El Salvador’s bitcoin plan: take your USD and turn them into worthless tethers

Last week, Nayib Bukele, the President of El Salvador, announced a plan to make bitcoin legal tender. The big announcement came via video on the second day of the Bitcoin 2021 conference in Miami. 

Leading up to the big reveal, Jack Mallers, the founder of crypto payments company Strike, strode back and forth across the stage at the conference, wearing a baseball cap and hoodie. While flashing what looked like a diamond studded ring on his finger, he spoke of the woes of the unbanked and the tyranny of central banks. He then went on to play Bukele’s video to a crowd of thousands of bitcoiners.   

Days later, Bukele pushed through his legislation, and on June 8, the tiny Central American country adopted bitcoin as legal tender. Alongside the US dollar, which the country transitioned to in 2001, businesses now must accept bitcoin as payment — unless they don’t have the technology.

El Salvador has partnered with Strike, a mobile app launched in March, to make payments in bitcoin possible. Strike claims it will allow Salvadorans living abroad to send money home instantaneously, without fees. Remittances, a lifeline to the country, surpassed $5.6 billion in 2019. 

While the concept sounds ideal, a closer look reveals worrisome details: Bukele’s plan, it appears, is to confiscate US dollars from remittances and force people to accept a worthless dollar substitute through the Strike app. 

In a Medium post written in January, Mallers claims that with Strike, “El Salvador users not only get access to free and instant international transfers anywhere in the world, but they also get access to a synthetic digital dollar on their smartphone.” 

Those “synthetic dollars” Mallers is talking about? Those are tethers.

Tether, for the uninitiated, is the dubiously backed stablecoin recently ousted from New York after the New York attorney generally brought up allegations of fraud. There are currently 63 billion tethers in existence, with billions more being minted each month. Each tether is supposed to be worth $1, but nobody knows for sure what, if anything, is backing the dollar-pegged cryptocurrency. Tether, by its own admission, is only backed by 3% cash. 

Strike uses a proprietary version of the Lightning Network, a second layer bitcoin solution for payments. The Lightning Network has never lived up to promises, and is not suitable for payments on a grand scale. Brazilian computer scientist Jorge Stolfi details its shortcomings in a Reddit post.

Here’s how Strike works: Say you want to send $1,000 from Los Angeles to your mom back home in El Salvador. You deposit your hard-earned cash into your Strike account. Strike debits your account and converts your $1,000 into bitcoins. It then sends the bitcoin to El Salvador where “it arrives in less than a second” on the wings of the Lightning Network. 

Once your bitcoin crosses the border, Strike converts it into tethers and plunks those into your mom’s Strike account. Now, instead of sending your mom real dollars, which she needs to pay bills and buy food, you have just sent her a bundle of tethers. What can she do with them?

She can use them to buy bitcoin and then she can sell the bitcoin for cash. If that sounds like a lot of extra layers, well, yes. Mallers explains how it’s done. Your mom can “simply go to a Bitcoin ATM or local Bitcoin teller and receive their local fiat currency” — in other words, actual US dollars. 

Let’s ignore for now the fact that there are only two bitcoin ATMs in the entire country of El Salvador — one in El Sunzal and the other in El Zonte — according to CoinATMRadar. 

Anyhow, Mallers lays out the details:

  • An El Salvador user requests to sell $100 worth of Bitcoin from Bitcoin ATM.
  • El Salvador user scans the Bitcoin ATM QR code with their Strike app.
  • Strike debits their Tether balance and converts it to bitcoin.
  • Strike then sends the bitcoin to the desired Bitcoin ATM address.
  • The ATM receives the bitcoin and issues the user their local fiat currency.

Essentially, you are converting back and forth to bitcoin twice. Here is the problem with that: Bitcoin is extremely volatile. The price can go up one day and down the next. On April 14, bitcoin hit a record of $64,829 but has since lost nearly half its value. How’s that for remittances?

“The FX risk in this system is massive,” Frances Coppola, a UK-based writer, who spent 17 years in banking, said in a tweet. “It’s not transaction fees people should be worrying about, it is the potential for massive USD losses because of the BTC conversion.”

FX, or foreign exchange, is the cost of converting from one currency to another. With bitcoin, that cost includes transaction fees — which were as high as $58 in April, according to YCharts — and the cost of bitcoin’s potential drop in value. (Conversely, if bitcoin goes up in value, Strike users won’t benefit because their money is converted dollar for dollar into tethers.)  

Bukele has set aside a reserve fund of $150 million at the country’s development bank BANDESAL to guarantee these currency exchanges — so merchants using Strike for bitcoin payments will not have to suffer any loss in value.* The trust has been set up in partnership with Strike.

In a Twitter Spaces call with several bitcoiners, Bukele explained that the cash in the reserve fund will eventually be replaced with bitcoin. “We are going to provide those US dollars, but we are going to get bitcoin in exchange.”

As bitcoin skeptic David Gerard points out in a more elaborate story, this is an excellent way to launder filthy bitcoin.

“There is absolutely no way to run Know-Your-Customer to international standards on Bitcoin transactions, and also have Bitcoin treated like legal tender. So they’re setting up a gateway for questionable bitcoins,” he said.

What’s to come of all this? My guess is that the $150 million fund will be sucked dry in no time by bad actors. The actual acceptance of bitcoin for payments of any sort in the country will be negligible.

Tether will see some level of adoption as “synthetic dollars” in Strike accounts, but Salvadorans will soon learn it’s worthless when they can’t convert tethers to actual spendable dollars. 

I would not be surprised if the Strike app suffers some major hack within six months. Also, I suspect international banks will severe ties with the local economy, meaning El Salvador’s economy will sink even further as a result. 

Bukele, who was elected in 2019 from the center-right Grand Alliance for National Unity party, has joined Mallers and a host of other bitcoiners in adding laser eyes to his Twitter profile. He is now tweeting about his next big idea: a project to mine bitcoin using energy from one of El Salvador’s volcanoes.

