Bitfinex to NYAG: You have no authority! We did nothing wrong!

Screen Shot 2019-05-06 at 5.42.29 PMBitfinex has filed yet another rebuke to the New York Attorney General’s ex parte court order.

The April 24 order basically tells Bitfinex to submit documents and stop dipping into Tether’s reserves, which it has done, so far, to the tune of $750 million.

Bitfinex filed a motion to vacate or modify the order on May 3. On Friday, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) opposed the motion. And on Sunday, Bitfinex filed a response to the opposition. The reply memorandum in further support of the motion to vacate or modify the order was filed by law firms Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP and Steptoe & Johnson LLP.

In the memo, Bitfinex argues that “nothing in the Attorney General’s opposition papers justifies the ex parte order having been issued in the first place.” It lists a bunch of reasons for this—essentially, a lot of “buts,” which equate to Bitfinex saying, “It wasn’t me, you can’t prove it, and anyway, nobody was harmed by the thing I totally didn’t do.”

Here is a summary—also, I am not a lawyer. 

But, tethers are not a securities!

The OAG claims Bitfinex violated the Martin Act, New York’s anti-fraud law, which grants the agency expansive powers to conduct investigations of securities fraud.

Bitfinex argues that the OAG did not even try to explain how tethers (the dollar-backed coins issued by Bitfinex’s affiliate Tether) qualify as securities or commodities in the first place. In its opposition, this is what the OAG did say, in a footnote:

“The Motion to Vacate wrongly suggests that an eventual Martin Act claim stands or falls on whether ‘tethers’ are securities or commodities. It does not. The Bitfinex trading platform transacts in both securities and commodities (like bitcoin), and is of course at the core of the fraudulent conduct set forth in OAG’s application.”

This looks like an attempt by Bitfinex to pull the OAG into the weeds, and the OAG is not going there. The fact that Bitfinex does trade in securities and commodities (the CFTC considers bitcoin a commodity, and the SEC considers most ICO tokens to be securities) is enough to bring Bitfinex under the OAG’s purview. ‘Nuff said. 

But, this is so disruptive!

The ex parte order is “hugely disruptive,” says Bitfinex, because it freezes $2.1 billion of Tether reserves—what’s currently left to back the 2.8 billion tethers in circulation—prohibiting any investment of any kind, for the indefinite future. 

In other words, Bitfinex feels like it can do whatever it wants with the cash that tether holders gave it for safe keeping. Tether works like an I.O.U., which means Bitfinex is supposed to hold onto that money for redemptions only.  

The big reason Bitfinex wants to bend the rules here is that it is desperate for cash to stay in operation. If it can’t get that cash from somewhere, the exchange is potentially in danger of running aground, or getting into even more trouble with regulators. At this point, Bitfinex is even trying to raise $1 billion in a token offering. 

But, we didn’t do anything wrong!

Bitfinex argues it has not committed fraud. It has taken hundreds of millions out of Tether’s reserves, but that is okay, because it updated Tether’s terms of service to make it clear that reserves could include loans to affiliates. What’s more, Bitfinex says it updated the terms before it drew a line of credit from Tether for $900 million.

(It has so far dissipated $750 million of that loan—which was signed by the same people on either side of the transaction—with access to another $150 million.)

In its memo, Bitfinex says:

“This disclosure gave anyone holding or considering buying tether the opportunity to take their money elsewhere if they chose, defeating any allegations of fraud.” 

In fact, Tether did update its terms of service on its website on February 26, 2019, but it did so silently. It was not until two weeks later, when someone inadvertently stumbled upon the change, that the news became public. In contrast, a bank would totally be expected to reveal such a move—at the very least, to its regulators.  

The OAG also claims that in mid-2018, Bitfinex failed to disclose the loss of $851 million related to Crypto Capital, an intermediary that the exchange was using to wire money to its customers. Bitfinex argues that, as a private company, it had “no duty to disclose its internal financial matters to customers.”

If Bitfinex were to go belly up all of a sudden, traders could potentially be out of their funds, but apparently, that is none of their business. Also, Bitfinex went beyond not disclosing the loss. It even lied about it, telling its customers that rumors of its insolvency were a “targeted campaign based on nothing but fiction.”  

