Why will at least 80% of centralized crypto exchanges (CEXs) disappear?

By Stéphane Reverre & Chadi El Adnani @SUN ZU Lab

August 2023


It was October 2022 when we published an article titled “Why has liquidity become a question of survival for crypto venues?” urging centralized crypto exchanges to consider liquidity as the “gold standard” of their future profitability and deploy all necessary resources to monitor it and understand its drivers. Little did we know that one month later, the FTX/Alameda implosion would put the entire crypto ecosystem, and mostly centralized exchanges, on the brink of collapse.

Halfway through 2023, CEXs’ order book depths and trading volumes are ~10x thinner on average than 2022 levels, prompting us to express an even more aggressive view: “Why at least 80% of centralized crypto exchanges (CEXs) are going to disappear?Liquidity attracts more liquidity in the same way success is a magnet for even more triumphs. Add to that the looming regulatory pressure, and the bottom majority of CEXs will start falling like a domino chain, with the losers dying slowly.

Questions and comments can be addressed to c.eladnani@sunzulab.com or research@sunzulab.com

In TradFi, capital markets have been all about scale. Whether in banking, asset management, hedge fund, or trading venues sectors, the bigger are getting bigger! M&A has been one of the most significant value drivers for TradFi exchanges over the last 20 years, allowing groups to generate significant economies of scale by mutualizing costs from data centers, matching engines, and employees. Here is a selected list of the major acquisitions of the century:

Even though it is not exactly the same industry, The FDIC’s website provides additional valuable information on the evolution of the banking industry in the US. Between 1990 and 2022, the number of commercial banks insured with the FDIC went from 12,347 to 4,136, with the number of newly issued charters virtually near zero since 2008. As the retail and corporate segments increased significantly over the same period, the major remaining banks enjoyed the full benefits of consolidation and economies of scale with minimal efforts!

The list of exchanges’ failed M&A deals is even longer:

The remaining big five exchanges have also gone on an acquisition spree for data, analytics, indices, execution, settlement, and other infrastructure providers, as can be seen in the graph below, with the crown going to LSEG for its $27 bn acquisition of data and trading group Refinitiv, approved by EU regulators in 2021. 

Source: FT

Overall, the exchange business in Tradfi has seen many agitations up to the 2000s. This was followed by an accelerated consolidation wave, leading to the current market state post-2008’s GFC (“Global Financial Crisis”), where there is virtually no room for another newcomer due to the heavy regulation and high cost of capital (unless through an acquisition). The exact cause having the same effects, we expect the same level of consolidation to happen over the next couple of years for centralized crypto exchanges. This trend should be accelerated with the recent rise of “institutional” crypto trading venues, the latest being the launch of EDX Markets, backed by Citadel Securities, Charles Schwab, & Fidelity. EDX will operate as a non-custodial exchange, serving only institutional clients with plans to launch EDX Clearing to settle trades matched on the exchange, a feature still absent from nearly all CEXs.

Coinbase, the first crypto exchange to go public, provides us with a valuable sneak peek into its financials through regulatory filings:

Source: Coinbase Shareholder Letter Q1 2023

We can notice that, disregarding a slight uptick in Q1 23, transaction revenues have been free-falling since 2022, with total revenues divided by three over the period. However, revenues from subscriptions and other services more than doubled to $362 million. The compensation from diversification channels wasn’t enough to compensate for the loss from transaction revenues, as Net Revenue fell 37% YoY. Coinbase also introduced in May 2023 a new subscription service called “Coinbase One,” available for a monthly fee of $29.99 and providing a range of features that include zero trading fees, increased staking rewards, and round-the-clock customer support. The service was launched in the US, UK, Ireland, and Germany, with plans to extend its availability to 35 countries. Coinbase’s race and doubling down on revenue diversification is a strong distress signal for all other centralized crypto exchanges, which we are sure are in a far worse state than the leader Coinbase.

To put matters into perspective, here is a financial performance comparison in 2022 between Coinbase and the major TradFi exchanges around the world:

Source: 2022 10-K Forms and Annual Reports

The proportion of non-transactional revenues for TradFi exchanges (45% on average) is way higher than Coinbase’s figure. TradFi exchanges are also impressive cash cows, with an average EBITDA margin of 49% and an average profit margin of 31%. The fact that the leader of crypto centralized exchanges is nowhere near these profitability levels is one major alarming sign for the whole sector. The only path to recovery is through revenue diversification, and one surprisingly unexplored gold mine is data monetization!

