies and keep the parchment economy going, you will end up with more and more worthless rocks instead of gold. The pixies can of course tell the difference between fairy gold and real gold at a glance. So they will quickly drain all the real gold from the whole township if you don’t act. What do you do?”

Still, it is hard to imagine that outside events don’t have some impact on bitcoin’s price. Two other events are being talked about right now as reasons behind bitcoin’s price gains—and they are getting a lot more media attention than Tether.

PayPal’s shilling

One of the biggest companies in the world is now promoting crypto, giving retail buyers the impression that bitcoin is a safe investment. After all, if bitcoin were a Ponzi or a scam, why would such a well-known, respectable company embrace it? I should add that MicroStrategy, Square, Fidelity Investment and Mexico’s third-richest person, Ricardo Salinas Pliego, are also currently shilling bitcoin on the internet.

On Oct. 21, PayPal announced a new service for its users to buy and sell crypto for cash. And on Nov. 12, the service became available to U.S. customers, who can now buy and sell bitcoin, bitcoin cash, ether, and litecoin via their PayPal wallet. 

If you are a PayPal user, you have already gone through the process of proving you are who you say you are. And that removes the hassle of having to sign up with an crypto exchange, like Coinbase in the U.S., and take selfies of yourself holding up your driver’s license or passport.

Of course, there are limitations. You can’t transfer crypto into or out of your wallet, like you can on a centralized exchange. But you can pay PayPal’s 26 million merchants with crypto — although, not really, because what they receive on their end is cash. And the transaction is subject to high fees, like 2.3% for anything under $100, so what is the point? All you are doing is taking out a bet against PayPal that the price of bitcoin is going to rise. 

Stolfi describes PayPal on Twitter as “a meta-casino where you can choose to use special in-house chips with a randomly variable value.”

The broader point is that PayPal makes it easy to buy crypto for people who are less likely to understand how crypto really works or know about Tether and the risk it imposes on the crypto markets. (If authorities were to arrest Tether’s operators and freeze its assets, similar to what happened to Liberty Reserve in 2013, that could lead to a huge plummet in bitcoin’s price.)

If you think Tether doesn’t have that big of an impact on bitcoin’s price, recall that Tether/Bitfinex CFO Giancarlo Devasini (going by “Merlin”) is recorded in the NYAG’s 2019 complaint as having reached out to Crypto Capital to plead for missing funds: “Please understand all this could be extremely dangerous for everybody, the entire crypto community,” said Merlin, indicating what could happen if Tether failed to exist. “BTC could tank to below 1k if we don’t act quickly.”

PayPal this month reached 85% of the volume of Binance.US, the U.S. branch of major crypto exchange Binance. Granted the volume of Binance.US is small in comparison with Binance’s main crypto exchange, but you can see where this is going. 

One thought is that PayPal’s move into crypto is a “death sentence” for bitcoin, and that Tether and the exchanges who depend on tethers are working together to pump up the price of bitcoin to lure as much cash into the system as possible while the going is good.  

China’s crackdown on OTC desks

According to news coming out of the country, China’s bitcoin miners may be encountering difficulty selling their bitcoin on over-the counter exchanges.

Since China banned crypto exchanges three years ago, OTC exchanges — where buyers and sellers go to trade directly — have become the most convenient way for the country’s citizens to on-ramp and off-ramp into and out of the crypto world. It’s also the main way bitcoin miners sell their bitcoin for yuan.

Recently, as part of a move to curtail internet gambling and contain capital outflows, Chinese authorities have been targeting OTC desks. If authorities determine that your counterpart (the person on the other end of your trade) is trying to launder illicit funds, you risk getting your bank account frozen. As a result, miners may be having to take more precautions and cash out less frequently, according to The Block (paywalled). 

There is some speculation that this is making it harder for bitcoin miners to offload their bitcoins, leading to a liquidity crisis. In other words, fewer bitcoin are available to buyers, thus driving up demand similar to if hoards of bitcoin were being bought up by Tether.

But ICSI’s Weaver cautions there is no way to think rationally about bitcoin’s price. “The market is completely loony,” he said.

In a rational world, he believes shutting down OTC desks would have no effect on the price of bitcoin — if the rest of the markets were efficient and honest. OTC desks are really about miners’ paying power and Chinese who want to evade capital controls by trading cash for bitcoin and moving that bitcoin overseas, he said. He added that he could envision China’s crackdown on OTC desks driving up the price of bitcoin if it resulted in fewer OTC purchasers selling their bitcoin on banked exchanges. “But really, that doesn’t make sense either,” he said. “How many banked exchanges are left?”

Meanwhile, Tether keeps up the good work

Updated on Nov. 21 to mention that nobody has ever redeemed their tethers, meaning there is no record of anyone having sent their USDT back to Tether and received a bank wire for cash.

