The logo of Crypto.com is seen at a stand during the Bitcoin Conference 2022 in Miami Beach, Florida, April 6, 2022.
Marco Bello | Reuters
As the crypto universe reckons with the fallout of FTX’s rapid collapse last week and tries to figure out where the contagion may head next, questions have been swirling around Crypto.com, a rival exchange that’s taken a similarly flashy approach to marketing and celebrity endorsements.
Like FTX, which filed for bankruptcy protection Friday, Crypto.com is privately held, based outside the U.S. and offers a range of products for buying, selling, trading and storing crypto. The company is headquartered in Singapore, and CEO Kris Marszalek is based in Hong Kong.
Crypto.com is smaller than FTX but still ranks among the top 15 global exchanges, according to CoinGecko. FTX spooked the market not just by its speedy downfall but also because the company was unable to honor withdrawal requests, to the tune of billions of dollars, from users who wanted to retrieve their funds during a run on the firm. When it became clear that FTX didn’t have the liquidity necessary to give users their money, concern mounted that rivals may be next.
Twitter lit up over the weekend with speculation that Crypto.com was facing problems, and crypto experts held Twitter Spaces sessions to discuss the matter. Meanwhile, revelations landed Sunday that, in October, Crypto.com mistakenly sent more than 80% of its ether holdings, or about $400 million worth of the cryptocurrency, to Gate.io, another crypto exchange. It was only after the transaction was exposed through public blockchain data that Marszalek acknowledged the mishap.
Kris Marszalek, CEO of Crypto.com, speaking at a 2018 Bloomberg event in Hong Kong, China.
Paul Yeung | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Changpeng Zhao, CEO of rival exchange Binance, fanned the flames of speculation, tweeting Sunday that an exchange suddenly moving large amounts of crypto like that “is a clear sign of problems.” He added, “Stay away.”
“I would just get your money out of Crypto.com now,” said Adam Cochran, an investor in blockchain projects and founder of Cinneamhain Ventures, in a tweet Saturday. “If they are full reserves they shouldn’t care if you sit on the sidelines for a week, but their handling of this hasn’t met the bar.”
Marszalek has spent the early part of the week trying to reassure users and regulators that the business is fine. On Monday, he said on YouTube that the company had a “tremendously strong balance sheet” and that it’s “business as usual” with deposits, withdrawals and trading activity. He followed up with a tweet Monday evening, indicating that “the withdrawal queue is down 98% within the last 24 hours.”
He spoke to CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Tuesday morning, answering questions about the state of his company, the market and how he’s differently positioned than FTX. He said in the interview that the company has engaged with more than 10 regulators about the “shocking events” surrounding FTX and how to keep them from happening again.
“I understand that right now in the market, you’ve got a situation where everyone is done taking people’s word for anything,” Marszalek said. “We focused on demonstrating our strength and stability through our actions.”
Marszalek acknowledged that Crypto.com, like other exchanges, has faced increased withdrawals since the FTX news broke, but he said his platform has since stabilized.
The skeptics can point to recent history.
FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried said his company’s assets were “fine” two days before he was desperate for a rescue because of a liquidity crunch. It’s a familiar tactic. Alex Mashinsky, CEO of the now-bankrupt crypto lending platform Celsius, reassured customers of solvency days before halting withdrawals and ultimately filing for bankruptcy.
The exterior of Crypto.com Arena on January 26, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.
Rich Fury | Getty Images
There are other similarities, too.
Just as FTX signed a massive deal last year with the NBA’s Miami Heat for naming rights to the team’s arena, Crypto.com agreed to pay $700 million last November to put its name and logo on the arena that hosts the Los Angeles Lakers, among other LA teams. FTX had Tom Brady and Steph Curry promoting its products. Crypto.com reeled in Matt Damon as a pitchman. Both companies bought Super Bowl ads and partnered with Formula One.
Marszalek has personal issues from his past that may also be concerning. The Daily Beast reported in November 2021 that Marszalek departed his last job, as CEO of an Australian company, “amid accusations from customers and business partners that they had been ripped off.” The company was called Ensogo, and it offered online coupons. It abruptly shut down in 2016.
