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.

Chinese Yuan 'Inversely Correlated' with Bitcoin, Amidst US-China Trade Wars

Since January 2018, China and the US have been involved in an intense trade war in which both countries have significantly increased tariffs on imported goods and services.

Due partly to the rising tension between the two countries, the Chinese yuan (CNY) has been losing value against the USD. During the same time period, the price of bitcoin (BTC) and other major cryptoassets has been surging.

As noted by the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the value of BTC, the world’s most dominant cryptocurrency, increased by 26.5% to $7,878 during the time period from May 5 to May 17. Notably, US President Donald Trump had announced on May 5 that he would further increase tariffs on goods imported from mainland China.

Chinese Yuan Weakens as Nation’s Government Responds to Increased Tariffs

The SCMP pointed out that the yuan dropped to its lowest level since the past six months after the Chinese government responded to Trump administration’s decision to impose higher tariffs on China.

Commenting on the price fluctuations of both the yuan and bitcoin, Garrick Hileman, a Macroeconomics Researcher at London School of Economics (LSE) and Head of Research at Blockchain.com, remarked:

We are observing a strong inverse correlation between the [Renminbi] RMB’s value and bitcoin, meaning that recent RMB declines over trade tensions have been closely matched by increases in the value of bitcoin.

“Correlation Does Not Necessarily Equal Causation”

Hileman also mentioned that we “cannot be 100% certain” that the bitcoin price has been increasing due to heightened concerns regarding trade tensions and the corresponding decline in the value of the yuan. The blockchain researcher stated:

Trade tensions and declines in the RMB’s exchange rate as correlation does not necessarily equal causation.

Hileman, who earned his Phd from LSE, revealed:

This is not the first time we’ve seen significant increases in the value of bitcoin taking place alongside yuan concerns.

He added that there’s “growing recognition of bitcoin as ‘digital gold’ and it being used as a hedge against various macroeconomic risks.”

“This Year, the Narrative Is Bitcoin, Bitcoin, Bitcoin”

According to the SCMP, bitcoin’s price may have surged recently due to the generally positive remarks made about it at the Consensus 2019 conference.

Meltem Demirors, the Chief Strategy Officer at CoinShares, a crypto treasury management firm, has also confirmed recently that the narrative this year has been mostly about Bitcoin. Demirors revealed that both institutions and retail investors are “feeling good” and are “more confident” about the long-term potential of Bitcoin and the evolving ecosystem that supports it.