Bankman-Fried Warns: Some Crypto Exchanges Already “Secretly Insolvent”

fter throwing lifelines to troubled digital currency platforms BlockFi and Voyager Digital, Sam Bankman-Fried, the 30-year-old billionaire founder of FTX, warns that some crypto exchanges will soon fail. The question on everybody’s mind in the crypto world is whether we’ve reached the market bottom. Nearly $2 trillion in crypto market value has evaporated since November.

Two bellwether digital assets Luna, a $40 billion crypto asset associated with TerraUSD, a $16 billion stablecoin designed to maintain parity with the U.S. dollar, have collapsed. Earlier this month bitcoin traded for below $20,000, its lowest level since December 2020. But the fallout is far from complete. Earlier this month, Singapore-based Three Arrows Capital (3AC), a highly levered crypto trading firm with $200 million of exposure to Luna revealed that it was nearly insolvent.

Three Arrows’ had borrowed large sums from numerous crypto firms including New Jersey’s Voyager Digital and New York-based BlockFi. In order to survive Three Arrows default, the two digital asset exchanges turned to billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, founder of FTX and the richest person in crypto, worth some $20.5 billion. Between FTX and his quantitative trading firm Alameda, he provided the companies with $750 million in credit lines.

There is no guarantee that Bankman-Fried will recoup his investment. “You know, we’re willing to do a somewhat bad deal here, if that’s what it takes to sort of stabilize things and protect customers,” he says. We’re willing to do a somewhat bad deal here, if that’s what it takes to sort of stabilize things.”

Bankman-Fried’s cash infusions are far from altruistic. He has emerged as a smart vulture capitalist in the beleaguered crypto market, knowing full well that his own fortune depends on its healthy rebound and growth. Bankman-Fried has also bought into crypto brokerage Robinhood, where FTX has already accumulated a 7.6% stake, and is rumored to be considering an acquisition.

Bankman-Fried denies any active merger talks with Robinhood but tells Forbes that more crypto exchange failures are coming. “There are some third-tier exchanges that are already secretly insolvent,” says Bankman-Fried. Fried’s FTX, along with Coinbase, Kraken and Binance, are giants among digital asset exchanges. They have millions of customer accounts and functionally they operate similarly to online stock brokerages. But outside of these whales, there are more than 600 crypto exchanges around the world operating in a largely unregulated frontier.

Never heard of AAX, Billance and Hotbit? You aren’t alone, but like Coinbase they trade bitcoin, ether and dogecoin and offer generous margin loans–as much 20 times their initial capital— to their clients. Lacking any meaningful regulatory oversight many crypto exchanges have been vulnerable to scammers and hacks.

Japanese exchange Coincheck was hacked for $530 million in crypto in 2018, Singaporean exchange KuCoin lost $275 million in 2020, and then in December 2021 Cayman Island-based Bitmart was breached for $200 million. Back in 2016, Bitifinex was hacked to the tune of nearly 120,000 bitcoin worth $2.5 billion now.

But, despite the generous bailouts, not even Bankman-Fried is able, or willing, to throw good money after bad in perpetuity. “There are companies that are basically too far gone and it’s not practical to backstop them for reasons like a substantial hole in the balance sheet, regulatory issues, or that there is not much of a business left to be saved,” says Bankman-Fried, who declined to name any specific crypto exchanges.

As Forbes reported in its analysis of the world’s best 60 crypto exchanges, the digital asset exchange business generally lacks standards to certify a new entity before or after they start soliciting client funds. The SEC doesn’t regulate the exchanges and the Commodities Futures and Trading Commission has oversight of only a handful of crypto derivatives markets. In the United States there is no member organization like FINRA to self- regulate crypto exchanges.

Bankman-Fried is worried about continued failures because during the euphoria of rising crypto prices, exchanges kept upping the ante to attract customers with generous yields for deposits. BlockFi or Voyager were promising yield payments to customers, upwards of 12% per year that had to be paid for either by charging at least that much more interest to borrowers or more likely, by putting that money to work in decentralized finance DeFi applications.

