Nouriel Roubini: ‘Tether is a criminal enterprise,’ SEC should probe Elon Musk’s bitcoin tweets

Nouriel Roubini, an economics professor at New York University, thinks Tether is issuing fake money. And that nothing short of an audit will prove the $30 billion in USDT the BVI-registered company has spewed out into the crypto markets thus far are even 74% backed. (Stuart Hoegner, the firm’s general counsel, claimed they were three-quarters backed in April 2019 court documents.)

Tether is a “criminal enterprise,” he bluntly told reporters on Coindesk TV. In a 10-minute interview, Roubini predicted Tether’s looming demise, called for the SEC to look into Elon Musk’s bitcoin tweets, and claimed that central bank digital currencies will spell the end for crypto.

Dr. Doom, as Roubini is called, talks quickly, doesn’t mince words, and his face barely changes expression. He has a reputation as a perpetual pessimist. Ask him a question, and he will give you a straightforward, often bleak, answer. Though he might argue, he is simply being a realist.

I am not sure why Coindesk had him on their program. Roubini hates bitcoin and his responses elicited laughter—though it wouldn’t be the first time. Roubini “sounded like a madman in 2006,” when he stood before economists at the International Monetary Fund and announced a crisis of solvency was brewing, IMF economist Prakash Loungani told the NYT in August 2008. “He was a prophet when he returned in 2007.”

Anyhow, I transcribed the talk only because I thought Roubini’s points made sense. He was interviewed by Coindesk’s Lawrence Lewitinn, Christine Lee, and Emily Parker.

Lee: The narrative on bitcoin has shifted from a means of payment to a store of value for some. It is not so much used as a currency as a digital gold. Institutions and public companies are buying this thesis and we are seeing bitcoin hit records as a result. What do you make of this institutional and corporate interest in bitcoin, underlined by Tesla’s $1.5 billion bitcoin investment on Monday? 

Roubini: As you suggested, bitcoin and crypto is not a means of payment. It is not a currency. It is not a unit of account. Is not a scalable means of payment. It is not a single numeraire. Now, people say it is an asset. But think of it. What are assets? Assets like stocks, bonds and real estate give you income or give you some use, like real estate. And, therefore, they give you capital gain. Gold does not give you income but it has other uses,—industrial activity and jewelry—and therefore, has some value. It used to be used as a means of payment. 

In the case of bitcoin, it does not have any income. It doesn’t have any use. It doesn’t have any utility. So the value of it based on what? Based on no intrinsic value and purely a speculative bubble. That is why I argue that bitcoin, like all the other shitcoins, are worth zero. [Coindesk reporters giggle.] 

Actually, negative given the hogging of energy and the environmental cost. If there was a carbon tax on crypto, the value of these assets would be negative. 

So what is the fundamental value? What is the use? What is the utility that justifies the capital gain? None. It is a speculative bubble that is based on pump-and-dump, spoofing, wash trading and manipulation by Tether, which is a total scam. [More giggling from Coindesk crew.]

So, for institutional investors, saying we are going to invest in crypto doesn’t make any sense. You have a failing company that had a flat stock market like MicroStrategy for a decade, and its head was a coke addict who decided to bet the entire house on bitcoin. [CoinDesk crew really losing it.] That is irresponsible behavior. It is not gonna be any corporate head that is going to put his cash, as you point out, into something that is so volatile. You put your cash into something that is stable. 

And for someone like Elon Musk who knows he has a market impact to manipulate to first, take an individual position to bitcoin, pump the price up, and then say that Tesla is invested. And Tesla doesn’t make money yet. It is also irresponsible and it is market manipulation. [Note: Musk was tweeting about BTC, pushing up the price, before Telsa announced it had purchased $1.5 billion worth.]

The SEC should be looking at people that have a market impact that manipulate the price of assets. That is also criminal behavior. It is totally a criminal enterprise. Tether is a criminal enterprise, and a bunch of whales and insiders are manipulating the price of bitcoins and other shitcoins day in and day out. That is a fact.

Lewitinn: Dr. Roubini, always a ray of sunshine, of course. The question about Tether is this: We have known for a while now that it has been backed entirely by dollars. It is something like 70-some-odd percent. That came out a while ago. There have been questions about its backing for some time, for several years. Yet it is still trading on par with the US dollar. Conceivably, they have enough assets at least for a while to keep the peg going with the dollar. How much of a real worry is it for crypto if there is even a small run on tether?

Roubini: First of all, we don’t know if it is backed 70% or not. Their lawyer says 70% but we have no idea. It doesn’t mean any[thing] absolute independent audit of it. [A bit garbled here, but he is saying, outside of a third-party audit, which Tether has never had, there is no way of knowing what’s backing tethers.]

