Thomas Murray Digital team
Following the recent failure of the TerraUSD algorithmic stablecoin, the fallout affecting the cryptocurrency markets and the policy questions that the incident raises have continued to dominate discussions. At issue are what – if any – role privately-operated stablecoins may have in the future of wholesale and cross-border settlements, the parameters and priority of stablecoin regulation, and the degree to which Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) – previously viewed by some major economies as more relevant to retail applications – could assume wholesale roles.
Finance ministers from the G7 group of nations meeting in Germany this month with representatives from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank Group, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the Financial Stability Board discussed the potential role that CBDCs could play in realising greater efficiencies, in the context of the G20 Roadmap for enhancing cross-border payments. They highlighted the potential international uses of CBDCs and the need to minimise negative effects on the international monetary system by introducing consistent and comprehensive regulation of digital asset issuers and service providers. They noted in particular the need to achieve widespread compliance with the Financial Action Task Force’s ‘travel rule’ and the need for greater reporting requirements of the assets backing stablecoins.
Policymakers at the Bank of England have previously been open about their view that any so-called ‘Britcoin’ would not be a priority for wholesale settlement, given the introduction in 2021 of omnibus accounts permitting regulated entities to commingle tokenised money in order to settle among themselves. The Bank’s governors also cited the ability of the private sector to manage such settlements, which have fewer complexities and policy implications than retail CBDC usage, without government involvement. However, the UK Treasury has this week published a consultation paper titled Managing the failure of systemic digital settlement asset (including stablecoin) firms that proposes that the Bank of England be designated as the regulator of stablecoins, giving it the power to appoint administrators should so-called Digital Settlement Assets encounter difficulties. Similarly, the Financial Conduct Authority would bring stablecoin activity under its existing electronic money and payments regulatory regime.
In South Korea, the government has reacted to Terra’s collapse – believed to have affected 280,000 Koreans – by proposing a new digital assets committee to oversee the imposition on the industry of investor protections equivalent to those for securities, uniting a currently fragmented regulatory environment under one roof.
The US and Japan commenced preparations for the regulation of stablecoin issuers last year. In November, the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets coordinated a report on stablecoins that proposed that issuers should be treated like banks. And in December, Japan’s Financial Services Agency proposed legislation to limit the number of stablecoin issuers by restricting their issuance to banks and wire transfer companies, positing that this would increase trust in them and help to avoid runs that could crash their value and potentially destabilise the wider financial markets.
While TerraUSD – a bold and unusual ‘algorithmic’ (rather than fully asset-backed) stablecoin – may not have enjoyed widespread institutional use, its collapse has put a sharp focus on its more traditionally structured erstwhile competitors.
The long-running controversy over Tether (USDT), the first and largest stablecoin, continues as the company behind it has still not produced an audited set of financial disclosures, despite past promises, to offer assurance that it has adequate asset backing for the USD-pegged tokens it has issued. Its CTO, Paolo Ardoini, has hinted at a reluctance to publish full details of the constitution of Tether’s reserves, or of its counterparties, calling the information its ‘secret sauce’. Senator Elizabeth Warren has called this lack of transparency a ‘gigantic red flag’. Tether’s accountant, MHA Cayman, introduced new language in its latest attestation report dated 18 May, covering Tether’s Consolidated Reserves Report as at 31 March, stating that there is significant uncertainty regarding the value of large parts of the reserves – for example, during a run on its tokens – and Tether’s exposure to risk resulting from potential issues with its unnamed custodians and counterparties:
“The valuation of the assets of the Group have been based upon normal trading conditions and do not reflect an unexpected large-scale sale of assets, or the case of any key custodians or counterparties defaulting or experiencing substantial illiquidity, which may result in materially different or delayed realisable values. No provision for expected credit losses was identified by management at the financial reporting date.”
MHA Cayman also states that Tether’s management makes no provision for the potential costs of two legal cases that it is currently defending nor for credit losses.
At the end of March, approximately 47% of the reserves were in less liquid and riskier forms such as digital tokens, commercial paper, corporate bonds, and money market funds. Just under 5% of its reserves were held as cash.
By contrast, Tether’s younger rival Circle – issuer of the USD Coin (USDC) stablecoin – is making hay from Tether’s misfortunes. Its CFO Jeremy Allaire published a blog post provocatively titled How to Be Stable asserting that USDC’s reserves are held entirely in cash and US Treasuries with maturities of 3 months or less, and that those assets are custodied by Bank of New York Mellon, US Bank and BlackRock. It has also recently stepped up publication of the full breakdown of its reserves from a monthly cadence to weekly, with monthly attestation reports from accountants Grant Thornton continuing.
As of writing, the market capitalisation of Tether’s USDT has fallen by approximately USD 11 billion since 7 May (when TerraUSD first showed signs of instability) while that of Circle’s USDC has risen by about USD 5.5 billion over the same period.