23 Mai (Reuters) – A maior bolsa de criptomoedas do mundo, a Binance, misturou fundos de clientes com receita da empresa em 2020 e 2021, violando as regras financeiras dos Estados Unidos que exigem que o dinheiro dos clientes seja mantido separado, disseram três fontes familiarizadas com o assunto à Reuters.
Uma das fontes, uma pessoa com conhecimento direto das finanças do grupo da Binance, disse que as somas chegavam a bilhões de dólares e que a mistura acontecia quase diariamente nas contas que a bolsa mantinha no banco americano Silvergate Bank. A Reuters não pôde verificar independentemente os números ou a frequência. Mas a agência de notícias analisou um registro bancário mostrando que, em 10 de fevereiro de 2021, a Binance misturou US$ 20 milhões de uma conta corporativa com US$ 15 milhões de uma conta que recebia dinheiro de clientes.
Os fluxos de dinheiro na Binance descritos pela Reuters indicam uma falta de controles internos para garantir que os fundos dos clientes sejam claramente identificáveis e segregados das receitas da empresa, disseram três ex-reguladores dos EUA. Eles disseram que a mistura desses fundos coloca os ativos dos clientes em risco ao ocultar seu paradeiro. Os clientes da Binance não deveriam “precisar de um contador forense para descobrir onde está seu dinheiro”, disse John Reed Stark, ex-chefe do Gabinete de Fiscalização da Internet da Comissão de Valores Mobiliários.
A Reuters não encontrou nenhuma evidência de que o dinheiro dos clientes da Binance foi perdido ou roubado.
O presidente da SEC, Gary Gensler, disse que muitas trocas de criptomoedas que oferecem valores mobiliários para clientes dos EUA não estão cumprindo as leis que exigem que corretoras registradas protejam o dinheiro do cliente, separando-o dos ativos corporativos. “Seus modelos de negócios tendem a ser construídos com base na captação de fundos de clientes, misturando-os”, disse ele em um evento em maio. A SEC lançou este ano uma repressão a uma série de empresas de criptomoedas, mas não alvejou a Binance com nenhuma ação de execução direta.
A Binance permitiu que clientes dos EUA negociassem em sua plataforma de 2019 até este ano, apesar de alegar publicamente restringir o acesso aos americanos, alegou a Comissão de Negociação de Futuros de Commodities dos EUA em uma reclamação contra a bolsa em março. A Binance respondeu em um blog que bloqueia usuários dos EUA.
Em comunicado à Reuters, a Binance negou misturar depósitos de clientes e fundos da empresa. “Essas contas não eram usadas para aceitar depósitos de usuários; eles foram usados para facilitar as compras dos usuários” de cripto, disse o porta-voz Brad Jaffe. “Não houve mistura em nenhum momento porque são fundos 100% corporativos.” Quando os usuários enviavam dinheiro para a conta, disse ele, eles não estavam depositando fundos, mas comprando o token criptográfico vinculado ao dólar da bolsa, BUSD. Esse processo era “exatamente a mesma coisa que comprar um produto da Amazon”, disse Jaffe.
Os ex-reguladores dos EUA disseram à Reuters que a explicação da Binance foi prejudicada pelas representações anteriores da própria bolsa aos clientes de que as transferências eram depósitos. Do final de 2020 e ao longo de 2021, o site da Binance informou aos clientes que suas transferências em dólares eram “depósitos” que seriam “creditados” em suas contas de negociação na forma de BUSD. Os clientes foram informados de que poderiam “levantar” seus depósitos em dólares. Essas representações criaram a expectativa de que os fundos dos clientes seriam protegidos da mesma forma que os depósitos em dinheiro tradicionais, disseram os ex-reguladores.
“Essas representações devem ser claras o tempo todo”, disse Stark, o ex-funcionário da SEC.
A Reuters perguntou à Binance se ela já disse aos usuários que considerava seus depósitos em dólares como “compras”. A Binance não forneceu nenhuma evidência disso e disse que “o termo ‘depósito’ é um termo de comunicação, não é uma indicação do tratamento técnico dos fundos”.