*Update June 12: it appears the $150 million reserve fund is only there to protect merchants from the volatility of bitcoin, not regular users. I also added a link to the Twitter Spaces call where El Salvador’s president says the fund will ultimately be replaced by Bitcoin. (Sounds a bit like Tether’s reserves!)

Feature Image: Twitter

Related articles:
The curious case of Tether: a complete timeline of events

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‘How can $24B in tethers move a $650B Bitcoin market cap?’ and other mathematically illiterate questions

A question, or some version of it, that keeps popping up on social media lately is, “How can $24 billion worth of tethers move a $650 billion bitcoin market cap?”

This is “a blitheringly stupid question on multiple levels, starting with basic arithmetic,” bitcoin hater David Gerard said on Twitter. “It’s also a perennial dumb question.”

The question is being put forth by bitcoiners in an attempt to put people’s minds at ease about Tether. The thesis is that if tethers were to vanish—something that could happen if the U.S. Department of Justice were to give Tether the Liberty Reserve treatment—it would have little impact on bitcoin’s price, so you should stop worrying and keep buying bitcoin.

Someone posed the query recently on r/buttcoin. I am going to take a stab at sensibly answering the question in three parts starting with, What is market cap?

1. Market cap is meaningless nonsense

Market cap is a nonsensical number when it comes to bitcoin. It’s calculated by multiplying the last transaction price of bitcoin by the number of bitcoins in circulation—currently $35,000 x 18.6 million.

That doesn’t mean that people bought every bitcoin in existence for that price. The vast majority of people who own bitcoin bought it at a far lower price than what it is today. It also doesn’t mean that if everyone suddenly decided to sell all of their bitcoins, each bitcoin would bring them $35,000.

In fact, it doesn’t mean that bitcoin has any value at all other than the hope that some bigger dummy will stroll along who is willing to pay more for it than you did. Bitcoiners like to imagine that bitcoins are valuable because there will only ever be 21 million of them. That makes them scarce.

Beanie Babies were scarce in the 90s, too, with some fetching upwards thousands of dollars on eBay. But by the end of the Beanie Baby bubble, no amount of scarcity could make them desirable. They became worthless

Market cap is just another way to make something that is worthless appear valuable.

Market cap came out of the traditional finance world. And then websites like CoinMarketCap came along and began applying the term to bitcoin. In the stock market, market capitalization refers to the total value of a company’s share of stock. But while companies have an intrinsic value, bitcoin does not. There is nothing behind bitcoin. It’s not a company. It is not a thing. It is simply a number in a database.

Here is an example of how silly market cap is when applied to crypto. Say I create 1 million CastorCoins and start listing them on some little-known offshore exchange for $1. Suddenly CastorCoin has a market cap of $1 million dollars. Does that mean I have a million dollars? No, it does not. 

Or, as u/Ifinallycracked puts it on r/buttcoin: “If a bog roll contains 100 sheets and I manage to sell one sheet for a dollar, that doesn’t make it a $100 bog roll. Apply same logic to Bitscoin market cap. Success.”

Once you grasp that the bitcoin market cap does not mean that people have spent $650 billion on bitcoin, $24 billion worth of tethers—which represents 3% of the total bitcoin market cap—becomes a lot more significant.

2. Price is determined at the margins

The price of bitcoin is determined at the margins. If you want to drive up the price of bitcoin, you don’t have to buy every single bitcoin at the current price level. You simply have to scoop up the ones that are for sale. 

Money flowing into bitcoin is what keeps the price afloat. If demand increases and people are willing to pay more for bitcoin, that pushes the price up. The more dollars people throw at it, the higher BTC will go. And it doesn’t matter if you are buying bitcoin with real dollars on a banked exchange like Coinbase—or fake dollars on an offshore exchange like Binance, Huobi, or Bitfinex.

Image: CoinCompare

Right now, the latter is more prevalent—there are far more tethers flowing into bitcoin than actual dollars. In fact, 55% of all bitcoin is currently traded against tethers while only about 15% trade against real dollars, according to CoinCompare.

This is what makes the current bitcoin bubble different than the last. In 2017, when the price of bitcoin ran up to nearly $20,000, there were a lot more real dollars in the system and only 1.5 billion tethers in circulation. Now, it’s mostly tethers pushing up the price of BTC.

3. Bitcoin is illiquid

Bitcoin is relatively illiquid. According to data from Glassnodes, 78% of all bitcoin are not moving. In other words, of the 18.6 million bitcoins currently in existence, only about 4.2 million are in constant circulation.

At least 3 million bitcoin are lost because people like this guy can’t find their keys. (Just because you are the former CTO of Ripple, that doesn’t make you clever when it comes to safekeeping bitcoin.) And there are still plenty of folks holding on to their BTC in the hopes it will go stratospheric. Strong hands!

As a result, it doesn’t take a large buy or sell request to move the price of bitcoin. Printing billions of dollars out of thin air and using it to put supply-side pressure on a market as thin as bitcoin forces the prices up. Conversely, if enough people were to get panicky and rush to sell their bitcoin—weak hands!—the results could be catastrophic. Literally, the entire market cap can go to zero in a moment.

The whole point of Tether is to push up the price of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, and then move those assets to OTC desks and banked exchanges, where they can be turned into fiat. As @Baskee puts it: “Tether is a ladle; Bitcoin and USD are ashes and bullet casings, respectively.”

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Nocoiner predictions: 2021 will be a year of comedy gold

The last year has been particularly annoying for nocoiners—those of us who don’t hold crypto and view bitcoin as a Ponzi, like a Ponzi, or something more complex.

We have had to endure Tether minting tethers with abandon ($17 billion worth in 2020 alone) and bitcoiners obnoxiously cheering bitcoin’s new all-time highs, the latest being $33,000. Considering bitcoin began 2020 at around $7,500, that is a long way up. (Things went full crazy in March.) But we believe 2021 will be a year of comedy gold when this giant hill of dung all comes tumbling down.

