‘Crypto is dead in America,’ says longtime bitcoin bull Chamath Palihapitiya

Chamath Palihapitiya
Olivia Michael | CNBC

Tech investor Chamath Palihapitiya, who said two years ago that bitcoin has replaced gold and predicted the digital currency would climb to $200,000, has a much more cautious view on cryptocurrencies these days.

“Crypto is dead in America,” Palihapitiya said in the latest episode of the All-In podcast.

Palihapitiya blamed crypto’s demise largely on regulators, who have gotten much more aggressive in their pursuit of bad actors in the industry. Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Gary Gensler has said crypto trading platforms should abide by strict U.S. securities laws.

In answering questions in front of lawmakers recently, Gensler connected the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank with the crypto industry.

“You had Gensler even blaming the banking crisis on crypto,” Palihapitiya said. “The United States authorities have firmly pointed their guns at crypto.”

The SEC has ramped up its enforcement of the crypto industry, bearing down on companies and projects that the regulator alleges were selling unregistered securities. 

In February, the agency proposed rules that would change which crypto firms can custody customer assets, and in March, the SEC issued crypto exchange Coinbase a Wells notice, warning the company that it identified potential violations of U.S. securities law. (A Wells notice is typically one of the final steps before the financial regulator issues charges.) Last week, the SEC charged the crypto asset trading platform Bittrex and its ex-CEO for operating an unregistered exchange.

Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong told CNBC that his company is preparing for a years-long court battle with the commission, and is also considering relocating outside the U.S. if it doesn’t get improved regulatory clarity. Meanwhile, Bittrex has already announced it would wind down U.S. operations specifically due to “continued regulatory uncertainty.”

They “were probably the ones that were the most threatening to the establishment,” said Palihapitiya, referring to crypto companies. “And they were the ones that, in fairness to the regulators, did push the boundaries more than any other sector of the startup economy.”

“Now they’re paying the price for that,” he said. “The bill has come due for them.”

Gensler faced similar criticism from House Republicans over the agency’s crackdown on cryptocurrency platforms during four hours of Congressional testimony last week.

“Regulation by enforcement is not sufficient nor sustainable,” said House Financial Services Committee Chairman Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C. “You’re punishing digital asset firms for allegedly not adhering to the law when they don’t know it will apply to them.”

McHenry said the SEC’s approach was “driving innovation overseas and endangering American competitiveness.”

Gensler defended the agency’s actions.

“We have a clear regulatory framework built up over 90 years,” he said, adding that the exchanges “are “noncompliant generally, and they need to come into compliance.”

Bitcoin, the largest cryptocurrency, reached a record of about $69,000 in November 2021, when the Federal Reserve’s benchmark interest rate was near zero and investors were flooding into risk. The market changed in a hurry last year, as the Fed began steadily raising rates to fight inflation.

In early 2021, Palihapitiya predicted on CNBC that bitcoin would rise from $39,000 at the time to $100,000 and then up to $200,000.

“In what period, I don’t know,” he said. “Five years, 10 years, but it’s going there. And the reason is because every time you see all of this stuff happening, it just reminds you that, wow, our leaders are not as trustworthy and reliable as they used to be.”

Later in 2021, just before the peak, he said bitcoin had “effectively replaced gold.”

Bitcoin is currently trading at just over $27,300, down 60% from its all-time high.