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News: Crypto Mom wants to give criminals a head start, IOTA’s meltdown, Lubin’s organism divides

As a reminder, I will be traveling to Vancouver on Feb. 22 to spend about a day and a half with David Gerard. We are being interviewed for a QuadrigaCX documentary. I know when we get there, we are going to wish we had more time to hang out and meet people in the area. Especially given how far Gerard has to travel (from London) and how beautiful Vancouver is. And with that, here is the news from the past week.

Crypto Mom wants to give criminals a head start

SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce (aka “Crypto Mom”) has unveiled her proposal to create a “safe harbor” for crypto startups, allowing them a three-year grace period after their ICO to achieve a level of decentralization sufficient to pass through the agency’s securities evaluations, specifically the Howey Test. (My story in Modern Consensus.)

Where to begin? Given that most, if not all ICOs are illegal securities offerings, this is like giving fraudsters free reign, so they can pump up their coins, cash in and leave the country. It’s like 2017 all over again. This whole notion of “sufficiently decentralized” is something that first came in mid-2018 when Bill Hinman, the SEC’s director, division of corporate finance, mentioned it in a talk he was giving about Ethereum. There is no clear way of defining “sufficiently decentralized.” It’s a murky concept to begin with. (See David Gerard’s story on Peirce. He goes into more depth and is not nearly so kind.)

Peirce is a Republican with libertarian leanings. Her term expires June 5. With a proposal like this and a nickname “Crypto Mom,” I can only assume she is buttering up for her next gig? Also, the odds of this rule passing are slim to none, especially given SEC Commissioner’s Jay Clayton’s strong criticism of ICOs in the past. 

IOTA’s meltdown

IOTA is in full meltdown mode. Apparently, IOTA founders Sergey Ivancheglo (aka Come-from-Beyond) and David Sønstebø were working on a ternary computing development project called Jinn. But it fell apart, and now the two can’t stop pointing fingers at each other. Ivancheglo says that he no longer works for foundation director David Sønstebø and is suing him for 25 million MIOTA (~ $8.5 million). Sønstebø wrote this really long Medium post, which I had trouble staying awake through. There is also a r/buttcoin Reddit post that spells out the full drama, if you’re in need of entertainment.

Given the maturity level demonstrated by this project in the past, I’m not surprised by any of this. The project has been a complete mess ever since they tried to roll their own crypto in 2017. I wrote about it for Forbes, and they attacked me with weird blog posts and other nonsense. Cofounder Dominik Schiener even threatened to slap me. And when confronted, he accused me of “leading the FUD race.” FT Alphaville actually covered this in a story titled “FUD, inglorious FUD” at the time. 

Researcher Sarah Jamie Lewis is calling on some journalist somewhere to do a deep dive on this sketchy project. “At a glance it’s really hard to not come to the conclusion that there is rampant criminal fraud afoot,” she said in a Twitter thread.

Ripple perpetual swaps

Bitmex has announced trading of XRP perpetual swaps. Bitmex co-founder Arthur Hayes apparently believes XRP is lowly enough to trade on his exchange. Boo-yaka-sha!

Speaking of Ripple, XRP lost almost half of its value last year. It’s a touchy topic for Galaxy Digital CEO Mike Novogratz, because he has invested $23 million into the coin. He recently told a group of financial advisers in Orlando that XRP will “underperform immensely again this year.” He suggested it’s because Ripple owns a giant pool of the coins and keeps selling them off in a situation he likened to shares. (CoinDesk)  

The total amount of XRP in circulation is 100 billion tokens. While Ripple was “gifted” 80 billion, its holdings are down to 56 billion, most of which are in escrow. The company unlocks one billion XRP each month, sells a portion and puts the rest back in escrow. Does that sound like shares to you?

Mastercard dumps all over Libra

Mastercard was one of several payments companies (along with PayPal, eBay, Stripe, Visa, Mercado Pago) to pull out of the Libra Association in October. In an interview with the Financial Times, Mastercard’s CEO Ajay Banga revealed why.

First, Libra Association’s key members refused to commit to avoid running afoul of local KYC/AML rules. Banga would ask them to put things in writing, and they wouldn’t. Second, he didn’t understand what the game plan was for making money. “When you don’t understand how money gets made, it gets made in ways you don’t like.” Finally, the financial inclusion bit struck him as odd. “I’m like: ‘this doesn’t sound right,’” he said.

This gives us a bit of insight into the lack of thought and planning Facebook put into its Libra project before going public with it. You would think a huge enterprise like Facebook would get this stuff right, but apparently not.

