With the U.S. government cracking down on Binance, slapping the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange with $4.3 billion in fines and forcing its maverick founder Changpeng “CZ” Zhao to relinquish control, arch-rival Coinbase sees an opening to reclaim market share by playing the role of the “good guy” traded on Wall Street.
Coinbase shares have jumped some 18% over the past week to around $118 as CEO Brian Armstrong asserted last Tuesday’s settlement finally “closes that chapter of crypto’s history” in which Binance flouted global regulations while handling over $15 trillion in trades since 2017. By contrast, Armstrong now aims to position Nasdaq-listed Coinbase as the compliant, institutional exchange best positioned to capitalize on the crypto industry’s shift toward greater oversight.
“Building a company offshore, skirting regulation, it’s just not going to work,” Armstrong told CNBC, taking a shot across the bow of both Binance as well as consumers who transacted on the exchange drawn by its swift listings of new – often risky – digital assets. With federal agencies now policing crypto’s “Wild West” era, Armstrong wants to reassure investors that Coinbase will work hand-in-hand with authorities, supporting his belief that crypto can operate by the same rules as traditional finance.
Whether such harmony emerges remains clouded by legal issues confronting Coinbase itself, including an ongoing SEC lawsuit filed last June. While Armstrong feels “very good” about Coinbase’s defense and his aim is full regulatory clarity, such certainty seems distant given bitcoin’s recent plunge marking another crypto winter. Nonetheless, the humbling of the industry’s one-time dominant exchange gives his company a momentary edge.
Binance’s astronomical rise represented a meteoric challenge to Coinbase’s early market supremacy following its 2012 launch and 2017 debut on public markets weeks before bitcoin hit a historic peak near $20,000. Former Bloomberg programmer and Tokyo Stock Exchange developer Changpeng Zhao founded Binance in Shanghai in 2017, developing technical capabilities allowing it to scale at warp speed by listing new cryptocurrencies faster than cautious Coinbase.
With an opaque corporate structure based initially in Asia and subsequently the Cayman Islands, Binance also dodged oversight as global regulators sounded alarms. But its explosive growth quickly afforded Zhao celebrity status as one of crypto’s biggest whales and most vocal proselytizers. Meanwhile, to keep pace with its insurgent rival now commanding the majority of trading volumes, Coinbase rushed to expand its offerings but continued adhering to compliance standards in order to maintain institutional investor confidence.
Yet as U.S. authorities targeted Binance last year with a series of harsh punitive actions, momentum swung back toward its compliant competitor. Both the CFTC and SEC ultimately launched suits against Zhao’s exchange for allegedly violating investor protection statutes, culminating in extensive settlement terms compromising Binance’s autonomy going forward. With its renegade era under CZ seemingly finished, Armstrong aims to leverage Coinbase’s head start collaborating openly with financial watchdogs.
Despite his bravado about closing an ignominious chapter for crypto, Armstrong must still confront lingering suspicions from regulators like the SEC about whether any exchanges can provide adequate investor protections around highly speculative digital assets. Coinbase itself has fought SEC assertions that it facilitated unregistered securities trades.
While the two suits differ, both target core business models questioning whether current legislation written before crypto’s advent can properly govern such technologies. Beyond exacting large fines, authorities want to slow crypto trading – putting platforms like Coinbase and Binance in an existential vice grip complicated by token assets’ fluctuation between currency and security classifications.
How Congress and agencies like the SEC ultimately delineate acceptable crypto activity under existing statutes or new legislation could determine which exchanges remain standing. Ironically victories could stem as much from legal ingenuity as technology innovation. But with Binance at least temporarily defanged, Coinbase remains well positioned to shape crypto’s second act blending Wall Street’s institutional trust with Silicon Valley’s disruptive daring.
Clearly the crypto landscape entering 2024 stands on shifting sands, clouded by bitcoin’s swoon, regulatory turbulence and possible global recession. Yet should pioneer blockchain currencies and exchanges somehow emerge resilient, Coinbase sits ready to seize the market share boon a humbled Binance left on the table. After years sparring in crypto’s octagon, this match’s decision appears nearer – though mainstream adoption stays stubbornly out of reach.