A fusão de fundos de clientes e corporativos pode ser um precursor de grandes perdas para clientes de empresas financeiras. Em dezembro, a SEC e a CFTC alegaram que o fundador da falida bolsa de criptomoedas FTX, Sam Bankman-Fried, por anos misturou fundos de clientes em sua empresa comercial e usou o dinheiro para financiar investimentos de capital de risco, doações políticas e compras de imóveis. Bankman-Fried se declarou inocente das acusações de fraude e disse que não misturou fundos intencionalmente.
BANQUEIRO DA BINANCE
Bank and company records for 2019-2021, seen by Reuters, and interviews with former insiders show that Binance used Silvergate Bank, the U.S. lender that collapsed in March, as the lynchpin of its financial operations. Silvergate, which is in the process of winding down operations, did not comment for this article.
Company revenues entered the Silvergate account of the exchange’s Cayman Islands holding firm, Binance Holdings, according to the sources and bank records. Customer dollars flowed into the Silvergate account of a firm in the Seychelles called Key Vision Development that was controlled by Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao.
One of the sources and a fourth person with direct knowledge of this account said Binance told Silvergate the Key Vision account’s purpose was to receive dollar deposits from non-U.S. customers. Jaffe, the Binance spokesperson, said this was inaccurate, without providing further details.
According to the sources and the February 2021 bank record seen by Reuters, Binance mixed customer money and company revenues in a third Silvergate account, belonging to a Zhao-controlled Cayman firm. Binance converted money from this third account into the dollar-linked token BUSD, according to the person with knowledge of Binance’s group finances and company messages. Blockchain records show Binance bought at least $18 billion of BUSD between January 2020 and December 2021.
The former regulators told Reuters that moving money between accounts and into crypto could have enabled Binance to shield funds from tax authorities in countries where it operates. The person with group-level knowledge of Binance said there was also another motivation: Zhao distrusted banks, once telling an interviewer of his concern that they could freeze his company’s accounts. So Binance turned cash into crypto, commingling customer funds and revenues in the process.
The new insights into Binance’s financial operations come as the company is facing civil charges from the CFTC of willful evasion of U.S. commodities laws by “intentionally structuring entities and transactions” to avoid U.S. regulations. The CFTC also alleged, without elaborating, that some of Binance’s corporate entities, including the Cayman holding firm, “have commingled funds.” Zhao called the charges “disappointing” and an “incomplete recitation of facts.” Binance is also under investigation by the Justice Department for suspected money laundering and sanctions violations, according to people familiar with the probe.
The CFTC declined to comment for this article, citing pending litigation, as did the SEC. The DOJ had no comment.
Binance has grown into a juggernaut in recent years, accounting for as much as 70% of world trading in cryptocurrencies. The company initially did business solely in crypto, enabling it to avoid the global banking system. But as Binance attracted more customers and hired more employees, its need for conventional bank accounts grew – to deposit the dollars it received from clients, to pay wages and other expenses, and to finance investments.
Silvergate, which specialised in serving the crypto industry, made this possible – until early March of this year, when the bank announced its closure after customers pulled deposits amid a wave of turmoil. The same month, New York’s chief financial regulator took over another crypto-friendly bank, Signature Bank, where Binance was also a client.
À medida que a repressão dos EUA ao setor cripto ganha ritmo, não está claro qual banco se tornará o próximo eixo das operações da Binance. Zhao disse no Twitter que estava procurando novos parceiros bancários. “Quando uma porta se fecha, outras se abrem”, escreveu ele em 27 de março. A Reuters não conseguiu determinar quem agora atua como o principal banqueiro da Binance.
UMA WEB INTRICADA
Cinco meses após o lançamento da bolsa em Xangai em julho de 2017, Zhao disse à agência de notícias Tech na Ásia que a Binance não tinha parceiros bancários porque os clientes estavam depositando fundos exclusivamente em cripto. “Quanto mais você lida com fiat, mais (as autoridades) podem controlar você”, disse Zhao, referindo-se às moedas tradicionais. Ele usou seu cartão de crédito pessoal para pagar as contas da empresa, disseram ex-funcionários.
