Axios Markets

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November 14, 2022

👋 Howdy. We totally thought Twitter would be the main business meltdown we’d be following this month. But here we are.

Let's dive in. Today's newsletter is 1,189 words, 4.5 minutes.

1 big thing: The week the crypto dream died

Illustration of a blockchain cube disintegrating into pieces.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

Never in business history has there been a more abrupt heel turn than the one we saw from Sam Bankman-Fried — or SBF, as he's universally known — over the past week, Axios' Felix Salmon writes.

Why it matters: The crypto world has seen large financial losses before, and will see them again; it's notoriously rife with ponzis, frauds and rug-pulls. If the collapse of SBF's crypto exchange, FTX, caused nothing but financial losses, that would be bad but not unprecedented.

  • FTX is much more systemically important to the crypto ecosystem, however, than its size alone would suggest.

The big picture: The story of SBF and FTX is a story of how all financial systems — even one built on a bedrock of mistrust — end up creating trusted centralized counterparties.

  • It now looks likely that SBF — arguably the most trusted man in crypto — will turn out to have been a crook who was embezzling his own customers' funds.
  • If that's the case, then lawmakers will have every reason to ignore industry pleas for special regulatory treatment. It might be many years, if ever, before crypto entrepreneurs have any hope they'll be treated as though they're responsible and law-abiding.

The bottom line: SBF's stated dream — and that of most other crypto entrepreneurs — was for the industry to improve upon and supplant the world's existing financial infrastructure.

  • That dream is now dead.

State of play: There's still a lot we don't know about what happened at FTX and at SBF's hedge fund, Alameda Research. But the big picture seems to be that Alameda was not nearly as consistently profitable as it had suggested.

  • Alameda did substantially all of its trading on FTX. If it consistently lost money on those trades, then everybody else on the exchange, in aggregate, would have considered themselves to be making money.

💭 Felix's thought bubble: Since traders flock to where the profit opportunities are best, that could drive a huge amount of volume to FTX (read more on this theory). Those volumes, in turn, underpinned the mathematics that ended up with the exchange being valued at $32 billion by Silicon Valley venture capitalists.

  • When that happened, the valuation of FTX — not to mention the market value of its associated exchange token, FTT — was rising much more quickly than any hole in Alameda's balance sheet.

The catch: The hole in Alameda's balance sheet still needed to be filled somehow, and it reportedly ended up being filled with client funds from FTX. So when those clients started asking for their money back, they discovered it wasn't there.

  • And an exchange that won't give clients their money back is worthless.

2. Catch up quick

💰 Crypto exchanges race to reassure clients their funds are safe. (FT)

🔎 Binance pledges to create a recovery fund for crypto projects facing liquidity problems. (Reuters)

🏠 China announces surprise directives to rescue its property sector. (Bloomberg)

3. Bankruptcy's big reveal

Illustration of a crypto coin pixelating and gradually disappearing

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

FTX and its web of 134 bankrupt affiliates, as private companies, were a black box to outsiders. That’s all about to change, Axios' Kate Marino writes.

Driving the news: FTX’s Friday Chapter 11 filing appears to have been pretty rushed — the company hasn’t even filed the standard first-day documents.

Why it matters: Those SEC and DOJ investigations? They’ll probably take a while to play out. But bankruptcy court will deal out revelations sooner.

State of play: Everyone’s waiting for what’s known in the bankruptcy world as the “first day declaration,” a document that tells the sweeping story of all the events leading up to the filing.

  • It’s meant to justify the bankruptcy itself, and the protection it bestows on debtors: It's usually an exhaustive play-by-play of all the things the company tried in order to avoid bankruptcy.
  • With SBF out, and now of dubious credibility, the declaration will probably be a sworn statement by the new CEO, John Ray III.

What they’re saying: “This will be the first time, in a formal court pleading under penalty of perjury, that they’ll have to explain why they’re seeking bankruptcy protection,” says Daniel Gwen, a business restructuring and cryptocurrency attorney at Ropes & Gray.

  • The disclosure could explain why FTX.us was included in the bankruptcy filing — one day after SBF tweeted that users of the U.S. exchange were "fine" even as the rest of the international empire crumbled.

Another big reveal will be the list of the largest creditors. This could show external debt and inter-company loans — as well as, potentially, some of the largest institutional customers with assets tied up on the platform. (Usually, this is filed along with the actual petition for bankruptcy protection.)

  • 💭 Our thought bubble, via Axios' Brady Dale: We'll be watching for whether the FTX team can protect the financial info of the individual retail investors on its platform, and avoid gigantic privacy gaffes like those of fallen lender Celsius.

Looking further out, a comprehensive schedule of assets and liabilities is due within 14 days of the filing — though judges are known to provide extensions in complex cases, says Dan Besikof, partner in Loeb & Loeb's restructuring practice.

The bottom line: What we may not learn just yet is how FTX intends to get out of bankruptcy.

  • Ultimately, the purpose of Chapter 11 protection is to provide companies a legal shield from creditors and litigation while they work out a plan to either reorganize, sell themselves or liquidate.
  • All the new revelations that'll hit the docket in the next few weeks will make for compelling reading, but the larger effort could take months or even years — and only then will creditors see any actual recovery on their claims.

4. Meanwhile, in stocks ...

Data: Yahoo Finance; Chart: Axios Visuals

Look no further than stocks' massive rally late last week for evidence that crypto contagion isn't spreading to the broader markets, Matt writes.

  • A weaker-than-expected inflation report on Thursday triggered the biggest rally markets have seen in months.

Why it matters: The knee-jerk response to a single economic report — the Consumer Price Index report for October — shows that even after a horrible year, hope springs eternal among some investors.

  • If inflation eases — they seem to think — it might mean the low interest rates that goosed markets over the last decade will return, and: Presto! Happy days are here again.
  • The Fed's six rate hikes this year have pushed stocks down more than 20% at times in 2022. The S&P is still on track for its worst year since 2008.

What happened: Ricochet rally.

  • On Thursday, the Nasdaq composite rose 7.4%, its biggest increase since March 24, 2020, just after the markets bottomed during the pandemic panic. It rose almost another 2% on Friday.
  • The S&P rose 5.5% Thursday, its most since April 2020, and tacked on a 0.9% gain Friday.

Details: The rally commenced with the release of the latest Consumer Price Index report on Thursday at 8:30am, which showed year-over-year inflation cooled more than analysts and economists had expected.

What we're expecting: A flurry of wet-blanket statements to be forthcoming from the Fed, to calm the animal spirits.

The bottom line: This could be simply another bear market rally. But a big one.

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Today's newsletter was edited by Kate Marino and copy edited by Lisa Hornung.