Below are two examples of how Euronext and LSEG diversify their revenue streams:

Source: Euronext Q4 and FY 2022 results
Source: LSEG 2022 Annual Report

Centralized crypto venues should realize the magnitude of the problem and face the fact: if the market leader still hasn’t found a magic formula to profitability, maybe the solution isn’t different from what has been a major success in TradFi for years!

The path to recovery and survival, in our view, starts with asking the right questions:

A thorough internal process revue around the previous questions should give the first movers among CEXs the opportunity to:

We have been connected to 40+ major centralized crypto exchanges at SUN ZU Lab for years. Our cutting-edge technology and deep market microstructure expertise provide us with a sharp view of tick-level order book activity in these exchanges, most often giving us a better understanding of their trading dynamics than management teams lacking internal resources. We have the right combination to accompany a centralized crypto venue to answer the previous problems before it is too late!

Let’s discuss

About SUN ZU Lab:

SUN ZU Lab is a leading data solutions provider based in Paris, on a mission to bring better data to the global crypto ecosystem through independent quantitative analyses. We collect the most granular market data from major liquidity venues, analyze it, and deliver our solutions through real-time dashboards, API streams, and historical files. SUN ZU Lab provides crypto professionals with actionable data to monitor the market.

Market Making Overview: TradFi vs Crypto

By Stéphane Reverre & Chadi El Adnani @SUN ZU Lab

June 2023

Link to PDF version

Market Making Overview: TradFi vs Crypto – SUN ZU Lab

[NB: See the glossary at the end of the article for a definition of technical terms]

Liquidity(*) is the gasoline of any exchange, whether traditional or crypto, and the engines pumping it are called Market Makers. We define them in this article and go over their role, strategies, and risks, as well as a thorough comparison between market making in Tradfi and crypto.

We have already provided in-depth detail about TradFi and crypto market liquidity here, and why liquidity has become a question of survival for crypto venues here, so let us dive right into the nitty-gritty of market making.

Questions and comments can be addressed to c.eladnani@sunzulab.com or research@sunzulab.com.

Market Making in TradFi

Historically, cash equity markets used to execute auctions manually to match buyers and sellers, and it could take seconds to fill a marketable order. Today, they are mainly electronic, with trading occurring on fully-automated exchanges and dark pools. In contrast, fixed Income markets remain primarily dealer-driven and over-the-counter (OTC)(*), in many cases still trading via person-to-person telephone interactions – although electronic trading is taking ground under regulatory pressure. Contrary to equities, foreign-exchange (FX) markets are dominated by a handful of the world’s largest banks and market-making firms, who stand ready to provide two-sided markets and liquidity even when central banks intervene, driving periods of high market volatility.

Registered market makers (MM)(*) generally provide transparent two-sided bid-ask(*) quotes at all times when a market is open, meaning that MMs will publish a price and amount that they are willing to buy or sell at throughout the trading session. In fact, Reg NMS(*) requires that registered MMs provide firm quotes immediately accessible to incoming orders. They are also usually constrained to maintain spreads below a maximum limit, a minimum order book depth and presence in the order book a minimum duration within trading sessions (the uptime requirement). As a result, MMs collect trading profits from their activity, in addition to incentives (for example, rebates against regular trading fees) offered for displaying orders at certain venues (from exchanges or issuers who want to maintain adequate liquidity). Liquidity providers are mostly passive in the order book, but they may occasionally aggressively take liquidity in some circumstances to manage their risk and inventory.

It is essential to note that MMs have a mandate to provide liquidity (i.e. help investors trade better), but absolutely not to move the price. This is achieved by keeping the MM obligation symmetric, with a bid AND ask price at the same time and a maximum spread to make sure MM prices are not too far from the actual price.

In the US, for example, the regulatory requirement is that the Designated Market Maker (DMM) must always be willing to buy or sell one round lot (usually 100 shares). They are further required to quote at the National Best Bid or Offer (NBBO) at least 15% (10%) of the trading day for securities trading over (under) 1,000,000 shares per day. When they are not at the NBBO, their quotes can be at most 8% away for stocks in the S&P 500 or Russell 1000 indexes. For other stocks, the maximum amount their quotes may be away from the NBBO is 28% for stocks trading at or over $1 and 30% otherwise. Market making obligations are only active during regular trading hours (9:30 AM – 4:00 PM) on most days: market makers are not required to quote outside these time frames.

