Understanding Tether and Its Issues
In this post I will go in-depth on:
- How Tether got to be what it is today
- Why Tether’s market cap is a lot more than 0.5% of the total market cap for crypto you see on CoinMarketCap
- Tether printing timing
- Tether reserves
- What could happen to the market if Tether is found to not be backed by reserves
Tether is incredibly important to the cryptocurrency market ecosystem and I’ve noticed far too few people understand what is going on.
Very little actual discussion of the 2nd biggest crypto by volume happens here and whenever someone starts a discussion they most often got slapped for “FUD”. Tether themselves recently hired the major New York based PR firm 5W to spread positive information online and take down critics, I’m sure some of their operatives are probably on Reddit.
But its absolutely critical you understand the risks behind Tether and especially now with the explosion in reserve liability, breakdown in relationship with banks and their auditor and recently announced subpoena.
What exactly is Tether and what happened so far?
Tether is a cryptocurrency asset issued by Tether Limited (incorporated in the British Virgin Islands and a sister company of Bitfinex), on top of the Bitcoin blockchain through the Omni Protocol Layer. It is meant to give people a “stablecoin”, for example a merchant who accepts bitcoin but fears its volatility could shift bitcoin into tether, which can be easier to do than exchanging bitcoin for dollars. Recently they’ve also added an Ethereum-based ERC20 token. Tether Ltd claims that each one of the tokens issued is backed by actual US dollar (and more recently Euro) reserves. The idea is that when a business partner deposits US dollars in Tether’s bank account, Tether creates a matching amount of tokens and transfers them to that partner, it is NOT a fractional reserve system.
Tether makes the two following key promises in its whitepaper on which the entire premise is build:
Each tether issued will be backed by the equivalent amount of currency unit (one USDTether equals one dollar).
Professional auditors will regularly verify, sign, and publish our underlying bank balance and financial transfer statement.
Tether is centralized and dependent on your trust of Bitfinex/Tether Limited, and that the people behind it are honest people. For the new entrants to this market it will be greatly beneficial understand the timeline of Tether and their connection to Bitfinex.
A brief timeline:
- Bitfinex operators Phil Potter and CFO Giancarlo Devasini set up Tether Limited in the British Virgin Islands, but told the public that Bitfinex and Tether are completely separate. Throughout 2015 and 2016, the amount of Tether stays relatively flat.
- In August 2nd, 2016, the second-largest digital currency exchange heist in history happened, when Bitfinex lost nearly 120,000 bitcoin. Bitfinex never revealed full details of the hack, but BitGo (the security company that had to sign off on the transactions) claims its servers were not breached.
- Just 4 days after the hack Bitfinex “socializes” its losses from the theft by announcing a 36 percent haircut for almost all of its customers. In return, customers receive BFX tokens, initially valued at $1 each.
- Two weeks after the hack Bitfinex announces it has hired Ledger Labs, to investigate the theft and perform a financial audit of its cryptocurrency and fiat assets. The public nevers sees the results of the investigation, and months later, Bitfinex admits it never actually hired Ledger Labs to perform an audit to begin with.
- In May 2017, after long standing calls for an actual audit, Bitfinex hires Friedman LLP to “complete a comprehensive balance sheet audit.”
- November 7, 2017: Leaked documents dubbed “Paradise Papers” reveal Bitfinex and Tether are run by the same individuals.
- November 19, 2017: Tether is hacked, with 31 million USDT suddenly disappearing. Tether Limited reacts to this by creating a hard fork.
- December 4, 2017: Right after hiring the PR firm 5W to help improve their image, Bitfinex hires law firm Steptoe & Johnson and threatens legal action against critics.
- December 6, 2017 – CFTC issues a subpoena to Tether and Bitfinex. This news isn’t made public until the end of January.
- December 21, 2017 : Without making any formal announcement, Bitfinex appears to suddenly close all new account registrations. Those trying to register for a new account are asked for a mysterious referral code, but no referral code seems to exist.
- After a month of being closed to new registrations, Bitfinex announces it is reopening its doors, but now requires new customers to deposit $10,000 before they can begin trading.
