Crypto’s Shadow Currency Surges Past Deposits of Most U.S. Banks

Olga Kharif
·3 min read

(Bloomberg) -- Tether, the crypto stablecoin backed one-for-one by fiat currencies, surpassed $50 billion in circulation, a sum that’s more than the insured deposits at all but 44 of the thousands of U.S. banks.

It’s a remarkable milestone for a token that enjoys wide use as a method of payment in the crypto ecosystem, even as the eponymous private company behind it has endured regulatory scrutiny for its opacity on where it holds the enormous sum of reserves that back the token.

Tether is set to release the first quarterly statement on its reserves to the New York Attorney General this month. The disclosure is part of a settlement of a long-running dispute with state regulators over whether it actually has the reserves, but it is unclear whether investors will get a glimpse at it.

Not that Tether investors seem to care either way. The token’s popularity has only grown amid the legal hubbub, as it became the most traded cryptocurrency in the world, exceeding even the volume of market leader Bitcoin. Traders and speculators use it as a conduit to conduct transactions on crypto-only exchanges such as Binance and to park assets to avoid the sector’s extreme price volatility.

“At those offshore exchanges Tether is the main collateral and margin type,” said Nic Carter, co-founder of researcher Coin Metrics. “Exchange volumes are way up and Binance volume is way up. For traders to get access to these crypto-only exchanges they often prefer a stablecoin like Tether. You can think of the supply of Tether as a transparent proxy for the balance sheet of both the crypto-only exchanges as well as the funds trading crypto on those exchanges.”

About 66% of Bitcoin is bought using Tether, according to data tracker CryptoCompare. And Tether’s use is likely to expand since Coinbase Global Inc., the largest U.S. crypto exchange, is planning to allow trading of the stablecoin on its Coinbase Pro platform.

The quarterly report will be released to New York in May, according to Stuart Hoegner, general counsel for the crypto exchange Bitfinex and Tether. The companies, which are based primarily in the British Virgin Islands, settled without admitting or denying any wrongdoing.

When the settlement was announced, New York Attorney General Letitia James said “Bitfinex and Tether recklessly and unlawfully covered-up massive financial losses to keep their scheme going and protect their bottom lines. Tether’s claims that its virtual currency as fully backed by U.S. dollars at all times was a lie.”

The cryptosphere saw few ripples in the wake of the settlement, with the amount of Tether created continuing to surge after the announcement. Market participants anticipate a similar reaction no matter what that quarterly report reveals.

“The fact that Coinbase added it tells you everything you need to know,” said Kyle Samani, co-founder of Multicoin Capital.

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