On the European markets operated by NYSE/Euronext, there are two types of market makers – auction or permanent. The former add liquidity for stocks only traded through call auctions and the latter for stocks traded continuously. Auction market makers (also called “liquidity providers”, LP), are only required to maintain a spread during the order collection phase of each auction. The maximum spread width for both market makers is between 2% and 5% (€0.10 and €0.25) for stocks trading above (at or less than) €5. Euronext LPs obtain a reduction in fees and may receive side payments from the companies they trade. Such a payment occurs under a “liquidity contract”, under which a market maker receives a pre-agreed remuneration from the issuer to maintain a certain liquidity. Trading profits (and/or losses) are usually carried by the issuer (i.e. the market maker is insulated from market risk).

Market Making in TradFi overall is a heavily regulated and transparent business; regulators surveil MMs to ensure they comply with their obligations. Regulators (or exchanges) can impose both positive and negative obligations on market makers, requiring them to provide liquidity to the market or preventing them from executing a trade if a retail order could execute instead of it, for example. For example, EUREX (a European derivatives exchange) states here the specifics of Regulatory Market-Making, according to MiFID II, and Commercial Liquidity Provisioning on its platform. In practice, MMs sign a contract with exchanges, and the list and details of contractual MMs are public for everyone to see. The idea is that an investor looking for liquidity may directly contact a MM.

Market Making strategies, risks & examples

Here is an overview of the most common market making strategies in TradFi:

Delta Neutral Market Making: A market maker seeks to self-hedge against the inventory risk and wants to offload it in another trading venue. For that, a MM would place limit orders on an exchange with low liquidity, and when those are filled, immediately send a market order (on the opposite side) to an exchange with higher liquidity.

High-frequency “at touch” Market Making: A common strategy for MMs is submitting limit buy/sell orders at the best bid/ask prices. The MMs bid/ask order spread is then equal to that of the limit order book (LOB). Sometimes, MMs will submit orders at prices marginally higher than the bid and lower than the ask to gain order execution priority. However, this is only possible when spreads are not already very tight. Alternatively, a market maker could place their orders further into the LOB queue (lower bid and higher ask). This strategy produces higher margins but also a lower order execution rate.

Last Price: In this case, MMs will reference the last price a security traded at when placing their bid/ask quotes, submitting bid/ask orders one or two ticks away in either direction. This strategy provides a higher return than the “at touch”; however, this comes at the expense of higher end-of-day inventory of the given security.

Grid Market Making: In this case, a market maker places limit orders throughout the book, of increasing size, around a moving average of the price, and then leaves them there. The idea is that the price will ‘walk through’ the orders throughout the day, earning the spreads between buys and sells.

These strategies work well when prices are relatively stable but may lose money heavily during sustained momentum or volatility periods. When prices keep going up, the MM will find it extremely difficult to execute bid orders, accumulating an increasingly significant losing-money short position, and the same applies in the opposite direction. MMs should pay close attention to market volatility and order book imbalances to avoid being trapped in such situations.

According to studies published in 2014 and 2021, market makers are likely to reduce their market participation in periods of significant volatility. MMs often farther into the LOB in such situations to avoid being caught out by significant and abrupt changes in the market, reducing liquidity and potentially making markets even choppier. In addition to reduced trading volumes in periods of volatility, MMs will adjust their quoting price based on movements in the order book, monitoring the LOB for any order imbalances. For example, MMs will adjust their ask/bid quotes if the volume difference between bid and ask quotes grows, expecting an uptrend in price movements.

It is also interesting to note that when MMs operate under a contract with an exchange, they will often benefit from specific technical provisions: typically, the exchange will implement a “market maker protection” which essentially cancels all orders (at once) from a MM when violent price moves occur. There are also different modalities for order management (for example, a “bulk order” functionality, whereas regular investors can only send single orders, one at a time). Those features act as an incentive for MMs to stay in the market even when volatility rises (i.e. when they are most needed) by offering specific risk management tools.

All else equal, strategies accounting for order book imbalances increase returns and end-of-day inventory. Those adjusting the bid/ask quote for volatility will also increase returns while decreasing inventory. These two strategies are hence often combined to achieve optimal performance.

One of the most significant risks of market making is the inventory risk. MMs have to store a particular amount of assets to fill a buy/sell order, and the inventory risk manifests itself every time markets start forming a trend (upwards or downwards) for a sustainable period. The inventory risk in a scenario of decreasing prices results in the risk of having more of an asset at the wrong time, with difficulties to find buyers to unwind it. This risk is vastly larger in crypto markets, where prices are  more volatile.

To illustrate the above, let us give a quick example of how a basic market-making trade takes place, a MM active on a stock X shows a bid and ask price with a quote of $10.00 – 10.05 (not necessarily the same bid and ask volumes). This means that the MM is willing to buy X stocks for $10.00 and sell them at $10.05, earning a spread of 5 cents per share (in the absence of market movement, this is indeed a maximum gain). If everything goes well, the MM could buy and sell 10,000 shares at these quotes, earning $500 from this trade.

