What the crypto crash tells us
89 years ago today the US government moved to end the Ponzi schemes that led to the Great Depression. Now it's time to end the crypto bezzle
Last Sunday night, as cryptocurrency prices plummeted, Celsius Network — an experimental cryptocurrency bank with more than one million customers that has emerged as a leader in the murky world of decentralized finance, or DeFi — announced it was freezing withdrawals “due to extreme market conditions.”
Earlier this week, Bitcoin dropped 15 percent over 24 hours to its lowest value since December 2020, and Ether, the second-most valuable cryptocurrency, fell about 16 percent. Last month, TerraUSD, a stablecoin — a system that was supposed to perform a lot like a conventional bank account but was backed only by a cryptocurrency called Luna — collapsed, losing 97 percent of its value in just 24 hours, apparently destroying some investors’ life savings. The implosion helped trigger a crypto meltdown that erased $300 billion in value across the market.
These crypto crashes have fueled worries that the complex and murky crypto banking and lending projects known as DeFi are on the brink of ruin.
Eighty nine years ago today the Banking Act of 1933 — also known as the Glass-Steagall Act — was signed into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt. It separated commercial banking from investment banking — Main Street from Wall Street — in order to protect people who entrusted their savings to commercial banks from having their money gambled away. Glass-Steagall’s larger purpose was to put an end to the giant Ponzi scheme that had overtaken the American economy in the 1920s and led to the Great Crash of 1929.
Americans had been getting rich by speculating on shares of stock and various sorts of exotica (roughly analogous to crypto) as other investors followed them into these risky assets — pushing their values ever upwards. But at some point Ponzi schemes topple of their own weight. When the toppling occurred in 1929, it plunged the nation and the world into a Great Depression. The Glass-Steagall Act was a means of restoring stability.
It takes a full generation to forget a financial trauma and allow forces that caused it to repeat their havoc.
By the mid-1980s, as the stock market soared, speculators noticed they could make lots more money if they could gamble with other people’s money, as speculators did in the 1920s. They pushed Congress to deregulate Wall Street, arguing that the United States financial sector would otherwise lose its competitive standing relative to other financial centers around the world.
In 1999, after Sandy Weill’s Travelers Insurance Company merged with with Citicorp, and Weill personally lobbied Clinton (and Clinton’s Treasury secretary Robert Rubin), Clinton and Congress agreed to ditch what remained of Glass-Steagall. Supporters hailed the move as a long-overdue demise of a Depression-era relic. Critics (including yours truly) predicted it would release a monster. The critics were proven correct. With Glass-Steagall’s repeal, the American economy once again became a betting parlor. (Not incidentally, shortly after Glass-Steagall was repealed, Sandy Weill recruited Robert Rubin to be chair of Citigroup’s executive committee and, briefly, chair of its board of directors.)
Inevitably, Wall Street suffered another near-death experience from excessive gambling. Its Ponzi schemes began toppling in 2008, just as they had in 1929. The difference was that the U.S. government bailed out the biggest banks and financial institutions, with the result that the Great Recession of 2008-09 wasn’t nearly as bad as the Great Depression of the 1930s. Still, millions of Americans lost their jobs, their savings, and their homes (and not a single banking executive went to jail). In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, a new but watered-down version of Glass-Steagall was enacted — the Dodd-Frank Act — which has been further diluted and defanged by Wall Street lobbyists.
Which brings us — 89 years to the day after Glass-Steagall was enacted — to the crypto crash.
The current chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Gary Gensler, has described cryptocurrency investments as “rife with fraud, scams, and abuse.” Yet in the murky world of crypto DeFi, it’s hard to understand who provides money for loans, where the money flows, or how easy it is to trigger currency meltdowns. There are no standards for issues of custody, risk management, or capital reserves. There are no transparency requirements. Investors often don’t know how their money is being handled or who the counter-parties are. Deposits are not insured. We’re back to the Wild West finances of the 1920s.
In the past, cryptocurrencies kept rising by attracting an ever-growing range of investors and some big Wall Street money, along with celebrity endorsements. But, as I said, all Ponzi schemes topple eventually. And it looks like crypto is now toppling.
So why isn’t this market regulated? Mainly because of intensive lobbying by the crypto industry, whose kingpins want the Ponzi scheme to continue. The industry is pouring huge money into political campaigns. And it has hired scores of former government officials and regulators to lobby on its behalf — including three former chairs of the Securities and Exchange Commission, three former chairs of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, three former U.S. senators, and at least one former White House chief of staff, the former chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and more than 200 former staffers of federal agencies, congressional offices and national political campaigns who have worked in crypto. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers advises crypto investment firm Digital Currency Group Inc. and sits on the board of Block Inc., a financial-technology firm that is investing in cryptocurrency-payments systems.
In a famous passage from his 1955 book The Great Crash 1929, my mentor, Harvard professor John Kenneth Galbraith, introduced the term “bezzle” (derived from embezzlement). Galbraith observed that the bezzle in a financial system grows whenever people are confident about the economy, and reveals itself when confidence ebbs:
At any given time there exists an inventory of undiscovered embezzlement which … varies in size with the business cycle. In good times, people are relaxed, trusting, and money is plentiful. But even though money is plentiful, there are always many people who need more. Under these circumstances, the rate of embezzlement grows, the rate of discovery falls off, and the bezzle increases rapidly. In depression, all this is reversed. Money is watched with a narrow, suspicious eye. The man who handles it is assumed to be dishonest until he proves himself otherwise. Audits are penetrating and meticulous. Commercial morality is enormously improved. The bezzle shrinks.
Crypto is pure bezzle — as is now being revealed. If we should have learned anything from the crashes of 1929 and 2008, it’s that regulation of financial markets is essential. Otherwise they turn into Ponzi schemes filled with bezzle — leaving small investors with nothing and endangering the entire economy. It’s time for the Biden administration and Congress to stop the crypto bezzle.
What do you think?