Could Bitfinex, the world's largest, Hong-Kong based cryptocurrency exchange, be headed for a Mt. Gox-style collapse? It's starting to look that way.
When Mt. Gox first halted customer withdrawals in February 2014, it waited more than two weeks to admit the truth to its customers: that hackers had stolen more than $450 million of their assets, leaving the exchange bankrupt and them holding the bag. That hack effectively crippled the entire digital currency ecosystem, ushering in a two-year bear market that at one point carried the bitcoin price below $200, from what was then a record high north of $1,200 reached in November 2013.
So when another exchange engages in similarly shady behavior - withholding critical information about customer funds, or failing to produce audited financials despite promising to do so - it should prompt crypto traders to ask themselves why, with dozens, if not hundreds, of cryptocurrency exchanges operating around the world, they're choosing to do business with this one.
That's the question that customers of Bitfinex should be asking nearly two weeks after the exchange, once one of the world's largest, first revealed that it had been cut off from sending outbound dollar-denominated wires to its customers.
Of course, halting customer withdrawals isn't uncommon in the cryptocurrency world: All three of China's largest exchanges suspended customer withdrawals in February. And last year, Kraken, one of the biggest U.S.-based exchanges, suspended withdrawals temporarily because of a glitch in its trading software. But this freeze is particularly troubling because, like Mt. Gox, Bitfinex inexplicably decided to wait before informing customers of a critical problem. It also has implications that stretch beyond the bitcoin market, to another cryptotoken called tether that was launched by Bitfinex back in January 2015, and has since been dogged by allegations that it's a scam.
The halt is already costing Bitfinex's customers money. On Tuesday, bitcoins were going for $1,547 on Bitfinex's platform, a premium of more than $100 over most of the other popular exchanges. Investors, apparently, feel that eating a 7%-8% loss is preferable to leaving their assets in Bitfinex's care any longer.
Reddit users reported that wire transfers requested as early as March 9 were cancelled, and that the exchange offered only vague excuses as to why. It took the exchange until April 13, after it had filed a lawsuit against Wells Fargo & Co., whose correspondent banking division had effectively shut Bitfinex out of the global financial system, that the exchange disclosed the problem to its customers.
And while Bitfinex has repeatedly said it would make things right - it has promised to either establish a new banking relationship and to allow customers access to other fiat currencies - only a handful of customers have been able to get their assets out of the exchange.
As part of the freeze, Bitfinex has established a moratorium on cashing in tether tokens held by its customers. These tokens were created by Bitfinex in 2015 to allow customers to exchange an asset that's pegged to the dollar at a one-to-one ratio, allowing them to avoid costly wire transfers that must be processed through the banking system.
But the withdrawal freeze has put pressure on the tether market; for only the second time since they were introduced, investors are selling these tokens at a discount. The price of a single token has been languishing below the $1 level for more than a week.
More troubling still is that Bitfinex has so far refused to provide an audit of the fiat funds that allegedly backstop the tether float, despite promising that it would be "fully transparent and audited to demonstrate 100% reserves at all times" when it first launched the token.
This has lead some to speculate that the exchange could be commingling tether funds with other customer assets.
While evidence of this could cause irreparable damage to Bitfinex's reputation, leading to a wave of withdrawals that could add further strain to its already thinning bitcoin reserves, as Twitter user @Bitfinexed points out, it's not technically a violation of the tether terms of service.
Here's an excerpt: "There is no contractual right or other right or legal claim against us to redeem or exchange your tethers for money. We do not guarantee any right of redemption or exchange of tethers by us for money. There is no guarantee against losses when you buy, trade, or redeem tethers."
Given the preponderance of scams in the cryptocurrency market, investors who haven't already, should probably take what's left of their money and run, if they can of course.