Crypto exchange Binance reversed course on a rescue offer for FTX on 9 November, leaving the prominent digital firm with an uncertain future as it faces a shortfall of up to $8bn, according to people familiar with the matter.
Binance chose not to go ahead with the nonbinding offer, following a review of the company’s finances, the exchange said. “In the beginning, our hope was to be able to support FTX’s customers to provide liquidity, but the issues are beyond our control or ability to help,” Binance said in a statement.
In a call on 9 November with investors in FTX, founder and Chief Executive Sam Bankman-Fried said he needs emergency funding because of customer withdrawal requests received in recent days, the people familiar with the matter said. Those requests sparked a debilitating liquidity squeeze.
FTX told investors that it was hoping to raise up to $4bn in equity to fill the shortfall, people familiar said.
The implosion of the Binance rescue deal weighed on financial markets already rattled by uncertainty around the outcome of US midterm elections. The Nasdaq dove around 2.5% on 9 November while the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 both fell around 2%.
Bitcoin, the biggest and best-known cryptocurrency, fell around 16%, bringing its value below $16,000 for the first time since November 2020. It is now down around 75% from an all-time high reached in November 2021.
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Also on 9 November, US Securities and Exchange Commission chair Gary Gensler issued a stern warning to crypto platforms, after more than a year of encouraging them publicly to register with his agency. He also likened the broader crypto market to a stack of Jenga blocks that gets weaker with each failure.
Once seen as a shining survivor in a struggling industry, FTX’s fall has sent shock waves through the cryptocurrency industry. Just months ago, Bankman-Fried committed nearly a billion dollars to bail out struggling cryptocurrency lenders and was an active lobbyist considered widely to be the face of crypto in Washington.
Binance’s retreat now leaves FTX’s fate unclear; the cause and full extent of FTX’s financial problems are unknown. FTX declined to comment.
On 9 November, Bankman-Fried wrote in an internal FTX Slack channel, “We obviously just saw Binance’s statement; they relayed that to the media first, not to us, and had not previously informed us or expressed those reservations,” according to a copy of the message reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Bankman-Fried wrote that he was working on next steps and doing what he can to protect customers, employees and investors. “I’m deeply sorry that we got into this place, and for my role in it. That’s on me, and me alone, and it sucks, and I’m sorry, not that that makes it any better.”
Besides the firm and Bankman-Fried, well-known institutions that invested in the exchange are on the hook for potentially big losses. Among investors in a $900m fundraising last year were SoftBank, Sequoia Capital, hedge fund Third Point and tech-oriented private-equity firm Thoma Bravo.
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In a letter to its investors late on 9 November, Sequoia said it is writing off the $150m that one of its funds invested in FTX because of “solvency risk” for the crypto company. “The full nature and extent of this risk is not known at this time,” the letter said. “Based on our current understanding, we are marking out investment down to $0.”
Individual traders could also lose funds. FTX has halted withdrawals of both crypto and fiat currencies from the exchange, according to a pinned post in its official Telegram channel.
Michael Turský, a European crypto trader, said he hasn’t been able to withdraw his nearly $11,000 from FTX since midday of 9 November. Those funds represented around 70% of his liquid net worth, he said.
He said he tried to withdraw his cash multiple times, to no avail. “Knowing FTX’s brand and name, I would have never thought it would go under in a few days,” Turský said. “Even if it did, I would have never expected them to stop all withdrawals.”
Losses related to FTX spread beyond the firm itself. Stock investors dumped shares of publicly traded companies that are tied to cryptocurrencies with holdings of them or that derive fees from trading them.
Shares in Coinbase Globa fell almost 10% despite assurances from its chief executive on Twitter that the company has sufficient assets for customer withdrawals and doesn’t have any material exposure to FTX. Coinbase closed at its lowest level since going public last year when it fetched an $85bn valuation. Its market value on 9 November was around $10bn.
Shares of Silvergate Capital, the closest US bank to the crypto world, dropped 12% and have shed some 75% of their value this year. Shares of MicroStrategy, which pivoted from business software into largely a buy-and-hold vehicle for bitcoin, fell nearly 20%.
Brokerage app Robinhood Markets, which offers trading in more than just crypto, was burned by fears that one of its biggest shareholders, Bankman-Fried, would have to dump his shares. Robinhood shares dropped nearly 14% on 9 November, bringing losses for the week to more than 30%.
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The cause of the FTX liquidity squeeze still isn’t known, but some investors and crypto holders are asking if links between the exchange and a related company, Hong Kong crypto-trading firm Alameda Research, could have contributed to the crisis. Alameda is majority owned by Bankman-Fried, and he founded both FTX and Alameda.
Questions about the depth and extent of FTX and Alameda’s financial relationship grew last week after CoinDesk published a report that indicated much of Alameda’s balance sheet was made up of FTT, a cryptocurrency created by FTX.
Cryptocurrency exchanges, like their counterparts in the world of traditional, regulated finance, rely on a mix of partners to provide digital assets for trading, such as bitcoin or ether. So-called market makers help traders buy and sell. They get paid by collecting a small difference between the bid and offer price.
Having ties between an exchange and market-maker raised governance issues and the potential for conflicts of interest. In theory, such ties could allow a market maker to potentially trade on privileged information or use the exchange to inflate or deflate prices of a given security.
“These related-party relationships are all red flags that any regulator would recognise,” said Larry Harris, a finance professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and a former Securities and Exchange Commission chief economist.
In traditional financial markets for equities and futures, exchanges are required to be neutral platforms. Regulators discourage them from being intertwined with trading firms. In the unregulated world of crypto, though, there aren’t any such constraints.
There were other links between FTX and Alameda, which besides being a market maker traded for its own purposes. The firm used FTX’s FTT tokens as collateral for loans it took out from other crypto lenders, according to people familiar with the matter.
FTT went into free fall in the days after the CoinDesk report and has lost around 90% of its value.
Bankman-Fried previously rebutted the idea Alameda was intertwined with FTX, saying to the Journal in February that none of FTX’s market-makers have access to any nonpublic market data. And while Alameda trades on FTX, he said, “their volume is a very small fraction of overall exchange volume and their account’s access is the same as others”.
— Juliet Chung, Alexander Osipovich, Eric Wallerstein, Paul Kiernan, Eliot Brown, Gunjan Banerji and Elaine Yu contributed to this article.
This article was published by The Wall Street Journal, part of Dow Jones