Key Excerpts and Commentary from NYAG/Tether Court Transcript

First of all link to the transcript: https://www.docdroid.net/Wk3pePO/transcript-may-16-2019.pdf

Second of all congrats to @lawmaster and The Block for a great scoop.  https://t.co/22w3xY8mc8 Now let’s get down to business.

Bitfinex is still being hesitant to hand over documents to the NYAG.  They have struggled to get access to documents relating to the transfer from Tether to Bitfinex, and this suggests to me that either the documents don’t exist or there is a very good reason they are not being shared.

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This is directly contrary to what Bitfinex has claimed to the public wherein they have claimed that they have been fully cooperative. https://www.bitfinex.com/posts/356 Archive link: https://web.archive.org/web/20190521220643/https://www.bitfinex.com/posts/356Screen Shot 2019-05-21 at 5.05.47 PMHowever, I’m sure that there is no reason to think that Bitfinex is hiding something. No reason at all.Screen Shot 2019-05-21 at 5.09.29 PM

Shortly after this we learn very interesting things, Tether’s lawyer admits to Tether investing in Bitcoin:

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Luckily we have a sharp judge here who quickly gets to the meet of the issue and correctly points out that this seems contrary to the nature of a “Stablecoin”.Screen Shot 2019-05-21 at 5.14.31 PM

The Tether lawyer responds by confirming what we all suspected since the ToS change is that other assets includes cryptocurrencies:Screen Shot 2019-05-21 at 5.15.35 PM

The Tether lawyer then continues basically saying they will not produce documents and will instead appeal and challenge every single step of the way:Screen Shot 2019-05-21 at 5.17.11 PM

The Tether lawyer then also says that they do not think there is any amount of dollars they need to keep in reserve:Screen Shot 2019-05-21 at 5.19.17 PM

The Tether lawyer then takes the classic Tether defender tactic of it’s okay because banks do it too:Screen Shot 2019-05-21 at 5.20.19 PM

The judge quickly ascertains the issue with this and points out that this effectively means there is no reserves:Screen Shot 2019-05-21 at 5.21.18 PM

The Tether lawyer responds by saying it’s okay, if they need to they’ll earn money some other way, pay it back, and just delay redemptions:

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A little further down the NYAG reveals that Bitfinex/Tether executives get lump sum payouts from the unsegregated Tether accounts where no reserves have to be kept:

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The NYAG also reveals the juicy tidbit that the largest redemption ever was less than $25 million:

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Why is this particularly juicy? Well let’s take a quick trip over to their treasury address on Omni: https://omniexplorer.info/address/1NTMakcgVwQpMdGxRQnFKyb3G1FAJysSfz/1 here it does not take long to find bigger transactions coming in than that like this: https://omniexplorer.info/tx/572792736c6846998ac0b8c532d0317f7d8460886ce900bb6005260ed66cd80a So somethign is seriously amiss here.

Now relevant to this entire document is the issue of disclosure. Tether claims that they are not in the wrong because once they started using other assets they disclosed it.  However, is that true? I will contend it is not. Let us consider Tether’s own website: https://web.archive.org/web/20150521003646/https://tether.to/faqs/

In 2015 Tether openly admits to exchanging Bitcoins for Tethers without KYC. Now it is possible, but in my opinion unlikely that they still had sufficient fiat reserves at that point, but I think it is plausible to doubt that and to believe that Bitcoins have often been a part of the backing.

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In conclusion: Tether has paid executives dividends out of non-segregated accounts, does not feel a need to keep cash reserves, is buying bitcoins with reserves, and cannot handle a rush to redeem.  Their largest claimed transaction is also smaller than multiple apparent redemptions on the blockchain.

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A Guide to a Hypothetical Internationally Coordinated State Level Attack On Bitcoin

There was a recent comment by Joseph Stiglitz in which he expressed his desire to “shut down the cryptocurrencies”.  This prompted me to seriously consider how one would go about shutting down or seriously damaging Bitcoin. This is not an easy problem because Bitcoin is designed to be a remarkably resilient system, however, I do think with coordinated international action a significant amount of damage could be done.  My proposed plan relies partially on how Bitcoin does difficulty adjustments.