CNBC obtained testimony from a 2018 legislative hearing in Hong Kong, which detailed how the closure of Ensogo’s parent company left customers stranded and unable to access their funds. One seller on the shopping platform was owed the equivalent of over $20,000, according to the testimony.
According to documents filed with the Australian Securities Exchange, Ensogo requested its stock be suspended from trading in June 2016. The board accepted Marszalek’s resignation at that time and the company said in a filing that it “is yet to announce the appointment of a new CEO.”
A spokesperson for Crypto.com told the Daily Beast that the board decided to shutter Ensogo, and “there was never a finding of wrongdoing under Kris’s leadership.”
Then there are Crypto.com’s books.
Last week, Crypto.com released unaudited information about its assets to blockchain analytics firm Nansen, which used the information to create a chart showing where those assets were held. One startling revelation: Crypto.com had 20% of its assets in wallets in shiba inu, a so-called “meme token” that exists purely for speculation, building off the shiba inu dog image of the similarly popular joke token dogecoin.
Marszalek said Monday that this was just a reflection of the assets Crypto.com customers were buying. He said in a tweet that it was a popular purchase in 2021, along with dogecoin.
When asked by CNBC on Tuesday if Crypto.com holds tokens on its balance sheet, Marszalek said it’s a “very conservatively run business” that holds “mostly fiat and stablecoins as our source of capital.”
“Yeah, but how much?” asked CNBC’s Becky Quick, reminding Marszalek that FTX had “billions of dollars” in its self-created FTT token before it declared bankruptcy.
Marszalek declined to say.
“We’re a privately held company,” he said, adding that he’s not going to provide specifics “about our balance sheet.”
He was quick to say that the company is “very well capitalized” and reiterated comments from his YouTube session on Monday, telling CNBC that the company has “a very strong balance sheet” with “zero debt and zero leverage in the business, and we are cash flow positive.”
The company has already been hammered during the crypto winter, which has pushed bitcoin and ether down by two-thirds this year. In recent months, Crypto.com reportedly slashed more than one-quarter of its workforce. Daily trading volume in CRO is down to about $365 million, according to data from Nomics. Last year, that figure was above $4 billion.
Marszalek’s main goal now is evident: avoid an FTX-type run that could see the company lose a boatload of customers. He wants to reassure users that all the reserves are available to honor any withdrawal requests and that there’s no hedge-fund activity taking place with user deposits.
“We run a very simple business,” he said. “We give 70 million users globally access to digital currencies and take a fee for that.”
Blockchain.com CEO Peter Smith expects the way in which crypto enthusiasts hold their investments to change dramatically. Smith, whose company operates an exchange and offers a crypto wallet, told CNBC on Thursday that consumers don’t need to trust third parties to hold their crypto funds and are increasingly doing it themselves.
“You’re going to see people shift toward crypto on their own private keys,” Smith said, adding that the company has about 85 million users who already do it that way. “The ultimate reality and coolest part of crypto is you can store your funds on your own private key where you have no counterparty exposure.”
From a governance standpoint, FTX was uniquely troubled. The company had no board, no finance chief and no head of compliance, despite raising billions of dollars — some from top firms such as Sequoia and Tiger Global — and racing to a $32 billion valuation.
Crypto.com has a more traditional corporate structure. It has a four-person advisory board as well as a CFO, a head of legal and a senior vice president of risk and operations. That doesn’t mean there can’t be fraud (see: Theranos) or bad behavior (read: WeWork), but it’s at least a sign that some controls are in place as Crypto.com and other players try to weather a crypto winter that keeps getting colder.
“We feel quite good about where we are as a company and our operations,” said Marszalek, pointing out that the company generated over $1 billion in revenue last year and has topped that number this year. “What worries me is the impact of this collapse on the whole industry. It sets us back a good couple of years in terms of the industry’s reputation.”
— CNBC’s Rohan Goswami contributed to this report.