We also know they are really issuing, literally, at an exponential rate, new tethers. In the last year alone, something like 25 billion. And in the last few weeks, a billion per week. So it looks like they are getting desperate, and it is a typical Ponzi scheme, in which you maintain the value of something by issuing more of it and more of it and so on. 

Lewitinn: How different is that from what is going on right now from the money printing happening in Washington? 

Roubini: The money printing in Washington is happening at a rate that is much less than the issuance of fiat by Tether and other shitcoins. If you look at the chart of it, literally, the case of Tether is exponential. Second, central banks, if you know, their assets are matching their liabilities. For every dollar of currency in excess of reserves that are in the central bank balance sheet there is an asset, foreign reserve, or gold or treasury assets. 

So the idea that fiat currencies are not backed by anything is utterly false. If you look at the balance sheet of any central bank, there are assets and there are liabilities. And actually, there is a positive net worth most of the time. But in the case of Tether there is nothing backing it. Again, even 70% is not true. And we know that every fixed exchange rate that is based on not-full-backing and not fully collateralized eventually collapses. 

The entire monetary history, every fixed exchange that is not backed has collapsed. It is only a matter of time. And the trigger is gonna be when the indictments of Tether and Bitfinex are going to occur, and it is only a matter of time this year. Because we know that there are investigations occurring. 

Parker: Let’s move to central bank digital currencies for a moment. We know that China is moving quite rapidly in this area. Do you think that the US dollar will remain the world reserve currency?

Roubini: I think that the Chinese are going to go ahead. [Sweden’s] Riksbank bank is going to go ahead. The [European Central Bank] is going to go ahead. And until now the US was behind the curve, but they realize that the Chinese had a plan to dominate the global financial system. It’s their e-commerce. It is their own platform of private payment systems like AliPay and WeChat Pay and that is going to be the e-RNB. And it is only a matter of time before we are going to phase out cash all over the world. And if the US wants to maintain the role of the US dollar as a major global reserve currency, they will have to move to an e-dollar. 

The problem with that is that people get excited in the crypto world when central banks end up talking about a central bank digital currency. A CBDC, first of all, has nothing to do with blockchain. It is going to be private. It is going to be centralized. It is going to be permissioned. And it is going to be based on a bunch of trusted authority verifying transactions.

It has nothing to do with blockchain. It has nothing to do with crypto. And as a payment system, it is going to dominate, not only crypto, which has absolutely no payment services, but also any private form of payment system that is digital, from credit cards to bank deposits to AliPay to WeChat pay to Venmo to Square to PayPal, and so on. Because it is going to be cheap, it is going to be instantaneous clearing and settlement. It is going to be a system that is going to dominate any form of private money

If and when a central bank currency is going to be introduced, the problem is going to be that any form of private digital payment system is going to be crowded out, starting with crypto, which doesn’t have any payment service in the first place. 

Lee: Dr. Roubini, it sounds like you believe that the technology underlying bitcoin is at least sound and that governments and central banks around the world will adopt it, and if that is the case, what happens to privacy? And you also mentioned something about negative rates becoming the norm. Tell us about that?

Roubini: First of all, I said the opposite of the technology. The central bank digital currencies will not be based on blockchain. They are going to be private, not public. They are going to be centralized, not decentralized. They are going to be permissioned, not permissionless. They are going to be a bunch of central banks and private banks that are trusted verifiers of the transaction, rather than being trustless. So the technology is not going to be blockchain. It is not going to be crypto. That is my point. 

Secondly, the advantage of having a central bank digital currency is that right now, if there is a very severe economic recession, central banks cannot go very negative with the policy rates. That is why they do quantitative easing. They do credit easing. Because if you go lower than, say, 75 basis points, people are going to switch their excess reserves into cash if there is a nominal zero interest rate. So they are not going to pay the tax. 

However, if you phase out cash, then you have no option than to keep your money in the digital form. And then the negative policy rate in a severe recession or depression can go to minus one, minus two, minus three, minus four, minus five, whatever you want it to be. So if and when that happens, and if there is a recession that is severe enough, central bank digital currencies are going to allow you to have much more [of an] easing monetary policy with much more negative policy rates. That is the direction we are going to go. 

Lee: Is there anything that can happen that would change your mind about bitcoin? 

