News: NY gives Tether the boot, Tether leaks, Coinbase financials, MoneyGram dumps Ripple

February is coming to an end. I’m waiting to get vaccinated, so I can travel without worry again. Maybe I’ll go to some crypto conferences later this year? I still have fond memories of Coindesk’s Consensus in May 2018—when you could hear the rumble of lambos coming through midtown Manhattan—and sitting in a coatroom with scant Wifi and a broken water cooler. (It was a big coatroom, but a coatroom nonetheless, and that’s where non-Coindesk journalists were put.)

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So, what’s new? Tether now has close to 35 billion tethers in circulation—the last print was on Feb. 21 and nothing since. Also, the price of bitcoin is $46,300. That’s down 18% from last week. I’m not sure we will ever see bitcoin reach $57,000 again. The nonsense could ebb and flow for a while, but I do think the end is nigh for Tether.

NY shuns Bitfinex/Tether

Last week I said likely nothing earthmoving would happen in the NY attorney general’s probe of Bitfinex and Tether this month, other than maybe a status update, according to what Bitfinex said in its January letter to the court. I was wrong.

In an unexpected turn of events, Tether and Bitfinex reached a settlement with the NY AG.

According to the terms of the settlement, the sister companies agreed to a penalty of $18.5 million—without admitting guilt. They are also banned from doing business in New York, and they have agreed to an impossible level of transparency.

I wrote two stories on this—an overall story covering the details of the agreement and deeper observations. You should read both and also the settlement agreement, which is very readable. 

The bitcoiners are jumping for joy over the settlement because they interpret this to mean that Tether is liberated and we’re back to business as usual. This could not be further from the truth.  

The NY AG has given Tether enough rope to hang itself—with Tether agreeing to publish quarterly updates on what’s backing tethers. I mean, how crazy is this: Bitfinex and Tether are also supposed to reveal who their payment processors are. These payment processors are called shadow banks for a reason.

But the real punishment is not the fine imposed on Tether. The real punishment is that Tether and Bitfinex are banned from doing business in New York—the beating heart of finance and banking in the U.S.

They are prohibited from serving any person or entity in the state—defined as “any person known or believed to reside in or regularly conduct trading activity from New York,” and any business “that is incorporated in, has its headquarters in, regularly conducts trading activity in, or is directed or controlled from, New York.”

If the CFTC and the DoJ follow up—and you can bet they will—then Tether could soon be banned from the entire U.S.—a penalty much more significant than an $18.5 million fine.

In the meantime, the Tether printer has mysteriously paused. The settlement agreement was signed on Feb. 18, and the last Tether print was on Feb. 21 for 800 million USDT.

Why has Tether stopped printing? It may be that providing the transparency reports is proving more onerous than they expected. If they pop out another billion tethers, they have to show what is behind those—cash, a loan, crypto, or whatnot. 

But this is a problem. Tethers are the main source of liquidity on unbanked exchanges where the price of BTC is largely determined. If Tether stops printing tethers—or otherwise ceases to function—the price of bitcoin could take a serious dive.

Tether Leaks

Recently, a Twitter profile called @deltecleaks emerged and posted what looked like evidence of a database dump from Deltec, the Bahamian bank that Bitfinex and Tether have been using since 2018. That Twitter account was quickly suspended.

Then @LeaksTether appeared and posted several presumably leaked emails—conversations between Deltec and Tether execs.

These leaks are unverified. I am not completely convinced they are real, but I am also not convinced they are fake either.

Some of the alleged emails look interesting. Trolly wrote up a thread on one—in an email (archive) from Tether to Deltec, dated May 28, 2020, Tether asks for help in “presenting their reserves in the best possible light.” Their reserves, according to the email, are crypto and stakes in other crypto companies. Trolly calls this email a “crucial piece of the puzzle.”

Around the same time that the email was sent, crypto exchange Binance—one of Tether’s biggest customers—switched from BTC to USDT as collateral for leveraged trading. In return, Trolly believes Tether got a stake in Binance.

This could explain why USDT’s 1:1 peg never falters. Tether is in cahoots with the exchanges, who are in charge of maintaining the peg, Trolly believes.

In another allegedly leaked email, Tether talked about allowing the exchanges to “ignore the peg and move the price upwards.” If this is real, it means Tether is getting ever desperate to find ways to make money out of thin air.

Oddly, Deltec has removed the bios from their About Us page. (This is silly, because we have the archive.) And Tether has released its official word on the leaks, calling the leaks “bogus” and implying it is an extortion attempt.