I’ve spoken with several notable bitcoin skeptics, gathered their thoughts, and compiled a list of new year predictions. They shared their prophecies on Tether (a stablecoin issuer that has so far minted $21 billion in dubiously backed assets to pump the crypto markets), new regulations and the future of bitcoin. 

Here is what they had to say:

Nicholas Weaver: T’will be the year the music stops

“This is the year the music stops,” Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley, told me. 

Weaver has been following bitcoin since 2011. His work is largely funded by the National Science Foundation. He believes the bitcoin ecosystem is running low on cash. (This is the fate of all Ponzi schemes. Ultimately, they run out of new investors and when that happens, the scheme collapses.) In the case of bitcoin, he believes real dollars in the system are rapidly being replaced by fake ones in the form of tethers.

“Tether has been squeezing every dollar out of the system, and there aren’t enough suckers,” he said, meaning there aren’t enough folks waiting in line to buy bitcoin at its ever increasing prices. “When the dollar stock goes to zero, the system will collapse completely because you get a mining death spiral.”

Miners reap 900 newly minted bitcoin per day in the form of block rewards. If they can’t sell those for enough fiat money to pay their monstrous power bills, it makes no sense for them to stay in business. And since their job is to secure the bitcoin network, bitcoin will become vulnerable to repeated attacks.

Also, governments are finally waking up, said Weaver, alluding to new global efforts to clamp down on money laundering, capital outflows, and the financing of terrorism via cryptocurrencies. 

He foresees Tether getting the Liberty Reserve treatment any day now. He also thinks China will decide “screw it, bitcoin is evading capital controls as a primary purpose, let’s cut off the subsidized electricity.”

Without cheap electricity, bitcoin miners—most of whom are in China—may find it difficult to stay afloat. Already bitcoin miners in Inner Mongolia no longer receive electricity at subsidized rates

Jorge Stolfi: I can’t make price predictions

A computer science professor in Brazil, Jorge Stolfi wants to avoid making predictions on bitcoin’s price. He’s been following bitcoin since 2013—and has seen it through two prior bubbles—so he knows too well that anything can happen.

“I really don’t know how far the insanity can go. The crypto market is 100% irrational, sustained entirely by ignorance and misinformation,” he said. “How can anyone make predictions about that?” 

Stolfi is a denizen of r/Buttcoin, a subreddit that makes fun of bitcoin, where he painstakingly explains the finer points of crypto nonsense to the unenlightened. In 2016, he submitted a letter to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission warning against the risks of a bitcoin exchange-traded fund and comparing bitcoin to a Ponzi scheme. (The SEC has shot down every bitcoin ETF proposal to date on the basis that bitcoin’s price is too easy to manipulate.)

“And since price determines everything else in the crypto space, I can’t make predictions on pretty much everything else,” Stolfi continued. “For example, If the price were to crash below $10,000, I bet that we would have a lot of comedy gold coming from MicroStrategy.” 

Over the last several months, the Virginia-based enterprise software company has funneled $1.2 billion of its funds into bitcoin. As a result, Michael Saylor, the company’s CEO, now spends most of his time on Twitter shilling bitcoin. In September, Saylor compared bitcoin to “a swarm of cyber hornets serving the goddess of wisdom, feeding on the fire of truth, exponentially growing ever smarter, faster, and stronger behind a wall of encrypted energy.”

Stolfi also thinks that we will probably forget about several coins that were big in the past, like Bitcoin SV (BSV) and IOTA, maybe even bitcoin cash (BCH). “And we will also forget about blockchain technology.”

Frances Coppola: Crypto exchanges will become like licensed banks 

Over the last week, Frances Coppola has been battling an army of bitcoin trolls and sock puppets on Twitter after suggesting that bitcoin is not scarce in any meaningful sense. 

Scarcity is a key part of the myth bitcoiners perpetuate to make people think bitcoin is valuable in the same way gold is and to create a sense of buying urgency—quick, grab some before it’s all gone!—so naturally, bitcoiners responded by dog piling on her. She isn’t happy about it. 

“I hope bitcoin crashes and burns because I am so bloody furious, but I think it will be a while yet before it does—maybe about June,” she said. 

Coppola is a UK-based freelance writer, who spent 17 years in the banking industry. She wrote the book, “The Case For People’s Quantitative Easing,” and has 58,000 Twitter followers.

The cause of bitcoin’s upcoming crash, she believes, will be an epic battle between the Wild West of crypto and regulators, a topic she covered in a recent Coindesk article.

If the regulators win, crypto exchanges will become like licensed banks and have to comply with things like the Dodd-Frank Act, a sweeping law that reined in mortgage practices and derivatives trading after the 2008 financial crash, she said. On the other hand, if the regulators lose, she believes their next move will be to protect retail investors.

“We’d see drastic restrictions on what interactions banks can have with crypto, perhaps a total ban on retail deposit-takers having crypto exchanges and stablecoins as clients,” she said. 

“We might also see something akin to a Glass-Steagall Act for crypto exchanges and stablecoins, so that retail deposits are fully segregated by law from trading activity.” By that, she means exchanges won’t be able to lend retail deposits to margin traders or use them to fund speculative positions in crypto derivatives. 

David Gerard: Bitcoiners will get their big boy wish

After years of begging for bitcoin to be taken seriously as a form of money, bitcoiners will be getting exactly what they asked for, said David Gerard, a bitcoin skeptic and author of “Libra Shrugged,” a book on Facebook’s attempt to take over the money. 

This year will see more regulation of crypto, as coiners discover to their dismay just how incredibly regulated real-world finance is, he said. “Just wait until someone sits them down and explains regulatory real-time compliance feeds.”

What does Gerard think about Tether? “I could predict the guillotine will finally fall on Tether, but I predicted that for December 2017, and these guys are just amazing in their ability to dodge the blade just one more day,” he said.

