LONDON: Bitcoin tumbled on Monday after major U.S. cryptocurrency lending company Celsius Network froze withdrawals and transfers citing "extreme" conditions, in the latest sign of the financial market downturn hitting the cryptosphere.
The Celsius move triggered a slide across cryptocurrencies, with their value dropping below $1 trillion on Monday for the first time since January 2021, dragged down by a 12% fall in the largest token bitcoin.
After Celsius's announcement, bitcoin touched an 18-month low of $23,300. No.2 token ether dropped as much as 18% to $1,176, its lowest since January 2021.
Crypto markets have dived in the past few weeks as rising interest rates and surging inflation prompted investors to ditch riskier assets across financial markets.
Markets extended a sell off on Monday after U.S. inflation data on Friday, which showed the largest price increase since 1981, prompting investors to raise their bets on Federal Reserve rate hikes.
Cryptocurrencies have also been shaken by the collapse of the terraUSD and luna tokens in May.
Bitcoin, which surged in 2020 and 2021, is down around 50% so far this year.
"It's still an uncomfortable moment, and there's some contagion risk around crypto more broadly," said Joseph Edwards, head of financial strategy at fund management firm Solrise Finance.
Celsius offers interest-bearing products to customers who deposit cryptocurrencies at its platform. It then lends out cryptocurrencies to earn a return.
Celsius said on its website on Monday that customers who transfer their crypto to its platform can earn an annual return of up to 18.6%.
The website urges customers to "Earn high. Borrow low."
In a blog post, the company said it had frozen withdrawals, as well as transfers between accounts, "to stabilise liquidity and operations while we take steps to preserve and protect assets."
"We are taking this action today to put Celsius in a better position to honour, over time, its withdrawal obligations," the New Jersey-based company said.
Celsius's Token, which crypto borrowers and lenders on its platform could earn interest on or pay interest in, has fallen about 97% in the last 12 months, from $7 to around 20 cents, based on CoinGecko data.
Celsius CEO Alex Mashinsky and Celsius did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.
The surge of interest in crypto lending led to concerns from regulators, especially in the United States, who are worried about investor protections and systemic risks from unregulated lending products.
Celsius and crypto firms that offer services similar to banks are in a "grey area" of regulations, said Matthew Nyman at CMS law firm. "They’re not subject to any clear regulation that requires disclosure" over their assets.
Celsius raised $750 million in funding last year from investors, including Canada's second-largest pension fund Caisse de Dépôt et Placement du Québec. Celsius was valued at the time at $3.25 billion.