Every 2016 blocks (~2 weeks) the difficulty of Bitcoin mining adjusts so that blocks continue to come approximately every 10 minutes.  This is important because the hashrate dedicated to mining Bitcoins has varied significantly over time, and so this helps keep block time relatively stable.  However, major swings in hashpower can significantly change the time between blocks.

Furthermore, it is important to remember that Bitcoin mining tends to run with a pretty narrow profit margin, and as such major swings in price can significantly affect the profitability of miners on the network.

So knowing these things, how do we attack Bitcoin? Step 1 is to start buying up old mining hardware.  Because mining demands a high level of efficiency to be profitable old generations of miners are rapidly abandoned as miners with access to more efficient technology can reap larger rewards.  However, if you do not care about profitability you can acquire these miners. Now make sure you keep them off the network, you do not want people to know that you are acquiring hashpower as it would cause suspicion.  Right after a difficulty adjust bring all of your hash online and wait until the next difficulty adjustment.

The next step is to try to negatively affect the price as much as possible in as short of a time as possible.  These steps need to occur right after the difficulty adjustment after you brought your hash online. You will accomplish this price with drop with two primary techniques. The first, as a major state level actor you have seized and safeguarded Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies in the normal course of law enforcement actions. You will now sell it all, or as much of it as humanly possible.  Instead of trying to maximize your potential monetary gains from these sales you will instead try to sell them on the lowest liquidity places you can access, with the goal of throwing off indices and inciting further selling from major holders. While you are doing this you will simultaneously try to pull a major source of liquidity from the market. If there exists for example a poorly regulated exchange and stablecoin who combine for a significant portion of the liquidity in the market you will seize them right as you begin to sell.  Allow as many people as possible to stampede for the exits.

Now we must do everything we can to reduce hashpower on the network.  Turn off all of the hashpower you brought onto the network, and simultaneously coordinate with China to convince them to cutoff as many of their miners as possible.  Seize any mining hardware you reasonably can and keep it off the network for now. This drop in hashpower, combined with a major drop in price will cause many previous profitable miners to now be mining at a loss.  Many will choose to turn off their machines rather than lose money continuing to mine. The lower the hashrate goes here the less usable the network is. Block times will lengthen and people will grow increasingly frustrated and apt to sell, perpetuating the cycle.  Whenever anyone sells mining hardware buy it.

Now you wait for the next difficulty adjustment.  This will take longer than it normally will because the time between bloks has vastly increased.  However, Bitcoin is a stubborn beast and there are likely some people who have isolated themselves reasonably well from state intervention and will mine to keep it alive.  Once the difficulty adjusts again, you will again deploy your hash which should now be even more. If you control the majority of hash you will mine empty blocks making the network entirely useful.  The only transactions you will allow through are those meant to help you sell your block rewards. You will sell your entire block rewards with the goal of continuing to push the price even lower.

If you do not control the majority of hash, but do control >25% you will selfish mine and continue to try to identify other miners on the network and seize their hardware.

Regardless of whether or not you are controlling the majority of the hash the next difficulty adjustment should come quick, in less than two weeks.  Again you will withdraw your hash and let block times lengthen, but now transactions will be going through, giving desperate people a chance to sell.

Lather, rinse, and repeat.  Eventually you will control the majority of hashpower and once this happens you will force the community to make incredibly tough decisions.  These could include changing the hashing algorithm or changing how difficulty adjustments work. These decisions are likely to be contentious and will therefore further fragment the community.  If these contentious issues result in forks you will see people on each side of the fork trying to dump the other side of the fork, further depressing the price. Even if some vague semblance of a Bitcoin is left standing after this attack it will be a shell of its former self and you will have demonstrated to people that it is more vulnerable than they have ever believed.  Enjoy your continued monopoly on money printing.

