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Crypto Venue for Bets on Trump, JLo and Covid Faces U.S. Probe

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(Bloomberg) -- It’s the go-to place for making crypto wagers on whether Donald Trump retakes the White House and Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck get engaged. It’s also under scrutiny by a top Wall Street regulator.

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The firm is Polymarket -- a New York-based platform that’s surged in popularity during the pandemic as a way for bettors to predict the outcomes of real-world events, including elections, ballgames and the private lives of celebrities. The problem? It may be breaking U.S. financial rules. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission is investigating whether Polymarket is letting customers improperly trade swaps or binary options and if it should be registered with the agency, according to people familiar with the matter.

“Polymarket is firmly committed to complying with applicable laws and regulations and to providing information to regulators that will assist them with any inquiry,” a spokeswoman for the firm said. The CFTC declined to comment.

Led by 23-year-old founder Shayne Coplan, Polymarket is hot, facilitating some 4 billion shares since launching last year. The company has been in talks with investors on a new round of funding that could value it at almost $1 billion, according to two people with knowledge of the matter who asked not to be named because the discussions are private.

As of Friday afternoon, Polymarket featured dozens of possible wagers, ranging from whether the Treasury Department will mint a $1 trillion coin by Nov. 5 to singer Nicki Minaj getting the Covid-19 vaccine by Nov. 29 to Elon Musk’s SpaceX reaching outer space by year’s end. Customers favor no Treasury coin, Minaj remaining unvaccinated and SpaceX coming up short.

NFL Proposal

While the CFTC is best known for policing banks’ derivatives desks and oil traders, it’s long been grappling with how to regulate event contracts like those offered by Polymarket. Amid tough questions from the CFTC, cryptocurrency exchange ErisX withdrew a proposal in March to offer futures contracts based on National Football League games, products that casinos could have used to hedge their sportsbooks.

Read more: There’s a Plan to Bring Sports Gambling to the Futures Market

Crucial to Polymarket is another asset class of the moment: crypto. Instead of U.S. dollars, customers who want to make trades have to use the USD coin, a stablecoin backed by Coinbase Global Inc.

Stablecoins, whose values are pegged to fiat currencies, have gotten a lot of attention themselves from Washington in recent months. Government agencies, including the CFTC, are concerned the largely unregulated tokens have grown so big that they could put consumers at risk or threaten financial stability if Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies crashed.

The market value of USD coin is now $32.4 billion, up from $3.9 billion at the end of 2020, according to CoinMarketCap.com. A coin issued by Tether has grown to almost $70 billion from $21 billion over the same time period, making it the largest U.S. stablecoin.

Read more: Stablecoin Tether Grows Into Crypto World’s $69 Billion Mystery

CFTC investigations don’t always lead to enforcement cases and Polymarket hasn’t been accused of wrongdoing. If firms are sanctioned by the regulator, they can face fines and restrictions on offering products.

Tremendous Value

To handle the probe, Polymarket has retained James McDonald, a partner at law firm Sullivan & Cromwell who was head of the CFTC’s enforcement division until last year, said a person with knowledge of the hiring. McDonald didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Polymarket has said it’s not only offering bettors a destination to make money, or lose their shirts. In an age of disinformation and fake news, the company argues it’s providing useful data on what’s likely to happen in the not-so-distant future on geopolitics and other important topics.

“Via price discovery, you get this perpetually accurate forecast about the future of a given event,” Coplan said last year on the “Star Spangled Gamblers” podcast. “This is something that could have tremendous social value.”

Polymarket doesn’t take custody of money or digital tokens, and it just displays existing markets live on the Ethereum blockchain, according to its website. The firm also doesn’t take the other side of customer trades. In a sign of the high interest, a separate website called “Polymarket Whales” has popped up that features the biggest bettors on closely watched contracts.

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