By Paul Grewal
, September 7, 2021
, 4 min read time
Last Wednesday, after months of effort by Coinbase to engage productively, the SEC gave us what’s called a Wells notice about our planned Coinbase Lend program. A Wells notice is the official way a regulator tells a company that it intends to sue the company in court. As surprised as we were at the SEC’s threat to sue without ever telling us why, we want to be transparent with you about the course of events leading up to it.
Coinbase has been proactively engaging with the SEC about Lend for nearly six months. We’ve been eager to hear their perspective as we explore innovative ways for our customers to gain more financial empowerment on Coinbase. Specifically for Lend, we’re seeking to allow eligible customers to earn interest on select assets on Coinbase, starting with 4% APY on USD Coin (USDC). We could have simply launched the product but we chose not to. This is far from the norm in our industry. Other crypto companies have had lending products on the market for years, and new lending products continue to launch as recently as last month. But Coinbase believes in the value of open and substantive dialogue with our regulators. So we took Lend to the SEC first.
Coinbase’s Lend program doesn’t qualify as a security — or to use more specific legal terms, it’s not an investment contract or a note. Customers won’t be “investing” in the program, but rather lending the USDC they hold on Coinbase’s platform in connection with their existing relationship. And although Lend customers will earn interest from their participation in the program, we have an obligation to pay this interest regardless of Coinbase’s broader business activities. What’s more, participating customers’ principal is secure and we’re obligated to repay their USDC on request.
We shared this view and the details of Lend with the SEC. After our initial meeting, we answered all of the SEC’s questions in writing and then again in person. But we didn’t get much of a response. The SEC told us they consider Lend to involve a security, but wouldn’t say why or how they’d reached that conclusion. Rather than get discouraged, we chose to continue taking things slowly. In June, we announced our Lend program publicly and opened a waitlist but did not set a public launch date. But once again, we got no explanation from the SEC. Instead, they opened a formal investigation. They asked for documents and written responses, and we willingly provided them. They also asked for us to provide a corporate witness to give sworn testimony about the program. As a result, one of our employees spent a full day in August providing complete and transparent testimony about Lend. They also asked for the name and contact information of every single person on our Lend waitlist. We have not agreed to provide that because we take a very cautious approach to requests for customers’ personal information. We also don’t believe it is relevant to any particular questions the SEC might have about Lend involving a security, especially when the SEC won’t share any of those questions with us.
Despite Coinbase keeping Lend off the market and providing detailed information, the SEC still won’t explain why they see a problem. Rather they have now told us that if we launch Lend they intend to sue. Yet again, we asked if the SEC would share their reasoning with us, and yet again they refused. They have only told us that they are assessing our Lend product through the prism of decades-old Supreme Court cases called Howey and Reves. The SEC won’t share the assessment itself, only the fact that they have done it. These two cases are from 1946 and 1990. Formal guidance from the SEC about how they intend to apply Howey and Reves tests to products like Lend would be a big help to regulating our industry in a responsible way. Instead, last week’s Wells notice tells us that the SEC would rather skip those basic regulatory steps and go right to litigation. They’ve offered us the chance to submit a written defense of Lend, but that would be futile when we don’t know the reasons behind the SEC’s concerns.
The SEC has repeatedly asked our industry to “talk to us, come in.” We did that here. But today all we know is that we can either keep Lend off the market indefinitely without knowing why or we can be sued. A healthy regulatory relationship should never leave the industry in that kind of bind without explanation. Dialogue is at the heart of good regulation.
The net result of all this is that we will not be launching Lend until at least October. Coinbase continues to welcome additional regulatory clarity; mystery and ambiguity only serve to unnecessarily stifle new products that customers want and that Coinbase and others can safely deliver.
We will keep our customers informed at every step as things progress.
About Paul Grewal
Paul Grewal is the Chief Legal Officer of Coinbase where he is responsible for Coinbase’s legal, compliance, global intelligence, risk management and government relations groups. Before joining Coinbase, Paul was Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at Facebook. Prior to Facebook, Paul served as United States Magistrate Judge for the Northern District of California. Paul was previously a partner at Howrey LLP, where his practice focused on intellectual property litigation. Paul served as a law clerk to Federal Circuit Judge Arthur J. Gajarsa and United States District Judge Sam H. Bell. He received his JD from the University of Chicago Law School and his BS in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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