But the situation changed in 2018 when Binance sought to launch several local exchanges where customers could buy crypto with traditional currencies. Zhao dispatched his deputies to find banks and payment firms willing to accept Binance as a client. Chief among these deputies was Guangying Chen, the head of Binance’s back office. Chinese-born Chen was one of the few employees Zhao trusted with Binance’s finances, former executives said. Chen did not respond to questions about her role.
Binance had limited success obtaining bank accounts for its small local units, however. Most major banks turned the exchange down due to compliance concerns over crypto companies’ source of funds, according to company messages and former executives.
Then Silvergate came to the rescue. In recent years, the small San Diego-based bank had shifted its focus from local real-estate lending to servicing crypto companies. It quickly became a leading provider of banking services to the crypto sector.
By 2019, Binance had opened a Silvergate account for its Cayman-based holding company, Binance Holdings Limited, to receive revenues earned by the exchange. The account was handled by Chen and a finance executive who reported to her, Susan Li, company records show. Li didn’t comment for this article.
Binance then opened two further Silvergate accounts: for Seychelles firm Key Vision Development and Cayman Islands-based Merit Peak, both incorporated on Jan. 15, 2019 and controlled by Zhao, according to filings and bank records. Binance’s online platform began instructing customers to “deposit” their dollars into the Key Vision account. After users transferred funds to Key Vision, they received an email from Binance telling them they had “successfully deposited” their dollars, according to screenshots posted online by traders. Users could also “withdraw” their deposits via Binance’s platform, which said it would wire the dollars to their bank accounts.
Binance Holdings, Key Vision and Merit Peak formed the core of the global crypto exchange’s financial network. But inside Binance, few employees had full visibility over their roles. Access to information about the Binance group’s overall finances and its bank accounts was tightly managed by Chen, a half-dozen former executives said. Chen’s team also had access to a Silvergate account belonging to Binance’s purportedly independent U.S. partner, Binance.US, which Zhao in fact controls, as Reuters has previously reported. Binance.US told Reuters that only Binance.US executives have access to its bank accounts.
Binance’s then-chief compliance officer, Samuel Lim, was concerned by the exchange’s dependence on Silvergate due to requirements that U.S. banks closely monitor clients’ transactions, company messages show. Lim told executives in a 2020 message seen by Reuters that “the long term fix is to reduce reliance on US bank.” The CFTC complaint in March charged Lim with aiding and abetting Binance in violating U.S. laws “through intentional conduct that undermined Binance’s compliance program.” Lim has not publicly responded to the charge and did not comment for this article.
The person with direct knowledge of Binance’s group finances said Zhao shared Lim’s distrust of banks and instructed the finance team to keep dollar balances in the Silvergate accounts as low as possible. Dollars in the Binance Holdings account and Key Vision customer funds account that were surplus to immediate business needs were transferred to the Merit Peak account, where they were commingled, the source said. Money from the Merit Peak account was then used to purchase Binance’s BUSD token, according to the source and company messages. BUSD and other “stablecoins” are backed by dollars and designed to hold a steady value.
Reuters couldn’t determine the value of BUSD tokens purchased in this way. But blockchain data show that between January 2020 and December 2021, BUSD’s issuer, New York-based Paxos Trust, transferred at least $18 billion of BUSD to Binance. Binance received the BUSD in at least two wallets that it has previously identified as its own, without saying whether they contain company or customer funds. A Paxos spokesperson said that between late 2019 and early 2023 Binance sent Paxos dollars in return for BUSD “for it and its customers.”
The money flow between Binance and Paxos also could be reversed, according to the person with group-level knowledge and company messages. When Key Vision needed dollars to meet customer withdrawals, for instance, Binance would redeem BUSD at Paxos, which in return would send dollars to Merit Peak’s Silvergate account. Merit Peak would then distribute the dollars to other accounts as needed.
The value of BUSD tokens in circulation peaked at over $23 billion last November, with Binance-controlled crypto wallets holding as much as 90% of the total, according to crypto data firm Nansen. But in February, New York regulators ordered Paxos to stop issuing BUSD, citing Paxos’ failures in risk assessments and due diligence checks.
