Can Chinese Exchange OKCoin Rescue Mt. Gox Creditors?
The as-yet-unofficial rescue plan is gaining support from Mt. Gox customers, but many obstacles remain.
One name that crops up whenever recovery plans for Mt. Gox are mentioned is one of China's largest bitcoin exchanges, OKCoin.
That's probably for a good reason. On an as-yet-unofficial basis, the company is known to be interested in backing its own team in Japan to put Gox back on its feet and take some steps towards making creditors whole.
OKCoin CEO Star Xu told CoinDesk during a recent interview in Beijing that the idea had been suggested to him by some Japan-based friends, and that he personally thought resurrecting the once-dominant exchange and attempting to return its customers' funds was important to the entire bitcoin community.
He also added it would be a lengthy process that could take years to realise.
says it is not considering a direct takeover of Mt. Gox, but rather it wants to leverage its experience by licencing exchange and security technology under a new team that would possibly feature some OKCoin personnel.
Also involved is another Chinese company, BitOcean, which is already partnering with OKCoin to produce the first home-grown bitcoin ATMs for both the domestic and international markets.
Mt. Gox proposal
OKCoin/BitOcean's new plan would feature an immediate audit of Mt. Gox's bitcoin and fiat currency reserves, a debt-equity swap in a new business entity for all creditors and the ability for users to begin withdrawing funds from day one.
The plan, according to people involved, was designed from the beginning to favour redress for Mt. Gox's customers – some of whom saw up to six- and seven-figure fiat-value balances simply vanish when Gox suddenly ceased all operations in February.
CEO Mark Karpeles has claimed Mt. Gox lost the majority of its bitcoins in hacks related to the 'transaction malleability' issue in bitcoin's protocol, although bitcoin core developers and other researchers have claimed this is not credible. It also does not explain what happened to the millions in dollar, euro and Japanese yen balances also stored at the exchange.
Lack of reliable and independent information regarding Mt. Gox's exact financial history and current situation is hampering attempts to find a solution attractive to creditors, as well as debate over whether such a solution is even possible.
The only funds known to exist at this stage are the 200,000 bitcoins the exchange said were found "in an old format wallet" in March.
Rescue vs liquidation
Rival rescue group Sunlot Holdings, which runs the SaveGox.com website, is trying to prevent the planned liquidation that would see Mt. Gox shut down completely and its assets sold.
Even that process could take years, with any remaining bitcoins treated as assets and sold at market rates before eventually being returned to former customers at some stage in the future.
At this stage any decision regarding liquidation or rescue plans rests with the bankruptcy trustee appointed by the Tokyo District Court, Nobuaki Kobayashi. Kobayashi has not yet indicated whether he favours a resurrection of Mt. Gox at all.
He posted an updated notice about bankruptcy proceedings on the exchange's homepage on 21st May, stating that a creditors' meeting "for reporting on the status of the assets" would take place in Tokyo on 23rd July. The deadline for filing bankruptcy claims is 28th November, and a final decision will be made on 25th February 2015.
Court rejects CoinLab's block
CoinLab, a former Mt. Gox business partner still engaged in active lawsuits with the company, last week attempted to use US bankruptcy courts to block or delay Sunlot's plan.
It said the bid headed by Wall Street trading veteran John Betts and backed by new Bitcoin Foundation Board member Brock Pierce lacked the experience necessary to perform its proposed investigation.
A Seattle court rejected CoinLab's submission, however, saying Sunlot's proposal did not have special status and there may indeed be other groups with their own plans.
Fiery online meeting
A Google hangout streamed live to YouTube on 27th April tried to clear the air by allowing the various interests to state their case. The meeting at times became heated as various parties questioned whether others had creditors' best interests at heart.
US Attorney Daniel Kelman, who divides his time these days between Taiwan and Tokyo, has been exploring creditor-friendly solutions to the Mt. Gox problem for some time and strongly favours a debt-equity swap solution.
Kelman is not representing OKCoin in an official capacity, but spoke on behalf of its plan during the hangout, after speaking to associated people both in China and Japan.
