My BlockFi Crypto Account Is Frozen Due to Monster FTX Exchange Blowup

About a year ago, I posted some articles touting the use of BlockFi as an alternative checking account. It paid around 9% interest (this was back when interest rates were essentially zero on regular savings accounts), and allowed withdrawal or deposit of funds at any time. Nice. BlockFi is associated with respected firm Gemini, and (unlike many crypto operations) is U.S. based, with consistent formal auditing. They earned interest on my crypto by lending it out to “trusted counter-parties”, always backed by extra collateral. What could possibly go wrong?

In July I wrote about a big cryptocurrency meltdown, in which a number of medium-sized players went bust.  At that time, BlockFi assured its customers that its sound business practices put it above the fray, no problemo. They did make it through that juncture OK. But I withdrew a third of my funds, just to be on the safe side.

The huge news in crypto this past week has been the sudden, total implosion of major exchange FTX (more on that below). FTX is a major business partner with BlockFi. No worries, though, as of Tuesday of last week,  BlockFi COO Flori Marquez tweeted that “All BlockFi products are fully operational”.  Then the hammer dropped: On Thursday (11/10), BlockFi froze withdrawals, due to complications with FTX. My remaining crypto is stranded, most likely for years of legal proceedings, and I may never get it all back. I’m not going to starve, but the amount is enough to hurt.

In this case, I don’t really blame BlockFi – by all accounts, they have been trying to run an honest, responsible business. Before last week, nobody had much reason to think that FTX was totally rotten.  My bad for not connecting the FTX-BlockFi dots earlier, and pulling out more funds when I had the chance.

The Great FTX Debacle

The star of this show is Sam Bankman-Fried, the (former) head of FTX:

James Bailey posted here on EWED on the FTX crash last week. CoinDesk author David Morris summarized the downfall of Bankman-Fried’s crypto empire:

FTX and Bankman-Fried are unique in the stature they achieved before self-immolating. Over the past three years, FTX has come to be widely regarded as a reputable exchange, despite not submitting to U.S. regulation. Bankman-Fried has himself become globally influential, thanks to his thoughts on cryptocurrency regulation and his financial support for U.S. electoral candidates – not necessarily in that order.

Facts first uncovered by CoinDesk played a major role in the events of the past week. On Nov. 2, reporter Ian Allison published findings that roughly $5.8 billion out of $14.6 billion of assets on the balance sheet at Alameda Research, based on then-current valuations, were linked to FTX’s exchange token, FTT.

This finding, based on leaked internal documents, was explosive because of the very close relationship between Alameda and FTX. Both were founded by Bankman-Fried, and there has been significant anxiety about the extent and nature of their fraternal dealings. The FTT token was essentially created from thin air by FTX, inviting questions about the real-world, open-market value of FTT tokens held in reserve by affiliated entities.

Negative speculation about a financial institution can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, triggering withdrawals out of a sense of uncertainty and leading to the very liquidity problems that were feared.

Customers started a “run on the bank”, withdrawing billions of dollars of assets, leading to total insolvency of FTX:

The Financial Times reported that FTX held approximately $900 million in liquid crypto and $5.4 in illiquid venture capital investments against $9 billion in liabilities the day before it filed for bankruptcy.

If FTX had been run as an honest exchange, this withdrawal should not have been too much of a problem – – just give customers back the coins they had deposited with FTX. Apparently, though, FTX had taken customer assets and transferred them over to a sister company, Alameda, to trade with. The valuable customer crypto assets left the FTX balance sheet, and were largely replaced by the self-generated (and now nearly worthless) FTT token:

It remains worryingly unclear, though, exactly why even such a dramatic rush for the exits would have led FTX to seek its own bailout. The exchange promised users that it would not speculate with cryptocurrencies held in their accounts. But if that policy was followed, there should have been no pause to withdrawals, nor any balance sheet gap to fill. One possible explanation comes from Coinmetrics analyst Lucas Nuzzi, who has presented what he says is evidence that FTX transferred funds to Alameda in September, perhaps as a loan to backstop Alameda’s losses.

It doesn’t help that on Friday (11/11) some $477 million was outright stolen from FTX wallets. (The Kraken exchange said it has identified the thief and are working with law enforcement).

