News: Tether surpasses 50B, Coinbase lists USDT, reported $2B crypto scam in Turkey

Bitcoin is sitting at around $54,000, and Tether has hit a new milestone: 50 billion tethers in circulation, something it’s quite proud of. “Will we reach $100B before 2022?”

So far, in April, Tether has issued 9 billion tethers—and the month isn’t even over yet. Tether has been minting 2 billion tethers at a time—the largest single batches we’ve seen to date.

Per the NY AG settlement agreement, Tether is supposed to provide a breakdown of its reserves in May. And they are already whining about how unfair and unjust this is.  

Stuart Hoegner, Tether’s general counsel, complained on Twitter: “The second-biggest stablecoin issuer [USDC] doesn’t give a breakdown of their reserves, either. Observers should ask why our detractors are pushing one rule for them and another for us.”

Oh, I don’t know, Maybe because USDC wasn’t caught hiding the fact it lost access to $850 million?

(USDC—a stablecoin bootstrapped by Coinbase and Circle—has issued 13.5 billion USDC to date, not quite the level of Tether, but it’s working its way up there.)

Coinbase debuts on Wall Street, then lists USDT

Coinbase, the largest crypto exchange in the U.S., debuted on Wall Street on April 14. Trading opened at $381 a share—a 52% increase over a $250 reference price set by Nasdaq. COIN swung as high as $429 that first day. (Though, now it is at $291.)

It was the moment Coinbase execs and its VC backers had all been waiting for. They didn’t waste any time dumping their shares on retailers, according to data from Capital Market Laboratories. 

Insiders sold off $4.6 billion in COIN on the first day of trading, and Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong sold shares worth $292 million. (SEC filing) (Cointelegraph)

Less than two weeks later, Coinbase—being the respected operation that it is—dropped the bomb that it is listing tether on Coinbase Pro.

Ecstatic bitcoiners claim the move legitimizes Tether. Actually, the move delegitimizes Coinbase.

Listing tether makes Coinbase look shady, like they’ll do anything to boost profits and keep share prices up so insiders can continue their sell-off. (My blog post)

Tether is a wildcat bank, operating with no oversight. It has been largely responsible for boosting the price of bitcoin because it allows unregulated crypto exchanges to thrive and funnels them a steady stream of dubiously backed tethers.

Thanks to Tether, Coinbase had a hugely profitable Q1. And thanks to Tether, Brian Armstrong is a wealthy man indeed. 

Was it a coincidence that BTC tapped a new all-time high of $63,275 the day before Coinbase went public? Or was that simply irrational exuberance?

When Tether gets taken down, liquidity will evaporate and crypto markets will crash. Those who get hurt will be naive retailers, who didn’t understand the system was rigged from the get-go. 

Bernie—gone but not forgotten

Bernie Madoff died in jail on the same day that Coinbase went public. He ran the biggest Ponzi scheme in history, and it went on for 25 years. Paper losses totaled $64.8 billion. Madoff took billions from investors and simply stole the money instead of investing. 

Why didn’t the SEC catch Madoff sooner? Why didn’t they step in and do something to protect investors? They were tipped off eight years before, and yet they failed to act.

Here we are watching a similar drama unfold with Tether. All the red flags are waving. And no regulator or authority has stepped in to take strong action. 

If you are wondering how fraudsters live with themselves—they rationalize and minimize. 

David Sheehan, a trustee who worked to recover money stolen from investors, met with Madoff a dozen times. He told WSJ: “[Madoff] didn’t think he was harming anybody. He actually thought his scheme would work, that it just got out of hand and he couldn’t control it.”

$2 billion crypto scam in Turkey?

When Thodex, one of the largest crypto exchanges in Turkey, suspended trading on April 18 for five days of “maintenance,” users began to complain they couldn’t access their funds. 

Now a manhunt is underway for the exchange’s 27-year-old founder, Faruk Fatih Özer, who has reportedly fled to the capital of Albania with $2 billion in investors’ money. 

Turk authorities have detained 62 people and issued detention warrants for 16 more.

Meanwhile, Özer is claiming that Thodex is the target of a “smear campaign.” He says he was on a jaunt to meet with foreign investors, nothing more.