ConsenSys splits in two

images (1)Joe Lubin’s organism (that’s what he used to call it, an “organism) looks to be running into more funding trouble, so it’s going to spin off its venture arm. The company will basically become two separate businesses, a software business and an investment business. In the process, it’s also  cutting another 14% of its staff. This is after cutting 13% of its staff in December. (My story in Modern Consensus.)

At one time, ConsenSys had 1,200 employees. In mid-2018, it reportedly had 900. About 117 were let go in December, and likely another 100 in this last round. This is a company that midwifed many of the ICOs that fueled the 2017-2018 crypto bubble. I can still recall going to ConsenSys’ Ethereum Summit on a sweltering day in May 2017 and watching some guy on stage strip down to his boxer shorts. Such was the exuberance at the time.

ConsenSys now lists only 65 companies in its investment portfolio. When Forbes wrote this scathing article in late 2018, the company had 200 startups. Lubin’s science experiment is starting to unravel.

Justin Sun finally breaks bread with Buffet

On Thursday, Tron CEO Justin Sun tweeted a receipt and pictures to show he finally dined with Warren Buffet. This, after paying $4.6 million in a charity auction last year to have lunch with the multi-billionaire. They were originally supposed to meet in San Francisco six months ago, but Sun postponed. This time they had dinner on Buffet’s home turf in Omaha, so Buffet clearly learned his lesson. Other guests were Litecoin’s Charlie Lee, Huobi CFO Chris Lee, eToro chief Yoni Assia, Binance Charity Foundation Head Helen Hai. The bill was for $515 and Buffet left a $100 tip. (Modern Consensus.)

Craig Wright’s abuse of privilege

Craig Wright, the self-professed creator of bitcoin, is driving the attorneys representing Ira Kleiman and the judge bananas. In a document filed with the court on Feb. 2, plaintiffs claimed that Wright has asserted privilege over 11,000 company documents. That is only part of the problem, they said. “The vague descriptions of what is being withheld makes any meaningful analysis on a document by document basis impossible.”

Wright has also apparently claimed that the” bonded courier” is an attorney and any communications with this person of mystery is privileged as well. (Modern Consensus.)

Altsbit gets hacked

Exchange hacks are extremely rare. We don’t hear about them too often, only once every few weeks or so. The latest victim is a small Italian exchange called Altsbit, which had its hot wallet vacuumed clean last week.

This was especially bad for Altsbit, because for some inexplicable reason, the exchange was keeping almost all of its funds in its hot wallet, which is a terrible idea. Most exchanges keep the majority of their funds in offline cold storage for security purposes.

According to reports, the hackers stole 1,066 Komodo (KMD) tokens and 283,375 Verus (VRSC) coins. The combined value of both stands at about $27,000. That’s small potatoes compared to other exchange hacks, where hundreds of millions worth of coins have gone missing. Almost all of Altsbit’s trading activity was coming from the ARRR/BTC pair. (ARRR is the native token of the Pirate Chain.) Altsbit said in a tweet on Feb. 5, it was investigating details of the hack and would get back to everyone soon, but so far nada. The exchange was founded in April 2018.

Bakkt gets into payments

Bakkt, the ICE-owned bitcoin options and futures exchange, isn’t making any money on bitcoin options, but that’s okay because it has another plan. It’s going into payments. The exchange is set to acquire loyalty program provider Bridge2 Solutions. The master plan is to integrate reward points, crypto, and in-game tokens into a single app, so consumers get an aggregate view of their digital assets. Eventually consumers will be able to spend those as cash via the Bakkt mobile app. But for that to happen, Bakkt will have to invest copious amounts of money into marketing to get merchants to adopt the new system of payment. (My story in Modern Consensus)

Other news

What’s happening with Jae Kwon? As Decrypt reported on Jan. 31, he stepped down as CEO of Cosmos to work on a project called Virgo with lofty aims. Cosmos pulled in $17 million in an ICO in 2017. Now Kwon is tweeting under three different monikers and the people within his company have come to find his behavior untenable. (Coindesk)

U.S. Marshalls is auctioning off $40 million of bitcoin (~4,041 BTC) on Feb. 18. (Coindesk.) If you want to put in a bid, you’ll have to deposit $200,000 in advance. Here is the registration form for anyone interested.  

Another study has come out showing that proof-of-stake is just as costly as proof-of-work. But instead of contributing to global warming, PoS requires stakers to put down tokens, lots and lots of them. It’s more evidence that blockchains aren’t economical.

If you have comments or feedback on this newsletter or a tip, drop me a line or DM me on Twitter at @ahcastor.

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News: Former Wex CEO arrested, CFTC probes BitMEX, Facebook’s Libra grilled in Washington

Since I’m now the editor of an ATM website, let’s start with bitcoin ATM news. LibertyX is adding 90 machines to its bitcoin ATM network. It now has over 1,000 machines.