Since 2018, the New York Attorney General has been investigating Tether and its sister company, crypto exchange Bitfinex, for fraud. Over the summer, the New York Supreme Court ruled that the companies need to hand over their financial records to show once and for all just how much money really is underlying the tethers they keep printing. The NYAG said Bitfinex/Tether have agreed to do so by Jan. 15.

Gerard also foresees that there will continue to be no use cases for crypto that absolutely anything else does better. “Everything the Buttcoin Foundation was talking about in 2011 is still dumb and broken,” he said.

Trolly McTrollface: Crypto will go to Mars

Elon Musk says he is “highly confident” that his company SpaceX will be sending humans to Mars in six years. Naturally, Musk wants to set up a self-sustaining city on the red planet. And, come to think of it, the city will need its own crypto, something like Dogecoin or Marscoin. Otherwise, how else will its citizens pay for things?

Pseudonymous crypto blogger Trolly McTrollface has this prophecy for 2021: “Elon Musk creates its own cryptocurrency, and adds it to the $TSLA balance sheet. It ends the year in the top 10 crypto list by market cap.”

Nouriel Roubini: Bitcoin’s bubble will explode

Nouriel Roubini, an economics professor at New York University, doesn’t mince words when it comes to crypto predictions. He simply told me: “The Bitcoin bubble will burst in 2021. Triggers will be reg/law enforcement action.” 

There is good reason to take him seriously. Roubini famously warned of the 2008 financial crisis, a prophecy that earned him the moniker “Dr. Doom.” He is also known for his parties, which leads a few of us nocoiners to believe that bitcoiners’ are fundamentally driven by bitterness over the fact that we have better soirées.

David Golumbia: The insanity will continue—unless it stops

If the past is any prediction of the future, bitcoin and other crypto promoters will continue to deceive the public with outright lies about “investing” in tokens until the big tokens collapse. That’s the view held by David Golumbia, known for writing about the cult of bitcoin. He is the author of “The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism,” and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University. 

“I tend to agree with other critics that regulators and law enforcement are going to squeeze the space, especially Tether, at some point,” he said. “And that when this happens the whole thing will deflate. But as anyone with experience in investing knows, predicting and identifying bubbles is a fool’s game.”

What Golumbia finds most interesting is that the rising price of bitcoin and other tokens sustains the lies. “I have to imagine that when the tokens collapse, the motivation to keep lying will go away as well,” he said. 

Examples of those lies include: bitcoin offers an alternative finance system to the real one, bitcoin’s price movement is due to technology, the regular financial system rips people off and bitcoin doesn’t, and so on. 

He continued: “Though who knows—the whole story of bitcoin and blockchain includes the worldwide embrace of conspiratorial thinking that parallels QAnon, antivax, COVID-19 denialism, climate change denialism, flat earth ‘theory,’ etc. 

“None of these seem to collapse no matter what the facts do. But then again, the promoters of these theories often profit only indirectly from them, whereas cryptocurrency promoters usually have a direct vested stake in ‘number go up.’ So maybe there will be a positive development for a more realistic relationship to the world if/when prices collapse.”  

My prediction: Only fools will be left hodling

As for my own predictions, I think bitcoin is on the brink of a stupendous crash. Whales and the Tether/Bitfinex triad are working over time to push the price up higher and higher. As more fake dollars flood the system, real dollars are being siphoned out by the big players.

At some point, as Weaver stated, there won’t be enough suckers left in the wings waiting to buy bitcoin—and when that happens, bitcoin holders will learn the hard way that price charts and market caps are meaningless. 

When the price crashes, dropping back to early 2020 levels—or possibly even lower, the people who will get most hurt will be the retail investors who have been duped into believing they can buy bitcoin and get rich. And that, in turn, will provide justification for tighter regulations that make it difficult for exchanges to list any crypto at all.  

I also believe at some point this year, Tether’s operators will be indicted, although it is hard to say when. As Gerard says, we all thought this nonsense was going to come to a grinding halt in December 2017, but here we are three years later. 

The fact that Bitcoin is getting pushed to ATHs, should be a signal that the end is near for Tether, and the crooks are doing their final looting.  

If you own any bitcoin, you would be best to sell what you can now, or at the very least, sell enough to get back your initial investment. Remember, two thirds of bitcoin investors in the 2017 bubble didn’t get around to getting any of the money back that they had put in—don’t be one of those guys. 

Update Jan. 2: An earlier version of this story stated that bitcoin started 2020 at around $3,000. It started at $7,500.

Update Jan. 4: Edited to clarify that a state supreme court ruled that iFinex should turn over records, not the supreme court.

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News: BTC moons, Reggie Fowler stiffs lawyers, OKEx withdrawals still frozen, Binance gets piles of USDT

Bitcoin broke $16,000 on Thursday. That’s up from $10,000 in early September. And yet, with all the media outlets rabidly covering the latest “Bitcoin bull run,” the only one mentioning the billions and billions of dollars worth of tether (USDT) entering the market was Cointelegraph

In particular, none of the mainstream press has bothered to mention tether in their writings about BTC’s recent price rise. This is worrisome because retail folks — the ones most vulnerable to risky investments — have little understanding of tether and the risk it imposes on Bitcoin’s price. 

Instead, most media pointed to the election, PayPal’s recent embrace of crypto and huge BTC investments by MicroStrategy and Square as the reasons for BTC’s moon. Mainstream adoption! Institutional money! The truth is, crypto markets are easy to manipulate. And when BTC goes up in value like this, the main benefit is so early investors can cash out. 

In other words, BTC gets passed on to the next bright-eyed, bushy-tailed dupe who hopes the price will continue skyward. History has shown, however, these bubbles are generally followed by a crash, and a lot of people getting hurt, which is exactly what happened in 2018.

Trolly McTrollface (not his real name, obvs) points out in a tweet thread that Tether went into hyperdrive in March to stop BTC from crashing. BTC had dropped to $5,000, losing half its value from two months prior. In fact, March is when BTC entered its current bull run phase.

