Crypto crash widens a divide: ‘Those with money will end up being fine’

ENGLEWOOD, Colorado (NYTIMES) – The cryptocurrency market was in ruins. But Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss were jamming.

The billionaire twins, best known for their supporting role in the creation of Facebook, twirled and shimmied across the stage with their new cover band, Mars Junction, at a concert venue outside Denver last week, the latest stop on a coast-to-coast tour. Tickets cost US$25 (S$35).

The Winklevosses, who are 40, were moonlighting as rockers just weeks after their US$7 billion company, Gemini, which offers a platform for buying and selling digital currencies, laid off 10 per cent of its staff. Since early May, more than US$700 billion has been wiped out in a devastating crypto crash, plunging investors into financial ruin and forcing companies like Gemini to slash costs.

Cryptocurrencies have long been held up as a vehicle for economic empowerment. Enthusiasts promote the digital coins – which are exchanged using networks of computers that verify transactions, rather than through a centralised entity like a bank – as a means for people of all backgrounds to achieve transformational wealth outside the traditional finance system.

But for all those supposedly egalitarian principles, crypto’s collapse has revealed a yawning divide: As employees of crypto companies lose their jobs and ordinary investors suffer huge losses, top executives have emerged relatively unscathed.

No crypto investor has fully escaped the downturn. But a small group of industry titans accumulated immense wealth as prices spiked over the last two years, giving them an enviable cushion.

Many of them bought Bitcoin, Ether and other virtual currencies years ago, when prices were a small fraction of their current value. Some locked in their gains early, selling parts of their crypto holdings. Others run publicly traded crypto companies and cashed out of their stock or invested in real estate.

By contrast, many amateur traders flooded into the crypto market during the Covid-19 pandemic, when prices had already started soaring. Some poured in their life savings, leaving them vulnerable to a crash. Thousands also flocked to work for crypto companies, thinking it was a ticket to new riches. Now many of them have seen their savings vanish or have lost their jobs.

The fallout from the crypto crash follows the pattern of other financial downturns, said Mr Todd Phillips, director of financial regulation and corporate governance at the Centre for American Progress, a liberal think-tank.

“No matter what, those with money will end up being fine,” he said.

The combined fortunes of the 16 richest crypto billionaires exceeded US$135 billion in March, Forbes estimated.

As at this week, the total was about US$76 billion, but most of the loss was suffered by a single billionaire, Mr Zhao Changpeng, chief executive of the crypto exchange Binance, whose US$65 billion fortune shrank to US$17.4 billion.

The Winklevoss twins, whose wealth stood at US$4 billion apiece before the crash, were each worth US$3.3 billion this week, according to Forbes.

For retail investors like Mr Ben Thompson, 33, the reality is different.

Mr Thompson, who lives in Sydney, lost about US$45,000 – half his savings – in the crash. He had dabbled in crypto since 2018 and planned to use the money to open a brewery.

“A lot of people who seemed quite reputable had a lot of confidence,” Mr Thompson said. “The smaller people get taken advantage of.”

The uneven effects of the crash are evident even within crypto companies. Coinbase, the largest crypto exchange in the United States, went public in April last year when interest in digital currencies was surging. As part of the company’s public listing, CEO Brian Armstrong sold nearly US$300 million of stock. In December, he reportedly bought a US$133 million estate in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Bel-Air.

In total, six of Coinbase’s top executives have sold shares worth more than US$850 million since April last year, according to Equilar, which tracks executive compensation.

Coinbase chief operating officer Emilie Choi has reaped about US$235 million, while chief product officer Surojit Chatterjee has sold US$110 million in shares.

Coinbase’s stock, which peaked at about US$357 in November, now trades at US$51.

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