Crypto Drama: $40 Billon Vaporized as Terra “Stablecoin” and Luna Implode; Bored Ape NFTs Break Ethereum

Last month I posted on “The Different Classes of Crypto Stablecoins and Why It Matters “.  The main point there is that some so-called stablecoins (e.g., USDC) maintain their peg to the dollar by holding a dollars’ worth of securities (preferably U.S. treasury notes) for each dollar’s worth of stablecoin. This mechanism requires some centralized issuer to administer it. As long as said issuer is honest and transparent, this should work fine.

Crypto purists, however, prefer decentralized finance (de-fi), where there is no central controlling authority. Hence, clever folks have devised stablecoins which maintain their dollar peg through some settled algorithm which operates more or less autonomously out on the web; various other coins or assets are automatically bought or sold, or created/destroyed in order to keep the main stablecoin value more or less fixed versus the dollar. We warned that this type of stablecoin is “potentially problematic”; it is the sort of thing which works until it doesn’t.

In 2018 the Terra project was launched by Do Kwon and others.  The Terra stablecoin (UST) was designed to “maintain its peg through a complex model called a ‘burn and mint equilibrium’. This method uses a two-token system, whereby one token is supposed to remain stable (UST) while the other token (LUNA) is meant to absorb volatility.” Terra grew very rapidly, to become something like the fourth largest stablecoin at over $30 billion in capital value. As the supply of Terra increased, the market value for LUNA also increased. Many investors bought into LUNA and for a while were making big bucks as its value soared. A headline from February read, “LUNA shines with a 75% surge in February as $2.57 billion is delisted.”  Woo-hoo! And this headline from May 10  proclaimed, “Terra Ecosystem is the strongest growing ecosystem in 2021.”

However, just as that laudatory article was hitting the internet, Terra/Luna blew up. I am not clear on the exact sequence of events, especially on whether the catastrophe was a result of just some accidental market fluctuation or of deliberate dumping by some party who was positioned to benefit. In any event, the value of Terra quickly dropped from $1.00 to around $0.61, which triggered the issuing of vast amounts of LUNA, which cratered its value by some 98%. Since Luna was mainly what backed Terra, this was a positive feedback death spiral. This is same way the $2 billion IRON stablecoin imploded in June, 2021: a “stablecoin” was backed by an in-house crypto token whose value depended on more people buying into the system. Ponzi scheme, anyone?

Both Terra and LUNA got delisted from major exchanges for several days. As of today, the value of Terra (UST) is about ten cents.  Poof, there went some $40 billion  of investors’ money, just like that. Do Kwon is under police protection in Seoul after a man who lost $2.3 million in Terra/Luna tried to break into his home to demand an apology.

And this just in today: “DEI becomes latest algorithmic stablecoin to lose $1 peg, falling under 70 cents  “. Ouch. Looks like the federal regulators will be swarming the stablecoin space, or at least we may get some grandstanding Senate hearings out of it.

In other news, transactions connected to the insanely (I chose that word deliberately) popular and costly Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs overwhelmed the Ethereum transaction network about two weeks ago; this is kind of a big deal because a whole lot of de-fi and other blockchain applications depend on Ethereum as the backbone of their transactions:

When Bored Ape Yacht Club creators Yuga Labs announced its Otherside NFT collection would launch on April 30, it was predicted by many to be the biggest NFT launch ever. Otherside is an upcoming Bored Ape Yacht Club metaverse game, and the NFTs in question were deeds for land in that virtual world. Buoyed by the BAYC’s success — it costs about $300,000 to buy into the Club — the sale of 55,000 land plots netted Yuga Labs around $320 million in three hours.

It also broke Ethereum for three hours.

Users paid thousands of dollars in transaction fees, regardless of whether those transactions succeeded. Because the launch put load on the entire blockchain, crypto traders were unable to buy, sell or send coins for hours. The sale highlights the growing profitability of the NFT market but also the uncertainty around whether blockchains are robust enough to handle the attention.

… Because the Otherside mint impacts the whole Ethereum blockchain, people doing completely unrelated things like selling ether or trading altcoins would also have to pay huge fees and wait hours for their transactions to clear. Someone tweeted a picture of them trying to send $100 in crypto from one wallet to another, showing it required $1,700 in gas fees.

The Different Classes of Crypto Stablecoins and Why It Matters

Last month the Biden administration issued an executive order outlining some priorities and aspirational goals regarding government initiatives and future regulations regarding cryptocurrencies.
These goals may be summarized as:

1.         Protect Investors in the Crypto Space

2.         Mitigate Systemic Risks from Innovations

3.         Provide Equitable Access to Affordable Financial Services

4.         Ensure Responsible Development of Digital Assets

5.         Limit Illicit Use of Digital Assets

6.         Research Design Options of a U.S. Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC)

7.         Promote U.S. Leadership in Technology


These positions seem generally reasonable and moderate, and were welcomed by the cryptocurrency community, which had feared a more restrictive stance. (China, for instance, has banned cryptocurrency use altogether).