Remember, if the price of BTC falls too low, the network’s miners — who are responsible for Bitcoin’s security — can’t make a profit, and that puts the entire network in danger.

Trolly believes the current price pump is a coordinated effort between Tether — which has now issued a jaw-dropping $18 billion worth of dollar-pegged tethers — and the exchanges.

Let’s talk about some of those exchanges.

OKEx withdrawals still frozen

Withdrawals from OKEx, one of the biggest crypto exchanges, have been frozen ever since the news came out that founder “Star” Xu was hauled away for questioning by Shanghai authorities more than a month ago.

Xu’s interrogation appears to be part of a broader crackdown on money laundering in China, though OKEx denies any AML violations. 

OKEx is registered in Malta, but retains offices in Shanghai and Beijing, where it facilitates peer-to-peer—or “over-the-counter”—trades. The exchange acts as an escrow to reduce counter-party risk in fiat-to-crypto trades, so you don’t have to worry about someone disappearing with your cash before they hand over the BTC you just bought from them.

As Wolfie Zhao explains for the Block, these OTC trades are the only fiat on/off ramp for Chinese crypto traders—and have been ever since September 2017 when the country banned crypto trading on exchanges.

Effectively, the government made it so the exchanges could no longer get access to banking in the country.

P2P allows two people to transact directly, thus bypassing the Chinese ban, as long as the trades are small in scale. All Chinese crypto-to-fiat is OTC, while crypto-to-crypto trades are still done via a matching order book. (A Chinese citizen simply needs to use a VPN to access Binance, for instance.)

Currently, the OTC desk is the only trading desk that remains open at OKEx All of its exchange trading activity has been ground to a halt. The exchange claims Xu has access to the private keys needed to access its funds, and until he is free, all that crypto sits locked in a virtual vault.

As a result, according to blockchain analytics firm Glassnode, there are currently 200,000 bitcoin stuck on OKEx. The exchange insists all funds are safe, and says, essentially, that everything will be fine as soon as Xu returns. But its customers remain anxious. Did I mention OKEx is a tether exchange?

Huobi, another exchange in peril?

Like OKEx, Huobi is another exchange that moved its main offices out of China following the country’s 2017 crackdown on crypto exchanges.

Huobi, now based in Singapore, continues to facilitate fiat-to-bitcoin and fiat-to-tether trades in China behind an OTC front. (Dovey Wan does a nice job explaining how this works in her August 2019 story for Coindesk.)

Since earlier this month, rumors have circulated that Robin Zhu, Huobi’s chief operating officer, was also dragged in for questioning by Chinese authorities. Huobi denies the rumors.

Meanwhile, since Nov. 2—the day Zhu was said to have gone missing —$300 million worth of BTC has flowed from Huobi to Binance, according to a report in Coindesk. (I still don’t have a good explanation as to why Huobi is doing this. If anyone can fill in the gaps, please DM me on Twitter.)

What’s up with Binance?

If you follow Whale Alert on Twitter, like I do, it’s hard to ignore the enormous influx of tether going into Binance multiple times a day.

Here’s an example: On Friday, in four separate transactions, Tether sent Binance a total of $101 million worth of tethers. The day prior to that, Tether sent Binance $118 million in tethers, and the exchange also received $90 million worth of tethers from an unknown wallet. And on Wednesday, Tether sent Binance $104 million in tethers.

That’s over $400 million worth of dubiously backed tethers—in three days.

Like Huobi and OKEx, Binance also has roots in China. And it has an OTC desk to facilitate fiat-to-crypto trades. Is it a coincidence that the top tether exchanges originate from China? And that China controls two-thirds of Bitcoin’s hash rate?

Reggie Fowler’s lawyers wanna quit

Reggie Fowler, the Arizona businessman in the midst of the Crypto Capital scandal, is running low on cash. His lawyers have decided they don’t do pro bono work, so now they want to drop him as a client.

Last month, Fowler’s legal team asked the court to change his bond conditions to free up credit. But apparently, that isn’t working. Unfortunately, all this is happening just when there was a possibility of negotiating another plea deal. (Read my blog posts here and here.) 

Quadriga Trustee releases report #7

EY, the trustee handling the bankruptcy for failed Canadian crypto exchange QuadrigaCX, released its 7th Report of the Monitor on Nov. 5.

According to the report, EY has received 17,053 claims totaling somewhere between CA$224 million and CA$290 million—depending on what exchange rate EY ends up using to convert the USD and crypto claims to Canadian dollars for disbursement.

EY has CA$39 million ready to distribute to affected Quadriga users, who submitted claims. But none of that money is going anywhere until the Canadian Revenue Agency finishes its audit of the exchange. (Ready my blog post for more details.)

Gensler goes to Washington

Gary Gensler has been picked to lead President-elect Joe Biden’s financial reform transition team. As Foreign Policy notes, Gensler, who was the head of the CFTC during the Obama years, is an aggressive regulator.

He is also well familiar with the world of crypto. He taught a course on blockchain at MIT Sloan. He suspects Ripple is a noncompliant security, and he told me in an interview for Decrypt that the SAFT construct—a once-popular idea for launching an initial coin offering—will not spare a token from securities laws. (He also thinks 99% of all ICOs are securities.)

Libra Shrugged author David Gerard said in a tweet that Gensler was excellent in the Libra hearing last July. Gensler also “helped clean up the 2008 financial crisis, he knows literally all the possible nonsense,” said Gerard.

Clearly, this is good news for bitcoin.

Nov. 15 — Before I said that OKEx offered the only fiat-to-crypto on/off ramp in China. That is inaccurate. P2P OTC exchanges *in general* are the only fiat on/off ramps for crypto traders in China and have been since Sept. 2017.

Nov. 16 — Previously, this story stated that Quadriga’s trustee has CA$30 million available to distribute to claimants. It’s been updated to correctly reflect that EY has CA$39 million (US$30 million) to distribute.