The OAG’s opposition to Bitfinex’s move to vacate, literally has an entire section (see “Background”) that basically says, “We’ve caught these guys lying repeatedly, here are the lies,” which Bitfinex does not even address in its memo.

But, nobody has been harmed!

The OAG’s job is to protect the public, but Bitfinex says “there has been no harm to tether holders supposedly being defrauded, much less harm that is either ongoing or irreparable.” Particularly now, it says, after it made the details of its credit transaction—the one where it borrowed $900 million from Tether—fully public.  

“Holders of tether are doing so with eyes wide open,” Bitfinex says. “They may redeem at any time, and Tether has ample assets to honor those requests.”

Ample assets, that is, as long as everybody doesn’t ask for their money back all at once. Bitfinex’s general counsel Stuart Hoegner already stated in his affidavit, which accompanied the company’s move to vacate, that tethers are only 74% backed.  

Tether’s operation fits the definition of a fractional reserve system, which is what banks do, which is why banks have a lot of rules and also backing and deposit insurance.  

But, “the balance of equities favors Bitfinex and Tether!”

Bitfinex and Tether would be fine, if the OAG would just go away. The agency is doing more harm than good, Bitfinex argues. 

The exchange argues that a preliminary injunction would not protect anyone, but would instead cause “great disruption” to Bitfinex and Tether—”ultimately to the detriment of market participants on whose behalf the attorney general purports to be acting.”

It maintains that it needs access to Tether’s holdings because it needs the “liquidity for normal operations.” That is, Bitfinex admits it does not have enough cash on hand, without dipping into the reserves.

But, what’s good for Bitfinex is good for Tether. “For its part, Tether has a keen interest in ensuring that Bitfinex, as a dominant platform for Tether’s products and known affiliate, can operate as normal,” the company says. 

Besides, the OAG has no business “attempting to dictate how two private companies may deal with one another and deploy their funds,” says Bitfinex.

It maintains the OAG’s actions have actually done harm. In the weeks leading up the order, the crypto market was rallying after an extended downturn. In its court document, Bitfinex writes: 

“This rally was halted by this case, which resulted in an approximate loss of $10 billion across dozens of cryptocurrencies in one hour of the April 24, 2019 order becoming public.”

Not only that, but Bitfinex itself was harmed by the publicity brought on by the OAG’s lawsuit. The exchange says the balance of it cold wallets “have fallen sharply, an indication that customers have been drawing down their holdings.”

It is likely that Bitfinex is going to have to surrender the documents the OAG is asking for at some point—and that may be what it is trying to avoid. Its attempts to vacate the OAG’s order appears to be an effort to buy time, while it scrambles to figure out how to come up with the nearly $1 billion it needs to stay afloat—a token sale may be just the thing.

Update:

On May 6, New York Supreme Court judge Joel M. Cohen ruled that the OAG’s ex parte order should remain in effect, at least in part. However, he thinks the injunction is “amorphous and endless.” He gives the two parties a week to work out a compromise and submit new proposals for what the scope of the injunction should be.

On May 13, iFinex, the parent company of Bitfinex and Tether, submitted this letter and this proposed order to the court. Among other things, iFinex is asking for a 45-day limit on the injunction and to replace three paragraphs—one of which would allow Tether employees to get paid using Tether’s reserves.

For its part, the OAG submitted this letter and this proposed order. The OAG is not opposed to Tether’s employees being paid, but it wants Tether to to pay its employees using transaction fees—not reserves.

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What happened next?
NY Supreme Court Judge: Bitfinex may not touch Tether’s reserves for 90 days

Related stories:
NYAG: Bitfinex needs to submit docs and stop dipping into Tether’s reserves
The curious case of Tether: a complete timeline of events

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NYAG: Bitfinex needs to submit docs and stop dipping into Tether’s reserves

Screen Shot 2019-05-05 at 1.09.10 PMBitfinex was not happy with the New York Attorney General’s April 24 ex parte court order, which demanded that the crypto exchange stop dipping into Tether’s cash reserves and hand over documents that were requested in November 2018. It struck back with a strongly worded motion to vacate, or overturn the order.

