Coinbase CEO says SEC is on ‘lone crusade,’ dials back on suggestion exchange may relocate

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Brian Armstrong, co-founder and chief executive officer of Coinbase Inc., speaks during the Singapore Fintech Festival, in Singapore, Nov. 4, 2022.
Bryan van der Beek | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The CEO of cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase, Brian Armstrong, doubled down on his criticisms of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission chief Gary Gensler Monday, but added the exchange would not leave the U.S. despite the regulatory uncertainty the company is facing in the country.

Coinbase has been under intense regulatory scrutiny in the U.S. lately following a grim year for the crypto industry which saw major companies like FTX and Terra fail, prices plunge, and investors lose billions of dollars in the process.

The SEC earlier this year served Coinbase with a Wells Notice, a letter that the regulator sends to a company or firm at the conclusion of an SEC investigation that states the SEC is planning to bring an enforcement action against them.

At the heart of the regulator’s dispute with Coinbase, and a host of other crypto companies, is the allegation that it is selling unregistered securities to investors. Coinbase disputes this.

“The SEC is a bit of an outlier here,” Armstrong told CNBC’s Dan Murphy in an interview in Dubai Monday. “There’s kind of a lone crusade, if you will, with Gary Gensler, the chair there, and he has taken a more anti-crypto view for some reason.”

“I don’t think he’s necessarily trying to regulate the industry as much as maybe curtail it. But he’s created some lawsuits, and I think it’s quite unhelpful for the industry in the U.S. writ large, but it also is an opportunity for Coinbase to go get that clarity from the courts that we feel will really benefit the crypto industry and also the U.S. more broadly.”

The SEC was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.

Armstrong also rowed back on a suggestion he made last month that the company may be forced to move its headquarters overseas.

“Coinbase is not going to relocate overseas,” Armstrong said. “We’re always going to have a U.S. presence … But the U.S. is a little bit behind right now.”

“I would say we’re seeing more thoughtful approaches, for instance, in the EU [European Union], they’ve actually already passed comprehensive crypto legislation, the U.K. has been incredibly welcoming, and for us there, and that’s been a hub where we’ve decided to serve the U.K. market.”

At a fintech conference in London in April, Armstrong said that Coinbase may consider relocating outside the U.S. if the current regulatory headwinds persist. He said the U.S. “has the potential to be an important market in crypto” but right now is not delivering regulatory clarity.

If this goes on, he said, then Coinbase would consider options of investing more abroad, including relocating from the U.S. to elsewhere.

Still, Armstrong said Monday that Coinbase was looking to increase its international investments, stating it is “very interested” in the United Arab Emirates as a country to do more investment in. Dubai has been a notably favorable regulator when it comes to crypto, courting business from the likes of Binance and Kraken.

Noting that it was his first visit to the UAE, Armstrong said: “I’m here to learn and listen and meet with the relevant regulators both in Abu Dhabi and here in Dubai and decide if this is a good place for us to serve a large region of the world.”