News: Ripple paid Moneygram $11M, weird stuff going on with e-Payments, fraudster tries to buy Perth Glory, another bitcoin ETF bites the dust

As you know, I left my most recent full-time gig, so I’m solo again. I’m going to keep on writing, but I need to figure out how to make ends meet. I’ll be writing more for my blog, possibly writing some e-books, and relying on support from patrons. If this newsletter is worth buying me a latte every four weeks, consider becoming a monthly supporter.

Now, on to the news. Since I didn’t write a newsletter last week, a few of these items stretch beyond the last seven days.

Filming for Quadriga documentary

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Filming at a coffee shop in Vancouver Monday.

If you’ve been following me on Twitter, you know I was in Vancouver all weekend filming for an upcoming Quadriga documentary for Canadian public broadcast station CBC. It was a whirlwind adventure, loads of fun, and I got to meet my idol and fellow nocoiner David Gerard for the first time. He is 6’4″, which helps explain why he is not easily intimidated by anyone. (My blog, David’s blog with more pics.)

On our second day of filming, the crew got shots of David and me at a coffee shop going through my Quadriga timeline in detail. Of course, the more we talked and went over things, the more unanswered questions we came up with.

Ripple has been paying Moneygram millions

Moneygram’s 8-K filing with the SEC must be a bit of an embarrassment for Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse. It reveals Ripple paid $11.3 million to Moneygram over the last two quarters. That’s in addition to the $50 million Ripple has already invested in the firm. (Cointelegraph, Coindesk.)

This is apparently the ugly truth to how Ripple works. The company appears to pay its partners to use its On-Demand Liquidity (formerly xRapid) blockchain platform and XRP tokens and then say nice things about how well things are going. (FT Alphaville)

Of course, none of this is news to @Tr0llyTr0llFace, who wrote about how Ripple pays its partners in his blog a year ago. “Basically, Ripple is paying its clients to use its products, and then pays them again to talk about how they’re using its products,” he said. 

Ripple class-action to move forward

In other Ripple news, a federal judge in Oakland, Calif., has granted in part and denied in part Ripple’s motion to dismiss a class-action lawsuit claiming the company violated U.S. securities laws. There’s a lot to unpack here, but overall it’s a win for the plaintiffs. In other words, the lawsuit will proceed even though it’s been trimmed back a bit. (Court order, CoinDesk, Bloomberg

Ripple had claimed in its November court filing that the suit could topple the $10 billion market for XRP. Well, yeah, one would think so, especially if XRP is deemed a security and gets shut down by the SEC. This class action may be laying the groundwork for that. 

Reggie Fowler gets hit with another charge

pexels-photo-2570139As if Reggie Flower did not have enough trouble on his hands. After forgoing a plea deal where three out of four charges against him would have been dropped, prosecutors have heaped on another charge — this one for wire fraud.

They allege that Fowler used ill-gotten gains from his shadow banking business, which he ran on behalf of Panamanian payment processor Crypto Capital, to fund a professional football league. The league isn’t named in the indictment, but a good guess says its the collapsed American Football League of which Fowler was a major investor. (My blog.)

The new charge should come as no surprise to those following the U.S. v. Fowler (1:19-cr-00254) case closely. In a court transcript filed in October 2019, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sebastian Swett told Judge Andrew Carter:

“We have told defense counsel that, notwithstanding the plea negotiations, we are still investigating this matter, and, should we not reach a resolution, we will likely supersede with additional charges.”

Fowler needs to go before the judge and enter his plea on the new charge before he can proceed to trial. Federal prosecutors are asking the judge to schedule arraignment for May 5, but it’s quite possible this is a typo and they meant March 5. (Court doc.)

Convicted fraudster won’t be buying Perth football team after all

LFE Founder Jim Aylward
LFE founder Jim Aylward on Twitter

The sale of Perth Glory Soccer Club to a London crypto entrepreneur fell through after it turned out that the man behind the company trying to buy Glory — businessman Jim Aylward — is convicted fraudster James Abbass Biniaz. (Imagine that, a person with a criminal past getting involved in crypto?)

Aylward had set up a group called London Football Exchange, a football stock exchange and fan marketplace powered by the LFE token. The grand scheme was for the company to buy soccer teams all over the world and integrate that business with the token.

Glory owner Tony Sage pulled out of the deal after traveling to London to go through a due diligence process with his lawyers and representatives of the London Football Exchange group. Sage had been promised $30 million by Aylward for 80% of the A-League club. (Sydney Morning Herald)

Here’s a recording of Aylward admitting the price of LFE is totally manipulated. “We control about 95% of the token holders,” he said.

Weird stuff happening with e-Payments

Something funny is going on with e-Payments, one of the biggest digital payments firms in the U.K. The London firm, which caters to the adult entertainment, affiliate marketing, and crypto industries, was ordered by the U.K.’s Financial Conduct Authority to suspend its activities as of Feb. 11 due to loose anti-money-laundering controls. That’s left ePayments’ customers unable to access their funds. Robert Courtneidge, one of its e-Payments’ directors stepped down the following week. Nobody knows why, but it looks like he was previously involved with the OneCoin scam. (FT Alphaville)

(BTW, on my flight back from Vancouver, I listened to the Missing Crypto Queen BBC podcast, which is all about OneCoin, and it’s fantastic. Definitely worth a listen.)

SEC shoots down another bitcoin ETF; Hester Pierce chimes in

In a filing posted Wednesday, the SEC set aflame another bitcoin ETF proposal. The regulator claims Wilshire Phoenix and NYSE Arca had not proven bitcoin is sufficiently resistant to fraud and market manipulation. (Their idea was to mix bitcoin and short-term treasuries to balance out bitcoin’s volatility, but the agency still wasn’t keen.) The SEC has rejected all bitcoin ETFs put before it to date, so there’s no new news here.

