Binance: Italy, Lithuania, Hong Kong, all issue warnings; Brazil director quits

Ever since Germany’s BaFin and the UK’s FCA issued warnings against Binance, the dominoes have continued to topple. Global regulators are fed up with the world’s biggest crypto exchange.

This last week, three more jurisdictions issued warnings about Binance’s tokenized stocks, joining several others in voicing their concerns about the exchange.

In a press release on Thursday, Italy’s market watchdog Consob warned investors that Binance and its subsidiaries “are not authorized to provide investment services and activities in Italy.” The notice specifically points to Binance’s “stock token.” 

Lithuania’s central bank issued a warning on Friday about Binance UAB, a Binance affiliate, providing “unlicensed investment services.”

“Companies that are registered in Lithuania as virtual currency exchange operators are not supervised as financial service providers. They also have no right to provide any financial services, including investment services,” the Bank of Lithuania said.

Also on Friday, Hong Kong’s Securities and Futures Commission announced that Binance is not licensed to trade stock tokens in the territory. 

In a statement, Thomas Atkinson, the SFC’s executive director of enforcement, had stern words for the exchange: “The SFC does not tolerate any violations of the securities laws and will not hesitate to take enforcement action against unlicensed platform operators where appropriate.”

Binance responded to the mounting pressure by announcing on its website that it would cease offering stock tokens. Effective immediately, you can no longer buy stock tokens on Binance, and the exchange will stop supporting them on October 14.

As for the unlucky ones who are still holding Binance stock tokens, you apparently have 90 days to try and offload them onto someone else.

The exchange also deleted mentions of stock tokens on its website. If you click on a link to Introduction to Stock Tokens” on the site, you get a “404 error.” You can still visit the page here, however.

A short-lived bad idea

Binance introduced its tokenized stocks idea on April 12, starting with Tesla, followed by Coinbase, and later MicroStrategy, Microsoft and Apple. (Links are to archives on Wayback machine.)

“Unlike traditional stocks, users can purchase fractional shares of the listed companies with stock tokens. For instance, for a Tesla share that trades at over $700 per share, stock tokens enable investors to buy a piece of the underlying share (e.g., 0.01) instead of the entire unit,” Binance explained on its website.

Prices were settled in BUSD — a stablecoin Binance created in partnership with Paxos, a NY-based company. Binance claims its stock tokens are fully backed by shares held by CM-Equity AG, a regulated asset management firm in Germany.

The exchange also said Friday that users in the EEA and Switzerland will be able to transition their stock token balances to CM-Equity AG once the brokerage creates a special portal for that purpose, sometime in September or early October. However, the transition will require additional KYC.

Binance, whose modus operandi has always been to ignore the laws and do whatever, launched its stock token service two days before US crypto exchange Coinbase went public on the Nasdaq and bitcoin reached an all-time high of nearly $65,000. The price of bitcoin is now less than half of that.

In April, Germany’s financial regulator BaFin warned that Binance risked being fined for offering its securities-tracking tokens without publishing an investor prospectus. Binance went back and forth with BaFin on the issue, trying to persuade them to take the notice down, according to the FT, but to no avail. The warning stayed up.

In June, the UK followed with its own consumer warning, and then one by one, a host of other global regulators issued their own cautions about Binance, and banks began cutting off services to the exchange — essentially a form of slow strangulation.  

Binance clearly wasn’t thinking when it introduced those stock tokens. The move appears to have been driven by the hubris of its CEO CZ, who is now realizing that actions have repercussions. Or maybe not, since his recent tweets and a blog post celebrating Binance’s fourth birthday seem to reflect an ongoing detachment from reality.

“Together, we can increase the freedom of money for people around the world, in safe and compliant ways,” he wrote. By freedom, I assume he means, freedom to operate outside the law, or freedom to freeze withdrawals on his exchanges — a frequent user complaint, according to Gizmodo.

FTX and Bittrex

Binance isn’t the only crypto exchange to offer stock tokens. Sam Bankman-Fried’s FTX exchange also offers tokenized stocks (archive) — a service that it added in June. I suspect that a lot of Binance’s business will flow over to FTX, and we’ll soon see similar regulatory crackdowns on FTX. 

Like Binance, FTX has a US version of its exchange and a main site.

