Patrick Byrne stepped to the podium on the main stage at the North American Bitcoin Conference in Miami in January, sporting a red “Make Bitcoin Great Again” hat and a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Dirty Hippie.” The founder and chief executive officer of online retailer Overstock.com Inc. disposed of Wall Street in under three minutes.
“The simplest way to fix them is to drag Wall Street behind the barn and kill it with an ax and re-create it on blockchain,” Byrne said, as a screen behind him showed a bull disappearing behind a cartoon barn, then a splash of red gore. In the next half-hour, he prophesied that blockchain, the technology that powers Bitcoin and other digital currencies, will solve state pension crises, revolutionize securities lending, eradicate poverty, and reduce terrorism. Once you enable “global ledgers, all kinds of things would happen,” he said. “People switch sides.
Capital is unleashed.”
A few hours later, Byrne was captured in a grainy video standing on the bar at a South Beach club, chugging bubbly straight from the bottle with the rapper Flo Rida, in a celebration of the capital being unleashed for his infant blockchain platform, tZero. Even though it’s mostly just an idea, he’s selling as much as $300 million in tZero tokens. The tokens promise holders a cut of the revenue from a venture Byrne says will become the go-to place to trade cryptosecurities and eventually replace Wall Street as a platform for exchanging all kinds of assets. “Congratulations, God bless,” Flo Rida says in the video, before clapping a white tZero hat over a sparkling sweatband and launching into his hit Low. Byrne crouched awkwardly to the chorus “low, low, low,” between two dancers in mesh bodysuits.
Byrne, 55, has been reborn as a crypto-evangelist, giving himself and his unsexy e-commerce company a new shine. He’s positioning himself at the intersection of Wall Street and the mushrooming business of initial coin offerings, sales of new cryptocurrencies touted for their ability to revolutionize every industry. Dreamers and schemers raised more than $6.5 billion for ICOs last year, according to figures from blockchain research firm Smith + Crown. Some ventures pulled in millions of dollars with little more than a glorified blog post sketching a tangential link to the space inhabited by Bitcoin. Even with crypto prices well off their peaks, token sales raised another $3.1 billion in the first two months of 2018.
The tide of money has regulators in a lather. Byrne has been pitching the tZero platform as the legitimate edge of the ICO frontier: a blockchain-based trading system for securities, including those linked to cryptocurrencies, that complies with federal laws. Now those regulators have questions about his experiment in marrying Wall Street with a digital token. Overstock disclosed on March 1 that it had provided information to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in connection with an investigation of its ICO. In recent weeks the agency has sent a number of subpoenas to firms raising money through ICOs and to their advisers.
Byrne, who says Overstock wasn’t subpoenaed, views it as all to the good. “I think it’s way past due the SEC comes in and looks at this,” he says. “I welcome it. I think it’s great.” The same day Overstock disclosed the SEC inquiry, it announced it had raised $100 million in a presale of tZero tokens at discounted prices. Overstock shares have doubled since September, when Byrne told Bloomberg News about his planned token platform.
Byrne’s eccentricities and grudge matches are legend on Wall Street, giving his idea of bridging the gap between regulators and cryptorevolutionaries a whiff of irony. Overstock.com’s initial public offering in 2002 introduced the shareholding public to an idiosyncratic CEO who has fought with Wall Street ever since. He’s best known for his war against so-called naked short selling, where investors bet a stock will drop without first taking the required step of borrowing shares, a practice he suggests brings in huge revenue for big banks. Overstock sued Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and other brokerages in 2007, claiming they caused the company’s stock to drop by abetting naked shorting. Byrne says the banks paid about $34 million to settle the suits. Goldman and Bank of America Corp., which bought Merrill, declined to comment. Both banks denied the allegations at the time.
While Byrne has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford, his approach to critics has been anything but nuanced. In 2004 he emailed the author of a skeptical Fortune magazine story, “So, why exactly did you become a reporter? Giving Goldman traders blowjobs didn’t work out?”
TZero reflects Byrne’s longtime preoccupation with naked short selling. The immutable record of the blockchain, he says, will keep everyone honest. Grand predictions aside, a lot about tZero sounds pretty conventional. Its assets include old-fashioned stock-trading businesses that Byrne acquired in 2016. Among the first tokens set to trade on tZero is KodakCoin, Eastman Kodak Co.’s far-fetched effort to revive its fortunes with a blockchain to protect photographic copyright.
Some of the people behind the tZero platform are unlikely blockchain innovators. They include two brothers who met Byrne during his anti-short-selling crusade: John and Derek Tabacco. At a tZero cocktail party in November at a Manhattan steakhouse, John was holding court, looking like a character from the movie Wall Street, in a blue pinstriped suit with an American flag pocket square. He was banned from the securities industry in 1997 after working at a pair of sketchy brokerages. Together with his brother, who has appeared on the reality show Mob Wives, he ran a website called LocateStock.com that offered some of the same services tZero plans. They sold it to a firm called InvestView Inc. in 2012 for about $3 million. In November he called himself a co-founder of tZero and said he formed a “cosmic brotherhood” with Byrne over their mutual hatred of naked short sellers. “We’re on the leading edge of crypto,” he said at the time. Byrne said in an email that John Tabacco was an adviser, not a founder, and that he stopped doing any work for tZero earlier this year. Efforts to contact Tabacco to follow up were unsuccessful.
Byrne’s pronouncements sound tame compared with some blockchain hype. Talk to crypto-entrepreneurs, and ending poverty is just one more item blockchain will cross off the global to-do list, along with tracking every fish in the sea. Signs of mania abound: the fishmonger at Russ & Daughters in Manhattan overheard passing ICO tips to a co-worker, or Katy Perry’s Instagram post of her nails painted with the logos of cryptocurrencies. Last year, a pair of twentysomethings from Miami raised $30 million for a crypto debit card after securing the endorsement of boxer Floyd “Money” Mayweather.
Dan Gallagher, a former SEC commissioner, said at a conference in February that the ICO market is “the freaking Wild West—it’s Wolf of Wall Street on steroids.” That hasn’t stopped him from serving on the board of a blockchain company working with Byrne. One former fraudster who’s staying clear of ICOs is Jordan Belfort, the pump-and-dumper played by Leonardo DiCaprio in that film, who says he’s been solicited to endorse token sales but declines because he doesn’t want to go back to prison. “It’s a perfect storm of manipulation,” Belfort says. “There’s no amount of money that someone could offer me that I would do this.”