We’ve seen this film before. It’s called “Crypto exchange operates as a Ponzi scheme.” Last time, the protagonist was Gerald Cotten, the founder of Canada’s QuadrigaCX. And instead of going to meet with “foreign investors,” he went to India and died under suspicious circumstances. 

Now another Turkish crypto exchange—Vebitcoin—has shut down amid accusations of fraud. Turkish authorities have blocked its bank accounts and detained four people. (Reuters)

These stories come at a rotten time for crypto users in Turkey. Starting April 30, the country’s central bank will ban the use of crypto for payments and prevent payment providers from providing fiat onramps to crypto exchanges. (CBRT press release)

Bitcoin promotes green energy!

Bitcoin mining is destroying the planet. Lately, the world’s most popular cryptocurrency is getting a lot of bad press on its massive carbon footprint—like this article in the New Yorker

Yet, despite hard evidence to the contrary, people with big bets on bitcoin will stare you right in the face and tell you it ain’t so. Bitcoin is green!

Jack Dorsey’s Square and Cathie Wood’s ARK Invest published a delusional white paper titled “Bitcoin is Key to an Abundant Clean Energy Future.” They want you to believe bitcoin mining encourages the use of wind farms, solar energy, and other such nonsense. (Bloomberg)

ARK has investments in Square and Coinbase shares. And Square invested $50 million in bitcoin last year. Square’s Cash App also lets users buy and sell bitcoin. Dorsey is a bitcoin bro at heart.

Companies who care about the planet, don’t invest in bitcoin.

FT Alphaville countered Dorsey and Wood’s claims in a post titled: “The destructive green fantasy of the bitcoin fanatics.” 

Bitcoin skeptic Kyle Gibson responded with a satirical “Bitcoin Is Green Energy” commercial, where we learn that “solar panels can’t work without bitcoin,” and “this baby penguin’s first word was ‘bitcoin’.” 

Other newsworthy stuff

On April 22, the negative premium of GBTC reached -18.92%, a record low. It’s since rebounded to -10%, according to Ycharts, but the arbitrage opp for big investors is a distant memory.

No doubt many funds who entered the “risk-free” trade are feeling the squeeze. Despite that, Grayscale has added $283 million in assets to GBTC. (The Block)

Tougher AML laws in South Korea are forcing crypto exchanges to shutter. Turns out, several were using shell bank accounts. “…they are having difficulties to get real-name accounts from local banks.” Sounds like the Bitfinex/Tether model. (Korean Herald)

The NFT bubble is bursting. Trading volume on OpenSea is down 22% in the past month. CryptoPunks volume is down 26%, NBA Top Shot is down 61%. (Decrypt)

Edward Snowden can’t make money on books and speeches anymore, so he sold an NFT for $5.4 million. He is donating the funds to the Freedom of the Press Foundation. (He sits on the nonprofit’s board of directors.) (Coindesk)

Artists and celebrities continue to pile into NFTs, because it’s the thing to do. Eminem partnered with Gemini’s Nifty Gateway to launch his first series of NFTs. (Decrypt)

A hacker-artist figured out how to make “crypto-verified” fakes of most art-connected NFTs. It’s called “sleepminting” and he used Beeple’s “Everydays” as a test case. (Artnet) 

Quote from “Black Swan” author Nassim Taleb: “If you want a hedge against inflation, buy a piece of land, grow—I don’t know—olives on it. You’ll have olive oil if the price collapses. With bitcoin, there’s no connection.” (Decrypt) 

The SEC is officially reviewing a bitcoin ETF application from Kryptoin Investment Advisors. It’s one of three bitcoin exchange-traded fund proposals now under review—WisdomTree and VanEck are the other two. (SEC filing notice) (Decrypt)

The overlap between the bitcoin bros and Musk fanboys is strong. Nicholas Weaver wrote up a Twitter thread on why Musk sucks—i.e., his environmental credentials are bullshit; “Go to mars because we are going to destroy the earth” is lunacy; His cars are crap, etc.

The IRS knows you’re out there. It’s launched “Operation Hidden Treasure” to find taxpayers with unreported income from bitcoin transactions. (Accounting Today)

Stablecoins are reminiscent of the dollar substitutes that triggered the 2008 crisis. Déjà vu? (New Money Review)

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WTF is an NFT? Here’s a rundown of the basics

NFTs are all over the news lately.

