[Note: The views expressed below are solely my own and do not necessarily represent the views of my employer or any organization I advise.]
Stop: if you are looking for a single article to discuss price action and trading activity, I can recommend Kevin Zhou’s latest “State of the Market” from Galois Capital.
Below is my own belated, very short reflection on the past year:
(1) Back in early 2019, a reporter quoted my (critical) take regarding a high yield product from BlockFi. The genesis of that conversation started from a Twitter thread in which I was told by multiple responders that the marketed (high) yield was legit and to DYOR! I had, in fact, asked around prior to publicly commenting on this product and learned that BlockFi was reinvesting deposits into other coins and tokens. Not scandalous but not really transparent either.
Fast forward three years later: BlockFi was sued by and settled with the SEC and several US states (coordinated via the NASAA). This is not an endorsement of the settlement terms (or settlement process) rather this is a reminder that prominent coin promoters on Twitter — although paper rich — are sometimes substantively and materially wrong. In this case, BlockFi followed the path of Robinhood who in December 2018 announced with much fanfare a purported 3% yield produce that marketed as being insured by SIPC… only to have to backtrack completely after the CEO of SIPC said this claim was spurious.
Clearly I am a huge fan of low-yield boomer products! HFSP!
(2) One of my most widely cited articles happened to be on a topic that has been near and dear to myself and past and present clients: collateral-backed pegged coins. Or as I fashioned some of them: parasitic stablecoins. Parasitic because they asymmetrically rely on external financial and legal systems and infrastructure, like Fedwire and US courts.
Strangely, parts of the industry not only became vocal advocates of intermedization (commercial banks) but have spent millions donating to political incumbents (plus candidates) and lobbying organizations to sway public opinion away from options such as retail-accessible central bank accounts (e.g., FedAccounts). Why is this strange? Because the ill-fated STABLE Act, which was demonized by some coinbros, specifically provided legislators and regulators with the ability to create Narrow Bank-like entities which would be more appropriate for stablecoin issuers (versus the more onerous state banking charter).
What has happened since?
In October the BIS and IOSCO — the same two entities who drafted the industry standard PFMIs — released a consultation paper covering many of the same systemic risks (and more!) that I and others had previously identified with the rise of some pegged coins. The following month, the President’s Working Group published its own report on stablecoins.
And in the past month alone, three separate papers from Federal Reserve affiliated entities have published research reports on central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) as well as pegged coins:
- Money and Payments: The U.S.Dollar in the Age of Digital Transformation (Board of Governors)
- Stablecoins: Growth Potential and Impact on Banking (Liao and Caramichael)
- The Future of Payments Is Not Stablecoins by Rod Garratt, Michael Lee, Antoine Martin, and Joseph Torregrossa
In mid-February, the grand daddy of all systemic risk-focused regulators – the Financial Stability Board – released its own paper that analyzed the risks to financial stability.
And that is just a hand pruned set of papers, there is even more if we wade beyond regulatory circles.
My informed nuanced views can be found on the bird app. In short: in the digital era, why should commercial banks alone be granted the privilege of having access to public money, central bank money? For instance, the Bank of England, is once again allowing non-banks to have access to a master account. Why shouldn’t this access be fully liberalized allowing retail consumers to bypass commercial banks, allowing users to go straight to the source instead of dealing with intermediaries that introduce credit and liquidity risks?
One of my colleagues put it this way: the pro-intermedization argument is a bit contradictory. To be consistent, the anti-CBDC / anti-CBDA argument would conclude that we should not have central bank money at all (nada M0). Once you introduce central bank money, you end up either arguing for a system where everyone must hold money in the private sector liabilities of a privileged cartel that can have an account at the central bank, or you argue that everyone can do that, which drives commercial banks out of business and all money is a public sector produced good.
Access to a master account is arguably not arbitrary, rather it is deliberate and for a set of reasons: namely preservation of a monetary order where money and credit originate in private banks. Allow narrow banks and stablecoin issuers that same access, let them hold all their reserves in central bank money, then our current monetary order may transform into something where banks go out of business and credit originates outside the banking sector. Bankers and many economists think that is a bad thing, others think it might be a very good thing. Either way, the stakes and implications are very high which is one of the reasons why TNB has not been approved a master account.
