Crypto companies are playing poker with the SEC as agency cracks down on the industry

Major players are hoping that the SEC and Washington takes, what crypto watchers see as bluffs, seriously and soften the hard line that regulators have taken on the industry.
Roman Strelchenko | 500Px Plus | Getty Images

Cryptocurrency companies are playing a game of poker with the Securities and Exchange Commission, making bold threats to leave the U.S. as the regulator steps up pressure on the industry to toe the line.

Major players are hoping that the SEC and Washington takes, what crypto watchers see as bluffs, seriously and soften the hard line that regulators have taken on the industry.

Executives at firms including crypto exchange Coinbase and blockchain services company Ripple have piled on with comments laying into the SEC and signaling plans to shift business overseas, in a bid to rally support and send a message to U.S. politicians concerned that the country may miss out on a key technological innovation.

Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong said last week that the SEC was on a “lone crusade” with its tough actions against certain crypto companies. He added that Chair Gary Gensler had taken an “anti-crypto view,” despite earlier being a supporter of the industry during his time as an economics professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

“The SEC is a bit of an outlier here,” Armstrong told CNBC’s Dan Murphy in an interview in Dubai. “I don’t think [Gensler is] 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.”

Brad Garlinghouse, CEO of Ripple, also tore into the SEC this week. When asked for his message to Gensler as the company announced an expansion into Dubai, he quipped, “Who?” before later saying Ripple will have spent $200 million defending itself against a lawsuit initiated by the regulator by the time it is over.

“I find it as a company that started in the United States and as somebody who is a U.S. citizen, it’s sad. I have sadness about this. The U.S. is getting passed not just by a little bit but by a lot,” Garlinghouse said.

“The tough thing about this is you have a country that I think has put politics ahead of policy and that’s not a good decision if you’re trying to invest in the economy.”

Dubai and Europe have proven to be much more favorable markets with their virtual asset regulatory frameworks, Garlinghouse said, adding: “The United States is definitely stuck.”

Garlinghouse, Armstrong and other crypto bosses have made threats to leave the U.S., highlighting concern from the industry that the SEC’s crackdown is becoming too harsh. The regulator has taken strong enforcement actions against companies including Ripple, Coinbase, Kraken and Paxos, accusing each of flouting securities laws.

The SEC’s contention is that most tokens in the market may qualify as securities, which would subject them to much stricter requirements around registration and disclosure. Crypto firms, naturally, have denied assets they issue or list on their platforms should be treated as securities.

Will they stay or will they go?

The question is: could they actually leave? It looks pretty unlikely.

“The U.S. is one of the largest markets for crypto, and hence it is highly unlikely that they will leave,” Larisa Yarovaya, associate professor of finance at Southampton University, told CNBC via email.

“The biggest fear of crypto companies is that regulation will cause panic among crypto investors and prices will go down. To look confident (even arrogant) is a common tactic of crypto company CEOs. They think this will translate into investors’ confidence, overconfidence in some cases, and will encourage further irrational behaviour among investors, e.g. HODL [hold on for dear life] even when markets are falling.”

Ripple’s Garlinghouse has been threatening to move his company’s headquarters overseas since 2020. In October that year, he said the U.K., Switzerland, Singapore, Japan and the United Arab Emirates were under consideration for Ripple’s potential move abroad.

That hasn’t happened yet.

Coinbase’s chief, meanwhile, suggested at a London fintech conference in April that the firm would consider options of investing more abroad, including relocating from the U.S. to elsewhere, if the exchange doesn’t get regulatory clarity in the U.S.

A month later, Armstrong said Coinbase “is not going to relocate overseas.”

“We’re always going to have a U.S. presence … But the U.S. is a little bit behind right now,” he told CNBC.

The U.S. is a huge market for the industry, with over 50 million Americans saying they own some crypto, according to a survey conducted by Morning Consult for Coinbase.

“There’s a much greater focus on the international markets for those firms. But at the top end of the market, personally I just can’t see that ever happening that you leave the United States market completely,” Jonathan Levin, co-founder of Chainalysis, told CNBC in an interview in London.

“It’s more about how much do you invest in new international expansion where maybe that wasn’t as high up on the agenda, but now it’s let’s look at France, let’s look at the U.K.”

On top of this, the practicalities of moving these already large companies out of the U.S. would be tough.

“Although these industries are virtual by their nature, they still need people, and people have families, mortgages, and preferences on where they live. Replacing them with local talent in the new place may be easier said than done,” George Weston, a partner at global offshore law firm Harneys, told CNBC via email.

Regulatory certainty outside the U.S.

Crypto bosses are playing up to some officials’ concerns that the U.S. has become shrouded in regulatory uncertainty while other jurisdictions, like the European Union and U.K., have charged forward with proposed regulatory frameworks for digital assets.

Hester Peirce, a commissioner at the SEC, said at a Financial Times conference last week that the U.S. was “shooting ourselves in the foot by not having a regulatory regime in the U.S.”

She praised the EU on its progress with waving through laws for the crypto industry.

The EU is expected to bring in the first comprehensive set of regulations for digital assets, known as Markets in Crypto Assets (MiCA), sometime in 2024.

“It’s really commendable that Europe was able to get that done so quickly,” Peirce said, according to Reuters. “If we built a good regulatory regime, people would come. I think you will see that with MiCA.”

Diego Ballo Ossio, a partner at law firm Clifford Chance, said other jurisdictions including the U.K. and EU are changing their legislative frameworks to create clear regulatory regimes for exchanges.

“This means that other countries are effectively providing US based exchanges an option – a place to move to. It is not unthinkable that a U.S. exchange decided to create operational hubs in non-U.S. jurisdictions where the product can be safely innovated and enhanced,” he told CNBC.

Binance, the world’s largest crypto exchange, recently said it has become more difficult for the company to operate into the U.S. and that it was minded to establish a regulated operation in the U.K.

Patrick Hillman, the company’s chief strategy officer, said the U.S. “has been very confusing over the past six months,” pointing to the SEC’s actions against Coinbase as a sign of how the country is in a “weird place.”

While the U.S. crypto industry might currently be throwing out empty threats right now, there could be a real issue if regulators in America don’t move forward with thoughtful regulation.

“My conclusion is that I think it is more sabre rattling than a genuine desire to up and leave the U.S., but if the SEC continues down the path it is on, many firms will have no choice but to try another way of doing business. It is existential,” Daniel Csefalvay, a partner at BCLP law firm, told CNBC via email.