If, on the contrary, a large sell order takes place, the MM could find itself long Y shares with the best ask down to $99.95, for example. The MM is faced with the choice to hold its position if it believes prices will reverse higher, post an order to sell at $99.95, or even choose to simply trade out of the position by selling to the prevailing highest-priced buy order, locking in a trading loss.

Crypto Market Making

The market making business in the crypto space has little to do with its older, more established counterpart in TradFi. After 14 years, crypto markets are still in a “far west” state. It is not an exaggeration to say that exchanges are far from mature, from both a technical and regulatory standpoint: liquidity is low (to very low), highly concentrated on a few instruments, slippage risks are high, manipulation is frequent, and there are clear probabilities of flash crashes when large orders appear.

Market Making agreements in crypto are also different from TradFi in many aspects, mainly:

The terms of the market-making agreement, also known as the Liquidity Consulting Agreement (LCA), often evolve around compensation: MMs will receive financial incentives to reward improvements in a token’s liquidity and market value. Typical components are  service fees, options, or KPI-based fees:

Examples of such crypto market making agreements are public and can be found here or here.

Crypto markets also bring the question of CEXs vs DEXs market making. Market making on centralized exchanges is similar in principle to what professional firms do in Tradfi. Another critical concept is the difference between “maker” and “taker” orders. The former refers to orders where the buyer or the seller defines a price limit at which they are willing to buy or sell. Taker orders, by contrast, are orders that are executed immediately at the best bid or offer. Thus, maker orders add liquidity, and taker orders remove it. Crypto market makers must be meticulous when managing their inventory to not pay excessive taker fees (example of the fee structure on Coinbase).

Regarding market making on DEXs, we previously highlighted the process of price discovery in DeFi protocols, taking the example of liquidity pools in Automated Market Makers (AMMs) with a focus on Uniswap (qualitative and quantitative analysis).

Market depth comparison between BTC/USD (~$60m/$45m bid/ask volume at 200 bps) and MATIC/USD (~$2.3m/$1.3m bid/ask volume at 200 bps), on Binance.Us, Bitstamp, Coinbase-Pro, Kraken and Bitfinex

Source: SUN ZU Lab Live Dashboard



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About SUN ZU Lab

SUN ZU Lab is a leading data solutions provider based in Paris, on a mission to bring transparency to the global crypto ecosystem through independent quantitative analyses. We collect the most granular market data from major liquidity venues, analyze it, and deliver our solutions through real-time dashboards & API streams or customized reporting. SUN ZU Lab provides crypto professionals with actionable data to monitor the market and optimize investment decisions.

FTX Post-Mortem Analysis – Why Transparency Matters?

By Chadi El Adnani @SUN ZU Lab

November 2022

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity”

Sun Tzu – 500 BC

This quote by our spiritual father, Sun Tzu, has never been more true in the crypto ecosystem as we all battle to survive the most significant blow ever to the nascent industry. FTX’s bankruptcy was described as crypto’s Lehman Brothers moment, or as more evidence came to light, more “Enron” than “Lehman” moment. Trying to cover this story as it unfolded before our shocked eyes was like trying to catch a bullet bare-handed. This article provides a preliminary post-mortem analysis of where the situation stands today. Unfortunately, we sincerely believe that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg, and we brace for many more casualties to be affected in the near future. We have already covered in SUN ZU Lab’s weekly insights (here & here) the story’s timeline and the significant headlines surrounding it. We will therefore move directly into a more technical analysis.

As a reminder, FTX and Alameda Research constituted the bulk of ex-crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried’s empire. The former being the exchange arm and the latter being the trading firm.

Understand the man to understand his actions:

Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF) had a reputation for being very smart and a highly talented trader. However, as more revelations come to light, we are convinced now that his supposedly spectacular trading returns (as well as some of his peers) were mainly driven by 2020 and 2021’s bull run. His crypto empire’s implosion is due instead to his betting big philosophy! A leveraging strategy mainly fueled FTX and Alameda’s stratospheric rise in the last two years via deceptive fundraises and financial engineering before eventually using plain fraud, as was revealed by the preliminary investigation.

