Gary Gensler Says Crypto Is a ‘Wild West.’ Others See Pure Capitalism

The SEC chairman wants to marry financial innovation to the regulatory state. Crypto wants a divorce.

CoinDesk Insights
Sep 30, 2021 at 5:05 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 30, 2021 at 5:53 p.m. UTC

Daniel Kuhn is a reporter on CoinDesk's Features team. He owns BTC and ETH.

Gary Gensler, from up high on his regulatory perch at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, is arguing for greater oversight of crypto. He calls the sector the “Wild West,” inviting comparisons to the outlaw days of frontier capitalism.

It’s a nice metaphor. Is it apt? Crypto is indisputably tied up in the greater financial system. And some may argue that because of loose monetary policy and an overabundance of cheap cash, crypto does sit at the fringes of some portfolios of those investors looking to outperform the market.

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But if crypto is on the map at all, it’s because the market has made it so. With yields on cash near zero, the “risk curve” has shifted – stocks are the new savings accounts, memes the new stocks and crypto the new bet for venture capital. People gotta get paid to save.

Crypto’s relationship to unfettered capitalism is complicated. A charitable interpretation is that the industry is committed to its libertarian roots. Experimentation is welcome, and with that come outsized risks and rewards. That’s why regulation is often viewed with derision or suspision, the range between saying “code is law” or “the rules need to be clearer.”

“Crypto today presents itself as both the wild wild west fringe, and the inevitable future of mainstream finance. But the kind of volatility and riskiness that is tolerable at the fringe isn’t necessarily tolerable at the core,” says Rohan Grey, an assistant professor of law at Willamette University.

The current, dominant economic regime in the U.S. is nominally capitalist, but in practice, it is something far afield. Government actors and the unelected Federal Reserve have long been in the business of picking and choosing winners in the market – sometimes directly. Regulation is often treated as a moat for powerful incumbents. If crypto is the Wild West, then traditional finance is the protectionism, cronyism and decadence of early modern Western Europe.

By comparison, crypto is a textbook example of “free enterprise.” It is a global financial architecture that anyone with internet access can use. It runs 24/7, it’s liquid, and it has winners and losers determined by the rules of the game. As yet, there are few intermediaries to intermediate bad outcomes.

When liquidity crises happen, people get liquidated. Businesses go bankrupt. Exchanges go down. People lose in proportion to the risks they take. Those are market forces functioning according to the rules. People may get hurt.

“This crypto space is now certainly of a size that without those investor protections of banking, insurance[and] securities laws [and] market oversight, I do think somebody is going to get hurt,” Gensler told the Financial Times Wednesday. “A lot of people are likely to get hurt.”

Recently, in crypto, there have been a number of instances where bad or ambiguous actors capitalized on the misfortune of others. So-called decentralized platforms are often more centralized than advertised, leaving backdoors for knowledgable people to exploit. And hastily written code is often ridden with unintentional errors.

Take the Poly Network hacker, who stole $600 million from a decentralized lending protocol, taking advantage of poorly written code. In a strange turn of events, the hacker decided to return the stolen funds. The circumstances around that are murky, but it appears the parties involved worked out an agreeable solution.

That is happening more and more in crypto. In the Poly Network situation, the hacker may have feared being turned in to financial authorities, which seemed plausible – a point in favor of the regulatory state. But the hacker or hackers may also have been concerned about lasting reputational damage in the industry or realized that their stolen funds were blacklisted, and made unusable, by exchanges. In other words, market forces were at work.

In a similar situation, this one involving financial titan Citigroup and cosmetic firm Revlon, a fat finger error cost the bank almost $500 million – without recourse.

In 2018, while teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gensler noted the importance of “marrying” innovative financial technologies with regulation. Recently, he’s said that the majority of cryptocurrencies are likely securities, meaning vast swaths of this $2 trillion market would be under the SEC’s remit.

Now I like Gary Gensler. As a professor at MIT, he cited deep cuts from Satoshi’s emails. He genuinely seems concerned about financial stability and consumer protections. He’s remarkably consistent: During that same lecture, he seemed miffed that the Commodity Futures Trading Commission entered “sufficiently decentralized” into the lexicon, an opaque, post-hoc qualification relating to the Ethereum initial coin offering. He fears that the standard could be unevenly applied to other crypto-based smart contract platforms in the future.

But there’s a case to be made that crypto ought to and can stand independent of the current economic system. As The Economist wrote recently, the state’s role in markets is to guarantee property rights. Crypto is a grand experiment with conceding that turf to blockchains. Taking ownership of your keys means taking on associated risks.

Not everyone agrees.

“Cryptocurrency proves the need for regulations because it is as profitable to be unethical as any other form of capitalism. All cops are bastards, but the only bastards a civil society should tolerate are financial police,” the wonderfully chaotic blockchain builder Bryce Weiner said over Telegram.

Willamette’s Grey suggested that crypto might be functioning according to its own set of rules now, but said that’s because it’s still a niche market. “I would probably describe it more as ‘forgetting the painful lessons of history so we can learn them the hard way all over again,’” he said.

Gensler may be preparing for the day when crypto isn’t just at the fringes, but at the very heart of capitalism.

“If the average person’s retirement prospects were linked to the state of crypto in the way it is today to the S&P 500, then it would be quite likely that a large downturn would be seen as socially unacceptable and lead to a government intervention,” Grey said.

“Pure” capitalism promises something ruthless, but sticks to its own rules. Too bad it’s never been tried. Not even in the Wild West.

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