“The worst day of my career, and one of the worst days of my life — the day FTX froze withdrawals,” is how Travis Kling, who runs Ikigai Asset Management, described it in a series of tweets on Nov. 7. Four days later, Sam Bankman-Fried’s exchange filed for bankruptcy, ushering in arguably the darkest days in crypto’s history.
“The first weeks were incredibly brutal. I didn’t sleep much at all. Feelings of terror, guilt and shame. We laid off most of the team,” Kling wrote.
A year on, the industry is irrevocably altered — while at the same time in many ways remarkably familiar.
Mostly gone are the giddy day traders and the abundant leverage that drove Bitcoin to its November 2021 high at close to $69,000. Same for celebrities and social-media influencers peddling nonfungible tokens and memecoins. Regulators determined not to get caught off guard again are tightening their grip. And large financial firms like BlackRock Inc. are moving in, drawn by the prospect of the US Securities and Exchange Commission giving its first blessing for an ETF investing directly in Bitcoin.
Perhaps the most tangible indicator that crypto has moved on: Bitcoin has recovered all its losses since the May 2022 implosion of stablecoin TerraUSD, which set in motion the wave of failures that ultimately helped bring down FTX.
“People have short memories,” said Jeff Dorman, chief investment officer at asset manager Arca.
Some observers see an industry still afflicted by rampant speculation and insufficient safeguards. The Tether stablecoin, a pillar of the sector long dodged by speculation about the quality of assets backing it and allegations that it’s being used by criminals, has become more dominant in recent months. Binance, the biggest exchange, still operates without a formal headquarters.
“The industry still primarily offers assets that can be made up out of thin air with values that are eminently manipulable,” said Hilary Allen, a law professor at American University Washington College of Law who has written about crypto’s impact on financial stability. “We still see crypto exchanges performing brokerage activities — with all the conflicts of interest that entails — and there are still allegations of exchanges commingling customer assets.”
By the time FTX went down, the crypto market was already months into the rout that claimed TerraUSD, hedge fund Three Arrows Capital and lender Celsius Network. But the fall of FTX, once one of the top crypto exchanges by trading volume, was even more damaging, according to Aaron Brown, a crypto investor who writes for Bloomberg Opinion.
“FTX was just the climax of a year of crypto credit collapse,” he said. “It sharply reduced the easy trading profits and exchange fees from retail traders, and also hurt staking, NFTs and other bubble froth.”
The number of over-the-counter desks has declined, with mainly the more conservative ones remaining, according to Tegan Kline, co-founder of Edge & Node, which developed a crypto project called The Graph. That, combined with the erosion of leverage, has sapped liquidity.
“Leverage is gone,” Kline said. “A lot of people have pulled money out of the system or they have money stuck at FTX.”
A number of crypto exchanges have launched new lending programs in recent months, while several more lending projects are expected to debut shortly, hoping to fill in the gap. Approval of a Bitcoin ETF could help increase liquidity as well.
One of the hardest-hit corners of crypto is NFTs, made famous by collections like Bored Ape Yacht Club’s cartoon primates and CryptoPunks’ pixelated characters. Weekly trading in NFTs has fallen to half of what it was when FTX went bankrupt.
Like no event before it, the FTX crash woke governments around the world up to the need for tighter guardrails around crypto. In short order, the SEC and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission went after top exchanges like Binance (along with Chief Executive Officer Changpeng “CZ” Zhao), Coinbase Global Inc. and Kraken.
“Regulatory bodies have intensified their oversight of centralized exchanges since the collapse of FTX,” said Jacob Joseph, a research analyst at crypto analytics firm CCData.
The European Union adopted its Markets in Crypto-Assets regulation in May, providing a new legal framework for the industry. Both Hong Kong and Dubai introduced new crypto regulatory regimes over the summer, pledging to clamp down on bad behavior, while positioning themselves as new hubs for the industry. At the same time, regulators around the world kept clamping down on Binance, which exited countries like Canada and the Netherlands under pressure.
Zhao isn’t the only crypto leader to find himself in the crosshairs. In July, a year after Celsius filed for bankruptcy, former CEO Alex Mashinsky was arrested and charged with fraud (he has pleaded not guilty). A week ago, Bankman-Fried was convicted on seven counts of fraud and conspiracy following a month-long trial that pitted the testimony of the former crypto king against that of some of his closest friends.
“This guilty verdict shows that perpetrators of these types of scams will eventually face the law and suffer the consequences of their crimes, even in crypto,” said Cory Klippsten, CEO of Bitcoin financial services firm Swan.
During the heady days of 2021 and early 2022, venture capitalists were the industry’s biggest cheerleaders, pouring billions of dollars into budding startups. But the collapse of FTX sparked a hasty retreat, with crypto venture funding tumbling 63% to $2 billion in the third quarter from a year earlier, according to PitchBook.
“We’ve got way fewer dollars going into the space,” said David Pakman, managing partner at crypto VC firm CoinFund. Tech-focused VCs have pivoted away from crypto to focus on hot new areas like artificial intelligence, he added.
The VC firms that pumped almost $2 billion into FTX came under heavy fire for not spotting the fraud. Sequoia Capital, Thoma Bravo and Paradigm even face a class-action lawsuit from FTX investors who alleged that these VCs hyped the legitimacy of the exchange.
As a result, investors are now running background checks on company founders and asking for hard data on metrics like revenue and customer growth, said Pakman. “They need more than a business plan,” he said.
Startups themselves have also adapted, increasingly choosing to launch their businesses in places like Singapore, the UK and European Union, which are viewed as more friendly to crypto than the US, according to Pakman.
Kate Laurence, CEO of Bloccelerate VC, said that the “irrational exuberance” that characterized the crypto bull run overshadowed the need for vetting potential investments, but it’s now a much different time for VCs.
Due diligence is “no longer something that they can choose whether or not to participate in,” she said.
The collapse of FTX, a centralized exchange, has reignited interest in decentralized finance, according to Paul Veradittakit, managing partner at crypto VC firm Pantera Capital.
“We see a new breed of DeFi companies around derivatives and structured products, companies hoping to provide separation of custody and clearing, and companies providing more transparency around credit,” he said.
While the total value of cryptocurrencies locked on DeFi applications is still down from a year ago, it has rebounded in recent months.
FTX drove home the peril of keeping your digital assets on a centralized exchange, said Edge & Node’s Kline. Former FTX users are still seeking to recover some $16 billion of crypto that was trapped on the platform when it went down.
“It’s like, are you kidding me? Have you learned nothing?” Kline said.