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On the Social Scalability of Bitcoin and the 21 Million Cap

Many Bitcoin proponents, chief among them Nick Szabo, laud Bitcoin for its social scalability.  In order to discuss this issue fairly we must first define social scalability. In the famous blogpost where it was first used, Szabo defines it as:

“Social scalability is the ability of an institution –- a relationship or shared endeavor, in which multiple people repeatedly participate, and featuring customs, rules, or other features which constrain or motivate participants’ behaviors — to overcome shortcomings in human minds and in the motivating or constraining aspects of said institution that limit who or how many can successfully participate. Social scalability is about the ways and extents to which participants can think about and respond to institutions and fellow participants as the variety and numbers of participants in those institutions or relationships grow.  It’s about human limitations, not about technological limitations or physical resource constraints.” (http://unenumerated.blogspot.com/2017/02/money-blockchains-and-social-scalability.html)

First, I must acknowledge that there are significant benefits to Bitcoin’s design that enable social scalability.  Among these are the expense required to censor a transaction, the prevention of double spend without a centralized entity, and the issuance of rewards without a central entity.  Each of these has contributed significantly to the success of Bitcoin and are what make it such a compelling piece of technology to me. However, certain design decisions have created a significant and hard to rectify argument surface that may limit future growth.  The most important of these, in my opinion, is the choice of a finite, hard cap.

Challenging this hard cap is challenging many of the fundamental ideas held by Bitcoiners and as such I’ll belabor certain points in order to ensure they’re addressed thoroughly.  First of all there is a conception among Bitcoiner’s that inflation is inevitable in our modern fiat system, and that this inflation will be bad either for them individually, or for society as a whole.  I am willing to concede among these points that inflation may sometimes be bad for the individual, however I contend it is often still a net-positive. Furthermore, I want to challenge the assumption that a finite supply is useful in reducing argument surface.

As Bitcoin’s are lost to theft, technical mistakes, and deaths the supply will continue to contract as Bitcoin becomes a deflationary currency..  For existing holders this seems to be a positive thing. The more the supply contracts the greater proportion of the total value their investment represents.  However, it may still be a net negative if it places an upper bound on total value of Bitcoin. Furthermore, it is valuable to realize that, due to the emission schedule of Bitcoin, a large number of Bitcoins are held by a small number of people.  I will not attempt to estimate exactly how many, because it is beyond the scope of this article, but I would estimate 0.01% of the world’s population possess at least half of the Bitcoins that will ever exist (it is likely much less, for statistics go here: https://bitinfocharts.com/top-100-richest-bitcoin-addresses.html).  This is an intense concentration of wealth, and as the price of a Bitcoin measured in fiat goes up you will expect significant wealth to accrue to these holders.

This natural enrichment of early holders could be considered fair for them shouldering the lion’s share of the initial risk, and believing in a nascent technology before there was significant evidence it would survive.  However, the truth of the matter is that having such disproportionately large early holders makes it harder to convince people to buy in, because the primary benefit to their investment is enrichment of the early investors.  Now, the response here would be that these people are still incentivized to buy in, as they will end up capturing a larger share than the later holders, however, a structure depending on convincing people to enrich early holders at the expense of later investors is a structure that has made many people at the top quite wealthy.  Even now while we are still relatively early in the long life of Bitcoin, it’s difficult for me to envision mass usage, as most are unwilling to enrich a few solely to gain censorship resistant transactions. However, they may purchase Bitcoin as a speculative asset, but my only response to that is I do not see it as a path to adoption.

Furthermore, with Bitcoin (or any other deflationary currency) widescale adoption would provide the largest holders with an entrenched power base.  If it were to become globally accepted in the manner described by the proponents of hyperbitcoinization, then early adopters will obtain incredible wealth, and from that, shocking power.  Since they are incentivized to hold that wealth and not to spend or deploy it, the wealth changes hands infrequently.  This appears to predispose Bitcoin to create an entrenched oligarchic system.