- Friedman LLP completely cut ties with Tether on January 27, 2017.
Most common misconception: Tether is only a small part of the total market cap
One of the most common misconception people have about cryptocurrencies is that the “market cap” amount they see on CoinMarketCap.com is actually the amount of money that is invested in each coin.
I often hear people online dismiss any issue with tether by simply claiming its not big enough to cause any effect, saying “Well Tether is only $2.2 billion on CoinMarketCap and the market is 400 billion, its only 0.5% of the market”.
But this misunderstands what market capitalization for cryptocurrency is, and just how different the market cap for Tether is to every other token. The market cap is simply the last trade price times the circulating supply. It doesn’t take into account the order book depth at all. The majority of Bitcoin (and most coins) are held by those who either mined or purchased for a very low price early on and simply held on as very small portions of the total supply was rapidly bid up to their current price.
An increase in market cap of X does NOT represent an inflow of X dollars invested, not even close. A 400 billion dollar market cap for crypto does NOT mean that there is 400 billion dollars underwriting the assets. Meanwhile a 2 billion dollar Tether market cap means there should be exactly $2 billion backing up the asset.
Nobody can tell for sure exactly how much money has been invested in cryptocurrency market, but analysts from JPMorgan found that there was only net inflow of $6 billion fiat that resulted in $300 billion market cap at the time. This gives us a roughly 50:1 ratio of market cap to fiat inflow. Prominent crypto evangelist Julian Hosp gives the following estimate: “For a cryptocurrency to have a market cap of $1 billion, maybe only $50 million actually moved into the cryptocurrency.”
For Tether however the market cap is simply the outstanding supply, 2.2 billion USDT is actually equal to 2.2 billion USD. In order to get $50 USDT you have to deposit $50 real U.S. dollars and then 50 completely new tokens will be issued, which never existed before on the market.
What is also often ignored is that Bitfinex allows margin trading, at a 3.3x leverage. Bitfinexed did an excellent analysis on how tether is entering Bitfinex to fund margin positions
There are $2.2 billion in Tether outstanding and the current market cap of the entire market is $400 billion according to CoinMarketCap. You can actually calculate Tether as a % of total fiat invested in the market according to the JP Morgan estimate, the following table outlines for a scenario of no margin lending and 15/25% of tether being on a 3.3x leverage margin account:
|Fiat Inflow/Market Cap Ratio||Tether as % of total market (no margin)||Tether as % of total market (15% on margin)||Tether as % of total market (25% on margin)|
|JP Morgan estimate (50:1)||27.5 %||36.9 %||43.3 %|
Even without any margin lending Tether is underwriting the worth of about 27.5% of the cryptocurrency market, and if we assume only 25% was leveraged out at 3.3x on margin we have a whole 43% of the market cap being driven by Tether inflow.
A much better indicator on CoinMarketCap of just how influential Tether is actually the volume, it’s currently the 2nd biggest cryptocurrency by volume and there are even days where its volume exceeds its market cap.
What this all means is that not only is the market cap for cryptocurrencies drastically overestimating the amount of actual fiat capital that is underwriting those assets, but a substantial portion of the entire market cap is being derived from the value of Tether’s market cap rather than real money.
Its incredibly important that more new investors realize that Tether isn’t a side issue or a minor cog in the machine, but one of the core underlying mechanisms on which the entire market worth is built. Ensuring that whoever controls this stablecoin is honest and transparent is absolutely critical to the health of the market.
Two main concerns with Tether
The primary concerns with Tether can be split into two categories:
- Tether issuance timing – Does Tether Ltd issue USDT organically or is it timed to stop downward selling pressure?
- Reserves – Does Tether Ltd actually have the fiat reserves at a 1:1 ratio, and why is there still no audit or third party guarantee of this?
Does Tether print USDT to prop up Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies?
In the last 3 months the amount of USDT has nearly quadrupled, with nearly a billion being printed in January alone. Some people have found the timing of the most recent batch of Tether as highly suspect because it seemed to coincide with Bitcoin’s price being propped up.