Why Fear Stablecoins?

Here I’d like to focus on #2, “Mitigate Systemic Risks from Innovations”. Although so-called stablecoins are not explicitly mentioned in the executive order, it is understood that they represent a key area of concern for regulators.

A stablecoin typically has its value pegged 1:1 to a leading national or international currency such as the U.S. dollar or the euro, or to some commodity like gold, or even to other cryptocurrencies. In practice, most of them have generally held pretty well to their pegs. So what’s not to like about them? Why would they be perceived as more of a threat that, say, bitcoin, whose dollar value is all over the map?

I think the reason is that market participants count on them maintaining their (say) dollar peg. These coins are used as dollar substitutes in billions of dollars’ worth of transactions and are depended on to hold their value.The total value of stablecoins in use is nearly $200 billion and is growing fast.  If a major stablecoin crashed somehow, it could lead to significant instability, which regulators don’t like.

Four Major Types of Stablecoins

Stablecoins may be classified according to how their “tether” is maintained:

( 1 ) Pegged to fiat currency, maintained by a central stablecoin issuer

The biggest U.S.-based stablecoin is USD Coin (USDC), which is backed by significant financial institutions. There is every reason to believe that there is in fact a dollar backing each USDC. 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.”

So far, so good. The huge stinking elephant in the room here is a stablecoin called Tether. Tether is the largest stablecoin by market capitalization (at $79 billion), and is heavily used as a dollar substitute, mainly in Asia. It has been widely criticized as a shady, unaudited operation, operating from shifting off-shore locations to avoid regulation (and prosecution). There are justified doubts as to whether the claimed 1:1 dollar backing for Tether is really there. Tether sort-of disclosed its backing reserves in the form of a sparse pie-chart. Very little was in the form of cash or even “fiduciary deposits”. Some was in the form of “loans” to who-knows-what counterparties. The majority of their holdings were “commercial paper”; but nobody can find any trace of Tether-related commercial paper in the whole rest of the financial universe (it has become a sort of game for financial journalists to try to the be first one to actually locate any legitimate Tether assets).

So, Tether by itself may justify concern on the part of regulators. Also, without diving too deeply into it, a plethora of financial institutions and tech companies are starting to issue their own stablecoins, which again are purported to be as good as cash, and so are vulnerable to abuse.

( 2 )  Stablecoins backed by commodities

Tether Gold (XAUT) and Paxos Gold (PAXG) are two of the most liquid gold-backed stablecoins. Other coins are tied to things like oil or real estate. The holder of these coins is depending the  coins issuer to actually have the claimed backing.

( 3 )  Cryptocurrency Collateral (On-Chain)

It is hard to explain in a few words how this type of coin works.  A key point here is that your stablecoins are backed by other, leading cryptocurrecies (such as Ethereum), with the process all happening on the decentralized blockchainvia smart contracts. A leading coin here is DAI, an algorithmic stablecoin issued by MakerDAO, that seeks to maintain a ratio of one-to-one with the U.S. dollar. It is primarily used as a means of lending and borrowing crypto assets without the need for an intermediary — creating a permissionless system with transparency and minimal restrictions.

Unlike with the two types of stablecoins discussed above, you are not dependent on the honesty of some central issuer of the stablecoin. On the other hand, Wikipedia notes:

The technical implementation of this type of stablecoins is more complex and varied than that of the fiat-collateralized kind which introduces a greater risks of exploits due to bugs in the smart contract code. With the tethering done on-chain, it is not subject to third-party regulation creating a decentralized solution. The potentially problematic aspect of this type of stablecoins is the change in value of the collateral and the reliance on supplementary instruments. The complexity and non-direct backing of the stablecoin may deter usage, as it may be difficult to comprehend how the price is actually ensured. Due to the nature of the highly volatile and convergent cryptocurrency market, a very large collateral must also be maintained to ensure the stability.

( 4 ) Non-Collateralized Algorithmic Stablecoins

The price stability of such a coin results from the use of specialized algorithms and smart contracts that manage the supply of tokens in circulation,  similar to a central bank’s approach to printing and destroying currency. These are a less popular form of stablecoin. The algorithmic coin FEI proved unstable upon launch, although it has since achieved an approximate parity with the dollar.

Some takeaways:

Stablecoins are a big and fast-growing piece of practical finance.

These coins bring a different kind of risk, because (unlike Bitcoin or Ethereum), users depend on them holding a certain value.

For the coins backed by major fiat currencies or commodities,  risk is introduced by the need to depend on the honesty and competence of the centralized coin issuers.

For the non-centralized stablecoins like DAI and FEI, there are risks associated with proper automatic functioning of their protocols.

 

One can understand, therefore, the urge of the federal government to impose regulations in this area. That said, it does not seem to me that the existing system is broken such that the feds need to come in to fix it in a major way. The main shady actor in all this is Tether, which everyone knows to be shady, so caveat emptor (and the vast majority of Tether transactions occur outside the West, in the East Asian shadowlands).

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:

Continue reading

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.