Crypto Might Have an Insider Trading Problem
Anonymous wallets buy up tokens right before they are listed and sell shortly afterward.
Anonymous wallets buy up tokens right before they are listed and sell shortly afterward.
Public data suggests that several anonymous crypto investors profited from inside knowledge of when tokens would be listed on exchanges.
Over six days last August, one crypto wallet amassed a stake of $360,000 worth of Gnosis coins, a token tied to an effort to build blockchain-based prediction markets. On the seventh day, Binance—the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange by volume—said in a blog post that it would list Gnosis, allowing it to be traded among its users.
Token listings add both liquidity and a stamp of legitimacy to the token, and often provide a boost to a token’s trading price. The price of Gnosis rose sharply, from around $300 to $410 within an hour. The value of Gnosis traded that day surged to more than seven times its seven-day average.
Four minutes after Binance’s announcement, the wallet began selling down its stake, liquidating it entirely in just over four hours for slightly more than $500,000—netting a profit of about $140,000 and a return of roughly 40%, according to an analysis performed by Argus Inc., a firm that offers companies software to manage employee trading. The same wallet demonstrated similar patterns of buying tokens before their listings and selling quickly after with at least three other tokens.
The crypto ecosystem is increasingly grappling with headaches that the world of traditional finance tackled decades ago. The collapse of a so-called stablecoin from its dollar peg earlier this month stemmed from crypto’s version of a bank run. How cryptocurrency exchanges prevent market-sensitive information from leaking has also become a growing topic of concern. The focus comes as regulators are raising questions about the market’s fairness for retail users, many of whom just booked major losses on steep declines in crypto assets.
The wallet buying Gnosis was among 46 that Argus found that purchased a combined $17.3 million worth of tokens that were listed shortly after on Coinbase, Binance and FTX. The wallets’ owners can’t be determined through the public blockchain.
Profits from sales of the tokens that were visible on the blockchain totalled more than $1.7 million. The true profits from the trades is likely significantly higher, however, as several chunks of the stakes were moved from the wallets into exchanges rather than traded directly for stablecoins or other currencies, Argus said.
Argus focused only on wallets that exhibited repeated patterns of buying tokens in the run-up to a listing announcement and selling soon after. The analysis flagged trading activity from February 2021 through April of this year. The data was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Coinbase, Binance and FTX each said they had compliance policies prohibiting employees from trading on privileged information. The latter two said they reviewed the analysis and determined that the trading activity in Argus’s report didn’t violate their policies. Binance’s spokesperson also said none of the wallet addresses were linked to its employees.
Coinbase said it conducts similar analyses as part of its attempts to ensure fairness. Coinbase executives have posted a series of blogs touching on the issue of front running.
“There is always the possibility that someone inside Coinbase could, wittingly or unwittingly, leak information to outsiders engaging in illegal activity,” Coinbase Chief Executive Brian Armstrong wrote last month. The exchange, he said, investigates employees that appear linked to front running and terminates them if they are found to have aided such trades.
Paul Grewal, Coinbase’s chief legal officer, followed up with a blog post Thursday. The company has seen information about listings leak before announcements through traders detecting digital evidence of exchanges testing a token before a public announcement, he said. Coinbase has taken steps to mitigate that in addition to its efforts to prevent employee insider trading, he said.
Wallets like these have caused debate in the crypto community over whether targeted buying of specific tokens ahead of listings on exchanges points to insider trading. The crypto markets are largely unregulated. In recent years, regulators have looked more closely at the market’s fairness for individual investors. The largest cryptocurrency bitcoin has fallen 24% in May, causing steep losses for individual investors across the market.
Insider trading laws bar investors from trading stocks or commodities on material nonpublic information, such as knowledge of a coming listing or merger offer.
Some lawyers say that existing criminal statutes and other regulations could be used to go after those trading cryptocurrencies with private information. But others in the cryptocurrency industry say a lack of case precedent specific to crypto insider trading has created uncertainty over whether and how regulators might seek to tackle it in the future.
Argus CEO Owen Rapaport said that internal compliance policies in crypto can be undercut by a lack of clear regulatory guidelines, the libertarian ethos of many who work in the space and the lack of institutionalized norms against insider trading in crypto compared with those in traditional finance.
“Firms have real challenges with making sure the code of ethics against insider trading—which almost every firm has—is actually followed rather than being an inert piece of paper,” Mr. Rapaport said.
Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Gary Gensler said Monday that he saw similarities between the influx of individual investors into crypto markets and the stock boom of the 1920s that presaged the Great Depression, which led to the creation of the SEC and its mandate to protect investors.“The retail public had gotten deeply into the markets in the 1920s and we saw how that came out,” Mr. Gensler said. “Don’t let somebody say ‘Well, we don’t need to protect against fraud and manipulation.’ That’s where you lose trust in markets.”
Spokespeople for the exchanges said that they have policies to ensure that their employees can’t trade off of sensitive information.
A Binance spokeswoman said that employees have a 90-day hold on any investments they make and that leaders in the company are mandated to report any trading activity on a quarterly basis.
“There is a longstanding process in place, including internal systems, that our security team follows to investigate and hold those accountable that have engaged in this type of behaviour, immediate termination being minimal repercussion,” she said.
FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried said in an email that the company explicitly bans employees from trading on or sharing information related to coming token listings and has a policy in place to prevent that. The trading highlighted in Argus’s analysis didn’t result from any substantive violations of company policy, Mr. Bankman-Fried said.