Roubini: So far, no. As they say, it is not a unit of account. It is not a means of payment. It is not a single numeraire. It is not a stable store of value. And with proof-of-work, you get five transactions per second. And if it was to be adopted as a means of payment, you would have deflation. Because the quantity of it is limited in the long run. If you want to create a digital currency that actually works as a means of payment, its growth has to be the growth of nominal GDP, so that the demand can be satisfied by supply that increases as much as nominal GDP, meaning the inflation target plus the growth of the economy. Otherwise, you are going to get permanent deflation on every price in goods and services, so it’s fundamentally flawed even from that point of view. 

Update: In an earlier version of this story, I mentioned Musk had deleted some of his BTC tweets. So far, I haven’t found any hard evidence of that, so I removed my comment.

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News: CBDCs are what’s hot, Vodafone pulls out of Libra, more WB21 stuff, Quadriga update

Let me kick off this newsletter with some personal news — I’ll be in Vancouver in the third weekend in February to meet up with David Gerard, the bitter nocoiner we all know and love. We’re both being interviewed for a documentary on QuadrigaCX. It’ll be a quick trip, but I suspect we’ll have enough time for a bottle of champagne, or two. I can’t wait to meet him for the first time in person. Next, on to the news.

CBDCs are all the rage

The big excitement these days tends to be around central bank digital currencies, or CBDCs. Ever since Facebook announced its plans for Libra in June 2019, central banks have been leaping into the digital currency bandwagon, researching the possibility of launching their CBDC.

China wants to be the first advanced economy to launch a CBDC. (Other central banks, such as the Central Bank of the Bahamas and the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank, are well on their way with pilots up and running.) Lawmakers for Japan’s ruling party say they are planning to put a proposal for a digital yen in front of the government next month. (Oops! Apparently, Japan’s legislators are looking to issue a state-backed digital yen, not a CBDC, as I previously thought.) And the Bank for International Settlements says that in three years, one fifth of the world’s population will be using a CBDC. 

What’s a CBDC? While Libra is supposed to be backed by a basket of assets, a CBDC is a  an actual replacement for cash. In other words, it’s legal tender issued and backed by the state’s central bank—not the state itself. This is where things get a bit confusing. 

John Kiff, a senior financial sector expert at the International Monetary Fund, tells me the taxonomy for digital currencies is tricky and some definitions are still a bit fuzzy. He defines a CBDC as “a digital representation of sovereign currency that is issued by a jurisdiction’s monetary authority and appears on the liability side of the monetary authority’s balance sheet.” That should clarify things!

The general idea is, you should be able to use a CBDC to buy movie tickets, pay for groceries or buy a house. The big question here is, why would you want to use a CBDC if your debit card is more convenient and costs less to use? 

Apparently, all this CBDC stuff is nothing new. Aleksi Grym, head of digitalization at the Bank of Finland, said in a Twitter thread that we are going through the third historical wave of digital currencies. During the first wave, in 1993, the Bank of Finland launched a CBDC product called Avant. It was discontinued after 13 years. This February 2000 article in the Economist (paywall) describes the second wave of digital currencies, he said.

Taking us back through time, David Gerard has written a blog post detailing the history of Avant. CBDC advocacy hasn’t changed since the days of Avant, he argues. “CBDCs are the sort of thing the vendor loves — but I’ve yet to see the case for consumers.” Does that mean the debit card will win?  

Another blow to Libra, Tether Gold, Pornhub

Screen Shot 2020-01-25 at 8.31.12 PMVodafone dealt another blow to the Libra project, when it announced on Tuesday it had pulled out of the Libra Association, the independent governing council for Facebook’s planned cryptocurrency. The British telecom giant said that it wants to put the resources it originally intended for Libra into its African mobile money transfer service M-Pesa. The 28 companies originally joining the association had pledged to put in $10 million apiece. Vodafone is the eighth big company to pull out.

You can’t blame Vodafone. Who would want to throw $10 million into a project whose chances of getting off the ground — at least in the format originally intended — are slim to none? Facebook is facing too many regulatory headwinds at this point, and clearly Vodafone doesn’t want to take that risk. 

Elsewhere in the stablecoin world, on Thursday, Tether launched Tether Gold, a stablecoin backed by — you’ll want to sit down for this — real gold. That’s right. No longer do you need to bear the burden of worrying about where to safely store your personal stockpile of gold. Tether will take it off your hands and issue you I.O.U.s in it’s place. Similar to its fiat-backed cousin, Tether Gold is fully redeemable — under certain terms! If you want your full gold bars back, you’ll have to pick them up in Switzerland.  

PayPal stopped supporting payments to Pornhub in November, but that’s okay because now the world’s most popular porn site accepts tethers — the kind that run on the Tron blockchain. The big question here is, what are the webcam models going to do with all the heaps of tether they earn? At some point, they need to convert those to dirty fiat to buy groceries and pay rent. Somehow I don’t think that’s going to be easy. 