That worked fine when crypto was going nowhere but up. It looks disastrous now. “There are companies that are basically too far gone and it’s not practical to backstop them.”

Like J.P. Morgan during the stock market panic and crash of 1907, Bankman-Fried is taking advantage of the crypto chaos to expand his empire. He recently closed the acquisition of Liquid, a troubled Japanese exchange. BlockFi and Voyager Digital are in his grip and despite his denials, Robinhood may be next. According to sources familiar with his loans to Voyager, Alameda is likely to lose at least $70 million of the credit it has already extended. In 2021, publicly-traded Voyager’s Digital had a market value of more than $3 billion.

Today it shares trade for pennies and its market cap of $62 million points to an imminent bankruptcy filing. Despite the carnage, Bankman-Fried tells Forbes that FTX remains profitable and has been for the past 10 quarters. FTX’s biggest rival Coinbase lost $432 million in the first quarter of 2022 and its stock is down almost 90% from its all-time high.

Bankman-Fried also has his eye on crypto miners, many of whom leveraged their balance sheet at breakneck pace to quickly scale and take advantage of this 21st century digital gold rush. The stocks of publicly-trading crypto miners including Marathon Digital Holdings and Riot Blockchain are down more than 60% year to date.

One bellwether crypto asset Bankman-Fried is not worried about is Tether, world’s largest dollar-pegged stablecoin with a market cap exceeding $70 billion. Many industry watchers have deemed it a ticking time bomb with questionable collateral whose failure would almost certainly be an existential threat to the entire cryptocurrency market. Tested during the Luna collapse Tether briefly lost its $1 peg and fell to a price 95 cents. However, it successfully processed over $10 billion worth of withdrawals and has since recovered.

Says Bankman-Fried, “I think that the really bearish views on Tether are wrong…I don’t think there is any evidence to support them.”

Steven Ehrlich

I am director of research for digital assets at Forbes. I was recently at Kraken, a cryptocurrency exchange based in the United States.

Source: Bankman-Fried Warns: Some Crypto Exchanges Already “Secretly Insolvent”

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07:42

Bitcoin Brice Trades Around $21,000 As Crypto Firms Announce Layoffs

Cryptocurrencies have been sinking along with other higher-risk assets as the Federal Reserve steadily reverses the aggressive monetary policies it adopted earlier in the coronavirus pandemic. Lately, its efforts to raise interest rates to combat surging inflation have further dented investors‘ risk appetite. The market value of the entire crypto sector has fallen to less than $1 trillion from about $3 trillion in November, according to CoinMarketCap. Those falls reflect a significant drop in trading activity and momentum, and until that turns around, industry players like Coinbase are likely to remain under pressure, said KBW Managing Director Kyle Voigt.

Coinbase Chief Executive Brian Armstrong said the company had grown too quickly, expanding from about 1,250 employees at the start of last year to around 5,000 currently. “We saw the opportunities but we needed to massively scale our team to be positioned to compete in a broad array of bets,” he wrote in a note to staff. “While we tried our best to get this just right, in this case it is now clear to me that we over-hired.”

Ticker Security Last Change Change %
COIN COINBASE GLOBAL INC. 51.58 -0.43 -0.83%

The price of ether, the in-house currency of the Ethereum network, fell 4.5% to $1,187.30, its lowest close since Jan. 21, 2021. Over the weekend, the price fell below $1,360, the early 2019 high from the previous cycle. Other cryptocurrencies were mixed. Cardano fell 1.9%, but Solana was up 1.3% and Stellar was up 0.5%.

Source: Bitcoin price trades around $21,000 as crypto firms announce layoffs | Fox Business

BlockFi, a platform for trading and lending cryptocurrency, announced via a blog post on Monday that it’s laying off 20 percent of its 850 employees — around 170 to 200 people. CEO Zac Prince said in a Twitter thread that the layoffs can be traced to a “dramatic shift in macroeconomic conditions” and BlockFi’s push to become profitable.

