Coinbase Could Quit US, Says CEO, as SEC Doubles Down on Crypto Scrutiny

Coinbase Co-founder and CEO Brian Armstrong speaks onstage during Day 3 of TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018 at Moscone Center.

Steve Jennings / Getty Images

Coinbase (COIN), the largest U.S.-domiciled crypto exchange by trading volume, could leave the U.S. if regulators don't clarify their approach to cryptocurrencies, CEO Brian Armstrong said.

Key Takeaways

  • At an event in London, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong said the crypto asset exchange could leave the U.S. if the regulatory climate does not improve.
  • Meanwhile, Republican members of Congress heavily criticized the SEC and Chairman Gensler's crypto stance in a letter and during a Congressional hearing.
  • Gensler declined to say whether Ether is a commodity or a security.

Coinbase Willing to Leave U.S.

Armstrong, speaking at an event in London, said he was frustrated by the lack of clear rules for the crypto industry in the U.S., where different regulators have conflicting views on how to classify and regulate digital assets. He said that he would prefer to operate in a jurisdiction where there is only one regulator with a consistent approach, such as the U.K.

"I think if a number of years go by where we don’t see regulatory clarity emerge in the US, we may have to consider investing more in other regions of the world," said Armstrong.

Armstrong added that he still sees the U.S. as an important crypto market, but if the situation does not improve in the next few years, he would be open to relocating the company. “Anything is on the table, including relocating or whatever is necessary,” he said.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has initiated more than 50 crypto-related enforcement actions in the last few years. The SEC filed a suit against the crypto exchange Bittrex on Monday. The exchange began winding down its U.S. operations earlier this month, citing "the current U.S. regulatory and economic environment."

Coinbase itself received a Wells notice, a warning of impending legal action, from the SEC in late March.

House Republicans Grill SEC Chair Gensler

The House Committee on Financial Services grilled SEC Chair Gary Gensler on Tuesday about how securities laws will be applied to the crypto industry going forward. Before the hearing, 29 Republican members of Congress echoed Armstrong's concerns in a letter to Gensler.

"Without clear rules of the road, your push for firms to 'come in and register' is a willful misrepresentation of the SEC’s non-existent registration process," reads the letter. "The only entity to blame for the lack of registrants is the SEC itself."

House Committee on Financial Services Chairman Patrick McHenry (R-NC) called the SEC's approach to crypto exchanges "nonsensical" in the hearing's opening remarks. "You're punishing digital asset firms for allegedly not adhering to the law when they don't know it will apply to them."

McHenry also pushed Gensler to provide clarity on whether Ether should be defined as a security or a commodity, but the SEC chair was unwilling to do so.

Instead, Gensler reiterated his belief that the SEC has sufficient authority to deal with the crypto industry and that regulatory clarity exists. "Right now, unfortunately, this market is rife with noncompliance," said Gensler.

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  1. U.S. House Financial Services Committee. "Committee Republicans Blast Chair Gensler’s Misrepresentation of Non-Existent Digital Asset Trading Platform Registration Process."

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