The Paxos spokesperson said the company “voluntarily announced its intention to end its relationship with Binance and has been successfully winding down all business relationships with Binance since.”
Since Paxos stopped issuing BUSD, Binance has reduced its holdings of the coin to around $3 billion, according to Nansen. Reuters could not determine why Binance reduced these holdings or how it converted them.
Money from other sources also entered Merit Peak’s account, including hundreds of millions of dollars from a Binance.US account, Reuters has previously reported. Bank records show the Binance.US account was operated by Chen. Binance.US told Reuters Merit Peak “was withdrawing funds from its own account.” It didn’t respond to follow up questions.
A Silvergate informou à Binance que estava fechando a conta da Key Vision em meados de 2021, segundo duas pessoas com conhecimento direto. Silvergate tomou a decisão com base no fato de que a Key Vision havia feito transações impróprias para uma conta bancária de custódia, disse uma das pessoas, sem dar mais detalhes. Em junho daquele ano, a Binance enviou um e-mail aos usuários para informar que os “depósitos em dólares” por meio do Silvergate seriam “descontinuados”. A Binance então começou a usar uma conta Key Vision no Signature Bank para receber fundos de clientes, de acordo com as fontes e capturas de tela das transações dos usuários. O Signature Bank não comentou este artigo.
O porta-voz da Binance, Jaffe, disse que este relatório sobre as contas da Key Vision era impreciso, mas não forneceu mais detalhes.
UMA BASE BÁLTICA
Binance’s financial network also required a reliable euro bank account, former executives said. The exchange found a solution in Lithuania which provided a European Union base and a straightforward registration process. In May 2020, Binance set up the Lithuanian company, initially called Binance UAB, with Zhao as its sole shareholder and Chen as a board member. Binance later unveiled the firm, renamed as Bifinity, as its “official fiat-to-crypto payments provider.” Zhao installed Helen Hai, Binance’s China-born head of fiat operations, as president. Hai didn’t comment for this article.
In 2021, Bifinity had revenue of 680 million euros, according to its financial report, and paid over 420 million euros to a single unnamed related party. The person with direct knowledge of Binance’s group finances identified the unnamed party as Binance Holdings. Bifinity did not respond to questions from Reuters.
One consequence of Binance’s financial manoeuvring, four former Binance executives said, was to protect the exchange’s profits from tax authorities. Binance has never disclosed where its Binance.com trading platform is based nor what corporate taxes it pays and where.
To assess how much tax Binance pays, Reuters reviewed the exchange’s public filings since 2018 in countries where it has said it has significant operations. In France and Dubai, where Binance established hubs last year, local units have not detailed tax payments. France’s finance ministry declined to comment and Dubai didn’t comment. In Malta, where Binance said it was based for several years, its main local unit reported losses each year, so it paid no tax. Maltese authorities didn’t comment. The only significant tax payments Reuters found were in Lithuania, where in 2022 Bifinity paid 42.5 million euros, data from Lithuania’s tax authority show.
With the growth in Bifinity’s business came a higher profile. In July 2021, Lithuania’s central bank said it had warned Binance not to provide unlicensed investment services. Six months later the exchange appointed Saulius Galatiltis, who previously ran the central bank’s investment management department, as chief executive of Bifinity.
When Lithuania’s parliament debated a new bill to toughen rules for the country’s crypto companies last year, Galatiltis urged a parliamentary committee to avoid stricter legislation. He emphasised Bifinity’s tax payments, which last year made it one of Lithuania’s largest corporate taxpayers. “This business is global, in many countries all over the world,” Galatiltis told the committee, discussing Bifinity. “I think a business which acts globally and pays tax locally must be attractive to any country,” he said. Galatiltis didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.
O Parlamento finalmente votou por meio de um conjunto diluído de regras. O ministério das finanças da Lituânia disse à Reuters que a Bifinity estava envolvida no processo formal de “fornecer comentários e sugestões” sobre o projeto de lei junto com outras instituições e participantes do mercado. “Nunca baseamos nossas decisões de política regulatória em uma única entidade.”