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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Tether’s first breakdown of reserves consists of two silly pie charts

Tether, the world’s most popular stablecoin issuer, released a breakdown of the composition of its reserves backing tethers on May 13. 

The breakdown is no surprise to Tether followers: Two lame pie charts showing, at best, only a fraction of assets are in cash, and the rest are in risky assets.

Specifically, this is a breakdown of the composition of Tether’s reserves on March 31, 2021, when Tether had roughly 41.7 billion tethers in circulation. (As of this writing, Tether now has nearly 58 billion tethers in circulation.) 

According to its settlement agreement with the NY AG, Tether must issue these breakdowns quarterly for two years—though it may have to provide more detail to the NY AG, in addition to what it has made public today. 

Let’s take a closer look at the two pie charts. (This information may be updated, as I get more feedback.)

The blue pie chart

According to the first pie chart—the blue one—the majority of Tether’s assets (nearly 76%) are socked away in cash and cash equivalents. (Tether breaks all this down in a second chart, which I’ll get to in a moment. Hint: these can barely be considered cash equivalents.)

But first, let’s look at what else is here:

12.55% is in secured loans — Loans to who, secured by what? We have no idea. These could well be loans to large tether customers backed by shitcoins, other worthless assets, or promissory notes.

9.96% is in corporate bonds, funds, and precious metals — A corporate bond is a bond issued by a corporation in order to raise financing. The question is, who is issuing these bonds? If it is a blue chip company, great. But if it’s some dodgy crypto start-up, these are likely worthless.

1.64% is in other investments, including digital currency — Tether wants us to believe that only a fraction of Tether’s reserves are in bitcoin. (Tether/Bitfinex general counsel Stuart Hoegner told The Block that “digital tokens” refers exclusively to bitcoin.) I have a funny feeling Tether will get into a great deal of trouble if it admits to using tethers to purchase bitcoin en masse. (Recall this interview, where Hoegner completely avoids the question pertaining to, are you using tethers to buy bitcoin?”)

The orange pie chart

Tether further breaks down the largest slice of its blue pie chart—which shows that more than three-quarters of its reserves are in cash and cash equivalents. Just a tiny bit is in cash and there’s a big question as to whether any of the non-cash items are cash equivalents at all. 

Here’s how Tether divvies it up: 

65.39% is commercial paper — Commercial paper refers to a short-term loan for up to 12 months. It is similar to a bond in that you have the ability to transfer and trade it. The problem is we don’t know who the issuer of the commercial paper is. If it’s IBM or Amazon, that’s as good as cash. But if Tether is giving tethers away to their largest customers (FTX, Binance) and counting that as loans, this is meaningless rubbish.

Frances Coppola, an economist and bitcoin skeptic, suggests Tether’s commercial paper is probably unsecured. “In which case it is NOT a ‘cash equivalent’ as the analysis says. It’s a current asset with significant credit risk.”   

25.2% is fiduciary deposits — These are deposits placed by a customer with a third bank (recipient bank) through an agent bank. Who are the holders of these fiduciary deposits? We have no idea. 

3.87% is cash — This is such a tiny bit of cash. What happened to all the cash backing tethers? Recall that up until a few years ago, Tether maintained tethers were fully backed by cash. 

3.6% is reverse repo notes — This appears to be a made-up term. Martin Walker, a director for banking and finance at the Center for Evidence-Based Management, isn’t familiar with the term either. “I’ve never heard of a Reverse Repo Note before, and I am the product manager for a couple of repo trading systems and used to run repo technology at an investment bank,” he said in a private chat.

2.94% is treasury bills — T-bills are a short-term financial instrument issued by the U.S. Treasury with maturity periods from a few days up to 52 weeks. These are as good as cash. In fact, this is the only slice of pie, other than cash, that can be considered cash.

If we do the math, we can see what percentage of the total each asset represents. Commercial paper is nearly half. Image courtesy of @MelchettsBeard

The bottom line 

For a company with nearly $60 billion in assets, these pie charts are pathetic. I’m sure the folks at the Office of the NY AG are rolling their eyes. The only thing backing tethers is once again, smoke and mirrors. 

To be clear, Tether has no obligation to redeem any money in the Tether bank accounts. Per its terms of service:

“Tether reserves the right to delay the redemption or withdrawal of Tether Tokens if such delay is necessitated by the illiquidity or unavailability or loss of any Reserves held by Tether to back the Tether Tokens, and Tether reserves the right to redeem Tether Tokens by in-kind redemptions of securities and other assets held in the Reserves. Tether makes no representations or warranties about whether Tether Tokens that may be traded on the Site may be traded on the Site at any point in the future, if at all.” 

With that in mind, we may as well consider these pie charts a window into the personal bank accounts of the Tether/Bitfinex triad. The crumbs of remaining cash? It is just their “bonus” money that they haven’t withdrawn yet.   

Jorge Stolfi, a computer scientist from Brazil, quoted privately: “If someday [Tether/Bitfinex] get tired of making real money with their sucker mining machine, they can just close Tether Inc and divide its assets among them. They won’t even have to leave the traditional crypto good-bye word on their website.”

David Gerard offers further analysis of Tether’s pie charts.

Related stories:
The curious case of Tether—a complete timeline of events

Updates on March 13— Added quote from Martin C. Walker on Reverse repo notes, as even he is not familiar with the term. Defined treasury bills, and noted they are the only cash equivalent in the mix, and added Trolly’s brilliant tweet. Also, added a link to Gerard’s post and later, the graph.

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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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