It’s not the only crypto company letting workers go. On Friday, Crypto.com (the company with the Super Bowl ad featuring LeBron James) announced that it’s laying off around 260 workers, or around 5 percent of its workforce, according to a Twitter thread from its CEO, Kris Marszalek.

The layoffs come as the crypto market is struggling as a whole. The value of Bitcoin and Ethereum have been falling throughout Monday morning, and Celsius, a lending platform, has halted withdrawals, citing “extreme market conditions.” (BlockFi has specifically said that it has “no exposure to Celsius” on Twitter.) Binance, a large crypto exchange, paused Bitcoin withdrawals for about three hours, citing a technical issue, and within the past few months, we’ve seen coins like Terra essentially go to zero.

Crypto firms have struggled to weather the storm. Coinbase announced that it was slowing hiring in May and reportedly rescinded over 300 job offers the next month; several other companies, like Gemini, Mercado Bitcoin, and Bitso have also had to lay off at least 10 percent of their workers within the past month.

BlockFi says in its post that the layoffs come after a period of explosive growth. The company says it had “about 150 employees” at the end of 2020 and has since grown to a headcount of “over 850.” After the layoffs, however, the company will be down to around 600 employees.

Similarly, Crypto.com was riding high just a few short months ago. In November 2021, it reportedly paid $700 million to plaster its name onto a sports arena in Los Angeles, which was formerly known as the Staples Center. “In the next few years, people will look back at this moment as the moment when crypto crossed the chasm into the mainstream,” Marszalek told the Los Angeles Times when the naming deal, which is supposed to last for 20 years, was announced.

It’s easy to see why crypto companies have been hiring; the space has exploded during the pandemic with prices for major coins rocketing up, NFTs exploding onto the scene, and celebrities and companies alike hyping the blockchain. But, as 2022 has worn on and interest rates have gone up, the growth has started to reverse; trillions of dollars in value have been wiped out from the crypto market, NFT sales have slumped, and companies, including BlockFi, have run into trouble with regulators as governments try to figure out how to handle crypto. Not everyone who bought the boom has made it, and many in the space are predicting a “crypto winter.

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American Express Announces First Crypto Rewards Credit Card On Its Network

American Express will soon debut the first crypto rewards credit card on its network. Announced today at the Consensus cryptocurrency conference in Austin,TX the card, developed in partnership with crypto wealth manager Abra, will transact in U.S. dollars and offer crypto back on any purchase category and amount. The rollout is expected later this year.

According to Abra’s CEO Bill Barhydt, who spoke with Forbes ahead of the announcement, the crypto rewards will be tradable across over 100 different cryptocurrencies supported by Abra with no annual or foreign transaction fees. In addition, the card will offer several benefits from the American Express Network, including offers for shopping, travel, dining and Amex’s purchase protections.

“We’re thrilled to combine the strength of our payments network with Abra’s innovation and expertise in crypto. This is a credit card for crypto explorers and enthusiasts alike,” said Mohammed Badi, President of Global Network Services at American Express.

Though first for American Express, the Abra crypto card is only the latest in a string of products offered by cryptocurrency companies on major payments networks, such as Gemini crypto card, which offers rewards in the form of bitcoin and over 60 other cryptocurrencies, and BlockFi rewards Visa card.

Abra received its first check from American Express back in 2015. Other notable investors include Digital Currency Group, Pantera Capital and the Stellar Development Foundation. Today the self-described “crypto bank” and Forbes’ Next Billion-Dollar Startups 2021 list member has over 2 million customers. The Mountain View, California-based firm says it has processed more than $2 billion in crypto-backed loans to retail and institutional clients.

The new joint initiative “represents another step toward Abra’s goal of eventually offering an instant line of credit directly at the point of sale,” said Barhydt. “This is the future of payments.”

Today the firm has also announced a new feature to buy and sell NFTs with managed custody in the Abra app. Rather than funding DeFi wallets and moving between different app interfaces to buy and sell NFTs from marketplaces like OpenSea, users will be able to buy and sell digital collectibles directly from Abra’s platform, Barhydt explained.