Predictably, though, SEC Commissioner Hester Pierce, aka “crypto mom,” filed her statement of dissent. She said the agency’s approach to bitcoin ETFs “evinces a stubborn stodginess in the face of innovation.” For some reason, Pierce seems to consistently confuse innovation with anarchy and giving bad actors free rein.

Speaking of which, she recently posted on Coindesk asking for suggestions to her ICO “safe harbor” plan. Attorney Preston Byrne responded, saying it would be hilarious if it weren’t so serious. He thinks the plan should be tossed in the bin.

Canada’s central bank venturing into e-currency

Canada’s central bank plans to lay the foundation for its own digital currency should the day arise where cash no longer rules. In a speech he gave in Montreal, Deputy Governor Tim Lane said there isn’t a compelling case to issue a central bank-backed digital currency right now, but the Bank of Canada is starting to formulate a plan in the event Canadian notes and coins go out of style. (Calgary Sun.)

Despite so many countries jumping into the game, central bank digital currencies are nothing new. They have been around since the 1990s, only nobody cared about them until Facebook’s Libra popped into the scene. Bank of Finland’s Alexi Grym recently did a podcast, where he talks about how the country launched its own Avanti project (a form of CBDC) in 1993. The idea sounded great in theory, but in practice, consumers didn’t like being charged to load the cards, especially since ATM withdrawals were free.

Drug dealer loses all his bitcoin

The problem with keeping track of the keys to your bitcoin is that it’s just too easy to lose them, as this U.K. drug dealer demonstrates. He jotted down the keys to his illicit $60 million BTC on a piece of paper. But then when he went to jail, his landlord gathered up all his belongings and took them to the dump. (Guardian.) This isn’t the first time millions of dollars worth of bitcoin have ended up in a trash heap.

FCoin insolvency bears hallmarks of funny business

Screen Shot 2020-02-26 at 9.39.31 PMFCoin, a crypto exchange based in Singapore, announced its insolvency on Feb. 17 after making the surprise discovery it was short 7,000 to 13,000 bitcoin—worth roughly $70 million to $130 million. The exchange blamed the shortage on a cacophony of errors following the launch of a controversial incentive program called “trans-fee mining.” There has been a lot of speculation that this was an outright scam. Now a new report by Anchain.ai shows BTC leaving the exchange’s cold wallets in droves right before FCoin shuttered and its founder Zhang Jian happily moved on to start a new business.

Quadriga was using Crypto Capital

The law firm representing QadrigaCX’s creditors believes the failed Canadian crypto exchange was funneling money through Crypto Capital. Financial documents that two former Quadriga users posted on Telegram show that to be true. (My blog)

Next question: Was Crypto Capital holding any Quadriga funds at the time the exchange went under? That’s going to be hard to track down given the exchange had no books.

Buffett still thinks crypto is a joke

Tron CEO Justin Sun paid $4.6 million to spend three hours with Warren Buffett and turn him into a crypto fan. He even gave the multi-billionaire some bitcoin. Turns out Buffett, promptly handed those BTC over to charity. He doesn’t want anything to do with bitcoin and still thinks crypto has zero value. “What you hope is someone else comes along and pays you more money for it, but then that person’s got the problem,” he told CNBC.

Steven Segal pays the price of being a shitcoin shill

Steven Segal thought he would bring in a little extra dough by shilling a shitcoin, but the effort backfired. The Hollywood actor has agreed to pay $314,000 to the SEC for failing to disclose payments he received for touting an ICO conducted by Bitcoiin2Gen (spelled with two “i”s) in 2018. He’ll pay a $157,000 disgorgement, plus a $157,000 fine on top.

The agency claims that Seagal failed to disclose he was promised $250,000 in cash and $750,000 worth of B2G tokens in exchange for his promotions. He even put out a cringe-worthy press release in 2018 titled “Zen Master Steven Seagal has become the brand ambassador for Bitcoiin2gen.” (SEC press release, Variety, CNBC)

Can someone check IOTA for a pulse?

How long does a blockchain need to be shut down for before it’s considered dead? How is it even possible to shut down something that is decentralized? Oh, wait, maybe it’s not.

IOTA has been offline for 14 days and counting ever since the IOTA Foundation turned off its coordinator node, which puts the final seal of approval on any IOTA currency transactions, to stop an attacker from slurping up funds from its wallet service.

The project has put together a tedious three-part series explaining the theft of its Trinity wallet, its seed migration plan and all the lessons it’s learned from the mishap. It’s all a bit mind-numbing, and you’ll feel a little dead after you read it, too.

News: Crypto Fyre Fest collapses, Virgil Griffith pleads not guilty, lawyers push to exhume body of Quadriga’s dead CEO

Only three weeks to go before David Gerard and I meet up together in Vancouver for work on a QuadrigaCX documentary. I hope the jet lag doesn’t take too much out of him. (He’s traveling from London.) I want to see what happens when he has a few drinks.  

Massive Adoption
(Photo: @crypt0fungus)

The comedy gold medal of the week goes to Massive Adoption, a bitcoin conference that’s now being called the Fyre Festival of crypto because of the packages sold. Jacob Kostecki promised roundtrip flights, hotels and parties for $300-$400. In a shock to all (note the sarcasm), he called the whole thing off. But don’t worry, your refunds are coming. It may take months, but they’re coming. Promise. I swear. So sorry about all this.

David Gerard was the one to originally report on #CryptoFyreFest. I wrote two stories for Modern Consensus on the topic. You’ll find them here and here.  

Our friend Jacob appears to have alienated more than a few casual strangers on the internet. His own brother Jedrek has been speaking out about him on social media. According to Jedrek, Jacob has left a trail of debt and broken promises behind him. And yes, Jacob confirmed to me in a DM that Jedrek is indeed his brother.

