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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Proof of work—the reason behind Bitcoin’s horrendous energy consumption

Any company that supports bitcoin is making one thing clear: they don’t care about the environment. At a time when global warming is a real threat to the planet, bitcoin is one of the worst offenders. 

The global network of computers that “mine” bitcoin consumes an entire country’s worth of energy in their race to win the next block on the blockchain—and get the 6.25 bitcoin block reward, currently worth $300,000. 

Since PayPal, Square, MicroStrategy, and Tesla got onto the game—and started shilling bitcoin on social media—the price of bitcoin has soared to new heights. And the higher the bitcoin price, the greater the lure for people to invest in warehouses full of power-hungry rigs to mine bitcoin for profit.

Digiconomist’s Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index, run by Alex de Vries, a blockchain specialist at Big Four accounting firm PwC, estimates bitcoin’s energy consumption to be 79 terawatt-hours of electricity per year, on par with the entire country of Chile. Per his index, bitcoin also emits 37 megatons of carbon dioxide per year, comparable to that of New Zealand.  

Researchers at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School figure bitcoin’s power consumption to be even higher. According to their Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index, bitcoin consumes 124 terawatt-hours of electricity a year, bringing it inline with countries like Argentina and Norway.

In October, just before PayPal announced it would allow users to buy and sell bitcoin via their digital wallets, bitcoin’s power consumption was 75 terawatt-hours per year, according to the CBECI. Since then, bitcoin’s price climbed from $10,000 to upwards of $50,000, increasing its energy consumption by 40 percent the process.

In 2018, all of the world’s data centers consumed 205 terawatt-hours of electricity, or 1% of all of the world’s electricity. Bitcoin accounts for half of that.

Can the world’s power grids tolerate this added demand for electricity in the midst of global warming? In the U.S., we are already seeing the impact of extreme weather on our power grids—millions in Texas shivering in cold, dark homes this week. And rolling black outs in California last year. In Iran last month, authorities blamed massive blackouts on bitcoin mining.

Coal powered  

And bitcoin’s energy consumption isn’t green either—though bitcoiners like to say that it is. Bitcoin miners are tuned to profits. That means the fastest rigs and the cheapest energy available, mostly in the form of fossil fuels. 

“Coal is fueling bitcoin,” Christian Stoll, an energy researcher at the Technical University of Munich, told Wired magazine a few years ago.  

In a paper published in Joule in June 2019, Stoll and his researchers examined bitcoin mining based on where miners are located and the types of rigs they use. Two-thirds of all bitcoin mining is centered in China, 17% is in Europe, and 15% in North America, the researchers found. 

In China, bitcoin’s mining is spread throughout the country’s sprawling western provinces, Sichuan and Yunnan, and also in the north, in Xinjiang and Mongolia. In the Sichuan province, where about 58% of the world’s bitcoin mining takes place, miners take advantage of cheap hydroelectric power—but only during the rainy season, which lasts about six months. 

Bitcoin is a 24/7 business, however, and when green energy isn’t available—and the price of bitcoin is high enough to reap a profit in the dry season—the miners in Sichuan turn to coal, the country’s most abundant energy source. Sixty-five percent of China’s electricity comes from coal. Bitcoin miners in the Xinjiang province and inner Mongolia also rely heavily on coal-fired electricity. 

Even when bitcoin uses clean energy, that pushes the use of dirty energy elsewhere. A few years ago, HyperBlock, a bitcoin mine in Missoula County, Montana, struck a deal with a nearby dam for cheap renewable power. They thought they were doing it right, until county officials noted that if energy from the dam went to bitcoin mining, the county as a whole would end up using more coal.

That was the end of that. In April 2019, Missoula required all future mines to purchase or build their own renewable power. And soon after the price of bitcoin crashed in March 2020—slipping down to below $5,000—HyperBlock declared bankruptcy because it could not pay its power bills.

Bitcoin mining and proof of work

Why is bitcoin so inefficient? It turns out that the system uses copious amounts energy not by accident but by design.

Satoshi Nakomoto, bitcoin’s pseudonymous creator, had to figure out a way to solve the double-spend problem. We don’t have this problem with paper money. But with digital money, someone could copy the file and use it to spend the funds over and over, rendering the currency useless. 

In a centralized system, a trusted third-party, like a bank, checks the digital money you spend against a central ledger to make sure there’s no funny business going on. But bitcoin’s ledger (the blockchain) is decentralized, which makes the double-spend problem harder to solve.  

The solution Satoshi came up with was a clever hack that involves bitcoin mining and proof-of-work. In bitcoin, mining is the process of adding new transactions to the blockchain, and proof-of-work secures the network so transactions can’t be reversed. You would need more than half of all the computing power on the bitcoin network to double-spend a bitcoin. 

It wasn’t a perfect solution, but Satoshi solved what computer scientists had long thought was unsolvable: how to build a decentralized payment system. The irony is, unless you are collecting payments for ransomware, bitcoin has proven unusable as a payment system. No merchant wants to risk their profit margin on bitcoin’s volatility.

Today, bitcoin functions mainly as a speculative investment, getting scooped up by retailers and venture capitalists—and now big companies and hedge funds—in the hopes the price will go ever skyward.  

Winning the lottery

Bitcoin miners have their eyes feasted on the bitcoin block reward.

Every 10 minutes, the bitcoin network adds a new block to the blockchain, minting 900 new bitcoins a day in the process. That block reward is reduced by half every four years. Prior to May 2020, the bitcoin block reward was 12.5 bitcoins—double what it is now—and the network produced 1,800 new bitcoins per day. And around February 2024,* the block reward will be 3.125 bitcoins.

When you request a transaction on the bitcoin blockchain, your transaction goes into the bitcoin mempool, a waiting area for unconfirmed bitcoin transactions. Miners select transactions from the pool—usually the ones with the highest transaction fees—and package those into a block ready to process as the next block in the blockchain.

Any server can produce a “candidate block,” but if it were too easy to do, the network would be spammed. So there had to be a financial cost to creating a block, hence the work. 

In the case of bitcoin, that work involves solving a hash puzzle; the cost is computing time and electricity. The hash puzzle is very difficult to solve, but easy for peers in the bitcoin network to verify, so they can prove you did the work and the block is valid.

Some people refer to this puzzle as a complex math problem, but it’s really not. Working out a hash is easy, but in bitcoin, working out a hash that meets certain conditions is tricky. Finding the solution is a bit like winning a lottery.

Solving the hash puzzle

A hash is a fixed-length output calculated from a piece of data. Whether you hash Herman Wouk’s “War and Remembrance” or a grocery store list, the resultant hash will always be the same length. And you will always get the same hash for the same string. But if even one letter changes in “War and Remembrance,” the resultant hash will be different.

Bitcoin uses the hashcash proof-of-work, originally developed by cryptographer Adam Back in 1997 as a way to prevent email spam and denial-of-service attacks, and the SHA-256 hashing function, which has been around since 2001.

When you hash a bitcoin block, you also track the hash of the previous block—which “chains” a block to the one before it, and so on down the line to the first bitcoin block ever created—and a random number called a nonce. The idea is to produce a hash that is lower than the numeric value of the network target. (This target changes periodically to adjust the mining difficulty, thereby assuring only one block gets created every 10 minutes.)

When you mine bitcoin, you repeatedly hash the block while incrementing the nonce. Each time you change the nonce, you also change the value of the resultant hash. The number of hashes that a miner makes per second is called the hash rate; the higher your hash rate, the better your chance of solving the puzzle. A single bitcoin mining rig can make up to 14 trillion guesses per second.

If you discover a hash value that is small enough before anyone else does, you win! Your block is then transmitted to the rest of the network, and the other nodes begin work on the next block using the hash of the accepted block. 

Powerful computers

As bitcoin went up in value over the years, miners found faster and faster ways to win the bitcoin lottery. When bitcoin was first introduced in 2009, you could mine bitcoin with the CPU on your own personal computer.

Those days are a distant memory. As bitcoin mining became more profitable, miners switched to graphic processing units (GPUs). And in 2011, they migrated to field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). But starting in 2013, the field was taken over by application-specific integrated circuit equipment (ASIC) rigs—which is the only way to make a profit mining bitcoin these days. 

Over the past decade, bitcoin miners have set up thousands of warehouses of computer hardware dedicated to performing trial-and-error computations in a race against each other to win the block reward.

The result is a massively inefficient coal-powered monster that consumes the same amount of energy as a country (Argentina) with 45 million people, all in the name of “number go up,”

*This is an approximation. The next bitcoin halvening event could happen before or after this date.

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News: BTC moons, Reggie Fowler stiffs lawyers, OKEx withdrawals still frozen, Binance gets piles of USDT

Bitcoin broke $16,000 on Thursday. That’s up from $10,000 in early September. And yet, with all the media outlets rabidly covering the latest “Bitcoin bull run,” the only one mentioning the billions and billions of dollars worth of tether (USDT) entering the market was Cointelegraph

In particular, none of the mainstream press has bothered to mention tether in their writings about BTC’s recent price rise. This is worrisome because retail folks — the ones most vulnerable to risky investments — have little understanding of tether and the risk it imposes on Bitcoin’s price. 

Instead, most media pointed to the election, PayPal’s recent embrace of crypto and huge BTC investments by MicroStrategy and Square as the reasons for BTC’s moon. Mainstream adoption! Institutional money! The truth is, crypto markets are easy to manipulate. And when BTC goes up in value like this, the main benefit is so early investors can cash out. 

In other words, BTC gets passed on to the next bright-eyed, bushy-tailed dupe who hopes the price will continue skyward. History has shown, however, these bubbles are generally followed by a crash, and a lot of people getting hurt, which is exactly what happened in 2018.

Trolly McTrollface (not his real name, obvs) points out in a tweet thread that Tether went into hyperdrive in March to stop BTC from crashing. BTC had dropped to $5,000, losing half its value from two months prior. In fact, March is when BTC entered its current bull run phase.

Remember, if the price of BTC falls too low, the network’s miners — who are responsible for Bitcoin’s security — can’t make a profit, and that puts the entire network in danger.

Trolly believes the current price pump is a coordinated effort between Tether — which has now issued a jaw-dropping $18 billion worth of dollar-pegged tethers — and the exchanges.

Let’s talk about some of those exchanges.

OKEx withdrawals still frozen

Withdrawals from OKEx, one of the biggest crypto exchanges, have been frozen ever since the news came out that founder “Star” Xu was hauled away for questioning by Shanghai authorities more than a month ago.

Xu’s interrogation appears to be part of a broader crackdown on money laundering in China, though OKEx denies any AML violations. 

OKEx is registered in Malta, but retains offices in Shanghai and Beijing, where it facilitates peer-to-peer—or “over-the-counter”—trades. The exchange acts as an escrow to reduce counter-party risk in fiat-to-crypto trades, so you don’t have to worry about someone disappearing with your cash before they hand over the BTC you just bought from them.

As Wolfie Zhao explains for the Block, these OTC trades are the only fiat on/off ramp for Chinese crypto traders—and have been ever since September 2017 when the country banned crypto trading on exchanges.

Effectively, the government made it so the exchanges could no longer get access to banking in the country.

P2P allows two people to transact directly, thus bypassing the Chinese ban, as long as the trades are small in scale. All Chinese crypto-to-fiat is OTC, while crypto-to-crypto trades are still done via a matching order book. (A Chinese citizen simply needs to use a VPN to access Binance, for instance.)

Currently, the OTC desk is the only trading desk that remains open at OKEx All of its exchange trading activity has been ground to a halt. The exchange claims Xu has access to the private keys needed to access its funds, and until he is free, all that crypto sits locked in a virtual vault.

As a result, according to blockchain analytics firm Glassnode, there are currently 200,000 bitcoin stuck on OKEx. The exchange insists all funds are safe, and says, essentially, that everything will be fine as soon as Xu returns. But its customers remain anxious. Did I mention OKEx is a tether exchange?

