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A group of creditors pursuing a potentially vast bitcoin fortune from the imploded Mt Gox exchange have begun a legal action in Tokyo that would, if successful, remove the company from bankruptcy, disburse more than $3bn worth of coins among depositors and stop its former chief executive emerging from the debacle as a multibillionaire.
The move, which breaks largely uncharted legal ground in Japan, is a response by frustrated claimants to the recent stratospheric rise of bitcoin and a liquidation process that began when the cryptocurrency was trading at just a fraction of its current price of ¥2m ($17,600) per bitcoin.
Creditors involved in launching the legal challenge to the bankruptcy say the 40-fold price surge in bitcoin since Mt Gox’s collapse in February 2014 has fundamentally changed the financial mathematics of the bankruptcy, because the company’s assets now completely dwarf its liabilities.
Mark Karpelès, the exchange’s former chief executive currently fighting charges of embezzlement in Tokyo, controls the company that owns almost 90 per cent of Mt Gox. At the current bitcoin price, Mt Gox could meet all its liabilities and, under Japanese law, Mr Karpelès would then receive his share of the surplus — a theoretical fortune worth well in excess of $2bn.
In a petition filed this month, at least four major creditors are asking the court to consider moving the exchange from bankruptcy into civil rehabilitation. That change of status would mean Mt Gox’s bitcoin assets would not have to be sold but could instead be fully distributed, on a pro-rata basis, among claimants.
The court is investigating the merits of the petition for rehabilitation. The creditors bringing the case say the outcome is likely to come down to a “battle of experts”: those working for the bankruptcy trustee, who argue the current liquidation plan is more stable, and those hired by the creditors, who say their solution is quicker and fairer.
Mt Gox, which was once the world’s largest bitcoin exchange by trading volume, collapsed nearly four years ago after 850,000 of its own and its customers’ bitcoins disappeared from the company’s digital vaults. The occurrence is judged by some investigators to have been a cyber heist but remains unsolved, and pummelled bitcoin prices at the time.
A stash of 202,185 bitcoins — now worth about ¥390bn — was subsequently discovered in one of Mt Gox’s digital “wallets” and, as its value has surged ever higher, has become the obsession of creditors desperate to claw back what they believe they are owed.
Under the terms of the court-ordered Mt Gox liquidation, about 25,000 former depositors who filed claims will eventually receive their portion of the overall payout, either in cash or bitcoin, at an exchange rate of about ¥50,000 per bitcoin. That is the market price set, in accordance with Japanese law, at the time the bankruptcy proceedings began in April 2014.
Creditors involved in bringing the new lawsuit identify that as the prime source of injustice. The trustee in charge of the Mt Gox bankruptcy has recognised a total of about ¥58bn worth of claims and liabilities — about ¥46bn in bitcoin priced at the 2014 rate, and the remainder representing yen or dollar cash that had been sitting in customers’ accounts.
If the bitcoin price remains where it is now and survives such a large sale, those liabilities could be paid off with about 29,000 bitcoins. That would theoretically leave more than 173,000 coins for Mt Gox’s shareholders, primarily Mr Karpelès.
Mr Karpelès, who denies wrongdoing in the embezzlement case, has previously questioned whether such a fortune would ever, in fact, materialise given the way that liquidations tend to work.
Creditors have also suggested that any massive shift of bitcoin wealth to Mr Karpelès would make him the target of a large number of civil lawsuits from former customers.