Jacob’s behavior reminds me a bit of Gerald Cotten’s when he was running HYIP schemes on TalkGold: Collect people’s money, and then later, tell them the scheme/event has collapsed. Blame it on something external to your control. (Jacob, for instance, is now pointing fingers at everyone, even me.) Apologize profusely and start issuing refunds in good faith, but slowly and over a long period, until people finally give up and go away. 

Also, I can’t help but notice the strong resemblance of the Massive Adoption logo to that of this media consultancy firm.

Virgil’s pot of gold?

Virgil Griffith, former head of special projects for Ethereum Foundation, pleaded not-guilty on Thursday to conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. He flew to New York from his parent’s house in Tuscaloosa, Ala., to enter his plea. I guess this means he is planning to go to trial? I have to wonder where all the money is coming from. Brian Klein, Griffith’s high profile L.A. lawyer, has made several trips to New York and these legal services don’t come cheap. Griffith’s parents and sister have already put up $1 million for his bail

Telegram’s ICO investors surface

The SEC alleges that Telegram ran a scheme whereby wealthy investors—including several Silicon Valley heavyweights—would get tokens at a steep discount, then dump them on crypto exchanges to bilk retailers. More of those possible investors are now surfacing in court docs. As reported in CoinDesk, they may include:

QuadrigaCX

The law firm representing QuadrigaCX’s former users are nudging the RCMP to dig up the corpse of Gerald Cotten, the exchange’s dead CEO, to make sure it’s really him and not some random dead guy from India. Everybody is mouthing the word “exit scam,” and this is likely the easiest way to find out. Of course, if the body is exhumed and it’s not Cotten, you can expect a Netflix series soon. (My story in my blog.)

Also, Quadriga’s fifth trustees report is out. Basically, it says that big four accounting firm EY, the collapsed exchange’s court appointed trustee, spent half a million U.S. dollars on fulfilling law enforcement requests in the second half of 2019. The small pile of what’s left of Quadriga creditor’s money continues to shrink. (My story in my blog

Reggie Fowler and the mysterious sealed document

Alleged Bitfinex money mule Reginald Fowler was supposed to plead guilty to one count and have the other three counts dropped. But something weird happened when the Arizona businessman stepped before a New York judge on Jan. 17. According to Bloomberg, Fowler was supposed to surrender ~ $371 million in more than 50 accounts. The deal fell apart when he only agreed to forfeit whatever was in the accounts.

Now, according to a Jan. 31 court filing, the U.S. Government has officially withdrawn its plea offer. Nobody knows the full details of what happened that day, but a mysterious sealed document, which appeared in his court filings on Jan. 30, might contain some clues. His trial begins April 28. 

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Spammers gonna spam

In part two of “Decred fires its publicist because Ditto PR could not get the altcoin project a Wikipedia page” David Gerard, who happens to be a longtime Wikipedia administrator, fires back. He wrote an entire blog post calling Ditto out on their no-coiner conspiracy claims. (Ditto originally alluded to Gerard in saying that “a few influential no-coiners have admin power and are intentionally censoring crypto pages.”) He also wrote an article on Wikipedia Signpost, where he talks about the “ongoing firehose of spam” Wikipedia has had to put up with following the 2017 crypto bubble.

Wikipedia has set rules governing what stays up on the site and what gets taken down, and those rules have nothing to do with the site’s administrators. Ditto should know this, as opposed to hiding behind some mad-capped nocoiner conspiracy theory.

Bakkt is a ghost town

The hope was that bitcoin options would lure institution money into the space and send the price of bitcoin through the atmosphere. The unfortunate reality is that literally, no one is trading Bakkt’s bitcoin options. (The bitcoin futures exchange is governed by the Intercontinental Exchange, the owners of the New York Stock Exchange.)

In the last full trading week of January, not a single bitcoin options contract was traded on Bakkt, Coindesk reported. Bakkt launched the first regulated bitcoin options contract on Dec. 9, having rolled out a cash-settled futures and physically settled futures in November and September, respectively. 

Other news

Chainalysis released a report on criminal uses of cryptocurrency in 2019. As long as you overlook some of the marketing fluff—e.g., 60 million Americans bought bitcoin last year—there’s some interesting takeaways. Like the bit about how crooks seem to cash out their bitcoins via over-the-counter trades going through Binance and Huobi. And how, for the first time in Bitcoin’s history, black market sales in crypto surpassed $600 million last year. (See my story in Modern Consensus.)

There’s been more than one news report claiming coronavirus is good for bitcoin. This is utter nonsense. The reason the price of bitcoin goes wildly up and down is because the markets are thinly traded, making them easy to manipulate. Literally, every time there is a crisis happening somewhere in the world, bitcoiners claims that’s good for bitcoin. 

Far right website @Zerohedge had their Twitter account suspended. They always post wild stuff, but apparently, they crossed a line. Buzzfeed said the site claimed without evidence that a scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology created the strain of the virus that has led the World Health Organization to declare a global health emergency.  

Bitcoin core developer @LukeDashjr weirdly commented on Twitter that “Masturbation is a very grave sin, arguably even worse than murder.” I thought he was joking, but apparently, /r/buttcoin has an entire collection of his bizarre quotes.

(Updated Feb. 3 at 9 a.m. ET with a few more details on Fowler.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The HODLcast: “QuadrigaCX with Amy Castor and David Gerard”

Sasha Hodder of The HODLcast interviewed me and David Gerard, author of “Attack of the 50-foot Blockchain,” about collapsed Canadian crypto exchange QuadrigaCX.

Sasha is an attorney with DLT Law Group, P.A., which focuses on supporting crypto-related businesses. David’s work has had a huge influence on me, so you can imagine how much fun I had doing a podcast with him.

QuadrigaCX is the story of how two sketchy characters—one, a convicted felon, and the other, a young man who seemingly had been running ponzi schemes since his teenage years—came together and launched a crypto exchange. A match made in heaven, right?

David and I talk about how this was even possible; the appalling, amateurish way the business was run; and the impact this could have on future crypto regulation.

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