Actually, these are not new machines. They are traditional cash ATMs that are bitcoin enabled. A software upgrade on the machines allows users to buy bitcoin with a debit card. The ATMs continue to dispense cash as well. 

According to CoinATM Radar, there are now 5,200 bitcoin ATM machines on this earth. Who the heck is using them? At least one operator, frustrated by a lack of business, has moved his Bitcoin ATM into his mother’s garage. 

In the exchange world —

Criminal in handcuffsDmitri Vasilev, the ex CEO of defunct crypto trading platform Wex, was arrested in Italy. Wex was a rebrand of BTC-e, an exchange that was shut down in 2017 for being a hub of criminal activity. BTC-e was also linked to the stolen bitcoin from Mt. Gox.  

Economist Nouriel Roubini — aka “Dr. Doom” — has stepped up his attack on crypto derivatives exchange BitMEX. In a scathing column in Project Syndicate, Roubini claims sources told him the exchange is being used daily for “money laundering on a massive scale by terrorists and other criminals from Russia, Iran, and elsewhere.” 

Days after Roubini’s column came out, Bloomberg reported that the CFTC was investigating whether BitMEX allowed Americans to trade on the platform. In fact, we know that crypto analyst Tone Vays, a New York resident, was trading on the platform until November 2018 when his account was terminated.

Regulators are cracking down on crypto exchanges. As The Block’s Larry Cermak points out, the situation is getting “quite serious.”

Elsewhere, Bitpoint, the Tokyo-based crypto exchange that was recently hacked, says it will fully refund victims in crypto, not cash. Roughly 50,000 users were impacted when $28 million worth of crypto vanished off the exchange. Two-thirds of the stolen funds belonged to customers of the exchange. 

U.S. crypto exchange Coinbase has killed off its loss-making crypto investment packages. After shutting down its crypto index fund due to a lack of interest, it closed its much ridiculed “Coinbase Bundle.” The product launched eight months ago with the aim of making it easy to purchase a market-weighted basket of cryptocurrencies. 

Malta-based Binance found itself $775,000 richer when it stumbled across nearly 10 million Stellar lumens (XLM). Turns out, the exchange had been accidentally staking (receiving dividends) on its customers lumens for almost a year. It’s planning to give the tokens away in an airdrop and will also add staking support for customers.  

Tether, the stablecoin issued by Bitfinex/Tether, is now running on Algorand, a new blockchain protocol. It’s also running on Omni, Ethereum, Tron and EOS. Presumably, running on a plethora of networks makes tether that much harder to shut down. It’s sort of like whack-a-mole. Try to take it off one network, and tether reappears on another. 

There are now officially more than $4 billion worth of tether sloshing around in the crypto markets. That number almost doubled when Tether inadvertently issued $5 billion unbacked tethers when it was helping Boston-based crypto exchange Poloniex transfer tethers from Omni to Tron. Oops.

Also interesting —

David Gerard is working on a book about the world’s worst initial coin offerings. He recently uncovered another cringe-worthy project. “Synthestech was an ICO to fund research into transmutation of elements, using cold fusion — turning copper into platinum. Literally, an ICO for alchemy. Turning your gold into their gold.” 

Facebook’s Libra had a busy week.

U.S. Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin gave a press briefing on crypto at the White House. (Here’s the transcript.) He is concerned about the speculative nature of bitcoin. He’s also seriously worried Libra will be used for money laundering. He said the project has a long, long way to go, before he feels comfortable with it. 

Unlike bitcoin, which goes wildly up and down in price, Libra would have a stable value, because it would be pegged to a basket of major currencies, like the dollar, euro, and yen. Although, nobody is quite sure how that will work and what currencies it will be pegged to. Tether has a stable value, too, of course.

After his talk, Mnuchin flew off to Paris, where he met with finance ministers from six other powerful countries at the G7 summit. Everyone there agreed they need to push for the highest standards of regulation on Libra. 

Meanwhile, David Marcus, the head of the Libra project, got a grilling in Congress over privacy and trust issues. (You can watch the Senate hearing here and the House Financial Services Committee hearing here.) Nobody believes Facebook will keep its word on anything.

All of this is happening, of course, just after the social media giant got a $5 billion slap on the wrist for privacy violations following the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The dumb tweet of the week award goes to Anthony Pompliano, co-founder of a digital asset fund Morgan Creek Digital, who says dollars aren’t moved digitally, they are moved electronically. For some reason, he has 250,000 followers on Twitter. The historic tweet even made it in FT Alphaville.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak has joined an energy-focused blockchain startup in Malta. The Mediterranean island nation is gung-ho about blockchain. It is also a haven for money laundering and the place where a female journalist who tried to expose government corruption was blown up in 2017. 