In this Twitter thread, we get an interesting glimpse of SBF’s motives behind creating FTX; he explains, among others, that he was deeply frustrated by two things in the way other crypto exchanges operated. Contrary to TradFi, where an exchange focuses on managing its order book matching engine, leaving margin handling to the clearing house, a crypto exchange has to handle both responsibilities. He was therefore losing millions from what he called “socialized losses”, where the collectivity ends up paying the losses of a liquidated negative account. The second reason was that he viewed BTC’s price as being hit every time it suffered selling pressure from a cascade of liquidated accounts, which wasn’t fair from his point of view.

He initially addressed white papers proposing new ways of functioning to other exchanges before creating FTX as a new crypto derivatives exchange where, we cite: “The entire margin system is reworked to a way almost no exchanges in crypto work. We can take huge size & also have lots of leverage & have a solid blocker against ever having clawbacks.”

A trending video of Alameda’s CEO Caroline Ellison resurfaced where she was saying: “Being comfortable with risk is very important. We tend not to have things like stop-losses, I think those aren’t necessarily a great risk-management tool. I’m trying to think of a good example of a trade where I’ve lost a ton of money … well, I don’t know, I probably don’t want to go into specifics too much.”

We can see a recipe for disaster starting to take form.

A complicated SBF-Ellison / FTX-Alameda love story

Alameda Research and FTX were supposed to be entirely separate entities in theory. We instead learn that Alameda’s CEO Caroline Ellison has dated at times SBF. More shockingly, several top execs from FTX and Alameda lived in the same luxury penthouse in the Bahamas, where Ellison was rumoured to have access to FTX screens showing client trades. A recent Wall Street Journal report indicates that Alameda was frontrunning FTX token listings. Between the start of 2021 and March 2022, the trading firm held $60 million worth of 18 different tokens that were eventually listed on FTX.

This intimacy could also explain why SBF later allowed customer funds to be used to pay for Alameda’s loans, building a software backdoor to outwit FTX compliance systems.

FTX and Alameda’s Balance Sheets were bad, very bad!

The massive bank run suffered between November 6 and 11 drove FTX and Alameda eventually to the ground, and the word bank is chosen wisely as it appears FTX was more a bank than an exchange! They suffered as much as $6 billion of withdrawals in the final 72 hours, except they didn’t have customers’ money as FTX had loaned it to Alameda, which used it to make venture capital investments!!

Let us stop a moment on the last revelation. Every first-year finance student could tell you to never, never use extra-short-term liabilities (client funds, with a theoretical maturity of 0) to finance the riskiest and most illiquid investment in the spectrum (VC investments, with an expected maturity higher than ten years).

Ellison explains in an interview with the New York Times that lenders moved to recall their loans around the time the crypto market crashed this spring. But as the funds that Alameda had spent were no longer easily available, the company used FTX customer funds in an emergency procedure to make the payments.

Let’s go back first to where troubles began to appear. Anyone remotely familiar with the hedge fund space knows that the financials (P&L and Balance Sheet, among others) are protected at all costs. The fact that Coindesk managed to put their hands on that “secret sauce” leaves a place for a plethora of conspiracy theories. We refrain from venturing into that territory.

On November 2, CoinDesk published an article highlighting the following facts from a private document they reviewed:

To put things into perspective, this puts a total of $5.8 billion in FTT tokens on Alameda’s balance sheet as of June 30. The market capitalization of circulating FTT was around $3.3 billion that day. Indeed, a quick look at FTT’s page on Etherscan shows that over 74% of the token’s total supply is held by two addresses belonging to FTX and Alameda.

FFT’s page – Source Etherscan

This partial information meant that most of Alameda’s net equity was comprised of FTT tokens, printed out of “thin air” by its sister company FTX.

In a volatile and fragile global crypto environment, rumours were quickly forming about how SBF could be just another flywheel / Ponzi scheme magician! Here is what we mean by a flywheel scheme in crypto:

  1. Create a token
  2. Artificially pump its price (wash trading through a market maker)
  3. Mark the artificial gains in the balance sheet
  4. lure the community and investors with “realized” gains
  5. Raise capital through equity sales, ICOs or loans
  6. the hype continues to fuel the token’s price, and the loop continues!

The fears were extreme, especially since the Celsius bankruptcy and the CEL token explosion still haunt most of us. Celsius was a multi-billion dollar crypto lending firm, or Ponzi scheme, which was destroyed in part by its own token, CEL!

As it appears, this is exactly what SBF was doing with some of his investments, known as “Sam coins”, including Serum, Raydium and FTT.

The way it would work with our exchange/trading firm duo is that Alameda would fund a project at a $50 million fully diluted valuation (considering the total number of tokens to be issued) with $5 million, for example. FTX would then list the token on its exchange, releasing only a tiny fraction of the total tokens to the market. Given the illiquidity of this token, Alameda could easily deploy a few millions to artificially inflate the fully diluted valuation 100x, increasing the stake’s value on its books to $500 million. This inflated figure is then used as collateral for borrowing purposes.

