By Anthony Casey (University of Chicago), Brook Gotberg (Brigham Young University), and Joshua Macey (University of Chicago)
Note: This post is the ninth post in a series of posts on bankruptcies of cryptocurrency companies and the emerging issues they pose. Previous posts in the series include:
2. Quantifying Cryptocurrency Claims in Bankruptcy: Does the Dollar Still Reign Supreme?, by Ingrid Bagby, Michele Maman, Anthony Greene, and Marc Veilleux
3. The Public and the Private of the FTX Bankruptcy, by Diane Lourdes Dick and Christopher K. Odinet
4. Staking, Yield Farming, Liquidity Mining, Crypto Lending – What are the Customer’s Risks?, by Matthias Lehmann et al. (University of Vienna)
5. The Treatment of Cryptocurrency Assets in Bankruptcy, by Steven O. Weise, Wai L. Choy, and Vincent Indelicato
7. Roundup: Celsius Network LLC, by Jessica Graham
8. The Implications of CeFi and DeFi in Bankruptcy: A Hot Take on Celsius, by Kelvin FK Low and Timothy Chan
This series is being managed by the Bankruptcy Roundtable and Xiao Ma, SJD at Harvard Law School, xma [at] sjd [dot] law [dot] harvard [dot] edu.
Check the HLS Bankruptcy Roundtable periodically for additional contributing posts by academics and practitioners from institutions across the country.
When a crypto exchange such as FTX files for bankruptcy, crypto assets will often be treated as property of the estate and not as property of the individual or business that deposited coins with the exchange. Scholars have focused on the financial stability and consumer protection issues that arise as a result of this treatment.
In our opinion, there is an additional reason to treat crypto depositors as owners, not as creditors, of crypto assets, and to exempt holders of crypto assets from ordinary bankruptcy procedures such as the automatic stay. With some exceptions such as stablecoins, crypto assets are highly volatile. Claims against a crypto exchange, including claims submitted by customers who traded crypto assets on the exchange, are valued at the filing date. The failure of a crypto exchange is likely to occur when the crypto asset’s value has declined significantly. The fact that claims are valued at the filing date could lead to strategic bankruptcy petitions that redistribute value away from junior claimants. And even if crypto exchanges do not file with this purpose in mind, bankruptcy, by creating an artificial moment of reckoning, is likely to redistribute value from customers of a crypto exchange to the exchange’s other creditors or managers.
This is an extreme version of a familiar problem, which is that bankruptcy, by forcing a moment of reckoning, causes claimants who have invested in volatile assets to lose the option value of those investments. Imagine a company that has an asset that could appreciate significantly in the future but currently holds little value. If the firm files for bankruptcy, creditor claims are based on the value of the asset at the time the firm files for bankruptcy. If there is reason to think that the asset’s value will increase in the future, a bankruptcy filing allows the debtor to pay the relatively little and then benefit when the asset’s value goes up. That, in our opinion, offers another reason to think that customers of crypto exchanges should not be treated as unsecured creditors.
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