Where does the FTX saga go from here? There seems little in the way of assets left for the bankruptcy judge to distribute to former customers and creditors. In the case of BlockFi, they are dependent on a $400 million line of credit extended to them by FTX back in June, to keep operating. And who knows how much of BlockFi assets were stored with FTX – – since FTX was to be their white knight, BlockFi would not be in a position to withdraw deposits from FTX like other customers did.

I predict that nothing really bad will happen to Bankman-Fried and his buddies who ran this thing. Although its operation was apparently dishonest, it is not clear how much is subject to U.S. federal or state legal jurisdiction. Bankman-Fried and friends ran their empire from a big apartment suite in the Bahamas. Plus, he is pretty well-connected. Beside his massive campaign contributions, his business and sometimes romantic partner Caroline Ellison (she is CEO of Alameda) is the daughter of MIT professor Glenn Ellison, the former boss (as colleagues at MIT) of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission chair Gary Gensler. These relations were captured in an impish tweet by Elon Musk:

The Great Crypto Market Meltdown of 2022

Ah, the delicious crypto bubble of 2021. Major cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum more than tripled in value. Every week, some new coin would get minted, letting early adopters 10X their money in a month.  Decentralized finance (DeFi) based on blockchain technology was The Next Big Thing. Move over, stodgy old Bank of America.

That was then, this is now. The chart below of Bitcoin price serves as a proxy for the fortunes of the whole sector:

Source   [the year 2021 is marked in highlighter].

This has the smell of a bubble bursting. First, why did crypto soar in 2021? I think COVID gets some credit for that. Most adults in the developed world sat home for many months in 2020-2021, and in countries like the U.S. were handed thousands of dollars of stimulus money,  in addition to giant unemployment checks. Much of that money went to buying “stuff” on Amazon, but much of it went into financial assets like stocks and crypto. Something like  half of men in the United States between the ages of 18 and 49 dabbled in crypto. As you saw your friends making money effortlessly, classic tulip bulb FOMO set it.

All bubbles end eventually. Crypto has imploded from a $ 3 trillion market to a $ 1 trillion dollar market in just a few months. That is two trillion (with a “t”) gone.  If Bitcoin were the only significant factor in the crypto universe,  the latest bust would be a fairly trivial matter. Since Bitcoin goes up and Bitcoin goes down, that is nothing new. But part of the hype of 2021 was all the breathless commentary on how DeFi would sweep the world and Change Everything. No more centralized banking controlled by old men in suits – – power to the people! And in fact, a whole industry of lending and borrowing in the crypto world has sprung up. That is where some more consequential problems have shown up.

Warren Buffet is known for the saying, “When the tide goes out, you find out who is swimming naked.” The rapid fall in crypto valuations has set off a cascade of failures in DeFi.  A key event was the implosion of the Luna/Terra (un!)stablecoin, in April-May 2022, which we wrote about here. A more widespread problem has been the unwinding of the crypto lending/borrowing system. Various firms loaned out the coin holdings of their customers to parties that wanted to trade (speculate) with them, and who were willing to pay something like 4-9% interest for get ahold of these coins. The parties doing the lending thought they were keeping themselves safe by requiring excess collateral for these loans.

 Oversimplified example: I will lend you $100 (real dollars) if you deposit $140 of Dogecoin with me. If Dogecoin falls in value to close to $100, I would require more collateral from you within say ten days, or else I would sell your Dogecoin into the market and get my $100 back (and you eat the $40 loss). The big problem comes if Dogecoin falls so fast that by the contracted grace period ends, its value is down to $80. Now I as well as you realize losses, and widespread panic ensues. Now, if I have been lending out your Dogecoin to yet more parties who (it turns out) can’t pay me back in full, I am doubly hosed. And now the solid customers start withdrawing their funds/coins from these firms, and we have an old-fashioned bank run. It doesn’t help that Celsius Network froze customers’ accounts last month, so they could not withdraw the coins they had deposited. That sort of thing really gets clients nervous.