FTX is registered in Antigua and Barbuda with headquarters in Hong Kong. It offers stock tokens for Tesla, GameStock, Beyond Meat, PayPal, Twitter, Google, Amazon, and a host of others. 

Bittrex Global — another exchange that has a regulated US-based arm — also offers an impressive array of stock tokens. The Liechtenstein-based firm added the service in December 2020, according to a press release at the time, noting that “these tokenized stocks are available even in countries where accessing US stocks through traditional financial instruments is not possible.” 

FTX and Bittrex also claim their stock tokens are backed by actual stocks held by CM-Equity AG.

Binance Brazil director resigns

Banks are not the only ones distancing themselves from Binance these days.

Amidst the recent drama, Ricardo Da Ros, Binance’s director of Brazil announced his departure on LinkedIn. He had only been with the company for six months.  

“There was a misalignment of expectations about my role and I made the decision according to my personal values,” he said.

Other employees have also exited stage left in recent months. Wei Zhou, the chief finance officer at Binance, quit abruptly in June, and Catherine Coley, the CEO of Binance.US stepped down in May — though nobody has heard from her since.

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Binance: Fiat off-ramps keep closing, reports of frozen funds, what happened to Catherine Coley?

Last thing I remember,
I was running for the door.
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before.
Relax,” said the night man.
“We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave.”

~ Eagles

Binance customers are becoming trapped inside of Binance — or at least their funds are — as the fiat exits to the world’s largest crypto exchange close around them. You can almost hear the echoes of doors slamming, one by one, down a long empty corridor leading to nowhere. 

In the latest bit of unfolding drama, Binance told its customers today that it had disabled withdrawals in British Pounds after its key payment partner, Clear Junction, ended its business relationship with the exchange.

Clear Junction provides access to Faster Payments through a UK lender called Clear Bank. Faster Payments is a major UK payments network that offers near real-time transfers between the country’s banks — the thing the US Federal Reserve hopes to get with FedNow.

In a statement on its website on Monday, Clear Junction said:

“Clear Junction can confirm that it will no longer be facilitating payments related to Binance. The decision has been made following the Financial Conduct Authority’s recent announcement that Binance is not permitted to undertake any regulated activity in the UK. 

We have decided to suspend both GBP and EUR payments and will no longer be facilitating deposits or withdrawals in favor of or on behalf of the crypto trading platform. Clear Junction acts in full compliance with FCA regulations and guidance in regards to handling payments of Binance.” 

The Financial Conduct Authority, or FCA, ruled on June 26 that Binance cannot conduct any “regulated activity” in the UK. Binance downplayed the ruling at the time, telling everyone the FCA notice related to Binance Markets Ltd and had “no direct impact on the services provided on Binance.com.”

Binance waited a day after learning it was cut off by Clear Junction before emailing its customers and telling them that the suspension of payments was temporary. 

“We are working to resume this service as soon as we can,” Binance said. It reassured customers they can still buy crypto with British Pounds via credit and debit cards on the platform.   

This is the second time in recent weeks that Binance customers have been frozen out of Faster Payments. They were also frozen out at the end of June. A few days later, the service was restored — presumably when Binance started putting payments through Clear Junction.

I am guessing that Clear Bank’s banking partners warned them that Binance was too risky and that if they wanted to maintain their banking relationships, they’d better drop them as a customer asap, so they did. 

Binance talks like all of these issues are temporary snafus that it’s going to fix in due time. In fact, the exchange’s struggle to secure banking in many parts of the world is likely to intensify. 

Despite numerous claims in the past about taking its legal obligations seriously, Binance has been loosey-goosey with its anti-money laundering and know-your-customer rules, opening up loopholes for dirty money to flow through the exchange. Now that the word is out, no bank is going to want to touch them. 

Other developments

I wrote about Binance’s global pariah status earlier this month. Since I published that story, UK high-street banks have moved to ban Binance, all following the FCA ban.

On July 5, Barclays said it is blocking its customers from using their debit and credit cards to make payments to Binance “to help keep your money safe.” Barclays customers can still withdraw funds from the exchange, however. (Since Clear Junction cut Binance off, credit cards remain the only means for UK customers to get fiat off the exchange at this point.)

