The Securities and Exchange Commission has charged cryptocurrency pioneer Ripple Labs, the firm that owns a majority of the world’s third-largest cryptocurrency, for allegedly raising $1.3 billion in an offering of unregistered “digital asset securities”–a huge sign U.S. regulators could ramp up oversight of the cryptocurrency space as the market surges to new highs.
According to the SEC’s complaint, Ripple, its cofounder Christian Larsen and CEO Bradley Garlinghouse raised capital to finance the firm’s business through an unregistered public offering of XRP tokens beginning in 2013.
The complaint, filed in Manhattan’s federal district court, also alleges that Larsen and Garlinghouse carried out personal unregistered sales of XRP totaling roughly $600 million.
As of 3 p.m. EST, the value of the XRP token had plunged roughly 12% over the last 24 hours, according to crypto data firm CoinMarketCap, wiping out more than $2 billion from the cryptocurrency’s market cap.
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“It’s not just Grinch-worthy, it’s shocking,” Garlinghouse told Fortune when he warned of the impending lawsuit on Monday evening, later tweeting that Ripple, a San Francisco-based firm last valued at $10 billion in 2019, “is ready to fight” the suit. “It’s an attack on the entire crypto industry and American innovation.”
The SEC has largely cracked down on crowdfunded token sales, commonly referred to as initial coin offerings, but XRP is easily the largest cryptocurrency targeted by the SEC as a security; officials in 2018 declared ether and bitcoin were currencies and not securities because of their decentralized nature.
“We allege that Ripple, Larsen and Garlinghouse failed to register their ongoing offer and sale of billions of XRP to retail investors, which deprived potential purchasers of adequate disclosures about XRP and Ripple’s business and other important long-standing protections that are fundamental to our robust public market system,” said Stephanie Avakian, director of the SEC’s enforcement division on Tuesday.
$653 billion. That’s the current market value of all the cryptocurrencies across the world, more than tripling this year alone, according to CoinMarketCap. At its peak in January 2018, the market was valued at more than $800 billion. XRP’s current market cap of $21.6 billion is bested only by ether ($71 billion) and bitcoin ($435 billion).
Heightened regulatory scrutiny from nations such as South Korea triggered a near-85% crash in cryptocurrency prices in 2018, but the United States has been slow to issue broad-based regulation. Among the most vocal U.S. regulatory agencies when it comes to cryptocurrency, the SEC spent months drafting guidance it released in April 2019 about when and how cryptocurrencies may be classified as securities, but it’s been relatively quiet on the front ever since.
The suit against Ripple, however, could mean that’s set to change as the cryptocurrency market soars toward new highs during the pandemic. “There is more and more interest from a wide spectrum of people, both inside the crypto space as well as inside the traditional financial institutions who are asking us for guidance,” an SEC Commissioner told CoinDesk in October. “I think we’re going to be forced to confront that more and more in the coming years.”
What To Watch For
Competition–from the government. Though it has not committed to the idea, the Federal Reserve is exploring the possibility of debuting its own central bank digital currency, Goldman Sachs said in a Sunday note. Officials have warmed up to the idea of a central bank token “largely out of concern that wide adoption of alternative digital currencies could endanger financial stability, U.S. financial intermediaries and the Fed’s ability to influence financial conditions,” Goldman analysts led by Jan Hatzius said.
During the pandemic many investors have flocked to cryptocurrency–and namely bitcoin–as a hedge against longer-term inflation concerns, which have escalated in the face of increased government spending for coronavirus relief measures. In a report released Monday, digital asset management firm CoinShares said cumulative investments into cryptocurrency funds have totaled about $5 billion so far this year, eclipsing the approximately $1.4 billion plowed into the space through the end of last year.
“Other major branches of the U.S. government, including the Justice Department and the Treasury Department’s FinCen, have already determined that XRP is a currency,” Ripple Counsel Michael Kellogg said in a statement to Forbes, arguing that the currency designation means XRP transactions fall outside the scope of federal securities laws. “This is not the first time the SEC has tried to go beyond its statutory authority. The courts have corrected it before and will do so again,” he added.
Ripple’s Trillion-Dollar Man (Forbes)
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I’m a reporter at Forbes focusing on markets and finance. I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I double-majored in business journalism and economics while working for UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School as a marketing and communications assistant. Before Forbes, I spent a summer reporting on the L.A. private sector for Los Angeles Business Journal and wrote about publicly traded North Carolina companies for NC Business News Wire. Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse addresses the Securities and Exchange Commission’s lawsuit over the XRP cryptocurrency.
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