And so a number of significant DeFi firms are going bust, and calls get louder for more government regulation, which is largely antithetical to the whole DeFi enterprise. I will paste below a summary of this carnage, and then in the interests of full disclosure, tell how it has affected me personally:

The crypto and the DeFi industry boomed over the past few years but the recent crypto crash has plundered the fortunes of several crypto companies. The following crypto companies have recently encountered financial difficulties:

Vauld

Business Today broke the news on Monday that Vauld, the Singapore-based crypto lending and investment firm operating in India announced that it has halted withdrawals and deposits for its more than 8,00,000 clients. Vauld’s CEO Darshan Bathija said in a blog post that unstable market circumstances had created “financial challenges” for the company. The CEO also announced that investors had withdrawn over $197 million in the past few months.

Terraform Labs

Terraform Labs was the company that had triggered the recent crypto crash. They created the algorithmic stablecoin TerraUSD which de-pegged from the US Dollar and led to the crash of Terra Luna another token of the ecosystem causing massive panic and sell off in the crypto markets.

Terra co-founder Do Kwon announced a “recovery plan” in May that included infusion of additional funding and the rebuilding of TerraUSD so that it is backed by reserves rather than depending on an algorithm to maintain its 1:1 dollar peg.

Voyager Digital

On July 6, the American crypto lender disclosed that it had filed for bankruptcy. In its Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition, Voyager stated that it had over 1,00,000 creditors, assets between $1 billion and $10 billion in value, and liabilities in the same range.

Three Arrows Capital (3AC)

The Singapore-based cryptocurrency hedge firm went bankrupt on June 29, just two days after receiving a notice of default on a crypto loan from lender Voyager Digital for failing to make payments on an approximately $650 million crypto loan. The company filed a petition for protection from its creditors under Chapter 15 of the United States’ bankruptcy code on July 1. This section of the code permits overseas debtors to safeguard their U.S.-based assets.

Celsius Network

Celsius Network also suspended withdrawals and transfers last month due to “extreme” market conditions. They also hired consultants in preparation for a future bankruptcy filing. The American-Israeli business reportedly disclosed on July 4 that a quarter of its workers had been let go.

Babel Finance

The Hong Kong-based cryptocurrency lender stated on June 17 that it had temporarily halted crypto-asset withdrawals as it scrambled to reimburse consumers. According to the company, “Babel Finance is suffering unprecedented liquidity issues due to the current market situation,” emphasising the severe volatility of the market for cryptocurrencies.

CoinFLEX

In a blog post published on Thursday, CoinFLEX’s CEO Mark Lamb announced that the company would temporarily halt withdrawals due to “extreme market conditions” and uncertainty about a certain counterparty. The company is facing serious financial troubles and there seems to be no way out.

My Confessions

Briefly — I bought into Bitcoin and Ethereum in the form of the funds GBTC and ETHE towards the end of 2020. As crypto started to unwind this year, I sold out of ETHE to de-risk, coming out a little ahead there. I decided to hang in with the Bitcoin fund, riding it up, and now down, down, down. I am so far in the red on this one that I am just going to hold it indefinitely, hoping for some recovery someday.

I bought into Voyager (see above, it has recently crashed and burned) and sold half after it doubled, and the rest at about breakeven price, so came out ahead there. Another, similar firm, Galaxy Digital, I bought has also plummeted to near zero. I got out of that, but waited too long and lost about 30% there.

Readers with exquisite memories might recall that I wrote an article some months back here on EWED touting the DeFi model as a great way to earn interest to keep up with inflation: “Earning Steady 9% Interest in My New Crypto Account.”  I chose BlockFi rather than Celsius Network to put my funds in for this, since Celsius (an offshore enterprise) seemed a little shady, whereas BlockFi made a point of being audited and compliant with U.S. regulations. Good choice, in light of Celsius’ recent freeze on customer withdrawals.

Now, even solid firms like BlockFi are hurting. Customers spooked by all the other crypto drama are withdrawing assets “just to be on the safe side.”  BlockFi is seeking cash infusions from white knight Sam Bankman-Fried to stay afloat. The 30-year old crypto billionaire looks to be able to acquire the firm for pennies on the dollar, wiping out the initial (private) investors in BlockFi.  I am one of these BlockFi customers withdrawing funds (half of my deposit there) – – just to be on the safe side.