Recently, I was having drinks with a friend, who knows zip about crypto, and out of the blue, she started asking me about “non-fungible tokens.” 

The next day, a musician friend posted an amateurish drawing of a guitar on Facebook, proudly announcing, “This will soon be available as an NFT.”

If initial coin offerings were the crypto grift of 2017 and decentralized finance (aka “DeFi”) was the grift of 2020, then “nifties” are the grift of 2021, and they do just what crypto grifters need them to do: lure more dumb money into crypto.

How do they do this? By convincing artists that by “tokenizing” their digital art, they can prove ownership and make oodles of money for their work. They just need to buy crypto first, and then sway their friends into believing that crypto and NFTs are the wave of the future. Also, by convincing investors that NFTs are the hottest new thing.

If you are trying to get up to speed on this nonsense, you’ll find answers to your most basic questions below.

What’s an NFT?

NFT stands for non-fungible token. Fungible means interchangeable. It’s the idea that one asset can be swapped out for another and nothing is lost.

Bitcoin and ether, the two most popular cryptocurrencies, are examples of fungible tokens. One bitcoin works like every other bitcoin; likewise with ether.

A non-fungible token is different because only one ever exists. Each NFT contains unique data, so NFTs are not interchangeable with each other. They are not divisible either, whereas fungible tokens are.

This is a wonderful play on bitcoiners’ idea of scarcity. There will only ever be 21 million bitcoin—and there will only be one NFT! Scarcity clearly means something is valuable. Grab it while you can.

Most of the ICO tokens in the 2017 crypto bubble ran on Ethereum and were based on the ERC-20 token standard, so exchanges and wallets would know how to integrate them. NFTs on Ethereum also have their own standard: ERC-721. 

Other blockchains, like Tron, Binance Chain, EOS, and Polkadot, support NFTs but Ethereum is by far the most popular and widely used.

Because NFTs are unique, they are hyped as “collectibles,” rare one-of-a-kinds that will only go up in value over time. 

What are you actually buying?

An NFT is only a pointer to something else on the web. It could be an image, a music or video file, or even a tweet. The object itself does not live on the blockchain.

In fact, the server holding the object could go away or it could change what is displayed at that location—and then your NFT would point to nothing or something totally different, like a rug.

Really, an NFT is simply proof that an object exists.

It doesn’t convey copyright, or for that matter, any legal rights at all. If anything, it is akin to a “certificate of authenticity,” which says this is where this thing is located. Unless you have a contract that specifically spells out you own the rights to this object, you literally just bought the pointer.

In addition to a slew of hitherto unknown auction houses where NFTs are sold, big-name auction houses are getting in on the game. Sotheby’s recently announced it will be selling its first-ever NFT on behalf of digital artist Pak in April.

And last week, Christie’s auctioned an NFT of Beeple’s “Everyday: The First 5000 days” for $69.3 million in ETH. Christie’s even made the unusual decision of accepting its premium in magic beans.

In its conditions of sale, Christie’s carefully points out that NFTs carry no rights:

“You acknowledge that ownership of an NFT carries no rights, express or implied, other than property rights for the lot (specifically, digital artwork tokenized by the NFT). You understand and accept that NFTs are issued by third parties, and not by Christie’s itself.”

Even if you own an NFT, that doesn’t mean you can restrict other people from seeing the object it points to. 

Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s billionaire CEO, is selling an NFT to his first tweet. The bidding is now up to $2.5 million. But you don’t need an NFT to see the tweet. (It’s worth mentioning that Dorsey is a big fan of crypto. His company Square invested $50 million into bitcoin last year, so it’s no wonder that he is shilling NFTs.)

When you buy an NFT, what you are buying is the private key to a crypto-token. The value is mainly speculative. You will only get for it what someone else is willing to pay—if you can find a buyer, and there is no guarantee that you will, when the time comes to cash out.

The problem is that people’s perceptions of what they are buying when it comes to NFTs don’t always mesh with the legal realities. And marketplaces involved in these sales are not always transparent about what they are selling. In fact, the more questions you ask about the real underlying value of an NFT, the vaguer the responses become.