U.S authorities have charged former Silk Road narcotics vendor Hugh Brian Haney with money laundering. The darknet market was shut down in 2013. Special agents used blockchain analytics to track down Haney and seize $19 million worth of bitcoin. 

This clever young man has made a business out of helping crypto exchanges inflate their volume. 

ConsenSys founder Joseph Lubin is being sued by a former employee for $13 million. The employer is alleging fraud, breach of contract and unpaid profits.

Former bitcoin core developer Peter Todd is being sued for allegedly touching people inappropriately.

And finally, bitcoin ransomware Ryuk is steadily making its way into China.  

 

 

News: NYAG calls Bitfinex out, Bitfunder founder off to jail, Roubini pissed at Bitmex

A few people asked me where I’ve been lately. I’ve been working! I recently started a full time job. I’m the editor of a website about ATM machines. I recently wrote Spanish authorities: bitcoin ATMs expose hole in AML laws” and Bitcoin ATMs: Why Vancouver doesn’t want them.” (By the way, if you are curious how criminals use bitcoin ATMs to clean money, this moneylaunder.com article does a nice job of explaining the process.) 

I also write a newsletter on money. You should sign up for it

On to the news — 

Much ado about exchanges

Crypto exchange Bitfinex is doing a lot more business in New York than it’s led us all to believe. The NYAG’s recent court filings — a Memorandum of Law and an affirmation from assistant Attorney General Brian Whitehurst, along with 28 pieces of evidence — reveal a full picture of the company’s dealings in the state.  

Why does it matter? Because his means NYAG has jurisdiction to push ahead with its investigation into Bitfinex and Tether’s ongoing shenanigans. Decrypt’s Ben Munster also points out that Bitfinex “loaned tethers to a New York trading firm.” There’s an open question as to whether the funds were ever paid back.  

Also, Bennet Tomlin had a good thread on the NYAG’s filing.

By the way, there are now nearly $3.9 billion tether sloshing around in the markets, pushing up the price of bitcoin, which briefly crested $13,000 on July 10. 

I nearly missed this bit of news from a few weeks ago: Ireland-based cryptocurrency exchange Bitsane went poof!, leaving its 246,000 users high and dry. Users began having issues withdrawing crypto from the exchange in May. And on June 17, the exchange’s website along with its twitter and facebook accounts vanished.  

Bitmarket, the second largest Polish crypto exchange, has shut down citing a loss of liquidity. Approximately 1,300 bitcoin are stuck on the exchange, and users are rightfully pissed off. They have formed a Facebook group and are planning a class-action lawsuit. The exchange was acting goofy before the shutdown. Reddit user u/OdoBanks says users were asked to change passwords and provide additional KYC for withdrawals.

Founder of bitcoin stock exchange Bitfunder will be spending 14 months behind bars for lying to the SEC about a hack that cost clients 6,000 BTC. Instead of telling his customers the truth in 2013, operator Jon Montroll misappropriated funds to hide the losses.  

Cryptocurrency exchange hacks don’t happen too often — only once every few weeks. Japan’s Bitpoint is the latest to make headlines. The exchange’s hot wallets were hacked to the tune of $32 million worth of crypto, most of which were customer funds. On Monday, the exchange found another $2.3 million missing on exchanges “that use the trading system provided by Bitpoint Japan,” according to Japan Today

(Update, July 15, 11:30 a.m. EST — previously, I indicated Bitpoint located $2.3 of the missing funds, but actually the exchange found more money missing.)

Speaking of Japan, the country’s top regulator says 110 crypto exchanges are waiting for licenses right now. Under Japanese law, crypto exchanges need to register with the Financial Services Agency to operate in the country. As of now, there are only 19 licensed exchanges in Japan. The FSA has been slow to license after the Coincheck hack

Binance burned 808,888 of its native BNB tokens — about $24 million worth. This is the eighth burn of BNB coins, which are totally not a security. The price of the remaining BNB goes up every time there is a burn. Keep in mind, until any crypto is converted to fiat, its value is completely theoretical. 

Screen Shot 2019-07-14 at 11.26.10 PMBitMEX, the Hong Kong-based bitcoin derivatives exchange, has finally released the tapes (round 1 and 2) from its “Tangle In Taipei,” a July 3 debate between Bitmex CEO Arthur Hayes and NYU professor Nouriel Roubini. The two have been going at it online.

A man is suing Gemini — the NY exchange operated by the Winklevoss twins — after $240,000 was stolen from his money market account and wired to Gemini, where it was used to to purchase crypto on the exchange.  

