The cryptocurrency market has experienced a 70% increase this year, but executives of digital-asset exchanges, especially in the US, are feeling uneasy. Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong may consider relocating the biggest US crypto exchange’s headquarters unless the country changes its approach to regulation. Recently, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has taken enforcement actions against digital-asset trading platforms, with Coinbase being possibly next. Even fellow SEC commissioners and Congressional Republicans are criticizing Chair Gary Gensler for trying to force trading platforms to register without providing a workable process or clarifying the rules of the road.
Gensler has made his thoughts on crypto rules clear for months, repeatedly stating that most digital tokens are securities, but most crypto exchanges have made few adjustments in how they operate. The reality is that following the rules would mean major cuts in profits for the crypto industry, as Gensler mentioned during a congressional hearing. On Monday, the SEC filed a lawsuit against crypto exchange Bittrex, accusing it of listing six unregistered securities: OMG, Dash, Algo, TKN, NGC, and IHT. Although most of these coins are obscure, Algo and Dash are well-known and trade on Coinbase, which has not commented on whether it plans to delist them.
Kraken recently stopped providing coin-staking services in the US as part of a settlement with the SEC, which said the service, through which crypto owners can earn yield, constitutes an unregistered security. Nevertheless, other exchanges, such as Coinbase, continue to offer similar products, claiming they are different. In late March, the SEC notified Coinbase that it plans to bring an enforcement action against the exchange. Coinbase has vowed to fight any action in court if necessary.
In the worst-case scenario for exchanges, as more and more coins are designated securities, many platforms may only be able to trade Bitcoin, the one token the SEC consistently deems a commodity and out of its purview. At a lesser but still financially painful extreme, exchanges may have to exit staking. They may also need to spin out some other businesses. In the Bittrex case, the SEC indicated it’s not happy with crypto platforms performing functions of broker-dealers, exchanges, and clearinghouses, a complaint it also raised in its suit last month against Beaxy.com.
While some of the SEC’s positions may be successfully staved off in the courtroom, many others may set precedent. The regulator had previously dealt effectively with initial coin offerings, which numbered in the thousands. Many of them had to exit the US or fold following the agency’s actions. As the SEC’s complaints pile up, fewer exchanges will want to take risks. Ultimately, the industry may have no choice but to acknowledge and adhere to the SEC’s point of view, and all these cases may have huge implications for crypto exchanges.