In the bitcoin world, even insolvency is just a bull run away from being reversed.
The infamous bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox, which declared bankruptcy in 2014 while owing creditors 45 billion yen ($414 million), has a stash of bitcoins held by its trustee that—at least for the moment—are valuable enough to pay off its creditors and then some, thanks to the cryptocurrency’s record-setting price surge this year. Bitcoin set a historic high two days ago (June 11), trading at over $3,000 a coin. The Mt. Gox trustee holds 202,185 bitcoins (pdf), which are now worth about $560 million, at the bitcoin price of nearly $2,800 today.
More than half a billion dollars worth of bitcoin just sitting in a trustee account hasn’t gone unnoticed. Mt. Gox creditors congregating on a sub-Reddit on discussion site Reddit have proposed many uses for this stash of money.
The commodities trading giant DRW has offered to help the trustee liquidate its holdings, through its bitcoin trading unit. The goal of the public offer was “to bring people’s attention to the fact that the 200,000 coins could potentially bring the company out of bankruptcy,” says Mike Komaransky, head of trading at the DRW subsidiary, Cumberland Mining. “They may be looking for liquidity.”
The Mt. Gox case is still “under investigation” by the trustee, a Tokyo lawyer named Nobuaki Kobayashi. In addition, it’s tied up in litigation with a company called CoinLab that struck a deal to be Mt. Gox’s North American agent a few months before the exchange collapsed. Distributions to creditors won’t occur until that lawsuit is settled. I’ve contacted the trustee but have not received a reply.
There is some skepticism about the plan to liquidate Mt. Gox’s bitcoins—not least from the person at the center of the meltdown, former Mt. Gox chief executive Mark Karpeles. The Frenchman is currently out on bail, awaiting trial for embezzlement on July 11 for his role in the exchange’s collapse. He already saw jail-time after Japanese police arrested him in 2015. Karpeles has doubts DRW’s plan would work. “Should the trustee attempt to liquidate the coins, getting a price close to market rate sounds difficult,” he tells me, by direct message on Twitter.
The last great bull run for the cryptocurrency took place at the end of 2013 and early 2014, just as his exchange was crashing. The price then was driven up in part by the fact that Mt. Gox had halted withdrawals, cutting off a crucial route for people to cash their bitcoins out; and because of reported market rigging by “WillyBot,” an automated trading program that was found to be operating on Mt. Gox.
What does Karpeles make of bitcoin’s surge in value this year? He points to the risk posed by bitcoin’s “civil war,” a disagreement over how to increase bitcoin’s ability to handle more transactions could cause the cryptocurrency to split into two. Proponents of one approach say bitcoin’s core code needs to be rewritten to remove its arbitrary transaction limit, called the block size; they are opposed by others who want to double the transaction size using a clever workaround called “SegWit” that would not risk splitting the cryptocurrency. He strikes a diplomatic stance, offering support to neither camp: “Bitcoin is still stuck with the block size issue,” he says. “There is an urgent need to either increase block size or go with SegWit.”
There has been one other high-profile loss of customer funds by a bitcoin exchange since the Mt. Gox collapse. Bitfinex, the world’s largest exchange at the time, was hacked for $65 million in August 2016. The amount was so large that few believed the exchange could recover. Instead of declaring bankruptcy, Bitfinex spread the losses evenly across all its customers, then issued a tradable token that could be redeemed for the losses. As of April, those tokens were fully redeemed, meaning the losses had been reimbursed. “We’ve demonstrated an alternative to bankruptcy,” Bitfinex’s chief strategy officer told Bloomberg.
The Mt. Gox debt itself has been the focus of creative workarounds. One site, Mygoxclaim.com, allows people to buy Mt. Gox claims. Traders can buy a claim (paywall), denominated in bitcoin, at a discount, allowing some creditors to get paid immediately. Claim buyers stand to profit handsomely if the Mt. Gox trustee eventually pays the claim in full at a time when bitcoin prices are surging.
Creditors owed bitcoin now would make a loss if they were paid back today. That’s because bitcoin claims are pegged at an exchange rate of one bitcoin to $485.50, the price the day before Gox declared bankruptcy, by order of a Japanese court. The trustee is still deliberating whether a bitcoin distribution would occur, but even if it it did, creditors would only receive an amount pegged to the $485.50 exchange rate.
So if a creditor was owed one bitcoin, and the trustee paid her back today with bitcoin currently trading at $2,772, she would receive just 0.17 bitcoin, a fraction of what was owed. “These creditors wanted to hold bitcoin, not $483.50, and they are the ones taking a massive loss for MtGox to return to solvency,” says Daniel Kelman, a Taipei-based lawyer and a Mt. Gox creditor who set up the Mygoxclaims website.
Komaransky of Cumberland Mining is still waiting for Mt. Gox’s trustee to reply to his offer to liquidate its stash of bitcoins. “Let’s say they go through with it, that’s when the fun begins, I believe,” he says. “We have people waiting in the wings, saying ‘please contact us if you have a large seller.'” Komaransky says his firm does millions of dollars worth of over-the-counter placements of bitcoin daily.
A flood of institutional interest, attracted by bitcoin’s surging price, means he’s now seeing demand from buyers who want tens or hundreds of millions worth of the cryptocurrency, he says. “This is a lot different of an environment from a year ago. These are order sizes that we have only become familiar with in the last six months,” he says.
For Mt. Gox’s nearly 25,000 creditors, the fight goes on. Kelman and other creditors view Karpeles as an ally in getting Mt. Gox’s debt settled. “He’s trying to do what he can to get people paid back,” he says. Karpeles, for his part, has been active on the sub-Reddit where creditors congregate to plan their next steps. It’s one of the things he’s engaged in while he works as a programmer at an “IT company” in Japan, doing what he calls “good ‘ol dev work.”
It’s a far cry from the man who controlled the center of the bitcoin economy just four years ago. “I’m working on quite a few projects,” he says. “But hey, got to make a living.”