Wirecard’s $2 billion disappearing act



On January 7th, 1918 Harry Houdini performed his “Vanishing Elephant” illusion where he was able to make a 5 ton elephant disappear before the eyes of a packed theatre in New York. But what Wirecard to pull off, even Houdini couldn’t have managed. Wirecard is a payment processor. Their mantra was simple, to build a cashless society that did not use notes or coins any more. When you go online to buy something you would give them your credit card details. They process the information, collect the money for the purchase and make sure merchant gets paid. To be honest, this is a pretty simple business and lots of companies are trying to do it. Wirecard’s promise to its investors was that they developed some of the best technology that allowed them to grow faster and make more money than their competitors. Wirecard offered their payment processing services around the world, in the countries where it didn’t have its own licenses, it would use these third parties. The money from these third parties, instead flowing into Wirecard’s account, it would sit in special escrow accounts in the Philippines. At least that’s what it told its auditors. At the end of last year Wirecard claimed it had 1.9 billion euros in cash sitting in these accounts. When EY checked with two banks in the Philippines asking about Wirecard’s account balance, the banks had no clue what they were talking about. 

Ilias Louis Hatzis is the Founder and CEO at Mercato Blockchain AG.

Established in 1999, Wirecard was a pioneer in digital payment processing. Valued at around €24 billion and part of Germany’s prestigious DAX Index, it surprised and disappointed everyone when its auditors announced on June 18, that they found a black hole in the company’s books. More than two billion worth of cash, reported in the company’s balance sheet, had disappeared into thin air, or to put it more accurately , was never there to begin with.

Wirecard’s admission that €1.9 billion of cash was missing was the catalyst for the company’s demise. Founder and former chief executive Markus Braun was arrested on Monday on suspicion of false accounting and market manipulation, before being released on bail for $5 million.

In the summer of 2018, Wirecard shares reached €191 and traded as high as €104 last week. On Thursday the stock price fell to €3.

The German operation Wirecard AG has applied for insolvency proceedings in a Munich court, due to “impending insolvency and over-indebtedness.” It has also issued a statement about the company’s ability to continue to operate, after it was unable to reach a deal with lenders for loans that are due on June 30 and July 1, respectively for €800 million ($896 million) and €500 million ($560 million).

Wirecard’s business relied on licenses that allow it to connect customers with the international payments networks, by Visa and Mastercard. Wirecard Bank was licensed by both Visa and Mastercard, enabling it to both issue credit cards and handle money on behalf of the merchants.

So why is Wirecard important for crypto?

Crypto users want to be able to use crypto like money, turning their crypto into actual money, without waiting days to get the cash. Crypto cards leverage the existing Visa and Mastercard infrastructure that is widely used across the world, enabling holders to pay in crypto for any product or service that can be purchased via a cashless payment, either in-store or online. Several crypto companies have issued crypto-backed debit cards, that tap into the user’s crypto balance.

Enter Wirecard, that operates crypto Visa debit cards for Crypto.com and TenX. Following the Wirecard’s insolvency filing on Thursday, cryptocurrency debit cards were frozen for both Crypto.com and TenX. On Friday the situation got even worse, when the FCA ordered Wirecard’s UK entity to suspend access to accounts, directly impacting several companies and their customers, like Curve, Pockit, and ANNA Money.

Those familiar with the space may remember what happened a couple of years back, with WaveCrest, a Gibraltar-based fintech. WaveCrest worked with several crypto companies providing prepaid crypto cards with access to the Visa and Mastercard networks. In January 2018, WaveCrest’s relationship with Visa abruptly ended because it did not comply with Visa’s operating rules, causing problems to companies like TenX, CryptoPay and Bitwala.

The whole situation with WaveCrest left a void in the market and now we are seeing the same void again, because of the problems Wirecard. As cards issued by Crypto.com and others are unusable, many of these companies will be looking other options to continue offering customers their services.

While crypto debit cards hold enormous opportunity to make crypto useful, they also raise the question of how wallets and exchanges will be able to  satisfy anti-money laundering and “know-your-customer” regulations. The regulatory environment around crypto has been evolving, and some wallet providers and exchanges now operate with official blessing under specially-devised compliance rules. But most still exist in regulatory vacuums, and criminals who are technically sophisticated can operate wallets without any oversight at all. The question is whether a new company will step in to fill Wirecard’s shoes and how.

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