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The Magic of Mt. Gox

November 27, 2017

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The Magic of Mt. Gox

November 27, 2017

Authored by: Bryce Suzuki and Justin Sabin

How Bitcoin Is Confounding Insolvency Law

Arthur C. Clarke famously observed: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Our regulatory, legislative, and judicial systems illustrate this principle whenever new technology exceeds the limits of our existing legal framework and collective legal imagination.  Cryptocurrency, such as bitcoin, has proven particularly “magical” in the existing framework of bankruptcy law, which has not yet determined quite what bitcoin is—a currency, an intangible asset, a commodity contract, or something else entirely.

The answer to that question matters, because capturing the value of highly-volatile cryptocurrency often determines winners and losers in bankruptcy cases where cryptocurrency is a significant asset. The recently-publicized revelation that the bankruptcy trustee of failed bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox is holding more than $1.9 billion worth of previously lost or stolen bitcoins highlights the issue.

The Mt. Gox Case:  Timing is Everything

In 2013, Mt. Gox[1] was the world’s largest bitcoin exchange.  By some estimates, it accounted for more than 80% of all bitcoin exchange activity.  By February 2014, Mt. Gox had shut down its website, frozen customer accounts, and ceased trading.  A leaked internal document indicated that hackers had gained access to Mt. Gox’s online wallets and stolen nearly 850,000 bitcoins, each then worth approximately $550.  That same month, Mt. Gox commenced insolvency proceedings in Japan, and thereafter filed a corresponding chapter 15 bankruptcy in the United States.  Mt. Gox eventually “found” approximately 200,000 bitcoins previously believed to be among those lost or stolen.

When it became clear that Mt. Gox could not reorganize and would proceed with liquidation, the Japanese court appointed a trustee over Mt. Gox’s assets.  A former Mt. Gox exchange customer then filed a lawsuit against the trustee seeking the return of the customer’s purchased bitcoins.  The Japanese court, however, ruled that the bitcoins at issue were not capable of ownership under Japanese law and dismissed the lawsuit.  Article 85 of the Civil Code of Japan provides that an object of ownership must be a tangible “thing,” in contrast to intangible rights (like contract or tort claims) or natural forces (like sunlight or electricity).  Bitcoin, the court ruled, does not meet the definition of a “thing” under the statute and, therefore, does not qualify for private ownership.

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Bitcoin after Brexit: Safe Haven or Harbinger of Future Distress?

July 21, 2016

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What a difference a week can make! On June 17, 2016, bitcoin was trading at more than $750. Five days later, as polls showed the Brexit vote leaning heavily to “remain,” bitcoin dropped as low as $585. After the vote to leave the European Union became final, the British Pound, the Euro, the Chinese Yuan, and global stocks dropped precipitously. Bitcoin, on the other hand, spiked to more than $676. Could this mean bitcoin is being perceived as a new safe-haven asset?

A Brief Background on Bitcoin Generally

Bitcoin often is described as a “digital currency.” On a more technical level, bitcoin is a digital asset within a peer-to-peer computer network payment system created in 2008 by an anonymous cryptographer going by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. Because the computer network uses open-source, peer-to-peer software, no truly central authority administers and oversees transactions, and no government controls or backs the digital “currency.” Instead, users or “nodes” on the network verify transactions by solving complex computer algorithms. The verified transactions are then recorded on a public ledger (called the blockchain) for all to see. Because transactions employ lengthy key codes rather than traditional personally-identifiable information, users can trade bitcoin quasi-anonymously.

Because bitcoin lacks government or centralized control, conceptually it is accessible to anyone with an internet connection and eliminates many of the transaction costs associated with traditional currency trading. For the same reasons, however, it can be highly volatile. At the inception of the network in 2009 and through 2012, a single bitcoin was worth mere pennies. In 2013, amid a financial crisis and the seizure of bank accounts in Cyprus, holders of Cypriot accounts began buying massive amounts of bitcoin, which drove the price of bitcoin to more than $260 for the first time. By November 2013, the value of bitcoin peaked at $1,242. The price of bitcoin declined thereafter amid hacking scandals, the insolvency proceeding of Mt. Gox (bitcoin’s then largest exchange), and negative perceptions created by the high-profile criminal case involving the elicit online marketplace known as Silk Road. Despite its volatility over the last seven years, however, bitcoin has endured and shows no signs of disappearing.

Bitcoin as a Safe Haven?

Bitcoin’s sharp rise after the Brexit vote appears to evidence a new confidence in bitcoin as a safe haven. Investment professionals, however, have been extremely reluctant to give bitcoin such status. One recent research note observed that calling bitcoin a safe haven “obfuscates the fact that bitcoin is a high-risk and volatile investment” and ignores that “bitcoin’s correlation to other traditional safe-haven assets has fluctuated significantly.” Instead, bitcoin can be viewed as “something entirely different that does not fit into the normal buckets that investments are typically bracketed into.”

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