In light of the very recent 104-page Bitwise report that examined fake volumes on cryptocurrency exchanges, it is relevant to address one of the primary problems of cryptocurrency exchanges – transparency.
The relationship between exchanges, token issuers, and sites that cover market caps and exchange volumes is well-established as dubious for retail investors in a market rife with volatility already.
The most striking consequence of the three-pronged relationship, is the absurd volumes of many cryptocurrency exchanges.
For context, Bitwise’s paper was actually submitted to the SEC as a comment, and cited that although Bitcoin spot market and arbitrage strength have ‘improved dramatically,’ Bitwise reiterated how 95 percent of exchange volume is likely fake or due to wash trading.
Their conclusion was mirrored by analysis from The Block, who to a certain extent, agreed that fake volumes among crypto exchanges are rampant (up to 86 percent exchange volume) but not as significant as Bitwise’s earlier report.
Bitwise does reveal how Bitcoin’s spot market is much more efficient than many observers realize, but the main takeaway in the context of endemic exchange problems, is their conclusion that only 10 exchanges have real trading volumes.
Bitwise analyzed economic and non-economic trading, among more than 80 exchanges by scraping live trading data from them, determining that 73 of the 83 evaluated exchanges failed at least one of their tests for real trading volume.
Bitwise reported their findings as “10.5 billion dollars out of the 11 billion dollars in reported daily volume (or – 95%) is either fake or wash trading.”
The Block’s analysis of 48 cryptocurrency exchanges used a different approach, that honed in on monthly website traffic to exchanges over the course of six months using SimilarWeb.
Of all the exchanges they analyzed, Binance and Coinbase led the way with 185 million and 143 million visitors over the 6-month period, respectively.
This is not surprising, as data furnished by the Blockchain Transparency Institute (BTI) and Bitwise support the notion that Binance and Coinbase are among a select group of popular exchanges with real volume.
However, The Block disagreed with part of the approach Bitwise took in its study, detailing how Bitwise ignored the real volumes on hundreds of exchanges that they believe have fake volumes.
Examining cryptocurrency exchange volume is clearly very challenging, but the conclusion we can draw from both Bitwise and The Block is that wash trading and fake volumes continue to persist at a concerning scale.
One of the reasons that might make a crypto exchange influence numbers, is the effect of data aggregation websites like CoinMarketCap, which prove invaluable distributors of potential investors to new exchanges looking to bring in more volume.
The higher a new exchange appears on the listing site, the more likely investors are to check it out, creating a positive feedback loop for the exchange’s volume at the expense of transparency for investors.
At the peak of the un-regulated ICO phase, it was reported that some listing fees for ICOs on exchanges reached millions of dollars.
While the incentives for newer and smaller exchanges to engage in inflated reporting and wash trading are manifest, some of the downstream consequences are not as widely understood – particularly regarding the solvency of exchanges.
While the supposed exit scams, fake volumes, and solvency problems of cryptocurrency exchanges may seem like an unfixable problem, that’s becoming an obsolete notion.
Numerous exchanges and outside projects are targeting increased transparency in the ecosystem. Whether it be self-regulation via revenue reporting, proof of reserves, or custodial protocols, transparency among crypto exchanges is poised to improve.
For investors, knowing which exchanges to trade on ultimately depends on self-education and understanding which exchanges are legitimate and which are not.
Websites such as BTI and Nomics provide data-driven metrics for real volumes on exchanges, detailing any inconsistencies between metrics like website traffic and reported volumes.
BTI even supplies in-depth reports on exchanges to avoid and their ‘Wash Trade Status,’ which provides their percentage of overall volume as likely being wash traded.
Proof of solvency presents a= problem of its own for exchanges. For example, an exchange may not want to publicly report revenue or other fiscal details due to fear of competition taking advantage of their transparency – a reasonable concern on their part.
ArpaChain relies on a cryptographic technique called ‘secure multi-party computation,’ which allows multiple participants to compute a function without revealing their independent inputs.
In the context of exchanges, that could mean exchanges joining forces to self-regulate, and to expose that they are solvent beyond a precise threshold without revealing the exact financial details of each exchange.
Kraken provides comprehensive details on their ‘Proof-of-Reserves’ audit process to give investors assurances of the exchange’s solvency. Similarly, ‘Proof-of-Reserves’ is the name of a proposed protocol by Blockstream for standardizing solvency proofs with Bitcoin.
Some solutions simply bypass the problem of solvency altogether.
Arwen Protocol uses atomic swaps to circumvent the need to deposit crypto assets on a centralized exchange.
Instead, funds are stored via a combination of on-chain escrows and off-chain atomic swaps – the assets are never stored on the exchange, so there is no need to fret a fractional-reserve system working behind the scenes.
Propositions for scaling Bitcoin also include the concept of ‘Bitcoin banks,’ and at least, exchanges or financial institutions that unmask risk to users – with varying consequences and roles to play in the ecosystem.
While it is evident that the current lack of transparency of cryptocurrency exchanges is a significant problem, it is not a dilemma without hope for improvement.
Navigating the underbelly of the cryptocurrency exchange environment is challenging and full of risk, but at least investors and observers are increasingly armed with better tools to discern the truth for themselves – giving power to the maxim of “don’t trust, verify.”
All that said, you should not see this article is a recommendation to invest, buy or sell cryptocurrencies. Is it still a very fragile and unregulated market. Do your research.