This was recently analyzed statistically:
Author’s opinion – it is highly unlikely that Tether is growing through any organic business process, rather that they are printing in response to market conditions.
Tether printing moves the market appreciably; 48.8% of BTC’s price rise in the period studied occurred in the two-hour periods following the arrival of 91 different Tether grants to the Bitfinex wallet.
Bitfinex withdrawal/deposit statistics are unusual and would give rise to further scrutiny in a typical accounting environment.
I’m still undecided on this and I would love to see more statistical analysis done, because the price of Bitcoin is so volatile while Tether printing only happens in large batches. Simply looking at the Bitcoin price graph over the last 3 months and then the Tether printing its pretty clear there is a relationship but it doesn’t seem to hold over longer periods.
Ultimately to me this timing isn’t that much of an issue, as long Tether is backed by US dollars. If Bitfinex was timing the prints then it accounts to not much more than an organized pumping scheme, which isn’t a fundamental problem. The much more serious concern is whether those buy order are being conducted on the faith of fictitious dollars that don’t exist, regardless of when those buy orders occur.
Didn’t Tether release an audit in September?
Some online posters have recently tried to spread the notion that Tether has actually been audited by Friedman LLP and that a report was released in September 2017. That was actually just a consulting engagement, which you can read here:
They clearly state that:
This engagement does not contemplate tests of accounting records or the performance of other procedures performed in an audit or attest engagement. Our procedures performed are not for the purpose of providing assurance…In addition, our services do not include determination of compliance with laws and regulations in any jurisdiction.
They state right from the beginning that this is a consultancy job (not an audit), and that its not meant to be assurance to third parties. Doing a consultancy job is just doing a task asked by your customer. In a consultancy job you take information as true from the client, and you have no mandate to verify whether your customer’s claims are true or not. The way they checked is simply asking Tether to provide them the information:
All inquiries made through the consulting process have been directed towards, and the data obtained from, the Client and personnel responsible for maintaining such information.
Tether provided a screenshots of twp bank balances. One of these is in the name of Tether Limited, and while the other is a personal account of an individual who Tether Limited claims has a trust agreement with them:
As of September 15, 2017, the bank held $60,919,810 in an account in the name of an in individual for the benefit of Tether Limited. FLPP obtained an engagement letter for an interim settlement plan between that individual and Tether Limited and that according to Tether Limited, is the relevant agreement with the trustee. FLLP did not evaluate the substance of the letter and makes no representation about its legality.
Even worse is that later on in Note 1, they clearly claim that there is no actual evidence that this engagement letter or trust has any legal merit:
Note 1: FLLP makes no representations about sufficiency or enforceability of any trust agreement between the trustee and the Client
Essentially what this is saying is that the trust agreement may not even be worth the paper it’s printed on.
And most importantly… Note 2:
“FLLP did not evaluate the terms of the above bank accounts and makes no representations about the clients ability to access funds from the accounts or whether the funds are committed for purposes other than Tether token redemptions”
Basically Tether gave them a name of an individual with $60 million in their account according to a screenshot, Tether then gave them a letter saying that there is a trust agreement between this individual and Tether Limited. They also have account with $382 million but no guarantee that this account holds to any lien or other commitments, or that it can be accessed.
Currently Tether has 2.2 billion USDT outstanding and we have absolutely no idea whether this is actually backed by anything, and the long promised audit is still outstanding.
What happens if its revealed that Tether doesn’t have its US dollar reserves?
According to Thomas Glucksmann, head of business development at Gatecoin: “If a tether debacle unfolds, it will likely cause quite a devastating ripple effect across many of the exchanges that see most of their volumes traded against the supposedly USD-backed cryptocurrency.”
According to Nicholas Weaver, a senior researcher at the International Computer Science Institute at Berkeley: “You could see a spike in prices in tether-only bitcoin exchanges. So, on those exchanges only you will see a run up in price compared to the bitcoin exchanges that actually work with actually money. So you would see a huge price diverge as people see that only way they can turn tether into real money is to buy other cryptocurrency then move to another exchange. That is a bank run.”
