Breaking: US Criminal Probe to Look Into Potential Bitcoin Price Manipulation

Francisco Memoria
  • The US Department of Justice has recently launched a criminal probe into potential bitcoin price manipulation.
  • The investigation is in its early stages, and is said to be targetting illegal activities like wash trading and spoofing.

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) has reportedly launched a criminal probe into whether traders are actively manipulating the price of various cryptocurrencies, including bitcoin. The probe is said to be after spoofing and wash trading.

According to Bloomberg, the move is a culmination of the US’ scrutiny into cryptocurrency markets, which some claim are rife with misconduct. Bloomberg’s report cites four people familiar with the matter.

The investigation, according to the unnamed sources, is still in its early stages and is focusing on illegal practices that can influence prices. These include spoofing the market with fake orders to trick other traders, and wash trading to create fake trading volume.

Federal prosecutors, Bloomberg adds, are working with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), a financial regulator, on the investigation. Notably, the CFTC is a derivatives watchdog that doesn’t regulate markets in which actual cryptocurrencies are traded. Nevertheless, it has the authority to act if it spots fraud.

The limited oversight, University of Texas finance professor John Griffin noted, makes the cryptocurrency ecosystem a target for crooks. He was quoted as saying:

“There’s very little monitoring of manipulative trading, spoofing and wash trading. It would be easy to spoof this market.”

John Griffin

Various cryptocurrency enthusiasts have long believed bitcoin’s price is actively being manipulated. According to CryptoCompare data, the flagship cryptocurrency has fallen from a nearly $20,000 all-time high in mid-December, to about $7,500 at press time.

The cryptocurrency’s bearish period has notably seen it various odd patterns, which some critics claim to be proof of price manipulation. Last year, a blogger known as Bitfinex’ed documented the actions of “Spoofy,” a single entity the blogger claims is dominating bitcoin’s price.

According to his work, Spoofy was a trader or group of traders that often placed orders of $1 million or more, without actually executing them. Its goal was to trick other traders and force the cryptocurrency’s price to go in the direction it wanted it to go.

As for other cryptocurrencies, it’s well-known various groups organize “pump and dump” schemes to manipulate their prices, especially when it comes to small-cap cryptos. As covered, last month a group of cryptocurrency influencers were reported to the FBI and the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for orchestrating these schemes.

ErisX Tells Regulator's Why Ethereum Futures Would Create Better Markets

  • Nasdaq and Fidelity Investments-backed ErisX exchange sends explanation letter to CFTC.
  • Letter explains that regulated Ether-based futures contract would create more efficient crypto markets.

ErisX, a US-based digital asset exchange, has filed a comment letter with the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) - after the federal regulator requested more information regarding Ethereum (ETH)’s current market.

Submitted on Friday, February 15, ErisX’s letter asserted:

The introduction of a regulated futures contract on Ether would have a positive impact on the growth and maturation of the market.

As covered, ErisX is a newly launched cryptoasset exchange that received $27.5 million in starting capital from multi-trillion dollar investment manager, Fidelity and Nasdaq Ventures, which is Intercontinental Exchange’s (ICE) VC investment division.

Consistent With CFTC's Efforts

In December 2018, ErisX’s management revealed its plans to offer bitcoin (BTC), litecoin (LTC), and ether (ETH) spot trading and it also noted that it was seeking regulatory approval - in order to list cryptocurrency futures at a later point this year. Explaining why such futures contracts would help investors, ErisX’s letter noted that “listing and trading Ether futures compliantly on CFTC regulated markets is consistent” with the financial regulator’s efforts to create “open, transparent, competitive, and financially sound derivative trading markets.”

The letter from ErisX further mentioned that regulated crypto-based futures would “prohibit fraud, manipulation, and abusive practices in connection with derivatives and other products subject to the (Commodity Exchange Act) CEA.” According to the CFTC, bitcoin can be considered a commodity as it has been designed to potentially replace existing fiat currencies (as a medium-of-exchange). Because of bitcoin and ethereum’s decentralized nature, they are arguably not securities, the CFTC has clarified on several occasions.

Explaining the differences between the Ethereum and Bitcoin protocol, ErisX’s letter has stated: 

Ethereum built upon some of the architectural principles of Bitcoin to extend [its] functionality of [a] distributed, (cryptographically) secured, (blockchain-enabled) record-keeping system to include new computational capabilities for the execution of arbitrary code.

"Unregulated Exchanges And Brokers" Trying To "Fill The Gap"

Per ErisX’s analysis of current trends in the global Ethereum (and larger digital asset) market, there is still not a proper regulatory framework in place. This, according to ErisX, has discouraged several large enterprises from entering the fragile crypto ecosystem. At present, ErisX believes there’s a trend emerging in which “unregulated or lightly regulated ‘exchanges’ [and] ‘brokers’ [are trying] to fill the gap, many of them off-shore.” However, ErisX cautioned there may be certain risks associated with this type of market such as increased volatility and liquidity fluctuations.

As noted in ErisX’s letter:

Not unique to Ether, but [current crypto markets could suffer due to] the current fragmented global market structure of trading platforms and ‘exchanges’ with significantly varying degrees of regulatory oversight and operational transparency and integrity.

By introducing standardized, CFTC-regulated Ether-based financial products, ErisX argues the crypto space might receive a more positive response from institutional investors - which could potentially lead to “more robust, liquid, and resilient markets.”