Cardholders can choose from any of the more than 100 cryptocurrencies supported on the Abra platform, with no annual or foreign transaction fees. The card will also come with Amex Offers for shopping, travel, dining and services as well as presale ticket access and purchase protections.

Commenting on the initiative, Mohammed Badi, president of Global Network Services at American Express, said:

“We have a long-standing relationship with Abra through our Amex Ventures investment portfolio, as they have deep expertise in both crypto and traditional financial services, and we are now pleased to extend the American Express brand and benefits to their customers as the payments network for their first card.”

In April, the firm announced the launch of a capital-management arm with five funds with exposure to bitcoin, ether and other cryptocurrencies available to accredited investors willing to invest at least $250,000.

I report on cryptocurrencies and other applications of blockchain technology. I also edit the weekly Forbes Crypto Confidential newsletter and contribute to our premium research service

Source: American Express Announces First Crypto Rewards Credit Card On Its Network

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Crypto Cards Are Giving Bitcoin Purchase Power

Spending your cryptocurrency was once a headache-inducing endeavour. Not only did few merchants accept bitcoin as a medium of exchange, but without access to the now ubiquitous fiat off-ramps, you had to source a buyer willing to exchange fiat for digital. That entailed a degree of risk since peer-to-peer marketplaces that protected users with an escrow system didn’t exist.

What a difference a couple of years makes. These days it’s easy to use bitcoin and ether to buy goods and services online, in the metaverse, and in the meatspace, with payment gateways handling conversion at the point of sale. The spender authorizes the transaction while the processor converts their crypto into fiat in real time, de-risking the transaction for merchants sceptical of accepting volatile virtual currencies. Everyone’s a winner.

Debit Card Meets Digital Value

Of all the infrastructure put in place since the emergence of the digital asset sector, few have done as much to accelerate mainstream adoption as crypto-friendly debit cards. Payment giants Visa and Mastercard have rolled out support for cryptocurrencies on their vast networks, giving users access to their crypto portfolios and the ability to quickly and cheaply convert them into traditional currencies for spending purposes.

This is not a globally acceptable solution as many countries take a hard line stance against cryptocurrencies, with financial laws in place that ban citizens from buying, selling or even holding them. A crypto-fiat card, convenient as it may be, won’t be of much use in Algeria or Bolivia. But in countries where Visa and Mastercard are accepted, your purchase power is assured.

Explaining its shifting attitude towards the digital economy earlier this year, Mastercard wrote that it “isn’t here to recommend you start using cryptocurrencies. But we are here to enable customers, merchants and businesses to move digital value, traditional or crypto, however they want. It should be your choice, it’s your money.”

Mastercard’s growing crypto partner network now includes wallet application Wirex, bitcoin payment service provider BitPay, digital asset manager Bakkt, and FDIC-insured mobile banking application LVL. Last week, the company announced that it was also joining forces with five startups to “solve global blockchain challenges” as part of its Start Path Crypto accelerator program.

As well as LVL, the companies participating in the program include smart-contract builder Ava Labs, AI-centric mobile banking app Envel, peer-to-peer savings platform Kash, and crypto rewards platform NiftyKey. Three more leading cryptocurrency service providers in the Asia Pacific region, Amber, Bitkub and CoinJar, will soon be launching crypto-funded Mastercard payment cards.

Visa has embraced digital assets with an equal fervour, having teamed up with over 60 crypto platforms including Circle, BlockFi, Coinbase, FTX and Anchorage. The firm even launched its own Global Crypto Advisory Practice last year, pitched at financial institutions keen to win or retain customers by expanding their services to include digital currencies, stablecoins, and NFTs.

Much of Visa’s crypto business has been conducted in concert with payments startup Simplex, which specializes in providing users with on and off-ramp capabilities via both credit and debit cards. Simplex was this year acquired by Canadian payments processor Nuvei in a deal worth $250 million, and Nuvei is in turn rolling out branded Visa cards to its partners throughout Europe. There clearly are many different entities responsible for giving crypto more purchase power.

