Do Kwon’s Crypto Empire Fell in a $58 Billion Crash. He’s Got a New Coin.
Luna’s relaunch might be the ultimate act of chutzpah by the South Korean entrepreneur
Luna’s relaunch might be the ultimate act of chutzpah by the South Korean entrepreneur
Do Kwon used swagger and a cultlike Twitter following to build a cryptocurrency empire that collapsed last month in a $58 billion crash. Now, despite angry investors, government investigations and a crypto-market downturn, the South Korean entrepreneur is attempting a comeback.
“I have great confidence in our ability to build back even stronger than we once were,” Mr. Kwon told The Wall Street Journal.
Mr. Kwon has championed the launch of a new version of Terra, the blockchain network that underpinned the failed TerraUSD and Luna cryptocurrencies. TerraUSD was a so-called stablecoin designed to maintain its value at $1, but the coin is now valued at less than a penny. Its collapse triggered a plunge of more than 99% in Luna, the cryptocurrency that backed TerraUSD’s link to the dollar.
The implosion hurt thousands of investors world-wide, including many who put their savings in Anchor Protocol, a sort of crypto bank that offered high yields on TerraUSD deposits. The crash was also a foreshock to crypto-market carnage this month: a brutal selloff led lending platform Celsius Network to freeze all accounts, worth billions of dollars.
Since the TerraUSD crash, groups representing more than 90 people in South Korea have filed complaints against Mr. Kwon accusing him of fraud and illegal fundraising. A spokesperson for the Seoul Southern District Prosecutors’ Office confirmed that it was investigating the Luna and TerraUSD case but declined to provide details. One investor rang the doorbell at Mr. Kwon’s home in Seoul, prompting Mr. Kwon’s wife to seek police protection, according to local media reports. The investor—an internet personality who live streams about crypto—later said on his live stream channel that he had lost money on Luna and was looking to talk to Mr. Kwon in person.
Last week, a U.S. law firm representing a Chicago investor who suffered losses in the TerraUSD crash filed a suit seeking class-action status against Mr. Kwon, his company Terraform Labs and several other firms, accusing them of fraud and the sale of unregistered securities.
Terraform Labs said it wouldn’t comment on any active investigations. It said the lawsuit was meritless and said it intended to defend itself.
Mr. Kwon, 30 years old, said: “I’ve been devastated by recent events and hope that all the families who’ve been impacted are taking care of themselves and those that they love.”
Earlier this year, when Luna was trading near $100, analysts said Mr. Kwon was a billionaire, based on his holdings of the coin. Mr. Kwon said that was probably the case, though he had “never really counted”—and that he lost nearly all his net worth in the crash. “This doesn’t bother me,” he added. “I live a fairly frugal life.”
The launch of the new Terra blockchain took place in late May, after a majority of Luna holders approved the move in a shareholder-style vote. The near-worthless old version of Luna was renamed “Luna Classic,” and holders of TerraUSD and Luna Classic were given a new coin called Luna.
So far it hasn’t gone well: The new Luna began trading at $18.87 on May 28, tumbled right away and was recently trading at US$1.97, according to data provider CoinGecko.
“I don’t understand why anybody in their right mind would want to invest in Luna 2 after watching Luna 1 blow up so dramatically,” said Mati Greenspan, founder of crypto research firm Quantum Economics.
Supporters of the relaunch hope developers will build applications based on Terra technology, spurring activity that causes the new Luna to gain value. “Many builders are in the process of relaunching their apps on the new chain,” Mr. Kwon said.
The relaunch might be the ultimate act of chutzpah by Mr. Kwon, a man with a divided following within the crypto community. His admirers call themselves “Lunatics” and his critics consider him a snake-oil salesman.
“I feel really bad for Do because of the way his name is being dragged through the mud right now,” said Ronald AngSiy, an executive at Intellabridge Technology Corp., a company that allows people to earn interest on cash deposits by investing them in crypto.
Mr. AngSiy interacted with Mr. Kwon in business meetings and acted as an ambassador for Terra. He said he lost more than $1 million of his personal investments in the Luna crash, but maintained a high opinion of Mr. Kwon. “On Twitter he can come off as a megalomaniac, but he’s not like that in person,” he said.
Others in the crypto community say Mr. Kwon ran a sophisticated scam. “It was just really obvious from seeing how this guy tweeted, and how he spoke on camera, and how he carried himself that he was a fraudster,” said Cory Klippsten, chief executive of cryptocurrency firm Swan Bitcoin.
Mr. Kwon rejected Mr. Klippsten’s characterization. He noted that prominent players in the crypto industry had shared Mr. Kwon’s belief in the future of TerraUSD—known by its ticker UST—and that he personally lost money in the crash. “I made confident bets and made confident statements on behalf of UST because I believed in its resilience and its value proposition,” he said. “I’ve since lost these bets, but my actions 100% match my words. There is a difference between failing and running a fraud.”
Since its formation, Terraform Labs has raised more than $200 million from investors such as Coinbase Ventures and Mike Novogratz’s Galaxy Digital Holdings Ltd., according to PitchBook. Coinbase said its investment in Terraform Labs was small and it didn’t directly invest in either TerraUSD or Luna.
