Critics say stablecoin Tether is a scam. That could spell doom for Bitcoin.

Not looking good.
Image: Ulrich Baumgarten/Getty Images

Bitcoin has been on a run. Despite its recent dip, the cryptocurrency has impressed skeptics and believers alike in its monumental rise in value since its creation nine years ago. But all that could be on the verge of change. 

Because while the argument rages on as to whether Bitcoin is in fact a currency or a store of value, one question looms large over all: Just what, exactly, is driving its price growth? Well, a consensus answer is slowly forming among critics, and it doesn’t look good for the world of cryptocurrency. 

In fact, it looks so bad that those same critics are predicting Bitcoin could take as much as an 80 percent hit in value. That would mean BTC, which at the time of this writing is worth around $11,085, would drop down to near $2,200. 

To understand why Bitcoin could be due for an imminent reckoning, one must first look to so-called stablecoins. The idea behind them is simple enough: peg a cryptocurrency coin, or a token, to something like the U.S. dollar. This would allow for many of the benefits of digital currency without the wild price swings rendering it less than ideal for real-world transactions. 

One purported stablecoin in particular has dominated the space: Tether

“Tether Platform currencies are 100% backed by actual fiat currency assets in our reserve account,” the company claims on its website. “Tethers are redeemable and exchangeable pursuant to Tether Limited’s terms of service. The conversion rate is 1 tether USD₮ equals 1 USD.”

According to Tether, as of Jan. 29 the company has $2,278,090,823.52 and €14,487,093.99 in liabilities.

“If there is questionable activity, the author believes a 30-80% reduction in BTC price could be forecast.”

Founded in 2015, Tether is connected to the online exchange Bitfinex. While the founders of that exchange had long insisted Tether was a separate entity, The New York Times reported in November that the Paradise Papers suggested otherwise.

Those leaked documents showed that Bitfinex’s Chief Strategy officer, Philip Potter, along with its Chief Executive Officer, JL van der Velde, had worked with the law firm Appleby to established Tether in the British Virgin Islands sometime in 2014. 

What does any of this have to do with Bitcoin’s price? A pseudonymous report released on Jan. 24 alleges that Tethers “may not be minted independently of Bitcoin price and may be created when Bitcoin is falling,” and that it’s possible the company is “printing in response to market conditions.” 

The author of the self-titled Tether Report is not alone in his or her suspicions. Tony Arcieri, an independent cybersecurity expert who formerly worked at Square, released a detailed look at Tether on Jan. 19 which came to similar conclusions and took it a step further.

“I, and many others,” wrote Arcieri, “suspect Tether is being used to effectively counterfeit hundreds of millions of dollars of perceived value, which are being immediately reinvested into Bitcoin to keep it from collapsing.”

As in, Tether may be creating value out of thin air. And that value, legitimate or not, is being pushed into the cryptocurrency world — allegedly artificially driving up Bitcoin prices in the process. 

What’s more, the aforementioned Tether Report alleges that “48.8% of BTC’s price rise in the period studied occurred in the two-hour periods following the arrival of 91 different Tether grants to the Bitfinex wallet.” Meaning, again, that according to the pseudonymous author, Tether looks to be driving increases in the value of Bitcoin. “If there is questionable activity, the author believes a 30-80% reduction in BTC price could be forecast.”

It’s not just random critics and cybersecurity experts making this claim. Nouriel Roubini, an economist and professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, is right there with them. 

“Indeed Tether/USDT used to manipulate Bitcoin prices,” he tweeted on Jan. 25. “Without this scam Bitcoin price would collapse by 80%. Regulators asleep at the wheel while $2 billion of fake $ created via this scam, half of it since December.”

That Tether may not in fact have the billions in cash reserves to back the billions of Tether tokens issued could be easily disproved by an auditing of the company’s books suggests a simple solution: release an audit. And yet, while long promising such an audit was forthcoming, the latest hope for such an accounting was dashed Saturday when CoinDesk reported that Tether and its supposed auditor were parting ways. 

In conversation with Mashable on Friday, Rafael Cosman, CTO and cofounder of the San Francisco-based TrustToken, put the problem succinctly. “Tether claims that they do regular audits, but there hasn’t really been evidence of that.”

Tether did release a document in September which was supposed to prove it held cash reserves equal to its Tethers, but that didn’t convince skeptics. In a conversation with The New York Times, Lewis Cohen — a lawyer who works with virtual currency in his role at the law firm Hogan Lovells — noted that due to its wording the Tether document failed to prove Tethers are backed by dollars. 

Meanwhile, hundreds of millions more Tethers — known as USDT — continue to be issued. Specifically, over 850 million worth have been “minted” since the beginning of 2018. 

This doesn’t sit well with Tether’s numerous critics, who have taken to Twitter and YouTube to call out what they view as “a complete ripoff” and “a complete scam.”

To make things even murkier, the ability to withdraw your Tether to your bank account in the form of USD has not always been guaranteed. As recently as December, Bloomberg reported that Tether’s Terms of Service read as follows: “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.”

Importantly, a search of the company’s current TOS page shows that language has been removed. Now, the company states that “Absent a reasonable legal justification not to redeem Tether Tokens, and provided that you are a fully verified customer of Tether, your Tether Tokens are freely redeemable.”

The Terms of Service go on to note, however, that “residents of certain U.S. states are not permitted to be customers of Tether; are not permitted to cause Tethers to be issued or redeemed; and, are not permitted to hold Tether Tokens.”

A recent Reddit post highlighted the confusion surrounding this. Titled “Has anybody here actually had USDT deposited to their bank accounts as tether.to claims is possible on their website,” the thread seeks to find someone that has successfully withdrawn their tokens for cash to their bank account. The silence in response is deafening. 

“Without this scam Bitcoin price would collapse by 80%.”

Mashable reached out to Tether for comment on these claims, and will update this story when and if we hear back. 

In the meantime, what does all this mean for Tether, Bitcoin, and cryptocurrency in general? Well, if the critics are correct, likely nothing good. 

“If one were to assume the worst case scenario,” the aforementioned pseudonymous author of the Tether Report writes, “that Bitcoin’s price has been artificially pumped up by Tether issuance, one would expect the market price of Bitcoin to be closer to $2,000 based on the trendline before April 2017 and the marked growth in Tether issuance.”

In other words, if this alleged house of cards ever comes crashing down, it may bring down Bitcoin’s price with it with such force that the January crash will look like a walk in the park. And when and if that time comes, Tether’s critics will be there to remind you that you were warned. 

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