It’s one of the most hotly debated questions in the world of virtual currencies: Is Tether telling the truth when it says that each of its digital coins is backed by one U.S. dollar? The answer could have big ramifications, given that Tether’s coin (also called Tether or USDT) is among the most actively traded cryptocurrencies -- treated by many as a substitute for the greenback on crypto markets around the world. But the coin has been under investigation by the U.S Justice Department over possible trading manipulation. In April, New York’s top cop accused the firms behind USDT of covering up an “apparent loss” of $850 million of co-mingled client and corporate funds.
1. What is Tether?
It’s an issuer of a cryptocurrency with a twist. Unlike Bitcoin, whose value fluctuates wildly from day to day, Tether’s tokens are designed for stability. Prices for the coins have historically stayed near $1 because Tether says each one is backed by a dollar in its bank accounts.
2. Why are the coins popular?
Many traders use them as a substitute for dollars. Tether’s coins are more easily transferable between cryptocurrency exchanges and other online platforms because they don’t have to travel through the banking system. Stable prices have made the coins handy instruments for betting on the direction of other cryptocurrencies.
3. Why are there skeptics?
While Tether has repeatedly said that its coins are fully backed by dollars, the company has yet to provide conclusive evidence of its holdings to the public. There are also questions about Tether’s relationship with Bitfinex, one of the world’s biggest cryptocurrency exchanges. Both have the same CEO. In October, Bitfinex dismissed allegations it was insolvent and said withdrawals were functioning as normal, though it said “complications continue to exist for us in the domain of fiat transactions.” The April accusations from the New York attorney general’s office will likely bolster the critics. The firms behind Tether and Bitfinex suffered an “apparent loss” of $850 million of customer and proprietary funds and didn’t tell investors, the attorney general said. Executives then allegedly engaged in transactions that gave Bitfinex access to $900 million of Tether’s cash reserves, according to the attorney general’s statement.
4. What are U.S. regulators doing?
The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission sent subpoenas to Bitfinex and Tether in late 2017, according to a person familiar with the matter. “We routinely receive legal process from law enforcement agents and regulators conducting investigations,” Bitfinex and Tether said in January 2018. “It is our policy not to comment on any such requests.” The aforementioned DOJ probe is looking at how new Tether coins are created and why they enter the market predominantly through Bitfinex. In New York, the firms behind USDT have been told to retain all documents tied to the latest probe by the state’s attorney general.
5. Why is Tether so important for cryptocurrency investors?
Despite their modest total market value of about $2.9 billion, Tether’s coins play an outsized role on cryptocurrency exchanges. They were the second-most traded among all digital currencies after Bitcoin as of April 25, according to data compiled by CoinMarketCap.com. While there are many other so-called stablecoins, none have come close to challenging USDT’s popularity.
6. What’s next?
If authorities were to find any evidence of wrongdoing at Tether, or if traders lost faith in the company’s ability to redeem its coins for $1, USDT could quickly lose value. But only time will tell if the coin’s recent challenges represented a blip or the start of something bigger. “Tether’s stablecoin dominance will only persist if they can settle community criticisms about their lack of transparency once and for all,” said Jehan Chu, managing partner at blockchain investment and advisory company Kenetic Capital.
--With assistance from Justina Lee and Eric Lam.
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