Now let’s add one more crypto element. If you are a crypto exchange, you might issue your own crypto token
. FTX issues a token called FTT. The attributes of this token are, like, it entitles you to some discounts and stuff, but the main attribute is that FTX periodically uses a portion of its profits to buy back FTT tokens. This makes FTT kind of
in FTX: The higher FTX’s profits are, the higher the price of FTT will be.
If you think of the token as “more or less stock,” and you think of a crypto exchange as a securities broker-dealer, this is completely insane.
If you go to an investment bank and say “lend me $1 billion, and I will post $2 billion of your stock as collateral,” you are messing with very dark magic and they will say no.
The problem with this is that it is wrong-way risk.
(It is also, at least sometimes, illegal
.) If people start to worry about the investment bank’s financial health, its stock will go down, which means that its collateral will be less valuable, which means that its financial health will get worse, which means that its stock will go down, etc. It is a death spiral.
The worst case is something like:
- You have 100 Customer As who are long Bitcoin on margin: They each have 1 Bitcoin in their accounts and owe you $10,000.
- You have 100 Customer Bs who are short Bitcoin on margin: They each have $20,000 in their account and owe you 0.5 Bitcoin.
- You have loaned 50 of the Customer As’ Bitcoins to the Customer Bs, and $1 million of the Customer Bs’ dollars to the Customer As. You keep the other 50 Bitcoins and $1 million as collateral.
- Your accounts show that you owe clients 100 Bitcoins and $2 million, and that they owe you back 50 Bitcoins and $1 million, and you have 50 Bitcoins and $1 million on hand, so everything balances.
- You have one Customer C who says “hi I would like to borrow 50 Bitcoins and $1 million, I will secure that loan with 150,000 FTT, each of which is worth $20.”
- You say “sure, sounds good,” and hand over all your collateral.
- Now you have 150,000 of FTT, worth $3 million, as collateral (and no Bitcoins or dollars).
- Your accounts show that you owe clients 100 Bitcoins and $2 million and 150,000 FTT, and they owe you back 100 Bitcoins and $2 million, and you have 150,000 FTT of collateral, so everything balances.
But then if the value of FTT drops to zero, you have nothing
. You have no Bitcoins to give to the customers to whom you owe Bitcoins, no dollars to give to the customers to whom you owe dollars. You just have to call up Customer C and say “hey we need all those dollars and Bitcoins back.” But Customer C will not want to give you back all those valuable dollars and Bitcoins in exchange for now-worthless FTT. Also the fact that Customer C had all that FTT in the first place is not a great sign. It is an FTT whale, and FTT is now worthless. Has it been borrowing elsewhere against FTT? Are all those debts coming due?
The reason for a run on FTX is that you think that Alameda is, in my terminology, Customer C. The reason for a run on FTX is if you think that FTX loaned Alameda a bunch of customer assets and got back FTT in exchange. If that’s the case, then a crash in the price of FTT will destabilize FTX.