Tether adds that “those seeking to harm Tether are getting increasingly desperate.” This is typical of Tether and Bitfinex. They blame “Tether FUDers” for all their problems—as opposed to being upfront and honest about their dealings.

David Gerard wrote a blog post, going into detail on the alleged leaks.

Coinbase releases financials

Coinbase is going public via a direct listing on Nasdaq under the symbol COIN. The San Francisco-based company published its  S-1 filing on Thursday, after confidentially submitting the filing to the SEC in December.

The filing lays out Coinbase’s finances, including a profitable 2020 driven by a huge surge in the price of bitcoin. Coinbase brought in $1.2 billion in revenue in FY2020 for a profit of $322 million—the first time it has turned an annual profit.

In 2019, Coinbase incurred a net loss of $30 million.  

Brian Armstrong, Coinbase CEO, also did well last year, taking home $60 million in salary, stock options and “all other compensation.” He also received $1.78 million to cover “costs related to personal security measures.”

There is no doubt that the skyrocketing price of bitcoin—boosted by 17 billion tethers issued in 2020 alone—helped Coinbase’s profits. But there are many unknowns ahead.

If the price of BTC continues to drop, if Tether gets taken out by the DoJ, or if the SEC cracks down on some of the coins Coinbase lists—many of which appear like they may not pass the Howey test—Coinbase profits could take a hit.

No doubt, Coinbase is timing its listing carefully. The exchange has received more than $500 million in funding, with backers including Andreessen Horowitz, Y Combinator and Greylock Partners. And the VCs will want to dump their Coinbase shares on retail suckers before the bitcoin market collapses.

MoneyGram dumps Ripple

MoneyGram was supposed to have been a big success story for Ripple. Now, it’s just another sign of Ripple’s failures.

Ripple agreed to invest up to $50 million in the money transfers business. In return, MoneyGram was shilling Ripple by saying it would use the startup’s XRP currency and platform in its back office for moving funds across borders.

MoneyGram was essential because it gave XRP a supposed use case, so Ripple execs could argue their business was legit and not simply a way for them to line their own personal pockets with $600 million.

Last year, MoneyGram received $38 million from Ripple, representing about 15% of its adjusted earnings. But after the SEC announced it was suing Ripple, charging that XRP was an unlawful securities offering, MoneyGram stepped back, saying it faced logistical challenges in using the platform—as well as legal risks.

Now MoneyGram is putting its Ripple partnership on hold. That means MoneyGram, which saw declining revenues from 2015 to 2018, is losing a key income stream. (WSJ, MoneyGram PR)

Other newsy bits

After stiffing his previous defense team, Reginald Fowler still appears to have no defense team. He was given until Feb. 25 to line up a new law firm, but so far, no attorney has filed a notice of appearance with the court. (Court filing)

A rumor is afoot that the SEC is investigating Elon Musk for his dogecoin tweets that helped pump the market. Musk says a probe would be “awesome.” More lulz for Musk. (Teslarati)

Fedwire, the system that allows banks to send money back and forth, went down for several hours on Wednesday. Bitcoiners thought this was marvelous, because bitcoin is decentralized, see? How quickly they forget bitcoin is valued in USD. (CNBC)

Grayscale’s GBTC premium went negative for the first time in years. (It was close to 40% at one point in December.) When the premium is down, the arbitrage opportunity for institutions in buying bitcoin dries up—and that means less real money flowing into the system. (Hedge funder Harris Kupperman wrote a blog post last year explaining how the arb works.) (Decrypt)

FT poked fun of Anthony Pompliano, cofounder of Morgan Creek. Pomp is forever shilling bitcoin but his tweets have been inconsistent. At one time he called Tether “the biggest racket ever.” Now he has changed his tune. Apparently, he’ll say whatever to make “number go up.” (FT)

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is warning people about bitcoin. She doesn’t think it’s used widely as a payment system. “To the extent it is used, I fear it’s often for illicit finance. It’s an extremely inefficient way of conducting transactions, and the amount of energy that’s consumed in processing those transactions is staggering.” (CNBC)

Jack Dorsey’s Square purchased another 3,318 bitcoins for $170 million. This adds to Square’s October purchase of 4,709 bitcoins. The company has already lost $10 million on its latest investment. (Coindesk, Square press release)

The Securities and Exchange Board of India tells company owners: before you IPO, sell your crypto. (Economic Times India)

Kraken is reportedly in talks to raise new capital. (Coindesk)

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

Screen Shot 2020-02-26 at 5.27.45 PM
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.