In March, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said it's “easy to see the risks” of cryptocurrencies, and warned that central banks “don’t know how some digital products will behave in times of market stress.”
What they have seen lately will not give them comfort. The sudden and rapid collapse of popular crypto projects sheds light on the house-of-cards nature of many crypto products and provides the perfect "told you so” moment for already-wary regulators.
Tracy Basinger is a senior adviser at Klaros, a financial advisory and investment firm.
Jonah Crane is a partner at Klaros.
First, in early May, TerraUSD, an algorithmic stablecoin, rapidly collapsed, erasing billions of dollars of value in just a few short days. Then Celsius halted redemptions by customers who had deposited funds, and is believed to be nearing insolvency. The drastic moves by Celsius – and forced liquidations of leveraged positions – roiled crypto markets. Bitcoin briefly touched $20,000 and is down more than 70% since its November 2021 peak.
These debacles and the uneasiness they have caused will likely instill regulators and policymakers with a new sense of urgency to address issues that have gnawed at the crypto industry. But these problems and the decline in crypto prices could also present a great opportunity to create a clearer path forward. They come against a backdrop of already-accelerating regulatory pressure.
What regulators have said
In August 2021, the federal banking agencies launched crypto “sprints” and, in the fall of 2021, laid out their agenda for 2022. In November 2021, the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets (PWG), released a report detailing risks associated with stablecoins, including the risk of a panic akin to a bank run, and called on Congress to pass new legislation limiting stablecoin issuance to insured banks. Then in March 2022, President Biden issued an executive order on digital assets. The report acknowledged potential benefits of innovation in digital assets, but emphasized the downsides: The word “risk” appeared 47 times.
A wide range of state and federal regulators have weighed in following the implosion of Terra, and again following Celsius’ troubles and the broader market collapse. After the Terra collapse, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called for a “comprehensive framework” governing stablecoins and urged Congress to act. Subsequently, the SEC was reported to be investigating the marketing of TerraUSD by Terraform Labs.
Just days after Celsius halted redemptions, Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Chairman Gary Gensler cautioned that crypto platforms promising high returns may be too good to be true. Meanwhile, state securities regulators in Alabama, Kentucky, New Jersey, Texas and Washington have opened an investigation into Celsius’ actions. After Terra’s failure, Gensler announced the agency would add 20 investigators and litigators to its unit dedicated to cryptocurrency and cybersecurity enforcement.
In addition, more than 40 states have some type of crypto legislation in place or pending in their legislature. And California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently issued an executive order on cryptocurrencies, mapping out a comprehensive regulatory framework for digital assets.
Ghosts of financial crises past
This latest market crash reveals just how much consumers could lose – two trillion dollars of crypto asset's market cap have been wiped out. And both Terra and Celsius provide glaringly bad examples of the fragile financial engineering mixed with hyperaggressive promotion that has led regulators to see echoes of past financial crises.
The collapse of the Terra stablecoin and resulting market volatility will leave regulators who have been warning of the risks associated with crypto feeling vindicated. Terra experienced the equivalent of an old-fashioned bank run when investors began to lose confidence that they would always be able to redeem their token for a dollar. That’s exactly what the PWG (and many others, including Sam Bankman-Fried) warned would happen.
Moreover, Terra achieved its scale (roughly $18 billion in circulation at its peak) because it could be deposited into a yield protocol and earn up to 20% interest. Acting Comptroller of the Currency Michael Hsu recently compared yield farming to Ponzi schemes – and he’s not alone. The Anchor Protocol promised UST depositors 20% yields, with no realistic way to continue paying out interest if money stopped flooding in. Celsius used its borrowed assets as collateral to borrow more and make a series of risky bets – including investing in the Anchor Protocol – in search of returns to meet its promise to pay “depositors” 8%.
Finally, both Terra and Celsius caused volatility across crypto markets – a foreshadowing of the significant spillover effects that might occur if, say, Tether were to collapse. This kind of financial contagion risk is exactly what regulators try to prevent.
How to prepare
At this point, crypto companies should assume regulation is inevitable. If the industry wants to help itself, it must be at the table. But more than that, industry leaders must be willing to overhaul the way large portions of these markets work.
On stablecoins, industry leaders should clearly distinguish among different models and begin a dialogue about the ways in which certain models, and certain regulatory reforms, could achieve the regulators’ policy objectives. Amid the Terra crash, the market clearly viewed certain stablecoins – namely, 100% dollar-backed coins – as more stable than others. And yet Tether, which has broken the buck multiple times in recent weeks, remains a critical element of a major portion of crypto market activity.
For their part, regulators, too, should begin to recognize that not all stablecoins are created equal. Regulators were right to warn of “run risks” inherent in stablecoins, but have done little to distinguish between stablecoins and “unstable” coins. The New York Department of Financial Services, which regulates two stablecoin issuers, released public guidance requiring stablecoin reserves to be held in safe and liquid assets and be subject to independent attestations. This guidance provides an excellent foundation for developing a truly stable framework.
Hsu issued a call for public-private collaboration on developing stablecoin standards. That is an invitation the industry should accept.
More broadly, there needs to be a reckoning within the industry. The desire for open and decentralized crypto markets makes many participants averse to prescriptive rules. But inherently fragile products have served to accelerate and multiply the damage of a crypto downturn. Industry leaders should take advantage of the crypto winter to clear the underbrush that could be the kindling for the next inferno. It’s time to recognize that many products simply aren’t consistent with fair and orderly markets.