By enabling millions of consumers around the world to spend digital assets with a swipe of the card or smartphone, two non-crypto native firms have struck a surprising blow to the hegemony of traditional financial institutions when it comes to payments. The dominance of traditional players in the payment space has been waning for some time as innovative forms of digital payment have emerged. Square’s Cash App boasts over 40 million monthly active users and digital wallets like Venmo, Revolut, and Wirex have also built large international user bases.

Banks No Longer Payment Kings

Many alternative payment platforms continue to allow users to fund their accounts through connecting their bank accounts. Crypto-friendly debit cards, for example, often display a fiat balance and crypto balance with account-holders able to shift funds accordingly and spend either fiat or crypto at the point of sale. In the future banks could be frozen out altogether. Stablecoins, a digital asset whose value is pegged 1:1 with the US dollar are now being supported on cards. 

Like other cryptocurrencies, stablecoins can be spent like cash anywhere Visa and Mastercard is accepted with cards such as the one offered by crypto platform Voyager Digital, which supports the USDC stablecoin. If many crypto users are only interacting with the legacy fiat system because of its supposed stability, they could turn their banks on fiat entirely by using assets like USDC and USDT as a kind of proxy fiat.

There is another benefit of stabelcoins as cryptoassets like bitcoin often come with a capital gain tax burden, when converted into cash and spent. Stablecoins are better suited to being a medium of exchange.

The debit cards offered by major crypto-native platforms such as Coinbase and Crypto.com, all in partnership with Visa, allow users to spend their trading profits (including those made from selling NFTs) and earn perks such as cashback to inspire loyalty. Crypto.com’s rewards also include free Netflix, Spotify, Amazon Prime and unlimited airport lounge access, with support for around 90 digital assets.

Visa’s various industry partnerships meant that over $1 billion was spent on their crypto-friendly cards in the first half of 2021 alone. While that is a drop in the ocean to a company whose payment volume totalled $8.8 trillion last year, the number is only going up.

“One thing that continues to put people off entering the space is the perceived difficulty of spending cryptocurrencies,” notes Shahaf Bar-Geffen, the CEO of fintech platform COTI, “Banks are slow to adopt which causes issues, so a debit card that’s connected directly to your crypto wallet, and accepted almost anywhere, is probably one of the easiest solutions to a crucial adoption problem.”

Unlike many crypto platforms, COTI is built especially for payments. Its flagship COTI Pay product can process all payment types natively, both online and off, including crypto and stablecoins, credit cards, and even a merchant’s native coin. That said, it too has partnered with Simplex (and by extension, Visa) for its debit cards.

It’s fair to say that crypto-friendly debit cards can offer greater functionality than their fiat equivalents, which for the most part operate solely as payment cards. As well as cashback, they often come with referral bonuses, rebates on different services and even in some cases, lines of credit. The latter feature is offered by wallet maker Ledger’s new Crypto Life card, which allows holders to obtain credit by using cryptocurrency as collateral. While such a thing is common in the burgeoning decentralized finance space, it’s the first time such infrastructure has been available via a card.

The aptly named Crypto Life card will be available to customers in the U.K., France and Germany in the first quarter of 2022, and for US customers in the second quarter, with Ledger Chief Experience Officer Ian Rogers stating that it represents “a step toward replacing traditional bank accounts.”

The gap between traditional finance and crypto is closing, and this can only be a good thing for consumers looking to get more bang for their bitcoin. The crypto debit card landscape is already crowded with competitors, expect the perks to get juicier and the number of supported digital assets to increase in the coming year.

Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

I cover fintech, crypto and digital assets, and sustainable finance and investments, and promote policies for a transparent, secure, and quality digital financial future for everyone.

Source: Crypto Cards Are Giving Bitcoin Purchase Power

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Visa And BlockFi Launch 2% Bitcoin Rewards Credit Card

In this photo illustration a Visa logo is seen on a mobile...

