All investor eyes were on Coinbase as it opened on the NASDAQ at $381 a share Wednesday, putting the crypto currency exchange briefly at a valuation of nearly $100 billion, or almost on par with the market cap of Goldman Sachs.
The blockbuster direct listing is only the beginning of a likely parade of crypto companies to go public on Wall Street. Next in line are Israeli brokerage app eToro, set to be acquired by a SPAC by the third quarter, and digital assets marketplace Bakkt, also going public via a SPAC in January. Close behind is crypto exchange Kraken, which is which is making moves toward a direct listing sometime next year.
This is quite an evolution from the scrappy early days of Bitcoin, initially considered by the financial establishment as a novelty at best and an ideal tool for money launderers at worst. In an interview with Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, who is also an investor in Coinbase, the founders of the exchange recalled meeting on Reddit in the early 2010s, where now CEO Brian Armstrong had posted a prototype.
At the time, Armstrong’s co-founder Fred Ehrsam was a foreign exchange trader at Goldman Sachs, who had discovered Bitcoin on a blog and became “obsessed.” His colleagues at the investment bank thought “[he] was a total nut or they just dismissed it out of hand,” he told Andreessen.
Once Armstrong and Ehrsam were working together, the company grew rapidly, however, along with popularity of cryptocurrency. After Bitcoin was created in 2009, numerous other blockchain-based digital coins followed, including Ether, Dogecoin and XRP.
All three coins surged in price on Wednesday with Coinbase’s listing. (COIN eventually dropped, ending the day at $328.28). Bitcoin has also been on an upward trek recently, in tandem with Coinbase app ratings, according to Thinknum data.
But regulatory concerns have continued to hang like a cloud over the industry. Initial coin offerings started to attract attention from securities enforcement officials, and as late as September 2017, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon described Bitcoin as a “fraud that will blow up.”
Today, the financial sector is on board, with blockchain-based innovations such as NFTs and decentralized finance, or “DeFi,” capturing the public’s attention, and old-school banks like Goldman, JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley either starting to offer or considering offering crypto-based investments. It’s taking longer for the regulators to come around.
Heavy-handed regulatory action is still one of the biggest threats to crypto-based businesses, “right up there with cybersecurity,” Armstrong said Wednesday on CNBC. Armstrong said that he expects Coinbase will face even more scrutiny now as a public company.
“We’re very excited and happy to play by the rules,” he said. “And basically, we just ask that, heh, we want to be treated on those level playing fields with traditional financial services at the very least and not have any kind of punishment for being in the crypto space.”
Coinbase’s public listing comes as Ripple fights a legal battle against the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission over $1.3 billion in initial coin offerings for its cryptocurrency XRP. The agency contends that the sales of XRP should have been regulated as securities offerings, and that it does not qualify for exceptions granted to Bitcoin and Ether. Ripple, co-founder Chris Larsen, CEO Brad Garlinghouse and thousands of XRP investors have argued the opposite is true.
The dispute follows another SEC action against messenger app Kik over $100 million raised through the sale of cryptocurrency Kin. Kik agreed to pay a $5 million fine to end the case. Similarly, the SEC also filed suit against Telegram over the sale of digital tokens called Grams. The messenger app company agreed to pay a $18.5 million fine and return $1.2 billion raised to investors.
Meanwhile, pressure is building on the SEC to approve the first U.S.-listed Bitcoin ETF. Eight applications are currently pending with the agency, including from Fidelity Investments and Michael Novogratz’s Galaxy Digital Holdings Ltd., according to Bloomberg. The agency has previously rejected crypto ETF proposals over concerns about criminal activity and manipulation.
Some crypto investors have expressed hope that newly-confirmed SEC chair Gary Gensler, a former professor who taught students about blockchain and digital assets, will be more friendly to the industry.
SEC commissioner Hester Peirce, nicknamed in the press as the agency’s “crypto mom,” has been advocating for a more positive view of digital currencies at the regulator. On Tuesday, she released an updated proposal for a “safe harbor” provision, allowing early-stage crypto companies a three-year grace period before having to comply with securities registration laws.
About the Data:
Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online, jobs, social and web traffic, product sales, and app ratings, and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue, and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales.