Why bitcoin’s most basic principle has become crypto’s biggest problem
On November 9, Genesis stated that it had “no material exposure” to FTX or its plummeting FTT token, and estimated that the fallout from the FTX collapse could cost it about $US7 million ($10.4 million). The following day Genesis remembered that it had $US175 million locked in FTX, which most people would consider at least a little bit material, but that it would “not impact our market-making activities”.
By the middle of the following week, however, Genesis had suspended withdrawals from its lending arm, and the next day the Wall Street Journal reported that Genesis was seeking a $US1 billion capital injection to help it negotiate a “liquidity crunch”. In a statement, Genesis said it had “no plans to file bankruptcy imminently”.
For readers to whom a “liquidity crunch” is the result of attempting to eat a Cadbury’s Creme Egg in a single bite (is there another way?), this means Genesis has the money, but it’s in the form of something else that could take a little while to sell. Regrettably, the same phrase was used to describe FTX’s predicament in the days before it became evident that the illiquid assets on its balance sheet consisted largely of FTT and Solana – tokens that Bankman-Fried and his friends had, to be blunt, made up, and which were not the store of value that some people had previously believed them to be.
There is no suggestion that Genesis has done anything untoward, but Genesis, too, has a lot of friends. Its central position as a lender gives it exposure to the wider untowardness of the cryptocurrency market: its two largest borrowers are, a source told Reuters, Bankman-Fried’s bankrupt hedge fund Alameda Research and Three Arrows Capital (also a hedge fund, also now in bankruptcy proceedings). This also means that problems for Genesis are problems for other financial institutions that rely on it as a lender.
In fact, Genesis doesn’t just have friends but siblings: Grayscale Investments, also owned by Digital Currency Group, is the single largest active holder of bitcoin through the original and biggest bitcoin investment fund, the Grayscale Bitcoin Trust. This is also looking a bit peaky at present, with its shares trading at a more than 40 per cent discount on the market value of the underlying assets.
Genesis, Grayscale and others are now imperilled by the very problem bitcoin was designed to solve: trust.
Crypto evangelists have spent a decade cornering people at parties (I’m never invited to these things but I hear reports) and explaining that in their world, the messy business of trusting fallible humans is swept aside by the immutable, unhackable blockchain. But this immutable, unhackablah blahchain is also astonishingly wasteful – a single bitcoin transaction can use as much energy as 1.8 million credit card transactions – and in the early days that made it costly and inefficient to trade. To create a liquid market they had to bring in all the other things that make modern financial markets fast and efficient: market makers, trading firms, lenders, exchanges and, of course, people.
Trust in people and institutions had not gone away: it had simply been moved from trust in established banks and regulators to trust in new companies like FTX and people like Bankman-Fried.
The reason a lot of people are hurriedly withdrawing their money (or trying to) from crypto exchanges, and testing the liquidity of that market, is that they have realised there may be more Sam Bankman-Frieds in a system which does, let’s face it, look rather like it was designed by and for exactly that sort of person.
It shouldn’t be difficult for crypto markets to overcome this lack of trust. Every exchange, currency provider and asset manager could publish a detailed, independent audit of its assets by a well-known auditor. But few are prepared to do so.
It should be easy for Grayscale to demonstrate to investors exactly what and where its assets are (they are, after all, registered on the famously immutable and unhackable blockchain) but on Monday Grayscale refused to do so, citing “security concerns” (the company has since published a letter from the crypto exchange Coinbase stating that it holds Grayscale’s digital assets, but it did not share any of the “addresses” used to identify these assets).
The largest “stablecoin” – a cryptocurrency backed one-to-one by real dollars, to facilitate trading – is tether, which has similarly never released a full, detailed audit of its $US65 billion reserves. The largest crypto exchange, Binance, won’t even say where its headquarters are.
The cryptocurrency market is clearly aware of this problem, and companies are belatedly adding “proof of reserves” to their websites in an attempt to reassure investors that they are solvent, but the simple faith in crypto technology has been eroded. The crypto community is waking up to the fact that you can be a friend or a creditor, but you can’t be both.
Will Dunn is business editor of the New Statesman