Cryptocurrency services company BlockFi launched its first-ever crypto rewards credit card, in conjunction with Visa, to approved clients in the United States on Tuesday. BlockFi’s plans for a credit card were initially disclosed in December 2020 when the exchange released a waiting list for US-based clients, which is now over 400,000 people. BlockFi CEO Zac Prince expects everyone on the waitlist to receive their card around the end of July.

The new offering provides clients with a simple way to acquire bitcoin without having to pay fees or navigate the sometimes complicated onboarding processes at exchanges. BlockFi stands to benefit from utilizing the card as a customer acquisition tool as well as from the fees it will receive from money spent on the card.

“The crypto industry has come a long way since the first Bitcoin payment transaction 11 years ago,” Flori Marquez, Co-Founder and SVP of Operations at BlockFi said. “Today, nearly everyone knows about the important role crypto plays in reshaping the financial space, and our new credit card is set to be another game-changer. This card will make it easier than ever for people to earn Bitcoin back while making day-to-day purchases.”

Holders of BlockFi’s Rewards Visa Card will be able to earn 1.5% back in bitcoin on every purchase, with the payout increasing to 2% on every dollar spent over $50,000 annually. As an incentive to new users, they will receive a 3.5% bitcoin rewards rate for the first 90 days or until they receive $100 worth of bitcoin. The card also offers other benefits such as rebates on trading fees and comes with no annual fee or foreign transaction fees.

These rewards are competitive when compared to other traditional cards. For example, Bank of America’s Customized Cash Rewards credit card offers 3% cash back in one spending category of the customer’s choosing, 2% back automatically on grocery purchases and 1% back on all other purchases.

However, depending on an individual’s spending habits they could be outshone by Gemini, the crypto exchange headed up by the Winklevoss twins, when it launches its crypto rewards credit card this summer in partnership with Mastercard. While BlockFi only offers rewards in bitcoin for now, Gemini will give clients 3% back on dining purchases in any cryptocurrency offered on the exchange on purchases without annual fees or exchange fees. However, the rewards drop to 2% on groceries and 1% for all other purchases.

The launch of the BlockFi crypto rewards credit card also marks a new offering in Visa’s expanding crypto business. The electronic payments company has partnered with several crypto firms to offer Visa debit cards and supported over $1 billion worth of volume through crypto-linked cards in the first half of 2020, but the partnership with BlockFi will bring its first crypto rewards credit card. In 2021, Visa appeared on Forbes’ Blockchain 50 list after applying for over 150 blockchain-related patents and announcing an integration with US-dollar pegged stablecoin USDC.

Card users will receive a 1.5% cashback on an accrual basis for every transaction made through the card, which will then be converted to bitcoin and placed into a BlockFi account in a regular monthly cycle.

“Crypto rewards programs are a compelling way to engage consumers in the crypto economy,” Terry Angelos, SVP and Global Head of Fintech at Visa said. “We’re excited to see programs like the BlockFi Rewards Visa Card, which offer rewards that are relevant to the growing community of digital currency adopters.”

The move by BlockFi comes after PayPal Holdings Inc in October said it would allow customers to hold bitcoin and other virtual coins in its online wallet and shop using cryptocurrencies, a move which could help bitcoin and rival cryptocurrencies gain wider adoption as viable payment methods.

Bitcoin has surged about 160% this year, fueled by demand for riskier assets amid unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus, interest in assets perceived as resistant to inflation and expectations that cryptocurrencies will win mainstream acceptance.

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Source: Visa And BlockFi Launch 2% Bitcoin Rewards Credit Card

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Critics:

BlockFi is a New York City-based start-up cryptocurrency financial institution. It lends U.S. dollars against bitcoin and other cryptocurrency collateral, as well as accepting deposits of cryptocurrencies which pay interest to the depositor. BlockFi Co-Founder and CEO Zac Prince has a background both in consumer lending and start-ups.

In February 2018, BlockFi received a $1.55 million funding in a seed round from ConsenSys Ventures, SoFi and Kenetic Capital, among others. In July it secured another $50 million in funding from Michael Novogratz‘s Galaxy Digital Ventures

References

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