Crypto’s excruciating week has traders bracing for next crisis

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It was one of the most dramatic weeks in the short history of the cryptocurrency market, bookended by the type of announcements investors fear the most from a counterparty: We’re sorry, but we just can’t return your money right now.

In between, a nascent technocratic industry with grand ambitions to reinvent the financial system was rocked repeatedly by echoes of past crises in the old system. It was a week of margin calls, forced selling and important collateral being exposed as way too illiquid in a time of crisis. There were rumblings of hedge-fund blowups, tales of opportunistic predatory trading, job cuts and loud denials of problems from key players proven wrong almost immediately.

Amid it all, the myth was shattered once and for all that this new crypto financial system was somehow immune to — or even able to benefit from — the economic fundamentals currently punishing the old system.

It all started late Sunday, when a sort of crypto shadow bank called Celsius Network suspended withdrawals from depositors who had been enticed by sky-high interest rates that, in retrospect, were likely too good to be true. By the end of the week, on the other side of the world in Hong Kong, the digital-asset lender Babel Finance also froze withdrawals.

We’re working on it, both firms told customers, and no doubt they are. Yet speculation is growing that Celsius Network, at least, is drowning in what research firm Kaiko called a “Lehman-esque” position.

Like Lehman Brothers did almost 14 years ago, Celsius’s woes showed how interconnected big players in this financial system are and how fast contagion can spread, making this week’s drama the sequel to last week’s and the prequel to next week’s.

Many analysts have pointed to problems that Celsius is having with an Ethereum-linked token called staked ETH, or stETH — a coin designed to be a tradable proxy for Ether that’s widely used in decentralized finance. While every stETH is meant to be redeemable for one Ether after long-awaited upgrades of the Ethereum blockchain take effect, recent market turmoil has caused its market value to fall below that level.

Terra connection
Research firm Nansen has also identified Celsius as one of the parties involved when the UST stablecoin lost its peg to the dollar in May. The episode with that token, which was driven largely by algorithms, crypto animal spirits and untenable yields of 19.5% for depositors in the Anchor Protocol, triggered the loss of tens of billions dollars in the spectacular implosion of the Terra blockchain.

Nansen’s analysis confirmed that Terra’s Anchor program had been an important source of yield for Celsius, according to commentary from crypto exchange Coinbase. “In our view, this likely begged the question of how Celsius could fulfill its obligations without that 19.5% yield,” wrote the institutional team at Coinbase. That firm, by the way, said this week it will lay off 18% of its previously fast-growing workforce, joining other pink-slip-issuing crypto startups such as Gemini and BlockFi that are struggling amid a relentless plunge in asset prices that’s been dubbed “crypto winter.”

The drama ramped up on Wednesday with an alarming tweet that seemed to confirm speculation that had been swirling around one of the most influential hedge funds in crypto, Three Arrows Capital. “We are in the process of communicating with relevant parties and fully committed to working this out,” one of the firm’s co-founders wrote, without revealing any details about what exactly the “this” was that it was working out.

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