Fintech

Is the FTX crash Gensler’s fault — or did it prove he’s right?

The SEC chair has been criticized for failing to offer regulatory clarity. But the crisis vindicates his approach to the controversial industry, others say.

A close-up of Gary Gensler sitting at a microphone during a Congressional hearing

Gensler and the SEC are facing a "can't-win situation."

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

FTX’s controversial founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, has been tagged as the main culprit for the latest crypto meltdown. But crypto industry leaders are also pointing a finger at another surprising target: Gary Gensler.

The argument goes, the SEC, under Gensler’s leadership, has done such a terrible job in providing regulatory clarity to crypto companies in the U.S. that it forces companies such as FTX to set up shop in other countries known for loose regulations — which, in turn, encouraged SBF to do really bad things.

“Part of the reason FTX was able to do what it did was because it operates in the Bahamas, a tiny island country with very little regulatory oversight and ability to oversee financial services businesses,” Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong said in an op-ed Friday.

“Did regulators force FTX to conduct itself in the way it did? No. But they did create a situation where FTX could take dangerous risks with no repercussions.”

One wild and sinister conspiracy theory being bandied about on crypto Twitter suggests that Gensler had secret dealings with now-disgraced Bankman-Fried. Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, who’s been critical of Gensler, said in a tweet that his office is looking into allegations that the SEC chair was “helping SBF and FTX work on legal loopholes to obtain regulatory monopoly.”

In a tweet tagging Gensler, Ripple general counsel Stuart Alderoty also asked if the SEC chair was “acting alone when meeting with SBF? Would SBF have ended up with even more consumer assets under his control?”

No evidence has been presented to back up these allegations. The SEC did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

But the attacks on Gensler have been met with intense pushback from other industry observers who stress a different argument: The FTX crash actually proves that Gensler’s approach to crypto was correct. By embracing what the crypto industry denounced as unreasonable and rigid policies, Gensler actually minimized the harm the FTX meltdown had on U.S. consumers, they argue.

John Reed Stark, a staunch crypto critic and founding chief of the SEC’s Office of Internet Enforcement, said Gensler “saved millions, perhaps even billions, in investor crypto-losses” by taking on the industry “despite mammoth political opposition and rogue defendants with infinite financial resources.”

Marc Fagel, former SEC regional director for San Francisco who has represented crypto companies in his private practice, downplayed speculation that the SEC colluded with FTX simply because Gensler’s staff had meetings with the company.

“Plenty of players in the crypto industry have met with various members of the SEC,” Fagel told Protocol. “Indeed, I would be a little worried if the SEC didn’t take meetings with players as large as this.”

And FTX was huge: The company ran the third-largest crypto exchange after Binance and Coinbase. Like Binance, FTX is not allowed to operate in the U.S. due to regulatory restrictions, though FTX has been in the crypto lobby in Washington.

FTX and Binance are also relatively new players in the crypto industry. Binance launched in 2017, while FTX began in 2019. But their growth rates have been astronomical. Binance outpaced Coinbase, which launched 10 years ago, to emerge as crypto’s largest marketplace. FTX became the third-largest crypto exchange in just three years.

Critics argue that the rapid growth was based on a key advantage: FTX didn’t have to worry about U.S. regulations, including strict disclosure requirements. And that, critics argue, was what led to the FTX debacle.

Jonah Crane, a partner at Klaros Group, told Protocol, “the issues that took down FTX vindicate Gensler’s focus on conflicts of interest and the risks of a vertically integrated model that exists across the crypto sector.”

In fact, the whole industry is so interconnected that the FTX meltdown has inevitably affected other crypto companies and investors, including several in the U.S.

Gensler last week described crypto as “a field that’s significantly non-compliant” featuring a “very interconnected world” with “a few concentrated players in the middle.” Like the Terra-luna crash earlier this year, the FTX meltdown involved a major player with “toxic combinations of lack of disclosure, customer money, a lot of leverage, and then trying to invest with that.”

Those interconnections have enabled the contagion triggered by the FTX crash to ripple across the industry, including companies in the U.S. That’s why “there has to be unified approaches to this around the world,” Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire said.

“These are common markets,” he told Protocol. “They're deeply interconnected.”

Allaire said the U.S. Congress’ failure to pass new laws for crypto led to the tough situation that U.S. crypto companies face in the wake of the FTX crash. But he also assigned some blame to the SEC under Gensler, who has stressed that crypto companies must be more transparent through disclosures.

“We can't just say we have the rules, follow them,” he said. “What is it? That's what a lot of people have been asking for. There has to be tailored rules.”

It’s a tough bind for the SEC, which Fagel said faces “a can’t-win situation.”

“The same people shouting about the SEC’s interference in crypto markets, which they contend should not be within the SEC’s jurisdiction, are now blaming the SEC for not doing more,” he said.

“The same people who have fought hardest to keep crypto unregulated, and who made the decision to trade unregistered cryptocurrencies on a Caribbean-based exchange, are now screaming at the SEC for not protecting them. I’m not sure if that’s irony or schadenfreude.”

Fintech

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Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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