By Matthew Goldstein and David Yaffe-Bellany
Two months after FTX filed for bankruptcy, lawyers for the once high-flying cryptocurrency exchange have begun to identify and put a value on its assets, as they determine how much they will be able to recover to repay lenders and customers who lost billions of dollars.
In a court filing on Tuesday, lawyers from the New York firm of Sullivan & Cromwell — which is facing a controversy of its own tied to work it did for FTX before the bankruptcy — said that they had located $US5.5 billion ($7.9 billion) in assets held in customer accounts or tucked away in other parts of the company.
As the lawyers disclosed more detail about the nature of the assets tied to FTX, the scope of the challenge involved in untangling and recouping them became clearer. In just three years, FTX, founded by Sam Bankman-Fried, had swiftly put money into a hodgepodge of assets, from esoteric cryptocurrencies to investments in hundreds of other companies.
About $US1.7 billion of the $US5.5 billion is in cash on FTX’s books. An additional $US3.5 billion or so is in cryptocurrency assets — a pool that includes more established coins like bitcoin, as well as other coins of more questionable value. The lawyers say that stash of digital currencies can be turned into cash because the coins are relatively easy to trade.
The total includes $US268 million of bitcoin, as well as $US245 million of so-called stablecoins, or cryptocurrencies that are designed to maintain a constant value of $US1. But it also includes holdings worth hundreds of millions of dollars of lesser-known coins that may not retain their value over the long term: There’s $US529 million of FTT, a coin that FTX created, as well as $US42 million of dogecoin, the cryptocurrency that was invented as a joke, only to surge in price for a time.
‘This could drag on for a long time.’Financial adviser Kenneth Marshall
The crypto recovered by FTX also includes an additional $US1.2 billion in various digital currencies held at other exchanges — holdings the lawyers said they had “limited visibility” into. A smaller amount, worth about $US300 million, sits in investment funds tied to the cryptocurrency market.
Aside from the $US5.5 billion, FTX holds sizable positions in 20 digital assets that the lawyers described as “illiquid tokens” that are difficult to convert into cash. Figuring out what they’re worth could take a long time.
Despite the substantial collection of assets lawyers have identified, FTX said in a statement accompanying the filing that they found fewer digital assets than they had hoped to find, both at the main offshore exchange based in the Bahamas and its US unit. The FTX lawyers said they had shared the information earlier in the day with members of a committee that represents customers, lenders and others.
Digging into FTX’s finances
When FTX collapsed in November, initial reports suggested that as much as $US8 billion was missing from customer accounts, including money held in some of the 9 million accounts that customers opened at the exchange. The exact amount of money it owes lenders — including other big cryptocurrency trading firms — hasn’t been disclosed.
As lawyers continue to dig into the finances of FTX, the final accounting of what the exchange owes, what it holds and what can be recovered is likely to change. The task is complicated by the fact that FTX did not keep complete financial records. Prosecutors contend that for years, Bankman-Fried treated customer deposits like money in a piggy bank that he could do with as he saw fit.
FTX’s lawyers have said that Bankman-Fried and two other associates took out more than $US1 billion in loans from the exchange.
Prosecutors have charged that FTX regularly diverted customer deposits to fuel trading and cover losses at Alameda Research, a crypto trading firm that Bankman-Fried owned. FTX executives also spent customer money to acquire lavish real estate in the Bahamas and make political donations to both Democrats and Republicans, according to federal authorities.
Bankman-Fried has pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud, money laundering and campaign finance violations. And he has denied stealing any customer money.
Federal authorities have said that Bankman-Fried also used billions of dollars in customer deposits to invest in hundreds of other cryptocurrency firms. Last week, FTX’s lawyers said Bankman-Fried’s businesses made at least $US4.6 billion in investments in roughly 300 other companies, and that those funds could be reclaimed through litigation or negotiations. That amount does not count toward the $US5.5 billion total.
It will be harder to reclaim — or even value — the more esoteric digital assets that FTX’s lawyers have identified among the exchange’s holdings, including millions of dollars worth of serum, sol/ethereum and a little-known coin called Trump Loses.
Many of these unusually named coins came into existence or rose to popularity in 2020 and 2021, as the crypto market boomed. Entrepreneurs tried to capitalise on the hype by marketing new cryptocurrencies to investors, who were looking to generate quick profits. But now many of these coins have fallen in value. In some cases, the number of coins held by FTX is so large that it would be difficult for the company to sell the digital currencies without cratering their price.
FTX also is planning to raise cash by selling some business operations in the Bahamas, Japan and Europe that might be viable with a capital infusion. And the company plans to work with officials in the Bahamas to market the company’s real estate holdings — a total of 36 properties valued at $US253 million.
But it’s unclear just how much all those assets can sell for, or how quickly. In short, FTX customers and lenders still need to brace themselves for a multiyear legal drama before they see a return of any money, and they are likely to incur steep losses, experts say.
“It is possible creditors could be given the option of getting digital coin or cash. It depends on what the underlying crypto is,” said Kenneth Marshall, a financial adviser who has specialised in working with investors who have been victims of failed deals, including those involving crypto. “This could drag on for a long time.”
The latest disclosure about FTX assets has also put a spotlight on the work of Sullivan & Cromwell, one of the world’s most prestigious corporate law firms. It is not only representing FTX in the bankruptcy but also did legal work for the exchange before it collapsed,
On Friday, Andrew R. Vara, the US trustee in the bankruptcy proceeding, filed an objection to FTX’s decision to retain Sullivan & Cromwell, claiming that its work before the bankruptcy poses a potential conflict of interest. The trustee also has argued for an independent examiner to be appointed to investigate matters.
The law firm’s bankruptcy work doesn’t come cheap: Billing rates for Sullivan & Cromwell partners range from $US1,575 to $US2,165 per hour, according to an earlier court filing.
A representative for Sullivan & Cromwell pointed to a court filing Tuesday that said the law firm had “worked tirelessly” to recover assets for the company. In a related court filing, a lawyer from the firm, Andrew Dietderich, defended the firm’s prior work for FTX and its ability to conduct an investigation into the events surrounding the collapse of the exchange.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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