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Coinbase Vs. the SEC: The Regulatory Storm

Coinbase Global (NASDAQ:COIN) is in a regulatory storm as it faces charges from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for unregistered securities operation. The outcome of this case carries significant implications for the broader crypto industry and potential investors, as previously regulators were hesitant to define cryptocurrencies.

While the charges pose substantial bearish catalysts, such as increased regulatory scrutiny, eroded trust and potential legal and compliance challenges, there are also notable bullish catalysts as well in my opinion, including Coinbase's focus on cost efficiency, revenue diversification and expansion into institutional markets. With a careful assessment of the risks and opportunities, I don't think investors should write off Coinbase completely.

Is the SEC targeting Coinbase or crypto in general?

The SEC alleges that Coinbase has operated as an unregistered securities exchange, broker and clearing agency. It has also conducted unregistered offers and sales of securities through its staking-as-a-service program. This development has significant implications for both Coinbase and the broader cryptocurrency industry.

I believe the suit against Coinbase is just a smaller part of a growing trend of regulators finally deciding what they want to do about crypto. It seems they have decided to apply securities laws within the crypto market. This shift in approach may lead to other crypto exchanges and platforms being subjected to similar registration and oversight requirements as traditional financial institutions. The outcome of this case could establish a precedent for future formal crypto regulations.

Additionally, the complaint filed by the SEC emphasizes the lack of investor protection in the cryptocurrency market. If Coinbase is found to have neglected to provide investors with necessary safeguards and disclosures, it could result in heightened scrutiny of other platforms and a push for stronger investor protections. This may lead to new regulations that require transparency, recordkeeping and conflict-of-interest safeguards within the industry.

Coinbase's business model heavily relies on facilitating the buying and selling of crypto asset securities. If the SEC's charges are upheld, Coinbase must reassess its operations and potentially make significant changes to comply with securities laws. It could impact Coinbase's revenue streams, as certain services may need to be adjusted or eliminated. Additionally, the case's outcome may influence how other crypto platforms structure their business models to avoid similar regulatory issues.

Further, introducing regulations to the crypto market may impact the perception of cryptocurrencies among the general public and institutional investors. Negative headlines and regulatory scrutiny can potentially erode the original appeal of crypto, which is that it was not subject to government oversight. On the postiive side, investor protection measures could enhance the credibility and legitimacy of the crypto market, attracting more institutional investors and traditional financial institutions.

Coinbase's progress

Turning to the company itself, Coinbase has been making significant strides in optimizing its expenses and driving efficiency across its core products. The company is focused on cost optimization, particularly in transaction expenses related to trading revenues and user verification. Moving forward, Coinbase aims to maintain a mid-teens transaction expense range, taking into account the revenue mix from trading, staking and USD Coin (USDC).

To effectively allocate its resources, Coinbase follows a framework where approximately 70% of resources are dedicated to core products, 20% to strategic initiatives and 10% to ventures. The company has strategically exited certain products and shifted others to a "keep the lights on" mode in order to reduce expenses. Coinbase remains committed to building product portfolios around core customer segments and maintaining discipline in resource allocation.

Coinbase Vs. the SEC: The Regulatory Storm
Coinbase Vs. the SEC: The Regulatory Storm

Source: Coinbase shareholder letter

Coinbase's staking product is currently under scrutiny by the SEC, and legal action is possible. However, Coinbase believes its staking product is fundamentally different and should not be classified as a security. The outcome of regulatory actions and potential legal proceedings will impact the staking product's future. Nevertheless, since staking revenue accounted for only 3% of Coinbase's net revenue in 2022, the financial impact at present is not considered material.

Coinbase One, a product within the other revenue line, has seen good user adoption and engagement, but it has yet to generate substantial revenue. Further evaluation of metrics and user statistics is needed to assess the growth potential of Coinbase One.

Coinbase has been experimenting with fee structures, and changes in fee rates have occurred due to various factors such as customer behavior and trading volume mix. The migration of users from Coinbase Pro to the combined retail apps and low volatility in the crypto market influenced the retail transaction rate in the fourth quarter. The impact of fee structures and revenue mix on future financial performance will depend on market conditions and customer behavior.

Further, Coinbase's focus on revenue optimization and cost efficiency indicates a strategic shift toward sustainable growth. By evaluating discounts and streamlining operations, Coinbase aims to improve its financial performance and position itself as a profitable company in the long term.

The company's expansion into new geographic markets and the launch of new products, such as derivative exchanges and staking services, demonstrate Coinbase's commitment to diversifying its revenue streams and expanding its total addressable market. These strategic investments have the potential to drive growth by attracting new institutional and retail customers.

Changing with the times

Coinbase's adaptability to regulatory changes is crucial for its long-term growth. As the cryptocurrency industry faces increased scrutiny and evolving regulations, Coinbase's compliance-first approach, along with its efforts to work with qualified custodians and transparent platforms, positions it as a trusted and reliable platform for individuals and institutions.

Overall, the continued growth of Coinbase's user base, especially among institutional customers, is another catalyst that can contribute to its long-term success. With more traditional financial players entering the cryptocurrency space, Coinbase's established reputation and focus on reducing expenses could position it well to come out the other side of regulations intact and with solid long-term prospects, in my opinion.

Business expansions

Coinbase is expanding its services to cater to institutional investors by launching institutional-sized Bitcoin and Ether futures contracts on its Coinbase Derivatives Exchange. This strategic move is in response to the increasing demand for advanced derivative products in the cryptocurrency market.

Introducing these futures contracts on June 5 gives institutional participants more precise control over their crypto exposure. It allows them to express directional views and track Bitcoin and Ethereum returns in a capital-efficient manner. The contracts are sized at one bitcoin and ten ether per contract, offering granularity for traders to seize opportunities in the dynamic market environment.

Coinbase has established partnerships with leading futures commission merchants, brokers and front-end providers to support institutional clients. This collaboration enables seamless access to futures contracts through their robust trading platforms. The partnership strengthens Coinbase's position in the institutional market and expands its reach to a broader investor base.

Coinbase has been focused on improving its engineering development by creating a continuous integration (CI) and continuous delivery (CD) system for Databricks, the platform it utilizes for applications. This CI/CD system streamlines the process of building and releasing applications reliably and efficiently, thereby improving engineering productivity.

Coinbase's commitment to maintaining a transparent and secure trading environment is further demonstrated through its proactive approach to investigating and preventing attacks in the crypto ecosystem. The Unit 0x team, dedicated to this purpose, recently analyzed a governance takeover attack and highlighted the use of metamorphic contracts to compromise the governance contract.


The charges brought against Coinbase by the SEC have significant implications for both the company and the broader crypto industry. The outcome of this case could establish a precedent for future regulations and legislation in the crypto space. The charges may result in legal and regulatory challenges, increased compliance costs and potential erosion of trust among investors and customers. While Coinbase has made efforts to optimize its expenses and expand its services, and the introduction of regulations does not necessarily mean all crypto will be banned, I think the company is in a precarious place at the moment.

This article first appeared on GuruFocus.