Crypto’s final price could be zero

There aren’t many leveraged buyouts of technology companies, and for good reason. Technology and debt, like Red Bull and milk, don’t mix. Why? Because when technology works, it commands high valuations. You can’t LBO Google. But when technology moves on to the next new thing, there isn’t much residual value in the form of assets and collateral to call on in case of debt defaults. FTX, Elon Musk and SoftBank are learning this lesson.

Twitter, which last turned a profit in 2019, now has $1 billion a year in debt payments. Wall Street can’t off-load Twitter’s buyout debt, now maybe 60 cents on the dollar, without losing money. Mr. Musk even told employees “bankruptcy isn’t out of the question.» Of course, he has benefited from selling his own highly valued (though declining) Tesla shares, recently another $4 billion for a total of more than $19 billion. As Chief Twit, Mr. Musk proclaims Twitter will operate under free-speech principles. Advertisers are fleeing. So are employees. If he defaults and walks away, the only thing left is some aging code and a few plastic blue birds to sell at auction.

The new poster child for the toxic cocktail of technology and debt is Sam Bankman-Fried, with his imploded FTX and Alameda empires. Sure, these companies misappropriated, to put it nicely, customers’ assets. And yes, withdrawals that acted like a bank run drove the company into Chapter 11. But the company’s original sin was to borrow against its own FTT token, which was held up by nothing but air.

This was crypto’s mass delusion. FTT was so thinly traded that FTX could set any price, but not forever. FTX and Alameda borrowed against tokens they themselves were manipulating, including Solana and others, which some called Sam Coins, now Scam Coins. The fatal conceit: They thought FTT would stay high forever, so they invested in often illiquid positions. FTX was even paying employees, vendors and whoever else would take it in FTT tokens, whose total market cap used to be almost $10 billion and is now about $400 million.

You can’t manipulate something forever. Reality eventually replaces delusion. All it took was someone to touch a pin to the bubble. After Coindesk leaked a copy of Alameda’s balance sheet loaded with FTT tokens, Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao started selling. FTT went from $22 to under $3 in 48 hours. So much for collateral. When the smoke clears, FTX/Alameda may have $8 billion to $15 billion in debt outstanding, with little to sell for repayment. It will take years to sort out who gets what.

Meanwhile, others also barreled in. A cottage industry of firms emerged to lever up crypto. This is when things turned toxic. The first task was to lure customers by paying interest on their crypto holdings. The Anchor Protocol behind the spectacularly imploded Terra-Luna algorithmic tokens was paying up to 20%.

Other platforms such as Binance and Crypto.com would pay 4%, 8% or more on crypto as well, suckering in the masses who could earn only 0.01% interest from, well, real banks. But how could anyone pay interest on crypto? By turning around and lending it out to hedge funds and others who also used leverage. Insanity.

Genesis Global Capital created a lending platform to facilitate borrowing crypto. Lending against what? Again, just air. Firms such as Gemini, set up by the Winklevoss twins, were paying 8% interest, so customers could harvest yields. Why was there any yield on crypto? Good question. It worked on the way up, not so much on the way down. Crypto was lent out like a hot potato until someone got stuck with the value down 90% and everyone else left with defaulted debt. This was probably the only way the delusion could have ended.

Most of these platforms are now frozen and might disappear as customers caught with a hot potato frantically demand withdrawals in the wake of the FTX collapse. Of course, all these crypto lenders had to do was ask: What’s the underlying collateral? Where are the assets? With no good answer, no sane lender would have lent against it. But no one asked.

Another debt example: Remember in 2020 when a SoftBank fund was revealed as the “Nasdaq Whale» using derivatives and leverage to buy technology shares and eventually losing big? Well, besides SoftBank’s zero on its $100 million investment in FTX, here’s a strange twist: Its CEO, Masayoshi Son, may owe his company nearly $5 billion. According to the Financial Times, “Son has pledged both his stake in the funds and a portion of his SoftBank stake as collateral for the amount he owes the company.» The funds have sunk, and SoftBank stock value has declined 50% since early 2021.

Technology, like Red Bull, is a supercharger until it wears off. Debt, like milk, can kill you when it spoils. They don’t mix.

 

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