What does this have to do with the “Overton window” today?
In the short and medium run, collateral-backed pegged coins will continue to thrive and grow, probably without even having to whitelist specific addresses (dapps). Putting aside the tactics in self-preservation, their products are sticky, provide utility to a wide range of users, and do illustrate the desirability of having a reliable on-chain settlement asset that enables some of the use cases that traditional finance has been experimenting with for 6+ years.
Separately, it is interesting to see the algorithmic stablecoin market evolve and grow, with both UST and Frax experimenting on two different approaches. But that is a topic for another day.
(3) Perhaps the funniest and saddest time waster last year was having to deal with two separate camps on the same day: coin promoters and anti-coin promoters.
About two weeks after I announced I had conjured up a protocol idea – the Tau Protocol – one of the projects that attempted to implement it (BTCST) put my face on a banner that included a widely despised blockchain (Tron). I am frequently invited to speak at events, podcasts, and even TV and for the most part, don’t see the harm in speaking to a wide range of audiences… including religious maximalists or token aficionados.
Often conference organizers will include an headshot or simply scrape the internet for an older image. In this case, I answered two questions at a public AMA in the Tron telegram room and within hours was treated as public enemy number one. I did not create BTCST, I did not even chat in their own TG room, all I offered was assistance in implementing a protocol that utilized their “hashrate token.” I didn’t hack an exchange, I didn’t promote a specific coin (there is no Tau token), I didn’t advocate forcing a country to adopt a specific coin as legal tender. In fact, if you look at the actual short Tau paper, it was purposefully bland on implementation details or possible collaborations — no project was mentioned.
Alas several vocal coin promoters who handsomely profited off of ICO mania in 2017 did not bother to look at the separate parties (Tau, BTCST, Tron) and instead disingenuously lumped them altogether. Simultaneously a group of anti-coin promoters took to the bird app to echo the same defamatory comments. None seemed actually interested in actually looking at the moving parts. How do I know? Because they would have realized that BTCST (not Tau) was created by a team of Chinese miners who formally, publicly partnered with ~5 other large mining farms to create a “hashrate token” on BSC via Binance Launchpad (Poolin, the largest mining pool in the world, and a few other PoW mining outfits have launched similar projects).
So if I truly was the creator of BTCST (which both groups implicitly claimed) then I have some highly undermarketed technical capabilities: (1) I have stealthily been mining and working with global miners all while censuring PoW mining; (2) I somehow designed and got a new coin listed on a major exchange after just a couple months of ideation. Neither is true but don’t let the truth get in the way of an angry clickbait narrative. It’s pretty obvious what the goal and agenda that these groups have based on how they continue to portray the Tau idea to this day. Thanks for the snitch tags!
Unfortunately my family and I caught Covid at the tail end of March and I ended up in the hospital for a couple of days. Pushing back on these fact-free missives was clearly the top priority! What should have been an interesting project – to help beta test a path for PoW miners to move over to a proof-of-stake chain (BSC) – got purposefully butchered by two different sects bent on manufacturing narratives that fit their ideology. RIP Tau v1.
Want more details? Scroll on down to the Interviews section in the previous post, I said as much in three different interviews on this topic.
(4) Speaking of agendas and shifting narratives. In 2014-2017, proto-PoW maximalists insisted that mining does not use that much electricity or semiconductor resources. Then after the 2017 bubble the narrative shifted to whataboutisms: so what if a single chain that is infrequently used for actual payments consumes the energy footprint of a medium-sized country, whatabout this completely other unrelated industry that in aggregate wastes energy but totally is not involved in payments and actually contributes to socially useful products. Whatabout this! Or that! Whatabout pop muzik!
Spurred by political patronage, and friends like Uncle Musk, over the past year PoW maximalists have attempted to deflect additional criticism by spuriously claiming that:
(a) Bitcoin mining is good for grids because they absorb otherwise extraneous energy without concurrently recognizing the multitudinal other socially useful activities that could use that same energy
(b) hash-generating equipment are like batteries, nouveau batteries… that only consume and never re-emit because nothing is actually stored
(c) Bitcoin mining incentivizes construction of (renewable) energy infrastructure, projects that could have otherwise not been constructed in the first place due to decarbonization and that likely crowd out other productive uses (e.g., opportunity costs)
(d) Bitcoin mining incentivizes oil & gas producers to… use natural gas to power hashing equipment that would have otherwise been immediately flare; slight delayed usage and emission is obviously cutting-edge science guys! Make Flaring Great Again!
