SEC sues Coinbase over exchange and staking programs, stock drops 12%

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SEC sues crypto exchange Coinbase in New York federal court

The Securities and Exchange Commission sued crypto exchange Coinbase in New York federal court on Tuesday morning, alleging that the company was acting as an unregistered broker and exchange and demanding that the company be “permanently restrained and enjoined” from continuing to do so.

Shares closed down 12% Tuesday. Coinbase stock had already fallen 9% on Monday, after the SEC unveiled charges against rival crypto exchange Binance and its founder Changpeng Zhao.

“These trading platforms, they call themselves exchanges, are commingling a number of functions,” SEC chair Gary Gensler said on CNBC Tuesday. “We don’t see the New York Stock Exchange operating a hedge fund,” Gensler continued.

Coinbase’s flagship prime brokerage, exchange and staking programs violate securities laws, the regulator alleged in its complaint. The company “has for years defied the regulatory structures and evaded the disclosure requirements” of U.S. securities law.

The SEC has alleged that at least 13 crypto assets available to Coinbase customers were considered “crypto asset securities” by the regulator. Those assets include Solana’s SOL token, Cardano’s token and Protocol Labs’ Filecoin token.

“We allege that Coinbase, despite being subject to the securities laws, commingled and unlawfully offered exchange, broker-dealer, and clearinghouse functions,” Gensler said in a statement.

“The SEC’s reliance on an enforcement-only approach in the absence of clear rules for the digital asset industry is hurting America’s economic competitiveness and companies like Coinbase that have a demonstrated commitment to compliance,” Coinbase chief legal officer Paul Grewal told CNBC in a statement. “The solution is legislation that allows fair rules for the road to be developed transparently and applied equally, not litigation. In the meantime, we’ll continue to operate our business as usual.”

Coinbase’s institutional service, Prime, its retail exchange product, and its self-custody Wallet service all offered one or more crypto asset security, the SEC said in its complaint.

Coinbase’s staking program was also identified as a investment contract and as an unregistered security: The SEC had already taken similar action to force the closure of crypto exchange Kraken’s staking service.

The SEC described the staking program as a way for “investors to earn financial returns through Coinbase’s managerial efforts.” The SEC says the five “stakeable crypto assets” are considered securities under its interpretation of the law, an assessment that will no doubt be disputed by Coinbase.

The exchange had already received a Wells notice from the regulator earlier this year, a letter notifying a company when SEC action is pending. Coinbase had mounted a vigorous defense of its offerings, publicly litigating with the regulator and preparing for potential action with advertising campaigns and publicity.

The company has been identified by many in the crypto community as the only entity with the financial and institutional resources to go toe-to-toe with the SEC and Gensler. The company has a sophisticated presence and has advertised itself for years as a safer, regulated option compared to other exchanges.

But that same advertising has formed part of the SEC’s arguments against the exchange. Regulators alleged that the exchange actively solicits new clients, noting that “Coinbase expends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on marketing and sales to maintain and recruit new investors.”

Solicitation is one of the aspects the SEC uses to determine whether a company is operating as a broker or an exchange.

Another test that the SEC relies upon is the Howey test, which is used to determine whether an asset is an investment contract and therefore, a security. An asset is considered a security if it involves a three things: investment in a common enterprise, with the reasonable expectation of returns, through the work of others.

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