What’s backing Circle’s 25B USDC? We may never know

Jeremy Allaire is taking his Boston-based company Circle public via a SPAC. Circle is best known for its stablecoin USDC, which now has a market cap of $25.5 billion. 

In all his press interviews talking up the future potential of stablecoins — “Circle sits at the center of the next major transformation that the internet is bringing to the world,” he said in an investor website video  — there is one question Allaire consistently avoids giving a straight answer to: 

What is backing USDC? 

Based on his current scheme to take his company public, he may not have to come up with an answer anytime soon. 

What’s a SPAC?

SPAC stands for special acquisition company. 

Otherwise known as a “blank check” company, a SPAC is basically a shell set up by investors with the sole purpose of raising money through an initial public offering to eventually acquire another company  — “a company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.”*

Going public through an IPO is a rigorous process. It requires you to file a Form S-1 with the US Securities and Exchange Commission. An S-1 is a full-body exam, a cavity search, where you lay out all of the material weaknesses of your company. There is really nowhere to hide in an S-1. 

When you take your company public through a SPAC, however, the SPAC goes through the IPO process — not the company it ends up buying. And since a SPAC is just a room full of investment banks and private equity dudes, its S-1 is simple and straightforward. A SPAC has no skeletons in the closet. 

Once the SPAC submits its S-1 and raises money via an IPO, it goes out and finds a private company to buy and then merges with the company. In the merger, the private company gets the money and the SPAC holders get shares in the new combined entity.

The merging process requires considerably less due diligence than a traditional IPO, which is why the space is full of frauds and get-rich-quick schemes. Not all SPACs are frauds, of course, but it’s a clever way to lever up and then sell the debt to the public via shares. 

Because many of the companies taken public this way have little to show in terms of a business plan, SPACs have resulted in a slew of shareholder lawsuits. The most glaring example is electric truck startup Nikola. Three months after the company went public with a $3.3 billion valuation via a SPAC, short-seller Hindenburg Research revealed it was an intricate fraud. (The truck was rolling downhill!) Nikola’s stock collapsed, its CEO ended up stepping down, and a series of class actions followed.

“SPACs are oven-ready deals you should leave on the shelf,” an FT headline read in December. Then-SEC Chairman Jay Clayton voiced similar concerns last year. 

“I’m still keeping my mind open to the fact that there could be a good SPAC out there,” Hindenburg founder Nate Anderson told the FT. “I just haven’t seen it yet.”

Details of Circle’s SPAC

Circle is merging with Concord Acquisition Group (NYSE: CND), a SPAC sponsored by investment firm Atlas Merchant Capital. The transaction is expected to close in the fourth quarter, according to the press release.

When the transaction closes, a new company will acquire both Concord and Circle and become publicly traded on the NYSE under the ticker symbol “CRCL” — and CND will disappear. 

Concord raised $276 million in its December IPO. Here’s Concord’s S-1. It’s short, only a few pages. Compare that to the 200-page S-1 of Coinbase, the US crypto exchange that went public via direct listing in April — quite a difference.

Investors have committed another $415 million in PIPE financing to sweeten the Circle deal. PIPE, or private investment in a public equity deal, is a way to raise capital from a select group of investors who receive shares at a discount to the public market price.

Circle also raised $440 million in a May funding round. That leaves Allaire’s company — valued at $4.5 billion in this deal — with $1.1 billion in gross proceeds upon the close of the transaction. 

Circle’s finances

What do we know about Circle’s finances? Specifically, the assets behind its stablecoin? Not a lot, really.

Concord Acquisition filed an 8-K with the SEC announcing the upcoming merger. The form links to several documents. Of those, the only financial information on Circle is an investor presentation and Circle’s financial statements from December 31, 2020 and 2019. 

Here’s the thing — six months ago, Circle was in an entirely different situation than it is now. In December 2020, USDC had a $4 billion market cap. Its market cap grew to six times that in the first half of this year. Six times! Yet somehow, Circle appears to be going public without submitting its financials for Q1.

This is curious given that Q1 was a prosperous period for most crypto companies. Between January and March, $6 billion USDC were created. In that same timeframe, the price of bitcoin climbed from $29,000 to 59,000. So why would Circle leave out its March 31, 2021, financials?

This doesn’t mean that we’ll never see them. Circle could post its Q1 financials before the merger goes through.

Also, Concord still needs to file a Form S-4. An S-4 is required in a de-SPAC transaction (closing of the SPAC merger) where the SPAC’s shares are exchanged for the target’s shares.  

I wrote to Concord and Circle asking them these three questions:

  • When do you plan to file your S-4 in regard to your Circle transaction?
  • Do you plan to file the breakdown of the collateral backing the Circle stablecoin?
  • Do you have a target for your SPAC combination? If so, what is the date?

Circle and Concord answered none of the questions. Instead, they sent me back a list of 2020 and 2021 press quotes from Allaire and a link to their press release. You can see their response here.

