Should We Worry About Tether’s Bitcoin-Buying Plan?

Squint and you can see resemblances to Do Kwon’s bitcoin buying during Terra/luna’s high days.

AccessTimeIconMay 18, 2023 at 6:51 p.m. UTC
Updated May 18, 2023 at 10:16 p.m. UTC
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Like any good Bitcoin maximalist, Tether is holding its own coins. The issuer of the largest stablecoin, USDT, disclosed that information in a recent blog post announcing it will be “regularly” buying bitcoin with its surplus profits to build up a war chest. This follows a surprisingly robust attestation (aka an “Assurance Report” completed by top five accounting firm BDO Italia, which is not the same as an audit) showing Tether netted $1.48 billion in profit in the first quarter of the year. The firm’s “excess of reserves” has about doubled to $2.4 billion, which I think would be included in its $81.8 billion in “consolidated total assets” (most of which would be the cash, cash-like and other investments Tether makes to back its eponymous stablecoin).

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With the new bitcoin-buying plan, announced about a week after the attestation, Tether joins the ranks of a number of institutional behemoths hoovering up BTC. Notably, MicroStrategy, the publicly-traded tech firm that after nearly two years of dollar cost averaging now essentially trades as a backdoor bitcoin exchange-traded fund (ETF), is getting pretty close to owning about 1% of bitcoin’s total supply. Tether already holds a little over 52,000 BTC, making its bitcoin treasury among the largest among corporations, with plans to spend 15% of the “tangible gains from its operations” on more coins. The company’s “conservative and prudent” investment strategy also includes a sizable investment in gold (unknown if that’s self-custodied, too).

Although Tether didn’t state as much, its bitcoin-buying plan could also be seen as an attempt to de-risk its exposure to the U.S. dollar. It’s en vogue nowadays to talk about “dedollarization,” or the process by which countries (and to a lesser extent companies) reduce their reliance on the greenback, seeing as trust is dwindling in the fiscal and monetary policies of the U.S. More specifically, the Federal Reserve (which manages monetary policy) is caught between quelling inflation and starting a recession while the U.S. Congress (fiscal policy) is locked into a “debt ceiling” debate that genuinely risks the U.S. Treasury defaulting on its loans – leaving the world to search for alternatives.

It wouldn’t be totally off base to suggest as much: Circle, Tether’s largest competitor, is “diversifying” its holdings of U.S. Treasury’s (often considered “risk free” in portfolio construction) into the overnight “repo” market. Both stablecoin issuers have stated bluntly they are reducing their reliance on “pure bank deposits,” considering the wave of bank failures in the U.S. So, while Tether’s CTO Paolo Ardoino is only willing to go in the press release as far as talking up bitcoin’s strengths and the company’s attempt at “aligning ourselves with a transformative technology,” the move is as much about the weaknesses of the U.S. dollar.

There’s really no amount of bitcoin that would save the firm if the buck breaks. But until that happens, Tether just has to take in funds and pay out withdrawals – and it can invest the spread wherever it wants

None of this is an issue, of course. Tether is a private company and can do what it wants with its money. As Austin Campbell, an ex-portfolio manager at Paxos who used to run the Binance-branded BUSD stablecoin when it was worth some $22 billion, said: "if they are buying bitcoin with profits and adding that as a safety buffer, it's just a way for them to speculate on BTC prices that is not particularly harmful.”

So long as the company is not swapping out bitcoin for its cash or cash-like reserve assets, like U.S. Treasury’s, meant to ensure USDT is always redeemable 1:1 for the U.S. dollar, then it’s fine. And Tether did say it's only using profits.

But the situation might still churn a few stomachs. First, it’s worth noting Tether is keeping up releasing attestations after the New York Attorney General found the company had “at times” lied to its users and the investing public about the nature of its reserves. Tether is riding high today, benefiting from a confluence of recent forces including a nice little run up in bitcoin’s price, general crypto volatility and a bank run that bolstered the case for alternative stores-of-value like stablecoins (while, more or less by chance, dislodging Circle’s USDC as the most-trustworthy option). But it’s not clear sunny days are here to stay.

Even putting aside the regulatory anvil that is yet to drop, Tether’s recent move stinks of the type of hubris that seems to precede wily crypto firms running into walls. Maybe my memory is tainted by Do Kwon, the backer of the now defunct algorithmic stablecoin UST, saying “Besides Satoshi [Bitcoin’s creator], we will be the largest single holder of bitcoin in the world,” but it does seem like an unnecessary risk to use a highly volatile asset in building a rainy day fund. Kwon, if you don’t remember, had planned to buy $10 billion worth of bitcoin to act as a security blanket, at a time when his LUNA/UST Rube Goldberg machine was worth over $80 billion.

Of course, Tether and Kwon had entirely different business models and risks – there’s a world of difference between algo and non-algo stablecoins. Whereas UST was a decentralized Ponzi scheme in that it was prone to “death spirals” because it used fake money to print representations of real money, Tether is only a decentralized Ponzi-like scheme in that it operates a bit like a bank. Tether takes in capital and mints an equivalent amount of its stablecoin, and then invests that capital and gets to keep the profits. So long as it maintains at least as much in reserve as there is USDT left to be redeemed, it’s a golden goose.

There’s probably someone in the world saying the bitcoin-buying plan is exactly the type of reason why stablecoin issuers need to be regulated. The European Union, for instance, just passed rules so issuers have to maintain strict reserves. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress seems divided on how to tackle the issue – leaving issuers essentially along to regulate themselves. Is it strange we just found out Tether was holding BTC and gold, having chosen to “increase transparency” by adding those “additional categories” to its reports? Given the structural importance of USDT to crypto markets, crypto stakeholders might demand not just more insight into but control over the company’s investment decisions.

But, in a real way, buying bitcoin with surplus cash likely won’t affect USDT users (though it might even benefit BTC holders). For the trade to go sideways, so much else has to go wrong. It never really made sense to me when Do Kwon would bash the U.S. dollar, claiming that his “decentralized money” (which was pegged to fiat!) would outcompete the world’s reserve currency. Likewise, Tether’s support of bitcoin as a hedge is an implicit acknowledgement of the risk of its own main product. There’s really no amount of bitcoin that would save the firm if the buck breaks. But until that happens, Tether just has to take in funds and pay out withdrawals – and it can invest the spread wherever it wants.


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Daniel Kuhn

Daniel Kuhn is a deputy managing editor for Consensus Magazine. He owns minor amounts of BTC and ETH.

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