I've been warning about the dangers of cryptocurrency for some time now, and our Sunday Long Read this weekend makes it clear just how dangerous of a multi-billion dollar time bomb it is. Bloomberg's Zeke Faux goes looking for the billions supposedly backing cryptocurrency Tether, which is supposed to be backed by nearly $70 billion in US currency to secure its value.
The problem is nobody seems to know if this is true or not, and Tether's gotten so big as it has been traded around the world, that the best-case scenario is that there's a massively unregulated offshore hedge fund that's almost certainly being used for billions in criminal money laundering, and worst-case scenario is it's all a Ponzi scheme that burns a nuclear meltdown through the international currency markets and drops us into a global depression overnight.
In July, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen summoned the chair of the Federal Reserve, the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and six other top officials for a meeting to discuss Tether. The absurdity of the situation couldn’t have been lost on them: Inflation was spiking, a Covid surge threatened the economic recovery, and Yellen wanted to talk about a digital currency dreamed up by the former child actor who’d missed a penalty shot in The Mighty Ducks. But Tether had gotten so large that it threatened to put the U.S. financial system at risk. It was as if a playground snowball fight had escalated so wildly that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were being called in to avert a nuclear war.
Tether is what’s come to be known in financial circles as a stablecoin—stable because one Tether is supposed to be backed by one dollar. But it’s actually more like a bank. The company that issues the currency, Tether Holdings Ltd., takes in dollars from people who want to trade crypto and credits their digital wallets with an equal amount of Tethers in return. Once they have Tethers, people can send them to cryptocurrency exchanges and use them to bet on the price of Bitcoin, Ether, or any of the thousands of other coins. And at least in theory, Tether Holdings holds on to the dollars so it can return them to anyone who wants to send in their tokens and get their money back. The convoluted mechanism became popular because real banks didn’t want to do business with crypto companies, especially foreign ones.
Exactly how Tether is backed, or if it’s truly backed at all, has always been a mystery. For years a persistent group of critics has argued that, despite the company’s assurances, Tether Holdings doesn’t have enough assets to maintain the 1-to-1 exchange rate, meaning its coin is essentially a fraud. But in the crypto world, where joke coins with pictures of dogs can be worth billions of dollars and scammers periodically make fortunes with preposterous-sounding schemes, Tether seemed like just another curiosity.
Then, this year, Tether Holdings started putting out a huge amount of digital coins. There are now 69 billion Tethers in circulation, 48 billion of them issued this year. That means the company supposedly holds a corresponding $69 billion in real money to back the coins—an amount that would make it one of the 50 largest banks in the U.S., if it were a U.S. bank and not an unregulated offshore company.
On Twitter, on business TV, and on hedge fund and investment bank trading floors, everyone started asking why Tether was minting so many coins and whether it really had the money it claimed to have. An anonymous anti-Tether blog post titled “The Bit Short: Inside Crypto’s Doomsday Machine” went viral, and CNBC host Jim Cramer told viewers to sell their crypto. “If Tether collapsed, well then, it’s going to gut the whole crypto ecosystem,” he warned.
As far as the regulators are concerned, the size of Tether’s supposed dollar holdings is so big that it would be dangerous even assuming the dollars are real. If enough traders asked for their dollars back at once, the company could have to liquidate its assets at a loss, setting off a run on the not-bank. The losses could cascade into the regulated financial system by crashing credit markets. If the trolls are right, and Tether is a Ponzi scheme, it would be larger than Bernie Madoff’s.
So earlier this year I set out to solve the mystery. The money trail led from Taiwan to Puerto Rico, the French Riviera, mainland China, and the Bahamas. One of Tether’s former bankers told me that its top executive had been putting its reserves at risk by investing them to earn potentially hundreds of millions of dollars of profit for himself. “It’s not a stablecoin, it’s a high-risk offshore hedge fund,” said John Betts, who ran a bank in Puerto Rico Tether used. “Even their own banking partners don’t know the extent of their holdings, or if they exist.”
One of the reasons I started ZVTS was to expose and explain the Big Casino games going on at the heart of the housing crisis and the 2008 financial meltdown. Everything in my bones tells me that crypto is going to be the next big meltdown point, and the global economy may not actually recover this time. And remember, this was all happening back in October. It's been another three months since this Bloomberg article, and we still don't know.
It's that damn scary.