What we know

Circle, founded in October 2013, first announced USDC in September 2018. The stablecoin is managed by a consortium called Centre — here’s their original white paper. Circle was the first member of the consortium. Coinbase joined in October 2018, and so far, there are no other members. 

Circle bought crypto exchange Poloniex in February 2018 for about $400 million with big plans to turn it into a regulated exchange. The experiment failed, and Circle ended up selling Polo less than 18 months later at a $156 million loss. 

Sean Neville, Circle’s co-founder, stepped down shortly after, without giving any clear reason for his departure. 

In December 2019, right about the time Neville left, Circle spun off its Circle Trade over-the-counter desk to focus exclusively on stablecoins. USDC issuance was slow and steady at first and then took off like a rocket in late 2020. 

Stablecoins issuers have the reputation of being like wildcat banks — a reference to banks in the 19th century that flaunted regulation and issued bank notes with abandon and often without any intention of redeeming them. 

Under the gold standard in operation at the time, these state banks could issue notes backed by gold and silver coins — though the quality of these reserves was often a question. State regulations did exist but wildcat banks, generally located in remote, hard to reach areas, were known for their creative workarounds.

Stablecoin companies issue virtual dollars that act a bit like real dollars, only they’re on a blockchain. USDC, which began life as an ERC-20 token on Ethereum, is currently on four blockchains with plans to expand to several more. 

USDC reached its first $1 billion market cap in July 2020. In the following 12 months, it literally created $24.5 billion worth of stablecoins — and we have no idea what is backing those.  

According to Centre’s website, USDC “is issued by regulated and licensed financial institutions that maintain full reserves of the equivalent fiat currency.” Every USDC is supposedly redeemable on a 1:1 basis for US dollars. 

USDC receives monthly attestations provided by accounting firm Grant Thornton LLC. These are not full audits — they are more like snapshots in time. 

The most recent snapshot is for April 30, 2021, when there were 14.7 billion USDC in circulation. The report doesn’t say much other than “US Dollars held in custody accounts are at least equal or greater than the USDC tokens outstanding at the Report Date and Time.”

However, another note on the report states that “US Dollars held in custody accounts are the total balances in accounts held by the Company at federally insured US depository institutions and in approved investments on behalf of the USDC holders at the Report Date.” (Emphasis mine.) 

Apparently, Circle’s boilerplate USDC reserves investment disclosure changed between Feb 28 and March 31, 2020, to add the phrase “and in approved investments.”

So, what are those approved investments? Who approves them? What percentage of assets are in that category? We don’t know, because Allaire won’t say. In an interview with Coindesk on June 30, he completely avoided the question, instead, rambling on about fiduciary responsibility, electronic stored money transmission, etc. (Doomberg transcribed the interview.)

High-interest ‘yield product’

On December 31, 2020, USDC was backed 100% by cash per its financial statements. Now Circle is promoting a high-interest “yield product.” The idea seems to be that you can lend Circle your USDC, and they will in turn lend them to degenerate gamblers who want leverage for crypto margin trading.

“Our Yield services provide a compelling and powerful way for institutions and corporations to access the yields that are coming from stablecoin and USDC-based borrowing and lending markets,” Allaire said in a conference call to investors.

These yield products offer 3% to 7% interest paid monthly, Circle claims — well above a risk-free rate of return. Yet, even Circle doesn’t appear to know how its yield services make money.  

“Our yield product service is an innovative product which is difficult to analyze vis-a-vis existing financial service laws and regulations around the world,” the firm says in its investor presentation. (Emphasis mine.)

Even more concerning, Circle’s business model appears to rest on bitcoin never collapsing in price: “Our yield product is collateralized predominantly by bitcoin and the value of that collateral is directly exposed to the high volatility of Bitcoin.” 

Allaire promotes USDC as the complete antithesis of Tether — the dubiously backed stablecoin that claims to have 50% of its $62 billion market cap in “commercial paper,” but doesn’t say anything about what that commercial paper consists of or where it is held. 

Despite efforts to distance itself from Tether, Circle is starting to look more and more like a similar scheme, only with a different critter on the wildcat banknotes. 

Will we ever get a straight answer from Allaire in regards to what’s behind USDC? Looks like we’ll have to wait till the S-4 comes out — that will be the real measure of transparency. 

In the meantime, I’m reminded of Dan Davies’ Golden Rule from his book “Lying for Money,” which includes a series of case studies on frauds.

“Anything which is growing unusually quickly needs to be checked out, and it needs to be checked out in a way that it hasn’t been checked before,” Davies writes. “Nearly all of the frauds in this book could have been stopped a lot earlier if people had been a bit more cynical about growth.”

* Charles Mackay, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Chapter 2. “The South-Sea Bubble.”

Feature image: Bank of Brest five dollar bill. The Bank of Brest in Michigan was one of the most infamous wildcat banks that sprang up in the freewheeling economic environment in the US during the 19th Century.

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