Two days later, Binance told its users that it will temporarily disable deposits via Single Euro Payments Area (SEPA) bank transfers — the most used wire method in the EU. Binance blamed the move on “events beyond our control” and indicated users could still make withdrawals via SEPA.

On July 8, Santander, another high-street bank, told its customers it was also stopping payments to Binance.

“In recent months we have seen a large increase in UK customers becoming the victims of cryptocurrency fraud. Keeping our customers safe is a top priority, so we have decided to prevent payments to Binance following the FCA’s warning to consumers,” Santander UK’s support page tweeted.

As I detailed in my earlier story, regulators around the world have been putting out warnings about Binance. Poland doesn’t regulate crypto markets, but the Polish Financial Supervisory Authority also issued a caution about the exchange. Its notice included links to all the other regulatory responses.

Amidst the firestorm, Binance has been whistling Dixie. On July 6, the exchange sent a letter to its customers, saying “compliance is a journey” and drawing odd parallels between developments in crypto and the introduction of the automobile. 

“When the car was first invented, there weren’t any traffic laws, traffic lights or even safety belts,” said Binance. “Laws and guidelines were developed along the way as the cars were running on the road.” 

Frozen funds, lawsuits, and other red flags

There’s a lot of unhappy people on r/BinanceUS right now complaining their withdrawals are frozen or suspended — and they can’t seem to get a response from customer support either.

Binance.US is a subsidiary of Binance Holdings Ltd. Unlike its parent company, Binance.US, does not allow highly leveraged crypto-derivatives trading, which is regulated in the US.

A quick look at the subreddit’s weekly support thread reveals even more troubling posts about lost access to funds. 

This mirrors Gizmodo’s recent findings. The media outlet submitted a Freedom of Information Act request with the Federal Trade Commission asking for any customer issues filed with the FTC about Binance. The agency located 760 complaints filed since June of 2020 — presumably mainly from Binance.US customers.  

In an article titled “32 Angry Complaints to the FTC About Binance,” Gizmodo uncovered some startling patterns. “The first, and arguably most alarming pattern, appears to be people who put large amounts of money into Binance but say they can’t get their money out.”

Also, Binance is known for having “maintenance issues” during periods of heavy market volatility. As a result, margin traders, unable to exit their positions, are left to watch in horror while the exchange seizes their margin collateral and liquidates their holdings.  

Hundreds of traders around the world are now working with a lawyer in France to recoup their losses. In a recent front-page piece, the Wall Street Journal said it suspected that the collective complaints may be the reason why Binance has received continuous warnings from many countries.

If you still have funds on Binance, I would urge you to get them off the exchange now — while you still can. When hoards of people start complaining about lost and frozen funds, it’s usually a sign of liquidity problems.  

We saw a similar pattern leading up to February 2014 when Tokyo Bitcoin exchange Mt Gox bit the dust. And also just before Canadian crypto exchange QuadrigaCX went belly up in early 2019. In both instances, users of those defunct exchanges are still waiting to recoup a portion of their lost funds. Bankruptcy cases take a long, long time, and you are lucky to get back pennies on the dollar. 

Finally, where is Catherine Coley?

In another bizarre development, folks on Twitter are wondering what happened to Catherine Coley, the previous CEO of Binance.US. She stepped down in May when Brian Brooks, the former Acting Comptroller of the Currency, took over. Nobody has heard from her since. Where did she disappear off to?  

Coley’s last tweet was on April 19. And both her LinkedIn Profile and Twitter account indicate she is still the CEO of Binance.US. 

She hasn’t been in any interviews or podcasts. She doesn’t respond to DMs, and there are no reports of anyone being able to contact her. 

A Forbes article from last year says that Binance.US may have been set up as a smokescreen — the “Tai Chi entity” — to divert US regulators from looking too closely at Binance, the parent company. 

Binance.US maintains that it is a separate entity. However, Forbes 40 under 40 reported that Coley was “chosen” by CZ, the CEO of Binance, which suggests that Binance is more involved with Binance.US than it claims. 

Has CZ told her to stop talking? What does she know? Catherine, if you are reading this, send us a message!

(Updated July 13 to clarify that Barclays still allows customers to withdraw funds via credit card and to note that Binance.US is the Tai Chi entity.)

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