Huobi, another exchange in peril?

Like OKEx, Huobi is another exchange that moved its main offices out of China following the country’s 2017 crackdown on crypto exchanges.

Huobi, now based in Singapore, continues to facilitate fiat-to-bitcoin and fiat-to-tether trades in China behind an OTC front. (Dovey Wan does a nice job explaining how this works in her August 2019 story for Coindesk.)

Since earlier this month, rumors have circulated that Robin Zhu, Huobi’s chief operating officer, was also dragged in for questioning by Chinese authorities. Huobi denies the rumors.

Meanwhile, since Nov. 2—the day Zhu was said to have gone missing —$300 million worth of BTC has flowed from Huobi to Binance, according to a report in Coindesk. (I still don’t have a good explanation as to why Huobi is doing this. If anyone can fill in the gaps, please DM me on Twitter.)

What’s up with Binance?

If you follow Whale Alert on Twitter, like I do, it’s hard to ignore the enormous influx of tether going into Binance multiple times a day.

Here’s an example: On Friday, in four separate transactions, Tether sent Binance a total of $101 million worth of tethers. The day prior to that, Tether sent Binance $118 million in tethers, and the exchange also received $90 million worth of tethers from an unknown wallet. And on Wednesday, Tether sent Binance $104 million in tethers.

That’s over $400 million worth of dubiously backed tethers—in three days.

Like Huobi and OKEx, Binance also has roots in China. And it has an OTC desk to facilitate fiat-to-crypto trades. Is it a coincidence that the top tether exchanges originate from China? And that China controls two-thirds of Bitcoin’s hash rate?

Reggie Fowler’s lawyers wanna quit

Reggie Fowler, the Arizona businessman in the midst of the Crypto Capital scandal, is running low on cash. His lawyers have decided they don’t do pro bono work, so now they want to drop him as a client.

Last month, Fowler’s legal team asked the court to change his bond conditions to free up credit. But apparently, that isn’t working. Unfortunately, all this is happening just when there was a possibility of negotiating another plea deal. (Read my blog posts here and here.) 

Quadriga Trustee releases report #7

EY, the trustee handling the bankruptcy for failed Canadian crypto exchange QuadrigaCX, released its 7th Report of the Monitor on Nov. 5.

According to the report, EY has received 17,053 claims totaling somewhere between CA$224 million and CA$290 million—depending on what exchange rate EY ends up using to convert the USD and crypto claims to Canadian dollars for disbursement.

EY has CA$39 million ready to distribute to affected Quadriga users, who submitted claims. But none of that money is going anywhere until the Canadian Revenue Agency finishes its audit of the exchange. (Ready my blog post for more details.)

Gensler goes to Washington

Gary Gensler has been picked to lead President-elect Joe Biden’s financial reform transition team. As Foreign Policy notes, Gensler, who was the head of the CFTC during the Obama years, is an aggressive regulator.

He is also well familiar with the world of crypto. He taught a course on blockchain at MIT Sloan. He suspects Ripple is a noncompliant security, and he told me in an interview for Decrypt that the SAFT construct—a once-popular idea for launching an initial coin offering—will not spare a token from securities laws. (He also thinks 99% of all ICOs are securities.)

Libra Shrugged author David Gerard said in a tweet that Gensler was excellent in the Libra hearing last July. Gensler also “helped clean up the 2008 financial crisis, he knows literally all the possible nonsense,” said Gerard.

Clearly, this is good news for bitcoin.

Nov. 15 — Before I said that OKEx offered the only fiat-to-crypto on/off ramp in China. That is inaccurate. P2P OTC exchanges *in general* are the only fiat on/off ramps for crypto traders in China and have been since Sept. 2017.

Nov. 16 — Previously, this story stated that Quadriga’s trustee has CA$30 million available to distribute to claimants. It’s been updated to correctly reflect that EY has CA$39 million (US$30 million) to distribute.