I definitely see the crypto equivalent of a bank run, as people actually try to secure their gains an realize that this money doesn’t actually exist within the system:
If traders lose confidence in it and its value starts to drop, “people will run for the door,” says Carlson, the former Wall Street trader. If Tether can’t meet all its customers’ demand for dollars (and its Terms of Service suggest that in many cases it won’t even try), tether holders will try to snap up other cryptocurrencies instead, temporarily causing prices for those currencies to soar. With tether’s role as an inter-exchange facilitator compromised, investors might lose faith in cryptocurrencies more generally. “At the end of the day, people would be losing substantial sums, and in the long term this would be very bad for cryptocurrencies,” says Emin Gun Sirer, a Cornell professor and co-director of its Initiative for Cryptocurrencies and Smart Contracts.
Another concern is that Bitfinex might simply shut down, pocketing the bitcoins it has allegedly been stockpiling. Because people who trade on Bitfinex allow the exchange to hold their money while they speculate, these traders could face substantial losses. “The exchanges are like unregulated banks and could run off with everyone’s money,” says Tony Arcieri, a former Square employee turned entrepreneur trying to build a legally regulated exchange.
The way I see it, this would be how it plays out if Tether collapses:
- Tether-enabled exchanges will see a massive spike in Bitcoin and cryptocurrency prices as everyone leaves Tether. Noobs in these exchanges will think they are now millionaires until they realize they are rich in tethers but poor in dollars.
- Exchanges that have not integrated Tether will experienced large drops in Bitcoin and alts as experienced investors flee crypto into USD.
- There will be a flight of Bitcoin from Tether-integrated exchanges to non-Tether exchanges with fiat off-ramps. Exchanges running small fractional reserves will be exposed, further increasing calls for greater reserves requirements.
- The exchanges might slam the doors shut on withdrawals.
- Many exchanges that own large balances of Tether, especially Bitfinex, will likely become insolvent.
- There will be lawsuits flying everywhere and with Tether Limited being incorporated on a Carribean Island whose solvency and bankruptcy laws will likely ensure they don’t ever get much back. This could take years and potentially push away new investors from entering the space.
We can’t be 100% completely sure that Tether is a scam, but its so laiden with red flags that at this point I would call it the biggest systematic risk in the crypto space. Its bigger than any nation’s potential regulatory steps because it cuts right into the issue of trust across the entire ecosystem.
Ultimately Tether is centralizing one of the very core mechanics of the cryptocurrency markets and asking you to trust one party to be the safekeeper, and I really see very little reason to trust Bitfinex given their history of lying and screwing over their own customers. I think that Tether initially started as a legit business to facilitate the ease of moving money and avoiding regulations, but somewhere along the lines greed and/or incompetence took over (something that seems common with Bitfinex’s previous actions). Right now we’re playing proverbial hot potato, and as long as people believe that Tether is worth a dollar everything is fine, but as some point the Emperor will have to step out from hiding and somebody will point out they have no clothes.
In the long term I really hope once Tether collapses we can move on and get the following two implemented which would greatly improve the market for all investors:
- Actual USD fiat pairings on the major exchanges for the major currencies
- Regulatory rules on exchange reserve requirements
I had watched the Bitconnect people insist for the last 2 years that everything about Bitconnect made perfect sense because they were getting paid daily. The scam works until one day it suddenly doesn’t.
Tether could still come clean and avoid all of this “FUD” by simply getting a simple review of their banking, they don’t even need a full audit. If everything was legit with Tether, it would be incredibly easy to have a segregated bank account with the funds used solely to back up Tether, then have an third party accounting firm simply review the account and a bank reconciliation statement then spend a few hours in contact with the bank to ensure no outstanding liabilities are held on that balance. This is extremely basic stuff, it would take a few hours to set up and wouldn’t take a lot of man-hours for a qualified account to do, and yet they don’t do it. Why? Why hire a major PR firm and spend god knows how much money to pay professional PR representatives to attack “FUD” online instead?
I think I know why.