The Financial Times shared a copy of an FTX balance sheet dated November 10, shared with prospective investors one day before the company filed for bankruptcy.

Here is a visualization of this balance sheet provided by Visual Capitalist:

FTX Balance sheet provided by Visual Capitalist
FTX balance sheet | Source: Visual Capitalist

We fell from our seats when we first saw this balance sheet! And we wouldn’t put it better than Bloomberg’s Matt Levine:

“It’s an Excel file full of the howling of ghosts and the shrieking of tortured souls. If you look too long at that spreadsheet, you will go insane.”

Citing the FT, we learn that “A spreadsheet listing FTX international’s assets and liabilities, seen by the Financial Times, point at the issues that brought Bankman-Fried crashing back down to earth. It references $5bn of withdrawals last Sunday, and a negative $8bn entry described as “hidden, poorly internally labled ‘fiat@’ account”.

“Bankman-Fried told the Financial Times the $8bn related to funds “accidentally” extended to his trading firm, Alameda, but declined to comment further.”

When we look at the “less-liquid assets” category, the most considerable number is $2.2 billion of SRM, the Serum DEX native token (we will talk later about Serum). This is a clear example of the flywheel scheme described above in the article. As of November 17, CoinMarketCap shows a $70 million market cap for SRM (market cap of circulating tokens) against a $2.7 billion fully diluted market cap (theoretical figure taking into account the token’s max supply). The FTX team are basing their $2.2 billion valuation on an impossible illiquid scenario.

Okay, but one big question remains: how did they manage to burn through more than $10-15 billion of “realized” profits?

In our eyes, the bad VC investments and mishandling of client funds don’t explain alone the $8 billion hole in the balance sheet, especially when taking into account FTX and Alameda’s extremely profitable history due to high trading fees and lucrative venture deals. The only plausible explanation we see is that Alameda was bleeding money for a long time in 2022’s harsh bear market and possibly long before that, slowly decaying from its market-neutral market-making strategies into taking losing directional bets.

This seems to be exactly what we learned from a recent motion filed in the Delaware district court handling the bankruptcy procedure. The entities’ 2021 tax returns collectively showed a net operating loss carryover of $3.7 billion, meaning that the main entities (FTX & Alameda) had posted that much in losses since their inception. This completely contradicts the image SBF was circulating of his businesses and is quite shocking when considering that several competing crypto exchanges and trading firms, such as Wintermute or Coinbase, have realized significant gains over 2020 and 2021’s roaring crypto bull runs!

We end this paragraph on the wise words of newly appointed FTX CEO John Ray III: “Never in my career have I seen such a complete failure of corporate controls and such a complete absence of trustworthy financial information as occurred here. From compromised systems integrity and faulty regulatory oversight abroad, to the concentration of control in the hands of a very small group of inexperienced, unsophisticated and potentially compromised individuals, this situation is unprecedented.”

The biggest winners & losers:


It is tough to choose one big loser from the FTX fiasco. There is obviously SBF himself, whose net fortune went from $26 billion at its peak to less than $1 billion. FTX employees are set to lose big, having most of their wealth linked to the exchange. VC and institutional investors have bet big on the disgraced young prodigy: between 2021 and 2022, SBF raised more than $1.5 billion from esteemed investors such as SoftBank, Sequoia Capital, Temasek, Tiger Global Management, Paradigm or the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. Without forgetting the more than a million creditors still waiting to see how this insolvency will be unpicked. It was typically revealed in a court filing that FTX owes almost $3.1 billion to its top 50 creditors. 

We want to focus on the Solana ecosystem as one major casualty. The Solana Foundation declared days after the bankruptcy that it held 134.54m SRM tokens and 3.43m FTT tokens on FTX when withdrawals went dark on November 6. Those assets were worth around $107m and $83m one day before the freeze. It also held a 3.2 million common stock ownership in FTX.

As we can see, Solana and FTX maintained deep financial ties. The problem gets bigger when considering Serum, a DEX created by SBF and at the centre of much of Solana-based DeFi. SBF even went on to call Serum the “truly, fully trustless” backbone of Defi on the Solana blockchain. DeFi protocols across the Solana ecosystem were rushing to unplug from Serum after the post-bankruptcy hack at FTX. It was reported that the true power over Serum rested with FTX and SBF, which continue to hold the program update authority keys. This led the Solana community to move to create a new version of Serum that they could govern without influence from FTX.