How to create an NFT

If you are an artist who wants to create an NFT to auction, first you want to download a digital wallet that supports the ERC-721 token standard, such as MetaMask, Trust Wallet, or Coinbase Wallet, and put a little ETH in it to pay for “gas.” Plan on spending $50 to $100 worth of ETH to cover the costs of creating your token. 

After that, there are plenty of sites, including OpenSea, Mintbase, and Rarible, that will take your money and step you through the process of “minting” your NFT.

Connect your wallet to one of those sites. Write up a description of your artwork, upload your image, and voila, you’ve created your first NFT.  

Unfortunately, many struggling artists find their NFTs simply languish on these auction sites, and they’ve sunk $100 into nothing when they could have gone out and bought groceries instead.

A short history of NFTs

Where did NFTs spring from? Although the technology for NFTs has been around almost as long as bitcoin, NFTs hit the mainstream in 2017 with CryptoKitties, a game that allowed people to buy and “breed” limited-edition virtual cats with crypto. CryptoKitties was the first NFT to use the ERC-721 standard.

Last summer, game developers got into NFTs in a big way. NFTs enabled gamers to win in-game items (e.g., a digital shield, a digital sword, or digital skins), transfer their assets from one game to another, and then sell their in-game NFTs in blockchain marketplaces—sometimes for impressive sums.

Soon after, NFTs found their way into the art world, hyped by celebrities who weren’t always up to speed on crypto. Lindsay Lohan minted her own token on Rarible, based on an image of her face.

Hours after she put her NFT up for sale, she tweeted, “Bitcoin is the future, happening now,” even though her NFT lived on Ethereum. Lohan sold the image for over $17,000. It was quickly resold for $57,000.

Here are some NFTs making the news in the last two months:

Keep in mind, most of these NFTs don’t sell for real money, they sell for ETH, and the trick is then converting your ETH into fiat, so you can spend it in the real world.  

What are the risks?

NFTs open the door to fraud and general funny business. This is because 1) money is involved, usually in the form of crypto; and 2) regulators haven’t caught up with grift. 

Crypto bros promote NFTs as the ultimate stamp of authenticity, yet for many artists, the NFT market has done the opposite: it’s opened the door for swindlers. Here’s what can happen:

You can create an NFT of someone else’s work. There are no protections in place to ensure that an NFT you are buying was created by the actual artist. Digital artists, ranging from 3D renderers to pixel painters, have all discovered their art on online marketplaces. 

There are literally dozens of bots on Twitter that will allow you to create an NFT of a tweet simply by tagging it, and Twitter has thus far made no moves to block these accounts.

The problem got so bad that Corbin Rainolt, who designs detailed paleo art, had take down all of his dinosaurs and repost them with watermarks. 

“I tried to block all NFT accounts but it seems I can’t block everyone of these accs,” he said on Twitter.

Illustrator Chris Moschler doesn’t get the buzz around NFTs.

“Art theft has never been this aggressive and rampant ever before,” he tweeted, after blocking dozens of Twitter accounts trying to mint NFTs based on his tweets. “I cannot understand how this is still being called a revolutionary movement in the art world.”

It is also possible to create an NFT of a piece of work on one auction site, and then create NFTs on the same piece of work on a plethora of other auction sites. What’s to stop you?

Some NFT marketplaces do better due diligence than others, but they take a cut of anything sold and can easily wash their hands of it afterward.  

Your NFTs can also be stolen. Not your keys, not your crypto, as the saying goes, and when you leave your NFT on an auction site, they have control of the keys.

Recently, several Nifty Gateway customers reported a hacker breaking into their accounts and stealing their NFTs. Some of the victims also said their credit cards on file were used to purchase additional NFTs, which were then transferred to a hacker’s account. (Nifty said those users did not have 2FA turned on.)

Also, NFTs open up big-time opportunities for money laundering. Art is an attractive vehicle to launder money, to begin with. Transactions are often private, and valuations of art can vary widely for unexplained reasons. Art prices can also be extremely high, so there is no reason not to expect that NFTs will be used for the same purpose.

Right now, the NFT bubble is a big one. Crypto grifters promote NFTs because it’s a new avenue to bring fiat money into the world of crypto and to pump up their bags. The problem is, all bubbles eventually pop, and when this one does, retailers will be left holding the bag. 

Feature image: Beeple’s artwork from “Everydays: The First 5000 days.” Courtesy, Christie’s

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