SEC Announces Enforcement Actions Against ICOs As Crypto Markets Tumble

John Vibes

Yesterday (Nov 14th) the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) released their annual enforcement report, revealing dozens of actions that the regulatory agency took against ICOs and digital assets this year.

News of these enforcement actions were not made public until the details were announced in the following Tweet:

The fine print of the report indicated that many of the ICOs in question are still ongoing and operational, which is not unusual in such cases.

Unless an investment is clearly fraudulent and criminal, the SEC will typically allow the businesses they have penalized to continue operating and generating revenue, but the balance sheets of these companies often take significant damage because a large portion of that revenue disappears due to fines.

The report states that:

When warranted, the Division has recommended enforcement actions to the Commission in matters involving ICOs. As of the close of FY 2018, the SEC had brought over a dozen stand alone enforcement actions involving digital assets and ICOs. While many of these cases have involved allegations of fraud, the Division also has pursued enforcement actions to ensure compliance with the registration requirements of the federal securities laws. In the past year, the Division has opened dozens of investigations involving ICOs and digital assets, many of which were ongoing at the close of FY 2018


Recent SEC Activity

At last week's Fintech Week Conference in D.C, William Hinman, director of Corporation Finance for the SEC, announced that the agency will finally be issuing "plain English guidance" on ICOs. After years of keeping crypto investors in the dark, the SEC has recently started imposing standard financial regulations on digital assets.

Instead of laying down guidelines for people to follow however,  the agency seems to be classifying blockchain businesses in ways that they can be fined under traditional laws. While the industry has yet to see clear guidelines,  it is beginning to see enforcement.

Last Thursday, the SEC announced that it had settled charges against Zachary Coburn, the founder of decentralized exchange EtherDelta. The agency claimed that the decentralized exchange "operated as an unregistered national securities exchange," a charge that left many exchanges and blockchain based projects in fear of similar action.

It is possible too that this regulatory confusion played at least some role in this week's massive sell-off in crypto markets, in which many coins lost 20% of their value or more, with bitcoin (BTC) dropping below $6,000 for the first time in several months.

Unregulated Crypto Derivatives Exchanges Dominate Regulated Alternatives

Trading volume on unregulated Bitcoin (BTC) derivatives exchanges is growing rapidly, and continuing to far outpace their regulated-institutional counterparts, according to the most recent (March) CryptoCompare Exchange Review.

unregulated exchange volume(source: CryptoCompare)

Both OKEx and bitFlyer exchanges hosted an average daily derivative trading volume worth well over a billion dollars during March - $1.5 billion and $1.14 billion respectively according to CryptoCompare. It seems then that the older derivative stalwart BitMEX, at $645 million daily average volume, has been rapidly eclipsed by the newer exchanges.

regulated exchange volume(source: CryptoCompare)

Institutional, fiat-dealing (regulated) exchanges hosted a fraction of this volume, the highest being $70.5 million on the CME exchange. CryptoGlobe reported last month the CME’s primary competitor, the CBOE, was shuttering its Bitcoin futures products citing low demand. CME volume spiked last month, but is down this month below to January levels.

However, despite the relatively low average volume, the CME did have one bumper day of record-breaking Bitcoin futures trading volume, trading nearly $550 million worth of bitcoin on April 4th - days after Bitcoin’s unbelievable breakout from its $4,200 resistance.


The ease of onboarding new customers may explain why the unregulated exchanges get more attention.

In a recent interview, BitMEX CEO Arthur Hayes underlined his exchange’s ability to “onboard a [new] customer within 10 minutes,” by accepting Bitcoin and only Bitcoin for funding. In addition, no KYC/AML checks are required to trade on BitMEX, merely an email address; whereas OKEx offers margin trading only after basic KYC/AML checks. These exchanges are registered in Seychelles and Malta, respectively, specifically to avoid such onerous accounting requirements for their customers.

As CryptoGlobe covered early in 2019, however, BitMEX and other derivative exchanges including OKEx officially exclude certain citizens from trading on their platforms due to regulatory concerns, most notably US citizens.

Hayes also intimated at the upcoming launch of an interest bearing Bitcoin-only bond, which he speculated could be used to leverage credit into future Bitcoin-denominated economic activity.