The total value locked (TVL) on the Solana network has seen a 70% drop in November 2022 alone, reaching lows of $300 million from a $10 billion peak in November 2021. SOL is down more than 60% since the start of the month and the Coindesk article release.

In a previous article by SUN ZU Lab titled “What is Tokenomics and why does it matter?”, we interestingly took the Solana case study to highlight the importance of good governance practices that protect users. One of the main questions we left our readers to reflect upon was the following: Is it really that decentralized? – We now have our answer!


There aren’t many winners from this situation, except maybe DEX’s, which are seeing an impressive peak in interest since FTX’s implosion. Uniswap, in particular, has risen to become the world’s second-largest venue for trading Ethereum, having recorded more than $1 billion in ETH trades in 24h, surpassing Coinbase (c. $0.6bn). Since the news that Binance was about to bail out FTX, DEXs around the crypto ecosystem saw $31 billion in trade volumes, with Uniswap alone accounting for $20 billion.

We want to highlight, however, that while DeFi’s “permissionless, trustless self-custody” ideology seems to be winning short term, we don’t bet a lot on new institutional money going directly into DeFi, mainly for KYC and AML reasons, among others.

How did crypto markets react to all this?

Whether we analyze crypto markets from a price, bid-ask spread or volume perspective, we see that the turning point in FTX’s downfall was the announcement of Binance’s non-binding offer to buy its rival (11/08/22 around 5 PM UTC). It was the first major event that worried the markets that something was off. FTT’s price dropped by more than 80% in the following hours, while bid-ask spreads on FTT briefly reached 400 bps.

Bid ask spread | Why transparency matters

Could we have seen this coming?

Yes! We have already voiced our opinions and concerns over crypto risk assessment in general and how crypto venues should be managed and audited in these previous articles: “Everything you’ve always wanted to ask your crypto exchange” and “Crypto Risk Assessment: Way to Go“. FTX was ranked among the top crypto exchanges, just days before its fall, by major industry players, non of which were able to underline the significant governance, operational or counterpart risks surrounding FTX and Alameda. We believe the crypto industry now has few shots “to get this right” after this spectacular failure.

We put the emphasis again on this table from the Crypto Risk Assessment article, which summarizes, in our opinion, the significant risks that should be closely monitored and audited regarding crypto exchanges.

crypto risk assessment and the need for transparency

The magnitude scale is as follows (applied to capital at risk, whether it is a nominal amount for cash products or notional amounts for derivatives):

+ (very small to small): a fraction of a percent to a few percents

++ (medium to significant): a few percents to a few tens of percents

+++ (high to very high): up to 100% and beyond. The vital prognostic of the firm may be engaged

who knows? This one is exactly what it reads; possible losses range from trivial to life-threatening

We also highlight this chart from the Financial Stability Oversight Council’s (FSOC) latest report, released in early October 2022. It highlights the major parties related to loans or investments made by 3AC, where we can see all the now-troubled actors following the explosion of the Terra ecosystem.

Where do we see things going from here?

For one thing, the FTX and Alameda implosion will hurt crypto liquidity badly. Alameda was one of the largest market makers in a space dominated by a handful of actors, among which we can cite Wintermute, B2C2 or Genesis. More disturbing, 56 market makers and fund managers reported FTX exposures of up to $500 million in an invite-only Telegram chat reviewed by TechCrunch.

As of November 24, the expanding list of FTX casualties now accounts for crypto-giants Genesis and Grayscale, BlockFi, Gemini, Multicoin and CoinHouse to cite a few. Genesis Global announced having lent around $2.8 billion to various crypto firms, including large loans to its parent company DCG. It confirmed that it had hired investment bank Moelis & Co to explore how to shore up its crypto-lending business’ liquidity and address clients’ needs days after halting withdrawals.

The bankruptcy procedure will surely be a long, drawn-out court case in which depositors will try to recoup their losses. But at which cost and after how many years?

FTX’s failure is unsurprisingly sparking a massive regulatory response, with several US state and federal agencies launching or expanding investigations into the company, including the DoJ, the SEC, the Securities Commission of the Bahamas and the Bahamas’ Financial Crimes Investigation Branch. More globally, crypto regulation in most markets has been slow to materialize. We see that changing in the wake of these recent events, with MiCA regulation in Europe heading for final approvals in 2023.

As this situation continues to evolve, we can’t yet draw final lessons and conclusions, except repeating our core message and belief at SUN ZU Lab: liquidity and transparency are core constituents to every efficient market worthy of the name. Remove one or both, and even “Too Big To Fail” giants start to shake.