On May 3, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) submitted an opposition to that motion. The agency argues that Bitfinex violated the Martin Act, New York’s anti-fraud law, widely considered the most severe blue sky law in the country.

Legally, Tether and Bitfinex are separate entities, but they are managed by the same individuals. To note, the OAG’s order does not prohibit Bitfinex from operating. Nor does it prohibit Tether from issuing or redeeming tethers (USDT) for U.S. dollars.

The order simply prohibits Bitfinex from helping itself to anymore of Tether’s funds. This, of course, poses a problem for Bitfinex, because it desperately needs cash to stay afloat. (It’s latest effort to fill the gap is a token sale, but that is another matter.)

There are currently 2.8 billion USDT in circulation, and each of them is supposed to be backed 1:1 with the dollar, but as of now, they are only 74% backed.

The alleged fraud

The OAG began investigating Bitfinex late last year. If there is any question as to how Bitfinex allegedly committed fraud and misled its customers, the OAG spells that out clearly in its memorandum. I’m paraphrasing some this. 

Bitfinex failed to disclose to its clients that it had lost $851 million of “wrongfully commingled” client and corporate funds to Crypto Capital, an overseas entity, which it used as an intermediary to wire US dollars to traders on its platform.

Bitfinex knew in mid-to-late 2018 that Crypto Capital’s inability—or unwillingness—to return the funds meant it would have problems filling out client requests to withdraw cash off the exchange. Nevertheless, it told the public that rumors of insolvency were a “targeted campaign based on nothing but fiction.”  

In November 2018, Bitfinex tried to cover up the loss by moving (at least) $625 million from Tether’s legitimate bank account into Bitfinex’s account. In return, Bitfinex “credited” $625 million to Tether’s accounts with Crypto Capital. OAG says the credit was “illusory,” because the money at Crypto Capital was lost or inaccessible.

(In its motion to vacate, the OAG notes that Bitfinex contradicted itself by saying the “credit” Bitfinex gave to Tether was $675 million—a $50 million discrepancy.)

Bitfinex later shifted to a new strategy. It engaged in “an undisclosed and conflicted transaction” to let Bitfinex dip even further into Tether’s reserves. The exchange took out a $900 million loan from Tether, secured by shares of iFinex—the parent company of both Tether and Bitfinex. OAG says there is little reason to believe the iFinex shares have any real value, especially in the event iFinex itself defaults.

In March 2019, $900 million represented almost half Tether’s available reserves at the time, but Bitfinex and Tether did not disclose this to its customers. In fact, up until February 2019, Tether telling its customers that USDT was fully backed. Bitfinex told the OAG that it has already dissipated $750 million of Tether’s funds.

Bitfinex demonstrates “a pattern of undisclosed, conflicted, and deceptive conduct” that its customers would “find material, and indeed, essential to buying tethers and trading assets, like bitcoin, on the Bitfinex platform,” the OAG said.

In its motion to vacate, Bitfinex argues that the Martin Act stands or falls on whether tethers are securities or commodities. It does not, the OAG says. In fact:

“The Bitfinex trading platform transacts in both securities and commodities (like bitcoin) and is of course at the core of the fraudulent conduct set forth in the OAG’s application.”

Related events

The OAG points to other events that underscore the need to maintain the status quo.

Since the original order, two individuals, Reginald Fowler and Ravid Yosef, were charged with bank fraud in connection with their operation of a “shadow bank.” Fowler was arrested on April 30, while Yosef is still at large.

The operation processed hundreds of millions of dollars of unregulated transactions on behalf of numerous cryptocurrency exchanges and associated entities—“several of which,” the OAG says, are at the center of its own investigation. 

This appears to indicate the OAG’s is looking into other exchanges, which makes sense, given it sent out a questionnaire to more than a dozen cryptocurrency exchanges in April 2018, requesting they disclose key information about their operations.

While the OAG does not specifically state that the “shadow bank” is Crypto Capital, it points to the Memorandum in Support of Detention of Fowler, which said that companies associated with Fowler “failed to return $851 million to a client of the Defendant’s shadow bank.” 

The OAG’s investigation is still ongoing.

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