Business 14 June 2018

Ed Drake

Price manipulation campaign inflated BTC price in 2017, research finds

New research has confirmed the BTC market was manipulated in the run up to its all-time highs in 2017, accounting for as much as 50% of the price growth over the period.

The findings in the research paper, titled “Is Bitcoin Really Un-Tethered?,” point to the actions of a few big players in pushing the market to its record levels. The paper was prepared by academics from the University of Texas with a particular expertise in identifying fraudulent and manipulated markets.

The report has reignited the debate over the integrity of the SegWit BTC markets, with many investors at the time calling foul play, and doubting that genuine levels of demand were behind the price growth.

At the time, some commentators pinpointed Bitfinex, one of the industry’s largest (and most secretive) exchanges, as being a potential source of some of the alleged manipulation. Following the publication of these allegations in the U.S. media, Bitfinex was subpoenaed by regulators in the U.S. on suspicion of involvement.

John Griffin, professor of the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Finance and the lead academic on the project, identified suspicious patterns of tokens flowing in and out of Bitfinex, which led him to conclude one or more individuals were actively engaged in manipulation. He suggested this could have been achieved by using a secondary cryptocurrency, Tether, which was mined and offered by Bitfinex, in order to acquire BTC coins through other exchanges.

According to Professor Griffin, there is little doubt as to what was going on, telling The New York Times: “There were obviously tremendous price increases last year, and this paper indicates that manipulation played a large part in those price increases.”

In the paper, researchers pointed out that “the flow clusters below round prices, induces asymmetric autocorrelations in [BTC], and suggests incomplete Tether backing before month-ends.” The patterns, according to the researchers, “cannot be explained by investor demand proxies but are most consistent with the supply-based hypothesis where Tether is used to provide price support and manipulate cryptocurrency prices.”

Despite the lengthy, detailed research, executives at Bitfinex have been quick to deny any suggestions of wrongdoing.The firm’s CEO, Jan Ludovicus van der Velde, issued a statement denying involvement in “any sort” of manipulation, saying, “Tether issuances cannot be used to prop up the price of [BTC] or any other coin/token on Bitfinex.”

Still, the 66-page research paper will do little to dampen speculation amongst industry commentators that BTC was intentionally manipulated to reach the heights of late 2017. Alongside BTC coin, the report also suggests similar patterns in Zcash and Ether, which experienced even faster price increases, coinciding with the decline in price trends.

Note: Tokens on the Bitcoin Core (SegWit) chain are referenced as BTC coins; tokens on the Bitcoin Cash ABC chain are referenced as BCH, BCH-ABC or BAB coins.

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