He did reveal some basic details of the OKCoin group's plan, though, which would probably involve at least a $1m injection of capital and the selling of shares in the new entity to raise more capital.
He mentioned that OKCoin's interest in forming a recovery plan came from Chinese expats living in Tokyo and CEO Xu, all of whom had lost substantial amounts of bitcoin when Gox collapsed.
The company had not known a rehabilitation was even possible before Sunlot's original plan was revealed, he added. Xu then realized his expertise at operating a stable bitcoin exchange, plus OKCoin's existing technology and security standards, could be beneficial to an alternative campaign.
Some participants in the hangout were enthusiastic about the thought of a 'Chinese-Western' joint venture for the good of bitcoin, saying the Mandarin and English-speaking economies (mainly the US) have been bitcoin's prime movers so far.
"I agree completely. Bitcoin is a worldwide phenomenon, and very much a phenomenon of the English speaking and Chinese speaking worlds [...] And it would be great to see an exchange that could merge those two. I think that would make it very successful also," said Kelman.
Sunlot came under fire on bitcoin-related Internet forums like bitcointalk and reddit for various reasons, but raised eyebrows over an initial plan that appeared to use existing Gox funds to conduct its investigation and pay management fees.
The funds belonged to creditors and should not be touched by outsiders before a rescue plan succeeded, former customers complained.
Sunlot then revised its plan to include a greater injection of its own investors' equity and offered creditors a 16.5% equity stake in a revived entity.
Sunlot has been criticised both for being an 'outsider', a company with no previous bitcoin exchange experience, but also for having 'insider' connections, due to the involvement of two of its investors in prior Mt. Gox acquisition and joint venture attempts, one of which was over a year ago.
The company's CEO, John Betts, took the opportunity in the meeting to defend his team's credibility and warn critics against making claims without evidence, saying:
He said his team's offer of 1 BTC to buy Mt. Gox was twofold: it evoked the disgrace of previous finance industry collapses such as rogue trader Nick Leeson's Barings Bank (sold to ING for £1), and prevented significant sums of money from flowing to Mark Karpeles, the owner.
The small sum should not be taken as a lack of Sunlot's commitment, he explained.
SaveGox/Sunlot also stated on its extensive FAQ page that it has reached out to OKCoin's team to express an interest in co-operation, though the tone of discussion on the hangout suggests they still have some issues to iron out.
The team claims to have the backing of at least 66% of Mt. Gox creditors after US class action lawyer Jay Edelson (representing the creditors) agreed to its revised plan as part of his clients' settlement.
Olivier Janssens, the entrepreneur and bitcoin early adopter who lost $5m worth of bitcoins in the Gox collapse, set up the site mtgoxrecovery.com. Initially set up to seek potential recovery plans, it now invites visitors to build a database of customers who lost money and asks if they would be interested in joining any formal legal action.
Janssens admits his campaign is not actually a plan, but instead seeks justice for customers and Mt. Gox management, by supporting whoever is best equipped to deliver that result.
That justice, he indicated, would involve not only a reasonable chance of Mt. Gox's existing bitcoins being returned to customers as bitcoins, but also Mark Karpeles facing criminal or civil action for his part in the whole affair.
Online chat logs reveal Janssens is furious at Karpeles over his actions in the weeks surrounding Mt. Gox's collapse.
He said he would favour liquidation if it would return some funds to investors, rather than entrusting Mt. Gox's fate to a new and unknown company. Sceptical of Sunlot's plan and the motives behind it, Janssens said Sunlot had operated behind everyone's back, only revealing its plans after they were leaked.
Bitcoiners bitten before
Janssens explained that trust levels in the bitcoin community were extremely low after numerous thefts and scams at exchanges, and that users were naturally suspicious of any newcomers unless they could prove their level of commitment and be prepared to back it up with legally binding contracts.
He added that, although it was not his intention to do so, he would be prepared to contribute the $5m he lost in the Mt. Gox closure simply to find out what happened.
Image via Mikadun / Shutterstock
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