Why the Justice Department Is Targeting Bitfinex and Tether

Bloomberg reported this morning that a U.S. Justice Department probe into cryptocurrency market manipulation has turned its attention to Bitfinex and Tether. Bitfinex, a trading exchange, and Tether, a purportedly dollar-backed “stablecoin,” have overlapping leadership teams, and Bitfinex has been repeatedly accused of using Tether to manipulate the price of bitcoin.

The probe comes in the midst of a broad meltdown in the cryptocurrency market. As of this morning, even well-regarded cryptocurrencies including bitcoin and Ether were down 75% or more from December peaks. Many so-called “altcoins,” which Bitfinex deals in extensively, had lost even more of their value.

Part of any bursting financial bubble is the fading of a mass delusion. In the case of crypto markets, those delusions were fanned in part by media corruption and shameless hucksterism. But according to critics, Tether and Bitfinex, which is registered in the Virgin Islands and is effectively unregulated, also helped fraudulently inflate the overall market.

One accusation is that Bitfinex permitted ICO or altcoin issuers to inflate the impression of interest in their tokens through so-called wash trading, and Bloomberg says investigators may examine activity on the exchange itself.

More profound, though, are long-running accusations that Bitfinex has fraudulently issued the Tether stablecoin to prop up the price of bitcoin. Tether is supposedly backed by U.S. dollars held in banks, but the issuer has never established a truly stable banking relationship, preventing it from providing convincing proof that it only issues new Tether when customers buy them with dollars. A University of Texas study first issued on June 13 of this year found evidence that Tether was used to prop up the price of bitcoin, rather than in response to customer demand.

Tether and Bitfinex have denied those findings. But Bitfinex chief strategy officer Philip Potter resigned in June, less than ten days after the publication of the Griffin paper. Potter is, notably, American, based in New York City, and has spent much of his career on Wall Street. That may mean he has more to lose from affiliation with a perceived financial manipulator than other Bitfinex executives, whose backgrounds are primarily in technology, and who are largely based in Europe and Asia.

Bitfinex was previously fined $75,000 by the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission in 2016 for failing to properly register as a commodities dealer. Some observers have suggested that regulatory action led to a $72 million hack by pushing Bitfinex to adopt different security practices. That hack has continued to fuel (mostly highly speculative) allegations that the exchange was insolvent, which may have in turn invited heightened scrutiny from the Justice Department.

Increased scrutiny of alleged bad actors may be fueling the current crypto rout. And though it’s painful for crypto believers, this could ultimately clear the ground for smarter investment and real development down the road.