Due to heightened oversight on online crypto exchanges, users are increasingly asked to fork over their IDs and addresses. The shift is giving peer-to-peer exchanges, which typically don’t impose such KYC checks, a boost, according to Bloomberg

Other interesting stuff

Founders of the Tezos crypto platform object to sharing emails between them regarding the Tezos “fundraiser” because they are married. Steven Palley has the full story

New York City’s Monroe College was hit with a ransomware attack that shutdown the college’s computer systems. The attackers want the college to fork over $2 million worth of bitcoin to free up the computers.  

President Trump blasted bitcoin on Twitter. He is no fan of Facebook’s Libra either. There’s only room in this country for one currency, and that’s the almighty dollar.

The Federal Trade Commission has fined Facebook a gobsmacking $5 billion for privacy violations. It’s the biggest fine in FTC’s history. Surprise, surprise, Facebook’s stock went up on the news. 

An angry mob burned down the home of a man behind bitcoin ponzi scheme in South Africa after he admitted all the money was gone. 

Finally, police in China cracked down on a cartel of illicit bitcoin miners who stole nearly $3 million worth of electricity. A local power company tipped off authorities after they noticed a peculiar surge in power use.  

News: $250 million longs wiped out by bitcoin whale, Binance reopens withdrawals, Bitfinex set to trade LEO

Screen Shot 2019-05-18 at 5.17.10 PMThe price of bitcoin (BTC) is organically decided by traders—big ones, and only a few of them.

In the morning of May 17, the price of bitcoin did a nosedive, dropping from around $7,726 to $6,777 in about 20 minutes. The plunge was due to the actions of a single large trader (a “whale”) putting up 5,000 BTC (worth about $40 million) on crypto exchange Bitstamp.

The massive liquidation wiped out $250 million worth of long positions on BitMEX, a bitcoin derivatives exchange based in Hong Kong. (The BTC price it used bottomed at $6,469.15.) This, in turn, caused bitcoin’s price to plummet on other exchanges.

It’s hard not to view this as intentional price manipulation. 

BitMEX relies on two exchanges—Bitstamp and Coinbase Pro—equally weighted, for its Bitcoin-US dollar price index. Bitstamp and Coinbase both have low trading volumes, which makes them particularly vulnerable to price manipulations. It is like rolling a bowling ball down an alley and there are only two pins. You just have to aim for one.

Dovey Wan, partner at crypto asset investment fund Primitive Ventures, was the first to spot the dump on Bitstamp. She tweeted“As NO ONE will simply keep 5000 BTC on exchange, this is deliberately planned dump scheme, aka manipulation imo.” 

Despite the hit, the price of bitcoin magically recovered. As of this moment, it is trading at around $7,300. Bitstamp has launched an investigation into the large trade.

Delay, delay, delay

In the wake of such blatant price manipulation, it is tough to imagine that the SEC will ever approve a bitcoin exchange-traded fund (EFT).

On May 14, the US regulator again delayed a decision to approve the Bitwise ETF proposal. The deadline for the SEC’s ruling on the VanEck bitcoin ETF is May 21, but I’m betting that will get pushed out again, too.  

Bitfinex

The New York Supreme Court has ordered Bitfinex to stop accessing Tether’s reserves for 90 days, except for normal business activities. The judge modified the New York Attorney General’s original order to ensure it does not restrict Tether’s “ordinary business activities.” Bitfinex played up the event as a “Victory! Yay, we won!” sort of thing, but the NYAG’s investigation is ongoing, and the companies still have to hand over documents.  

Traders clearly don’t have much confidence in Bitfinex at the moment. Amidst the regulatory drama swirling around Bitfinex and Tether, they are moving a “scary” amount of bitcoin off the exchange. 

Meanwhile, Bitfinex is pinning its hopes on its new LEO token. Paolo Ardoino, the company’s CTO, tweeted that Bitfinex raised $1 billion worth of tethers—not actual dollars, mind you, but tethers—in a private sale of its new token LEO. Bitfinex has yet to disclose who actually bought the tokens, but I’m sure they are totally real people. 

Bitfinex announced that on Monday, May 20, it will begin trading LEO in pairs with BTC, USD, USDT, EOS, and ETH. It will be interesting to see if traders actually buy the token. US citizens are not allowed to trade LEO. 

Binance

After freezing deposits and withdrawals for a week following its hack, Binance opened up withdrawals again on May 15. Traders are now free to move their funds off the exchange. 

Binance is looking to create utility around its BNB token. The exchange burned all of its Ethereum-based BNB tokens and replaced them with BEP2 tokens—the native token of Binance Chain. The cold wallet address is here.

Cryptopia, Poloniex, Coinbase

New Zealand crypto exchange Cryptopia is undergoing a liquidation after it experienced two security breaches in January, where is lost 9.4% of all its assets. Its customers are understandably pissed and outraged.