Actually, it’s nearly impossible to keep track of the stream of outrageous claims that PoW maximalists and their sycophantic armies are pumping out on a daily basis. This includes dredging up the lamest anti-proof-of-stake arguments that have been debunked for over half a decade. They are using privatized gains in dubious locales to conduct a multi-pronged information war that includes direct government subsidies, tax breaks, and even outright regulatory capture in several countries. Attempting to fact-check all of the nonsense and propaganda runs into Brandolini’s law. I have got other things to do but hopefully I’ll be able to set aside some time this summer to publish an irregular update on this topic.
(5) Tether Truthers and anti-tokenization armies unite. What started as a legitimate analysis of reserve composition and executive backgrounds has morphed into a new cult-like entity: USDTQ. Complete with “teThEr is a fRaUd!” capitalization bots, anonymous reply guys, and innuendo-laden podcasts all echoing the same mantras.
For background: while not the first, I was one of the earliest analysts to question the composition and business model of Tether LTD (and its relationship Bitfinex). Likewise, reporters Matt Leising and Nathaniel Popper coverage on this topic predate nearly all of the current crop of Johnny-come-lately’s who arrived just in time to add their very strident views that largely recycle what Leising and Popper already gathered (FT reporting is perhaps the exception to this morass).
The gumshoeing ultimately culminated when the New York Attorney General and the CFTC announced settlements last year with Tether LTD that included findings, such as the fact that during large portions of the time frames investigated, USDT was not fully backed or collateralized as advertised. And the executive team knew that and repeatedly lied to the public.
Instead doing a victory lap and riding into the sunset with a solid “W,” a side group of the USDTQ group doubled-down on every possible avenue of corruption real or imagined. Yet in lieu of providing evidence for cabals, we were presented with innuendos layered on innuendos. At least a half dozen predictions by prominent self-identified members were made last year and passed without occurring, including: the collapse of USDT, collapse of major centralized exchanges, collapse of the NFT market, collapse of Bitcoin, imminent arrest of Tether LTD executives and so forth.
Where’s the accountability for such bold claims? Despite predictions that have come and gone, why are they perceived as having credibility? I made a public bet with Spencer Macdonald (aka Bitfinexed) about a specific scenario he regularly claims is just around the corner. The deadline for the wager arrives at the end in January 2023. Maybe it happens, then I’ll obviously eat crow.
Yet the ultimate indication that this group is more interested in LARPing as researchers for bird app engagement and uninterested in providing evidence for their hunches: Hindenburg Research – an activist short-selling focused firm – offered a bounty of up to $1 million for information on Tether LTD. With their raucous confidence you would think that USDTQ participants would be rushing to the front of the line with detailed exposes. Easy money! Yet it is likely none of them have. Why is that? I’ve got a conspiracy theory about their grift, subscribe to my newsletter today!
The missing nuance here is that: based on information provided by the NYAG and CFTC between 2016-2018, Tether LTD and its then-executive team were lying to investors and users about the reserve composition and solvency of the organization. Yet none of the prominent Tether Truthers knows 100% for sure if Tether LTD is currently operating fraudulently. Maybe they are. If so, would be an easy fine for the CFTC and NY AG to collect since Tether LTD and Bitfinex are on the hook for meeting regular reporting requirements the next couple of years. Whistleblower forms are right here.
What does this have to do with anti-tokenization hysteria?
Coincidentally, some of the key USDTQ folks have morphed into a priori anti-blockchainers. That’s to say, by default any type of tokenization (NFTs!) or cryptocurrency or blockchain-project is either a scam or the people promoting them are deluded, or both. Nuance is thrown out the door.
This is a non sequitur though because law enforcement, regulators, and courts in multiple different jurisdictions repeatedly state that the burden of proof rests with the prosecution and must involve “facts and circumstances.”