We would be happy to hear your thoughts. You can address questions and comments to c.eladnani@sunzulab.com or research@sunzulab.com

About SUN ZU Lab

SUN ZU Lab is a leading data solutions provider based in Paris, on a mission to bring transparency to the global crypto ecosystem through independent quantitative analyses. We collect the most granular market data from major liquidity venues, analyze it, and deliver our solutions through real-time dashboard & API stream or customized reporting. SUN ZU Lab provides crypto professionals with actionable data to monitor the market and optimize investment decisions.

Opinion article: How a simple “heads or tails” game illustrates the importance of transparency in crypto markets?

By Stéphane Reverre and Chadi El Adnani @SUN ZU Lab

November 2022

The importance of transparency in crypto

Crypto will always fascinate us. Who would have thought that we would manage to find a link between a famous 60’s American television game show, a Kevin Spacey poker movie, a heads or tails game and crypto market liquidity transparency? But here we are at SUN ZU Lab, always striving to push the boundaries of common perceptions.

The Monty Hall problem is a probability puzzle named after the host of the American game show “Let’s Make a Deal”. The problem was initially posed and solved in a letter by Steve Selvin to the American Statistician in 1975. It became famous after Parade magazine columnist Marilyn vos Savant responded to a reader’s question regarding it in 1990. Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) later uses it to clarify his point about the Change Variable’s importance in the famous movie Las Vegas 21, released in 2008 (link).

It goes as follows:

Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, “Do you want to pick door No. 2?” Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?

Counterintuitively, the odds are not at all 50-50. You have a 2/3 (67%) probability of winning by switching doors!

We would not explain why this is true using conditional probability and Bayes theory (interested readers can check the paper in the reference section). Let’s instead see the problem from the following perspective:

Do you remain with your original door (1/10 chance of winning) or the other door, which was filtered out from 9 other possibilities?

Monty is improving your 9 choices set by removing 8 goats. Once he’s done “cleaning”, you are left with the top door out of 9 for you to choose from.

The question asked differently is: Do you want a random door out of 10 (initial guess) or the best one out of 9?

Now coming back to our initial pain point, crypto liquidity transparency, the question becomes:

As a professional crypto user, do you want one random liquidity venue to execute your trades or the best of 9 liquidity venues, carefully analyzed and filtered by an independent entity?

We give another example to illustrate our opinion better. Let us consider a game with three coins: one is two-headed, the second is a biased coin that shows heads 75% of the time, and the third is unbiased. One of the three coins is chosen randomly and tossed. What is the probability that it was the two-headed coin?

Without additional information, the chances of getting the two-headed coin are 1/3 (33%). Knowing that the tossed coin showed heads, the probability becomes 4/9 (44%)!

The previous probability is computed using Bayes theorem. Let E1, E2 and E3 be the events of choosing a two-headed coin, a biased coin and an unbiased coin, respectively. A is the event that the coin shows heads:

P(E1|A) = P(E1).P(A|E1) / [P(E2).P(A|E2) + P(E3).P(A|E3) + P(E1).P(A|E1)]

P(E1|A) = (1/3) / (3/4) = 4/9

Without this crucial information, the player would be at a clear disadvantage, as it is not “fair” to play against a game master that dissimulates essential information.

What we refer to in the previous example is non-other than information asymmetry. This problem has been studied thoroughly in contract theory and economics, and regulators try to eradicate it as much as possible. Information asymmetry creates an imbalance of power in transactions, leading to severe market inefficiencies such as moral hazard risks or the establishment of monopolies of knowledge.

The general idea, put simply, is the following: Information is King! The more you know, the better (crypto investment) decisions you make. That’s why transprency is key.

Between an opaque liquidity venue on which no information is available and another independently audited for a significant period, the chances of taking the best decision are far from 50-50. While past performance is not a guarantee of future results, you should at least be able to tell if your crypto liquidity venue is sharing necessary information with you. We are convinced at SUN ZU Lab that as the crypto market matures, the need for transparency-enhancing players will materialize to the point of absolute necessity. 

We would be happy to hear your thoughts about transparency in crypto markets!

Questions and comments can be addressed to: founders@sunzulab.com


About SUN ZU Lab

SUN ZU Lab is a leading data solutions provider based in Paris, on a mission to bring transparency to the global crypto ecosystem through independent quantitative analyses. We collect the most granular market data from major liquidity venues, analyze it, and deliver our solutions through real-time dashboard & API stream or customized reporting. SUN ZU Lab provides crypto professionals with actionable data to monitor the market and optimize investment decisions.