More WB21 stuff

I wrote a lengthy story on WB21 (now Black Banx) for Modern Consensus last week. Roger Knox, who was a client of WB21, the payment processor that is allegedly holding $9 million in QuadrigaCX funds, pleaded guilty to running a $165 pump and dump on Jan. 13. Three other individuals connected to the scam have also pleaded guilty. 

  • Matthew Ledvina, a Swiss attorney, pleaded guilty in Boston on Feb. 1, 2019. 
  • Milan Patel, a Swiss attorney, pleaded guilty in Boston on Dec. 3, 2018. 
  • Morrie Tobin, a California resident, pleaded guilty in Boston on Dec. 3, 2018. 

Michael Gastauer, who ran WB21, has not been formally charged, though he was named in the October 2018 civil suit along with Knox. I would assume plans are to indict him as well. It is not unusual for somebody charged by the SEC or law enforcement to cough up information in return for a lesser sentence. So all these guilty pleas probably don’t bode well for him. I’m just not sure if anyone knows where Gastauer is right now. But guessing by some of the schemes he has been involved with, he likely has access to plenty of money. If he is at large, he could stay that way for a while. 

WB21 also allegedly laundered money for cryptocurrency ponzi scheme OneCoin, according to a recent report in Financial Telegram.

Quadriga news

On Wednesday, Miller Thomson, the representative counsel for QuadrigaCX creditors, asked creditors for help in identifying any records — financial or otherwise — related to Crypto Capital Corp.

In a letter (archive) posted on its website, the law firm said it had received information that a “Panamanian shadow bank” may have been a payment processor for the exchange in the final quarter of its operation. In other words, sometime in Q4 2019.

Crypto Capital at one time listed Quadriga on its website as a client. The exchange’s now-deceased founder also admitted to using the firm in the past. In an email to Bloomberg News on May 17, 2018, Gerald Cotten wrote: “Crypto Capital is one such company that we have/do use. In general it works well, though there are occasionally hiccups.”

In other news

On the legal front, in a complaint filed Tuesday, the SEC charged blockchain marketplace Opporty for conducting an unregistered ICO. The company raised $600,000 preselling its OPP tokens to roughly 200 investors in the U.S. and elsewhere. Opporty sold the tokens to wealthy investors via a simple agreement for future tokens, or SAFT contract.  

SAFTs are a bad idea to begin with, but Opporty likely drew even more regulatory scrutiny to itself in describing its platform as some kind of magic do-it-all system. In its offering material, the company described its “ecosystem” as an “online platform that combines a blockchain-powered service marketplace, a knowledge-sharing platform, a system of decentralized escrow and a Proof-of-Expertise blockchain protocol.”

Elsewhere, the Blockchain Association has thrown its support behind Telegram. In a brief filed with the court on Tuesday, the advocacy group sided with the messenger app in the SEC v. Telegram lawsuit. It told the judge that a ruling in favor of the SEC would stifle innovation in the field and hurt investors. Those investors included prominent VC firms Benchmark and Lightspeed Capital, along with several wealthy Russians. Together they put up $1.7 billion in exchange for the promise of future grams. 

The Chamber of Digital Commerce also filed an amicus brief with the court, but with a broader focus, asking the court to come up with a better definition of digital assets.

Plaintiffs in a lawsuit naming Tether have requested the consolidation of three lawsuits claiming that Tether manipulated the price of bitcoin and related bitcoin futures markets. They filed a letter with the court on Jan. 16. Tether seems to be okay with it. 

French officials on Friday filed preliminary charges of money laundering and extortion against Alexander Vinnik, according to a report in the AP. The Russian nationalist was first arrested in Greece in July 2017, after he was accused of laundering $4 billion through the now-defunct exchange BTC-e. Greek authorities ruled that Vinnik should go to France, then to the U.S. and finally to Russia. Vinnik’s not happy about it. He was hoping to go straight to Russia, where he would face lighter sentencing.

Finally, Decred dumped it’s PR agency Ditto PR because they weren’t able to get a Wikipedia page for the project despite getting paid a retainer of $300,000. (It’s not clear if they were paid in DCR or dirty fiat.) Ben Munster covers the story in a hilarious article for Decrypt. And here is the full thread of Decred’s former publicist arguing their case. 

Updated Jan. 26 at 4 p.m. E.T. with a clearer definition of CBDCs and a quote from John Kiff.
Updated Jan. 27 at 10 p.m. E.T. to add a section about Quadriga.