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:
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.