How Can Cryptocurrency Accounts Pay Such High Interest?

As noted last week, I am happily receiving 9% interest in my new crypto account at BlockFi. How can they do that? The short answer is that BlockFi lends out my holdings to other parties, who pay somewhat more than 9% interest to BlockFi. This model is common to essentially all of the crypto brokers who pay out interest, but I will focus on BlockFi because (a) I have skin in the game there, and (b) they have been fairly transparent about their operations.

On the simplest level, this operates like a plain bank savings account does. A bank takes in funds from depositors, and (to oversimplify) lends those funds out to borrowers. The bank then pays to its depositors a portion of the interest it receives from its borrowers. Up until the last few years, this bank savings account model worked pretty well;  a depositor might receive something like 2-3% interest on a savings account or certificate of deposit. More recently, short term rates have been near zero, so depositors get almost nothing in a bank savings account.

As noted earlier, BlockFi pays up to 4.5% interest on Bitcoin and 5% on Ethereum. These are leading, high volume coins that are widely used in decentralized finance (defi). Here is how BlockFi describes the parties to which it lends (mainly) Bitcoin:

Who Borrows Crypto?

BlockFi works with institutional counterparties for trading and lending cryptocurrency. These counterparties look to us to help them provide liquidity for their businesses. But who are some of these borrowers?

( 1 ) Traders and investment funds who see a fragmented marketplace and discover arbitrage trading opportunities. Arbitrageurs need to borrow crypto in order to close mispricing between exchanges or dispersed markets. Similarly, margin traders need to borrow in order to execute their trading strategies. This is a simple example, but it demonstrates how arbitrage and margin trading activities facilitate price discovery, which is an essential component of developed markets.

( 2 ) Over the counter (OTC) market makers make money by connecting buyers and sellers who do not want to transact over public exchanges. OTC desks need to keep inventory on-hand to meet their client demand. Owning crypto outright is capital intensive and comes with the attendant risks of price fluctuations. Instead, they may prefer to borrow inventory in order to facilitate transactions. Liquidity is another essential component to healthy markets.

( 3 ) Businesses that require an inventory of crypto to provide liquidity to clients. This bucket includes companies like crypto ATMs. These businesses also need to be able to support withdrawals while keeping the vast majority of their crypto assets in cold storage. The liquidity we provide them helps with these basic and important functions.

A key piece of this lending is to require that the counterparty post adequate collateral for the loans. This is somewhat similar to a bank lending you money to buy a house, with the house as collateral for your loan. If you lose your job and cannot pay back the loan, the bank has the right to sell your house to recovery its money. Similarly, BlockFi wants to ensure that if something goes sour with their loan of your Bitcoin, they can get their funds back and make your account whole. Obviously, BlockFi customers like me are relying on BlockFi to manage this properly and to minimize lending losses. BlockFi goes on to reassure us:

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Earning Steady 9% Interest in My New Crypto Account

One reason for opening an account where you can purchase cryptocurrencies is to speculate on their price movements. There have been many cases where some coin has quadrupled in a few weeks, or gone up ten-fold in a few months, or even a hundred-fold within a year.

Another facet of crypto accounts is that in some cases you are paid interest on the coin you have purchased and hold in your account. That was the main draw for me. I already have a little Bitcoin and Ethereum exposure in my brokerage account through the funds GBTC and ETHE, enough to feel the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat when they go up, up, up and down, down, down, but I am not a big speculator at heart. So, I am drawn to the so-called “stablecoins”, whose value is tied to some major regular currency such as the U.S. dollar. It turns out that you can get high, steady interest payments on those stablecoins.

There are several crypto brokers which pay interest on coins. Some names include BlockFi, Celsius, Nexo, and Voyager Digital. Several such firms are reviewed here.  Initially I leaned towards Voyager, since it gives access to lots of the new, little alt-coins where you can 10X your money if you pick the right ones and jump in early. However, I still do my own taxes, and the tax reporting from Voyager looked daunting. Last I looked, they just provide a dump of all your transactions in a giant table, and it’s up to you to figure out capital gains/losses. The word on the street is that this is not as straightforward as it seems. Also, Voyager offered only mobile apps, not a desktop interface. All in all, Voyager seems more geared towards intense younger Robin Hood/Reddit crowd, punching daring trades into their phones at all hours.

