Crypto companies made 'calculated' decision to flout rules, says SEC chair


FILE PHOTO: U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Chairman Gary Gensler testifies before a House Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee hearing on President Biden's budget request for the Securities and Exchange Commission, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 29, 2023. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo

(Reuters) -The chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on Thursday strongly rebutted criticism that the agency is trying to crush the crypto industry, and said many companies in the space had made a "calculated economic decision" to flout its rules.

Speaking at a Piper Sandler conference in New York, Gary Gensler also reiterated his view that the "vast majority" of crypto tokens meet the test for being a security and should be registered with the SEC. That means most crypto exchanges have to comply with the securities laws too, he added.

"When crypto asset market participants go on Twitter or TV and say they lacked 'fair notice' that their conduct could be illegal, don't believe it," he said. "They may have made a calculated economic decision to take the risk of enforcement as the cost of doing business."

The crypto industry has attacked Gensler in recent days after the SEC sued two of the world's largest crypto exchanges, Coinbase and Binance, for allegedly breaking securities laws by failing to register their operations with the agency.

Coinbase Chief Executive Brian Armstrong, an outspoken SEC critic who has led a push in Washington for clearer crypto rules, on Wednesday hit back at Gensler, calling him an "outlier" among Washington policymakers and accusing him of being "icy" when the company approached him about registration.

Both Coinbase and Binance deny the SEC's allegations and have pledged to vigorously defend themselves in court.

U.S. lawmakers also piled pressure on Binance on Thursday, calling for the Department of Justice to investigate after allegations in the SEC's Monday complaint indicated that Binance had made false statements to Congress about its business practices in a written response to lawmakers questions in March.

In a federal court filing made public on Thursday, the SEC also said it wanted Binance's U.S. assets frozen so they would remain safely in the country. Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao later tweeted that Binance.US had roughly $2 billion in customer assets which had never left the platform unless withdrawn by customers.

'IT TAKES WORK'

Crypto companies started out in a regulatory gray area, but the SEC under Gensler has steadily asserted its jurisdiction over the industry, arguing most tokens are securities and should be subject to the same disclosure rules.

Other U.S. crypto exchanges are likely to be in the firing line as a result of this week's lawsuits, which expand the overall number of cryptocurrencies that the SEC has explicitly identified as securities, Reuters reported on Thursday.

The SEC alleged Coinbase traded at least 13 crypto assets that are securities, while it accused Binance of offering 12 cryptocurrency coins without registering them.

The industry disputes the SEC's authority and has called for clear new rules.

On Thursday, Gensler hit back at the notion the rules are unclear, noting the agency has established its position with more than 100 crypto enforcement actions in addition to other guidance. "I do recognize - and, again, think it’s appropriate - that it takes work" to fall into compliance, he added.

In response to the crackdown, many companies have boosted compliance controls, shelved products and expanded outside the country, a trend that is likely to continue.

Cryptocurrency operator Circle Internet Financial said on Thursday it has hired Heath Tarbert, former chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, as chief legal officer and head of corporate affairs, effective July 1.

(Reporting by John McCrank in New York and Hannah Lang in Washington Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington and Manya Saini in BengaluruWriting by Michelle PriceEditing by Chizu Nomiyama and Matthew Lewis)

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