After the breach, the exchange was closed from January until March 4, when it relaunched in a read-only format. Ten days later, traders woke up to a message on the exchange’s website that read, “Don’t Panic! We are currently in maintenance. Thank you for your patience, and we apologize for the inconvenience.” Cryptopia closed permanently on May 15. Grant Thornton NZ, the company handling the liquidation, expects the process will take months.

In the US, regulatory uncertainty continues to plague exchanges. Boston-based Poloniex, which Circle acquired last year, says it will disable US markets for nine tokens (ARDR, BCN, DCR, GAME, GAS, LSK, NXT, OMNI, and REP). “It is not possible to be certain whether US regulators will consider these assets to be securities,” the exchange says. 

Meanwhile, Coinbase is using the $300 million it raised in October to gobble up other companies. The San Francisco-based exchange is in talks to buy Hong Kong-based Xapo for $50 million. Xapo’s coveted product is a network of underground bitcoin cold storage vaults. The firm is rumored to have $5.5 billion worth of bitcoin tucked away in bunkers across five continents. 

Elsewhere in Cryptoland 

John McAfee has disappeared. “He was last seen leaving a prominent crypto person’s home via boat. He is separated from his wife at the moment. Sources are claiming that he is in federal custody,” says The Block founder Mike Dudas.

McAfee’s twitter account is now being operated by staff, who later denied he was in custody, posting pics of McAfee with his wife in their “new” backyard. 

Decrypt’s Ben Munster wrote a hysterical piece on Dudas, who has a habit of apologizing post tweet. “He tweets like Elmer Fudd shoots his shotgun; from the hip, and nearly always in the foot.” The story describes Dudas as a real person with human foibles.  

Bakkt says it’s moving forward with plans to launch a physically settled bitcoin futures product in July. The company does not have CFTC approval yet—instead, it plans to self-certify, after which time, the CFTC will have 10 days to yea or nay the offering.

Both CME and CBoe self-certified their bitcoin futures products as well. The difference is this: they offer cash equivalents to bitcoin upon a contract’s expiration. Bakkt wants to deliver actual bitcoin, which may give the CFTC pause.

The SEC has fined Alex Tapscott, co-author of the book “Blockchain Revolution,” and his investment firm NextBlock, $25,000 over securities violations. (Here is the order.) And the Ontario Securities Commission fined him $1 million.

In 2017, NextBlock raised $20 million to invest in blockchain and crypto companies. In raising the money, Tapscott falsely touted four blockchain bigwigs as advisors in slide decks. After being called out by then-Forbes writer Laura Shin, the company returned investors’ money. But the damage was done, and the SEC went after them anyway.

Tim Swanson pointed out that the the Stellar network went down for about two hours, and only those who run validator nodes noticed. Apparently, nobody actually cares about or uses the Stellar network.  

According to a report by blockchain analysis startup Chainalysis, 376 Individuals own one third of all ether (ETH). Based on a breakdown of the Ethereum initial coin offering, which I wrote for The Block earlier this year, this comes as no surprise.  

Robert-Jan den Haan, who has been researching Bitfinex and Tether since way back when, did a podcast interview with The Block on “What the heck is happening with Bitfinex.” If you are Bitfinex-obsessed like I am, it is worth listening to.   

Apparently, kicking back at regulators is super costly and something you may want to consider before you launch a token that doesn’t have an actual use case. SEC negotiations have cost Kik $5 million, as the media startup tries to defend its KIN token.

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News: Money laundering in real time, Binance has you covered, maybe, and Bitfinex ready to IEO with LEO

A lot is going on in cryptoland right now—most of it involves investigations, a New York Attorney General (NYAG) lawsuit and missing funds, but I don’t want to sound negative.

The destiny of all crypto exchanges is to be hacked, apparently. Last year, thieves stole $950 million worth of cryptocurrency from exchanges. So, in many ways, it’s not surprising to hear that Binance, the largest crypto exchange by volume, got hacked a second time.

Binance, all funds SAFU

Thieves looted more than 7,000 BTC from Binance in a single transaction. The hackers, however, are not free yet! They still need to move that $41 million worth of BTC into fiat,  a feat that typically requires layering funds into smaller and smaller amounts (generally using a script of some sort), moving it through coin mixers, and then funneling it through various exchanges until they can exit into cash. 

Thanks to blockchain, we can watch this money laundering happen real time. The first transaction out of Binance consisted of of 44 outputs. The hackers have since consolidated the bitcoin into seven addresses of mostly amounts. Now we wait.

After the hack, Binance suspended all deposits and withdrawals for seven days. Traders on the platform can’t dump their bitcoin—or their tether. If bitcoin were to crash, they would be trapped. Fortunately, bitcoin is not crashing—it’s pumping. As I write, bitcoin is now at $6,800, having shot up $1,000 within a week.