BlockFi is quite staid by comparison. It only offers a few, mainstream coins. However, it is one of the best-established firms, and it provides a nice clear 1099 tax reporting form at the end of the year. BlockFi is backed by major institutional partners, and manages over $9 billion in assets.

Unlike some of its competitors, it is U.S.-based, and as such it is structured to function well in this jurisdiction. Also, its interest payouts are straightforward. In contrast, many of its competitors incentivize  you to receive your interest in special tokens issued by those companies, which adds another element of risk. Finally, BlockFi allows you to immediately transfer money in and out of your account by using a bank ACH link. I wanted that flexibility since I plan to keep a portion of my cash holdings in BlockFi instead of in the bank, but I want to be able to access those cash holdings on short notice and without penalty. (Last week I described some of my struggles over using the Plaid financial app which manages the bank-BlockFi interface, but I was able to get past that).

All in all, BlockFi is boring in a good way. All I want to do is make steady money, with minimal distraction. Here is a listing of the interest rates paid for holdings of Bitcoin and Ethereum:

BlockFi only pays significant interest for smaller holdings of these coins. (We will discuss the reason for this seemingly odd policy in a future blog post; it is basically an outcome of BlockFi’s conservative financial practices).

For Bitcoin, the interest rate is 4.5% for up to 0.10 BTC, which at today’s prices is about $4,700. After that, the interest plummets to 1%, and to a mere 0.10% for more than 0.35 BTC (about $16,000). There is a similar pattern for Ethereum. If your goal is to hold large amounts of these coins and earn substantial interest on them, there are probably better platforms than BlockFi.

However, the interest picture is brighter for the stablecoins. The biggest U.S.-based stablecoin is USD Coin (USDC), which is backed by significant institutions. Gemini Dollar (GUSD) is smaller, but also takes great pains to garner trust. Its issuer, Gemini, operates under the regulatory oversight of the New York State Department of Financial Services (NYDFS). It boasts, “The Gemini Dollar is fully backed at a one-to-one ratio with the U.S. dollar. The number of Gemini dollar tokens in circulation is equal to the number of U.S. dollars held at a bank in the United States, and the system is insured with pass-through FDIC deposit insurance as a preventative measure against money laundering, theft, and other illicit activities.” GUSD is the “native” currency within BlockFi, though users can easily exchange it for other coins. At this point I am holding just GUSD, though if I put in more funds, I would plan to partially diversify into USDC. Besides being much bigger, USDC now runs on multiple platforms, whereas GUSD is limited to Ethereum; if Ethereum finally does switch from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake, it may be more subject to outages or hacking, so it would be nice to not be totally dependent on Ethereum.

For these two stablecoins, BlockFi currently pays 9% interest on holdings up to $40,000, and a respectable 8% on larger holdings:

A complete list of BlockFi interest rates (which change from time to time) is here.

The alert reader may at this point object, “Hey, you are losing most of the purported benefits of blockchain cryptocurrencies – – without holding the coins in your own wallet, you don’t actually own them, so you are back dependent on The System. Moreover, those stablecoins are centrally managed, not deliberately decentralized like Bitcoin and Ethereum. You are treating this like a plain bank account!”

My reply is, “Yes, I am treating it like a plain bank account – – but an account that pays me 9% interest, with no drama.” That is exactly what I wanted.

UPDATE MARCH 2022 – – BLOCKFI INTEREST ACCOUNT NO LONGER AVAILABLE. For some time now, state and federal government authorities have been hassling crypto exchanges that offer interest on crypto holdings. In February, the SEC fined BlockFi $100 million for allegedly violating securities laws, and shut them down from taking in any new funds for interest-bearing accounts. BlockFi hopes someday to provide a regulation-compliant interest product, but don’t hold your breath.