Philosophically it is also a fallacy of composition. Enterprises big and small often use public key cryptography, append-only databases, and synchronizing distributed systems for day-to-day operations. These are the key pieces of a blockchain, so which part is fraudulent or a scam exactly? Is all tokenization a scam? Is PBFT a scam? Is Onyx a scam? Is Allianz’s project a scam? Is geth a scam? Is Tendermint a scam? Maybe they all are, but the onus rests on those making the positive claim, in this case: the anti-coiners. Continually throwing the baby with the bath water seems like an intellectually dishonest raison d’être.
The attempts at disparage tokenization includes lazily lumping all blockchains — whether they are permissioned or permissionless, or use Proof-of-Work or Proof-of-Stake — altogether as an amorphous blob. One example of rhetoric-filled declarations is that all blockchain usage will lead to the melting of glaciers. Actually it is proof-of-work chains that could eventually lead to this negative externality and unfair (and dishonest) to lump alternative Sybil resistant mechanisms in with the PoW albatross.
More to the point, attempts to tokenize wares — such as off-chain assets — predates the current NFT craze that arguably started with Spells of Genesis and Rare Pepes, both launched on Counterparty a couple of years before Cryptokitties and the existence of the ERC 721 standard.
Wait, something came before SoG and Pepes? The multiple groups that attempted to implement “colored” coins in late 2012-2014 followed by Mastercoin in 2014-2015 ran into a variety of hurdles worthy of a small book.
A couple of the lessons learned in previous tokenization attempts:
(1) the lack of widely used neutral protocol standard (e.g., 721, 1155) plagued not just trade lifecycles on public chains but also permissioned projects (and that doesn’t delve into non-technical constraints: what happens to a tokenized financial instrument as it goes between chains managed by different consortia domiciled in different jurisdictions?).
(2) intense difficulty to fuse hooks into off-chain items, especially those in the real world. Some lawyers think the latter – especially as it relates to DAOs – should be verboten because it opens up participants to an exogenous legal systems (and liabilities).
Attempting to engage in public, non-Twitter debate on these merits and demerits often meets with deafening silence, because just like Bitcoin maximalism in 2014-present day, anti-tokenization appears to be a feelings based movement driven by performative theatrics. Disagree? Let’s do a Zoom debate at your leisure!
(6) Predictions! I’ve made them in the past. Some turned out to be pretty good (look at the NFT remark!) and others not so on the mark (a couple of Bitcoin Core developers have faced civil lawsuits but nothing BSA or RICO-related). Here are my latest for 2022.
One prediction that didn’t make it into that thread: decentralized derivatives. Despite a cornucopia of well-funded players and mature products on centralized exchanges, this is where you will probably see the largest on-chain trader-led growth the next couple of years.
Why? Part of it is the inevitable desire to replicate traditional finance products and compress trade lifecycles through post-trade automation on-chain. But increasingly likely, the barriers to entry are lower for new products in part because creators do not have to jump through the expensive and time consuming gatekeeping process. Hint: the $75 annual membership to ISDA isn’t the expensive part! In addition to the Injective’s, Mango’s, and dYdX’s of the world, and non-blockchain-projects like Kalshi are worth keeping any eye on. Be sure to read Delphi’s comprehensive market research from last year too.
One addition to a prediction in that thread: tokenized projects on public chains (e.g., art-related NFTs) will increasingly attempt to store digital assets (e.g., SVG art) on-chain such that the only off-chain involvement are trading venues (CEXs). Several NFT projects have spearheaded that effort last year including Chain Runners, Anonymice, and OnChainMonkey.
Why is this important? Party because of IP claims and disputes which have arisen (e.g., after you mint an NFT and sell it, do you still have commercial rights to it?). Efforts like Mintangible are attempting to create easy-to-use NFT license agreements to protect both creators and collectors.
(7) Lastly, your moment of zen for 2021. A US-based managing partner of a US-based coin fund stating that he is betting against the US, along with a former partner of a major US-based VC fund (who was a candidate to lead the FDA and later immigrated to Singapore). The new non-aligned movement owned by a handful of coin promoters and miners, sounds like a win-win for democracy and the rule of law.