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Crypto’s lack of connections with traditional finance means its problems haven’t spilled over to the economy
This year’s crypto collapse has all the hallmarks of a classic banking crisis: runs, fire sales, contagion.
What it doesn’t have are banks.
Check out the bankruptcy filings of crypto platforms Voyager Digital Holdings Inc., Celsius Network LLC and FTX Trading Ltd. and hedge fund Three Arrows Capital, and you won’t find any banks listed among their largest creditors.
While bankruptcy filings aren’t entirely clear, they describe many of the largest creditors as customers or other crypto-related companies. Crypto companies, in other words, operate in a closed loop, deeply interconnected within that loop but with few apparent connections of significance to traditional finance. This explains how an asset class once worth roughly $3 trillion could lose 72% of its value, and prominent intermediaries could go bust, with no discernible spillovers to the financial system.
“Crypto space…is largely circular,” Yale University economist Gary Gorton and University of Michigan law professor Jeffery Zhang write in a forthcoming paper. “Once crypto banks obtain deposits from investors, these firms borrow, lend, and trade with themselves. They do not interact with firms connected to the real economy.”
A few years from now, things might have been different, given the intensifying pressure on regulators and bankers to embrace crypto. The crypto meltdown may have prevented that—and a much wider crisis.
Crypto has long been marketed as an unregulated, anonymous, frictionless, more accessible alternative to traditional banks and currencies. Yet its mushrooming ecosystem looks a lot like the banking system, accepting deposits and making loans. Messrs. Gorton and Zhang write, “Crypto lending platforms recreated banking all over again… if an entity engages in borrowing and lending, it is economically equivalent to a bank even if it’s not labeled as one.”
And just like the banking system, crypto is leveraged and interconnected, and thus vulnerable to debilitating runs and contagion. This year’s crisis began in May when TerraUSD, a purported stablecoin—i.e., a cryptocurrency that aimed to sustain a constant value against the dollar—collapsed as investors lost faith in its backing asset, a token called Luna. Rumours that Celsius had lost money on Terra and Luna led to a run on its deposits and in July Celsius filed for bankruptcy protection.
Three Arrows, a crypto hedge fund that had invested in Luna, had to liquidate. Losses on a loan to Three Arrows and contagion from Celsius forced Voyager into bankruptcy protection.
Meanwhile FTX’s trading affiliate Alameda Research and Voyager had lent to each other, and Alameda and Celsius also had exposure to each other. But it was the linkages between FTX and Alameda that were the two companies’ undoing. Like many platforms, FTX issued its own cryptocurrency, FTT. After this was revealed to be Alameda’s main asset, Binance, another major platform, said it would dump its own FTT holdings, setting off the run that triggered FTX’s collapse.
Genesis Global Capital, another crypto lender, had exposure to both Three Arrows and Alameda. It has suspended withdrawals and sought outside cash in the wake of FTX’s demise. BlockFi, another crypto lender with exposure to FTX and Alameda, is preparing a bankruptcy filing, the Journal has reported.
The density of connections between these players is nicely illustrated with a sprawling diagram in an October report by the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which brings together federal financial regulators.
To historians, this litany of contagion and collapse is reminiscent of the free banking era from 1837 to 1863 when banks issued their own bank notes, fraud proliferated, and runs, suspensions of withdrawals, and panics occurred regularly. Yet while those crises routinely walloped business activity, crypto’s has largely passed the economy by.
Some investors, from unsophisticated individuals to big venture-capital and pension funds, have sustained losses, some life-changing. But these are qualitatively different from the sorts of losses that threaten the solvency of major lending institutions and the broader financial system’s stability.
To be sure, some loan or investment losses by banks can’t be ruled out. Banks also supply crypto companies with custodial and payment services and hold their cash, such as to back stablecoins. Some small banks that cater to crypto companies have been buffeted by large outflows of deposits.
Traditional finance had little incentive to build connections to crypto because, unlike government bonds or mortgages or commercial loans or even derivatives, crypto played no role in the real economy. It’s largely been shunned as a means of payment except where untraceability is paramount, such as money laundering and ransomware. Much-hyped crypto innovations such as stablecoins and DeFi, a sort of automated exchange, mostly facilitate speculation in crypto rather than useful economic activity.
Crypto’s grubby reputation repelled mainstream financiers like Warren Buffett and JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Jamie Dimon, and made regulators deeply skittish about bank involvement. In time this was bound to change, not because crypto was becoming useful but because it was generating so much profit for speculators and their supporting ecosystem.
Several banks have made private-equity investments in crypto companies and many including J.P. Morgan are investing in blockchain, the distributed ledger technology underlying cryptocurrencies. A flood of crypto lobbying money was prodding Congress to create a regulatory framework under which crypto, having failed as an alternative to the dollar, could become a riskier, less regulated alternative to equities.
Now, stained by bankruptcy and scandal, cryptocurrency will have to wait longer—perhaps forever—to be fully embraced by traditional banking. An end to banking crises required the replacement of private currencies with a single national dollar, the creation of the Federal Reserve as lender of last resort, deposit insurance and comprehensive regulation.
It isn’t clear, though, that the same recipe should be applied to crypto: Effective regulation would eliminate much of the efficiency and anonymity that explain its appeal. And while the U.S. economy clearly needed a stable banking system and currency, it will do just fine without crypto.
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