Next, it’s pertinent to consider the value of inflation.  Important to this conception is the idea of a risk curve. The risk curve, which can be gracelessly summed up as a comparison between two assets showing how the change in risk affects the expected return, is important to understanding the said value of inflation:  For example, you may choose to switch your excess money from USD (low risk, negative expected return) to equities (high risk, high positive expected return). The value of maintaining the negative expected return for USD is that it incentivizes greater deployment of capital up the risk curve.  Investors are willing to take on risks in order to protect their wealth and ensure returns. This capital allows for the expansion of the total economic pie as businesses grow and create new products, new efficiencies, and new markets. However, deflationary money can seriously mess with this contention.  If you have a well-established deflationary money then your money will have (low risk, positive expected return), and as such you have little incentive to deploy it up the risk curve. This may seem to be a relatively small and technical matter but it is a significant matter. Hyperbitcoinization would be destructive for society and would result in a regression of economic games to zero-sum along with establishment of an entrenched oligarchy.  This may not prevent adoption, but it may affect the argument surface.

My argument rests on,  “a relationship or shared endeavor, in which multiple people repeatedly participate, and featuring customs, rules, or other features which constrain or motivate participants’ behaviors — to overcome shortcomings in human minds and in the motivating or constraining aspects of said institution that limit who or how many can successfully participate.”  The hard cap on Bitcoin has created disincentives to cooperative behavior. The reduction to zero-sum or net-negative games makes it such that the nature of every interaction becomes competitive instead of cooperative.

There are a couple potential counter-arguments to my points here.

The first many Bitcoiners/Austrians (big overlap there) will turn to is an effect referred to as the Cantillon effect or the injection effect. I am not a true economist, but it can be summarized as the place where money enters a system, has a significant effect, and is likely to enrich those closest to the injection point.  There is little, but not zero, empirical evidence for this in traditional central banking systems, but even if we accept that it is a real effect other features of Bitcoin help minimize it. Consider who is closest to the injection point in Bitcoin: the miners. The miners are required to either exchange it for fiat to pay power bills, or purchase power directly using Bitcoin.  This cost to produce helps eliminate the disproportionate wealth effect (if it exists) from monetary injection.

Some, Hasu comes to mind, have advocated that instead of removing the hard cap there could be a requirement to move your coins regularly or they will be ‘reclaimed’.  I have always considered this idea seriously problematic because of the implications it has for some of the fundamental tenets of Bitcoin. One of the primary tenets of Bitcoin is that your key gives you, and solely you, control of your Bitcoin, and this invalidates that assumption. For those who keep their coins in cold storage it also represents a (slight) security risk to have to access the coins and move them to a new wallet.  Additionally, this could destroy the predictability of mining rewards which may change the incentive structure. It seems to me this would more fundamentally change the protocol and argument structure than simply continual issuance.

The argument that creating a hard cap and creating such a cult around the inflation schedule has reduced the argument surface surrounding Bitcoin and in so doing improved its social scalability.  This would fit neatly with Szabo’s definition, as it basically limits the participant’s ability to influence the inflation rate. It also helps with the argument that a cap was necessary in order to achieve any social scaling of Bitcoin, because the early adopters would not have been motivated to use it without that cap.  This theory does have significant merit, and is even somewhat compelling to me. However, the fact that we are already having regular conversations about the cap suggests to me that the argument surface has not been maximally minimized.

The final argument I’ll address is that modification of the inflation schedule begets greater modification of the inflation schedule.  I may have to concede this argument. It is possible that by deviating from the cap we have created a scenario where people will continually advocate for changes to the inflation schedule, but Bitcoin governance is helpful here.  Bitcoin relies on what can be termed fork-based governance in which people have the freedom to run exactly what node implementation they choose, miners choose which chain to mine, and exchanges choose which versions to trade. This means that the only way for this inflation schedule to change is with a very difficult consensus making process, which reduces the likelihood of more than one switch (and makes the one switch I want incredibly difficult).

Fundamentally, Bitcoin does solve several important scaling issues by creating irreversible, censorship resistant transactions without a central party.  However, the economic model of Bitcoin limits social scalability and mass adoption.  It may also be important for Bitcoiners to realize that they may be potentially limited their returns and adoption due to devotion to this hard cap.

Thank you very much to CasPiancey and Kyle S Gibson for their help with this article.

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