It wasn’t really crypto, and it wasn’t really a network. But the program at Silvergate Bank called the “Silvergate Exchange Network,” or SEN for short, played a crucial behind-the-scenes role in facilitating off-blockchain money transfers between big investors and crypto exchanges.
Now, the network has been shut down – closed last week as the bank’s parent company, Silvergate Capital Corp., acknowledged there were questions about its ability to continue as a “going concern,” and that it would be late in filing an annual report with securities regulators. Even before the announcement, key users of SEN, including the crypto firms Coinbase, Gemini, Paxos, Circle, Galaxy Digital, Cboe Digital and Bitstamp, were already dropping off, citing the need for caution.
Kraken, a crypto exchange, tweeted Tuesday that "we are winding down our relationship with Silvergate," taking steps to ensure that "client and operating cash is safe and secure."
With no clear prospects for a restart of SEN anytime soon, analysts and industry pros are trying to estimate how valuable the network really was as a core part of the nascent crypto-markets infrastructure, and if other blockchain firms or even traditional banks might step in to fill the void.
“It's hard to know just how damaging the loss of SEN would be right now," said Noelle Acheson, former head of research at CoinDesk and Genesis Trading. “I suspect it was probably a low fraction of what it used to be, so the immediate impact is not that significant. It's more a regrettable removal of a convenient service.”
Silvergate launched SEN in 2018 and had seen significant adoption of the platform, with transaction volume reaching $100 billion in the fall of 2020. Pretty much all major U.S.-based crypto exchanges became clients of Silvergate and started moving money through the network.
The SEN wasn’t really an interbank network per se like SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) or Fedwire, two well-known funds-transfer services that banks use. Rather, it was a collection of accounts at Silvergate, long seen as a crypto-friendly bank, that were able to instantly transfer money between one another.
So if an institutional investor had an account at Silvergate, sending dollars to an exchange was as simple as making an internal transfer to that exchange’s account at Silvergate. The functionality was available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Naturally, the SEN business served as a marketing tool to lure crypto firms to park deposits at Silvergate.
“It was a significant convenience for crypto customers, in that it dragged traditional banking into crypto hours,” Acheson said. “Rather than wait for weekday banking hours, customers could transfer fiat 24/7/365, much like the way crypto markets work.”
Fast growth before swift decline
At the market’s peak, in the fourth quarter of 2021, SEN had grown to process over $219 billion in transfers, generating $9.3 million in revenue.
It goes without saying that the amounts diminished over the course of this year to fourth-quarter levels of $117 billion and $6.6 million, respectively, as digital-asset prices tumbled and the industry descended into crypto winter.
While it is still unclear what is going to happen to Silvergate Capital (SI), there are multiple alternatives for the now-shut network, according to analysts and experts.
Signature Bank, another crypto-friendly bank based in New York, offers a program called Signet, launched in 2019 and using blockchain technology to allow for real-time settlements. It is the only other banking alternative to SEN that allows for instant U.S. dollar transfers to exchanges – as of now.
Crypto banking firm BCB Group CEO Oliver von Landsberg-Sadie said in an interview with CoinDesk Monday that his company’s payments processor is accelerating plans to add U.S. dollar capabilities to help fill the hole left by SEN. (Currently, it deals in euros and the British pound, but not in dollars.)
“I’d like to say it could be live by spring, so we’ll do whatever it takes to make sure those who are stranded by SEN get some sort of continuity given the huge overlap of BCB and Silvergate clients,” Landsberg-Sadie said.
Other traders will likely go back to using stablecoins like Circle’s USDC or Tether’s USDT to make quick trades; the dollar-pegged tokens are usually easy to move around the so-called digital rails.
A Kaiko report on Monday said that “stablecoins will likely become even more ubiquitous among traders,” with the “death” of SEN.
With Silvergate on the brink, the institution might get acquired by another bank, possibly with assistance from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). If that were to happen, the acquiring bank might choose to restart SEN, or just let it lie.
“Unless they're a bank that is already operating in a crypto market, the probability is that they would not want to set up a crypto business based upon what Silvergate had,” said Dick Bove, chief financial strategist at Odeon Capital Group.
For crypto traders, the technology seemed to have been a game changer and a convenient bridge between traditional finance and the crypto ecosystem, enough so for the industry to find ways to keep it alive despite the shutdown of SEN.
“I don't know how unique the technology is,” said Dave Weisberger, CEO of CoinRoutes. “What I can say categorically is that the functionality it offered will continue to be provided and by multiple sources.”
“There are plenty of other people ready to jump into the breach,” he said.
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