Mr. Kwon attended a prestigious foreign-language high school in Seoul, where he excelled at English-language debate, traveling to the World Schools Debating Championships with Team Korea three years in a row. People who knew him as a teenager described him as charismatic, with a penchant for saying controversial things that provoked his classmates.
He graduated from Stanford University with a degree in computer science in 2016. After working at Microsoft Corp. and Apple Inc. and founding an unsuccessful networking startup, Anyfi, he pivoted into crypto.
Mr. Kwon started Terraform Labs in 2018 with Daniel Shin, a respected figure in the Korean startup scene, to develop the Terra blockchain. Mr. Shin declined to comment for this article.
The project’s vision, according to a 2019 white paper co-written by Mr. Kwon, was to create a family of Terra stablecoins tied to the dollar, the Korean won and other traditional currencies. The idea was that people could use these coins—called TerraUSD, TerraKRW and so on—in everyday transactions. Unlike major stablecoins such as USD Coin, Terra stablecoins weren’t backed by real dollars or investments, instead using financial engineering to maintain price stability. Such a design made it harder for governments to control transactions, Mr. Kwon argued. He adopted the motto: “A decentralized economy needs decentralized money.”
Mr. Kwon often differentiated Terra from rival crypto projects by citing the use of its stablecoins by Chai, a South Korean payment app. Chai was launched in 2018 by Chai Corp., a startup founded by his partner Mr. Shin. The app initially used Terra to process payments, in a rare real-world use of blockchain technology. As Chai grew to serve millions of users, Mr. Kwon’s comments fueled the impression that there was a consistent base of users transacting with Terra stablecoins that could serve as a stabilizing force during market volatility.
But Mr. Kwon repeatedly overstated the links between his blockchain projects and Chai, according to a review of his past comments.
A Chai spokesperson said Messrs. Kwon and Shin parted ways in March 2020. By 2021, Chai was no longer using Terra’s blockchain technology or digital assets to process its payments or store its assets, the spokesperson said. Chai and Terra maintained only a marketing partnership that lasted from May 2021 to March 2022, according to the spokesperson.
Still, Mr. Kwon told one interviewer in April 2021 that 2.6 million Koreans were using Terra stablecoins for payments. He mentioned Chai’s use of Terra stablecoins on a podcast as recently as March this year.
Terraform Labs and Mr. Kwon said they had always sought to be truthful in their descriptions of Terra and Chai. They said Mr. Kwon’s comments were correct because of the partnership with Chai, in which the app’s users could convert Terra’s Korean won stablecoins into “Chai money” used to make payments. The Chai spokesperson said the feature, adopted in May 2021 as part of the partnership, was curtailed in scope after four months because of low demand. Today, none of Chai’s services are linked to Terra, the spokesperson said.
Several Terra team members quit in 2020 over discomfort with the direction that Mr. Kwon was taking the project, people familiar with the matter said. One of their concerns was Mr. Kwon’s insistence on setting a fixed yield for deposits in Anchor Protocol to attract users to TerraUSD, the people said. The team members said Mr. Kwon’s approach was unsustainable and urged a floating yield that would react to market conditions.
When Anchor went live in March 2021, its yield was set at about 20%, a lofty interest rate that drew billions of dollars of investors’ money into TerraUSD before its collapse. Terraform Labs declined to comment on former personnel, but noted that Anchor began to move away from having a fixed yield earlier this year.
Another concern that led to the team members’ departures was Mr. Kwon’s push to launch Mirror Protocol, a project they regarded as a violation of U.S. securities laws, the people said. Mirror Protocol was essentially a pseudo-stock market with digital coins that tracked the price of U.S. stocks such as Apple and Tesla Inc.
The project put Mr. Kwon in the crosshairs of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which began investigating Mirror Protocol last year. In September, the SEC served him with a subpoena at a crypto conference in New York. The next month, he sued the SEC in a bid to prevent the agency from enforcing the subpoena. A judge ruled against Mr. Kwon in February, and he lost his appeal earlier this month.
Terraform Labs said it has been complying with the process and relevant court orders. It said Mirror Protocol wasn’t a market or exchange as defined by U.S. law. An SEC spokesperson declined to comment.
As TerraUSD swelled in size, critics—including academics, crypto fund managers and Mr. Kwon’s competitors—warned it was prone to collapse. They noted that similar algorithmic stablecoins had failed in so-called death spirals after the mechanisms tying them to the dollar broke down.
Mr. Kwon dismissed such critics on Twitter. In March, he called people who said TerraUSD could lose its peg “idiots.” Last year, after U.K.-based financial blogger and crypto skeptic Frances Coppola raised concerns about bank runs on crypto-lending platforms, Mr. Kwon tweeted: “I don’t debate the poor on Twitter, and sorry I don’t have any change on me for her at the moment.”
“He was very rude to me,” Ms. Coppola said. Asked about the tweets, Mr. Kwon told the Journal: “Do I regret some of the things I said in the past? Yes.”
Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: July 22, 2022.
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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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