Zealous state and federal regulators have been attacking other crypto firms offering interest, such as Celsius and Voyager. The main player still standing that I am aware of is Gemini. Gemini is very conscientious about audits and has always tried to work closely with regulators. It is offering about 6.5% interest on stablecoins (which is still way better than money markets or CDs), and a measly 1-1.25% on Bitcoin and Ethereum.

Opening My New Crypto Account: Plaid App Wants My Full Bank Login Information

I finally got around to opening an account at BlockFi where I can buy cryptocurrencies directly. Later I will discuss why I chose BlockFi and what I plan to do there. For now I’d like to mention one roadblock I hit in starting it up.

Signing up for the BlockFi account itself was pretty straightforward. But when it came to actually funding it, I was required to use Plaid to handle transfers of funds to and from my bank accounts – – and Plaid wanted me to tell them my full username and password that I use to log into my bank account. “No,” I said to myself, “they can’t really mean that.” But yes, they do mean that.

Armed with these credentials Plaid is able to not only pull money out of my account (like, for instance, PayPal does), but they can also login as me and have access to every financial transaction I have ever done, every check I have ever written. It’s not that I have anything interesting to hide, but this level of privacy invasion creeps me out. Also, the sad truth is that any company, including Plaid and its partners, are vulnerable to hacking, so I am not thrilled at having my bank login information floating out there in cyberspace.

On their website, Plaid is nice enough to disclose the scope of its snooping:

We collect the following types of identifiers, commercial information, and other personal information from your financial product and service providers:

  • Account information, including financial institution name, account name, account type, account ownership, branch number, IBAN, BIC, account number, routing number, and sort code;
  • Information about an account balance, including current and available balance;
  • Information about credit accounts, including due dates, balances owed, payment amounts and dates, transaction history, credit limit, repayment status, and interest rate;
  • Information about loan accounts, including due dates, repayment status, balances, payment amounts and dates, interest rate, guarantor, loan type, payment plan, and terms;
  • Information about investment accounts, including transaction information, type of asset, identifying details about the asset, quantity, price, fees, and cost basis;
  • Identifiers and information about the account owner(s), including name, email address, phone number, date of birth, and address information;
  • Information about account transactions, including amount, date, payee, type, quantity, price, location, involved securities, and a description of the transaction; and
  • Professional information, including information about your employer, in limited cases where you’ve connected your payroll accounts or provided us with your pay stub information.

The data collected from your financial accounts includes information from all accounts (e.g., checking, savings, and credit card) accessible through a single set of account credentials.

Plaid promises not to sell or rent this personal data. Fine. But even if they don’t formally sell it, they may simply give it away widely. In their words:

We share your End User Information for a number of business purposes:

  • With the developer of the application you are using and as directed by that developer (such as with another third party if directed by you);
  • To enforce any contract with you;
  • With our data processors and other service providers, partners, or contractors in connection with the services they perform for us or developers;
  • With your connected financial institution(s) to help establish or maintain a connection you’ve chosen to make;
  • If we believe in good faith that disclosure is appropriate to comply with applicable law, regulation, or legal process (such as a court order or subpoena);
  • In connection with a change in ownership or control of all or a part of our business (such as a merger, acquisition, reorganization, or bankruptcy);
  • Between and among Plaid and our current and future parents, affiliates, subsidiaries and other companies under common control or ownership;
  • [etc., etc.]

Yeesh.

I’m sure Plaid means well, but I just didn’t like the sound of all that. So, I came up with a plan: I would start up a second account at my bank, with a slightly different name and a different account number, and just give Plaid access to that one account. The only thing I would do with that account is to fund my BlockFi account, so it would not have years and years of my other financial transactions embedded in it.

In the end, that worked, but it took a more time and phone calls than I expected. Opening the new account was a surprising pain, for reasons I won’t go into here. Then, it turns out that the bank doesn’t have a category for one person having two accounts with two different logins. There was nothing I could do about it online, so I had to talk to someone at the bank who had the power to limit my login authority to my new account. This meant that I now have to use my wife’s login to access my/our old account, which is OK. But it probably would have been cleaner simply to start my new account at some different (online) bank.

Anyway, just in time for the current crypto meltdown (Bitcoin is down more than 20% from its high a month ago), my account is active and funded. More on that in future installments.