According to one expert, the boost is partially due to “a rare alignment of celestial bodies forged in an ancient supernova”—thus, number go up. Makes total sense to me.

Binance says it has an insurance policy—its SAFU fund—to cover losses on the exchange. Nobody knows for certain what is in that fund, because there has never been an outside audit, but Binance’s CEO CZ says they have enough bitcoin to cover the losses. Phew!

In a recent blog post, CZ also said the exchange is revamping its security measures, including its 2FA, API and withdrawal validation processes. Also, withdrawals and deposits should resume “early next week.”

Bitfinex’s legal woes

If you need to get up to speed with the Bitfinex and Tether saga, I covered the NYAG lawsuit in my previous newsletter. Robert-Jan den Haan also wrote a complete timeline of Bitfinex’s history with its third-party payment processor Crypto Capital.

We have podcasts, too. I discuss the Bitfinex drama with Sasha Hodder on HodlCast, and Robert talks about it with Laura Shin on her Unconfirmed podcast.

In response to the NYAG’s court order, Bitfinex submitted a motion to vacate. The NYAG filed an opposition, and Bitfinex responded. At a hearing on May 6, New York Supreme Court judge Joel M. Cohen called the preliminary injunction “amorphous and endless.” The prelim will stand, but he is giving both parties a week to sort it out.

Bitcoin was selling at a 6% premium on Bitfinex—a sign that traders are willing to pay more to get rid of their tether and get their funds off the exchange. The price of bitcoin on the exchange was so off-kilter that CoinMarketCap, a website that aggregates bitcoin pricing from top exchanges, stopped pulling from Bitfinex.

The Bitfinex premium disappeared when Binance halted withdrawals on its platform, Larry Cermak doubts it has anything to do with Binance though. He thinks it’s because Bitfinex started processing cash withdrawals again.

Twitter user “Bitfinex’ed,” disagrees. When bitcoins and tethers are stuck on Binance,  that effectively reduces the supply and makes it that much easier to pump the market, he told me. He think prices will crash when Binance reopens withdrawals.

“I am lion, hear me roar”

Screen Shot 2019-05-10 at 9.39.37 PMBitfinex has a $851 million shortfall due to issues with Crypto Capital. How is it going to fix that? Here is an idea: Why not just print more money?

The exchange’s latest plan is a token sale, or exchange traded offering (ETO), on its own platform. It will be selling a new token LEO—as in lion.

Earlier this week, iFinex, the parent company of Bitfinex, released a white paper outlining the business proposition behind the token offering. Each LEO is worth 1 USDT, which is worth $1 USD. This is not the first time Bitfinex has issued a new token to pull itself out of a financial mess. (It created a BFX token after it was hacked in 2016.)

Bitfinex shareholder Dong Zhao told CoinDesk that iFinex has received hard and soft commitments of $1 billion for the token sale. Perfect. That should definitely eleviate all of Bitfinex’s money problems.

QuadrigaCX

Ernst & Young, the trustee for failed Canadian crypto exchange QuadrigaCX, released a preliminary report describing the company’s assets and liabilities. In a nut, Quadriga has US$21 million in assets, but owes creditors US$160 million.

Elsewhere

Recently, Negocie Coins, a crypto exchange that you probably have never heard of, rose to number three on CoinMarketCap’s top exchange’s list sorted by volume. How is this even possible? Clay Collins, founder of market data company Nomics, made a video, explaining how crypto exchanges use ticker stuffing and volume spamming to game the system.

FinCEN has released a new “interpretive  guidance” for money services businesses using cryptocurrency. If you are not sure if you are a money transmitter, David Gerard breaks it down for you. Sasha Hodder also covers the new guidance in Bitcoin Magazine. And there were several tweet storms—here, here, and here.

The FinCEN document has far reaching implications, such as, it appears Lightning Network (LN) operators qualify as money transmitters. Emin Gün Sirer says he is not surprised “given how similar LN is to hawala networks, and given the role hawala networks played in financing terrorism pre-9/11.”

The US banking committee is concerned about Facebook’s attempt at a cryptocurrency—Facebook coin—and how the social media giant is treating people’s’ financial information. It’s published an open letter with questions for Facebook.

Redditor u/BioBiro, who needed to acquire bitcoin for a totally legal purchase, complains about the rigamarole he had to go through. Among other things, “Now there’s two pictures of me and my driving license on their server for the rest of time, I guess.”

Consensus, CoinDesk’s big money maker conference, kicks off in New York next week. Last year it had 8,500 attendees, pulling in ~$17 million in ticket sales—and that’s before sponsorships. Arthur Hayes, CEO of bitcoin derivative exchange BitMEX, was one of several who rolled up to New York Hilton Midtown in a lambo.

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