SEC’s Crypto Enforcement Chief Warns More Charges Coming to Exchanges, DeFi

David Hirsch, who runs the agency’s office that handles crypto enforcement, says that apart from Coinbase and Binance, there are other exchanges and DeFi straying from the law.

AccessTimeIconSep 19, 2023 at 7:31 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 20, 2023 at 1:25 p.m. UTC
  • The regulator's crypto enforcer made broad assertions that the SEC has more in store for the crypto industry.
  • Still, David Hirsch acknowledged that the agency's current litigation load is heavy, and the SEC can't go after everything.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) isn’t done chasing down crypto exchanges and decentralized finance (DeFi) projects it sees as violating securities laws in the same vein as Coinbase Inc. (COIN) and Binance, said David Hirsch, head of the agency’s Crypto Assets and Cyber Unit.

His enforcement office, which has been litigating at a very unusual pace for the SEC, is aware of and investigating other firms involved in much the same activity seen at those two major platforms and that the industry’s compliance breeches “hold true well beyond any two entities,” Hirsch said Tuesday at the Securities Enforcement Forum Central in Chicago.

“We’re going to continue to bring those charges,” said Hirsch, who said the regulator has a number of other businesses on its radar that are operating in similar ways to Coinbase and Binance. His agency is already embroiled in a number of complex crypto cases in federal courts, and – as seen in its effort to appeal a recent Ripple ruling – not always with complete success.

Hirsch said the SEC’s interest in crypto goes well beyond the high-profile exchanges.

"We're going to continue to be active as to intermediaries,” he said. “That can be brokers, dealers, exchanges, clearing agencies or any others who are active in this space, are within our jurisdiction and not meeting their obligations, either through registration or failure to provide adequate or complete disclosures.”

Hirsch said DeFi projects won’t escape the enforcement division’s attention, either.

“We're going to continue to conduct investigations, we're gonna be active in the space, and adding the label of DeFi is not going to be something that's going to deter us from continuing our work,” he said.

The U.S. securities regulator has previously been accustomed to a relatively sedate approach to enforcement, in which it targets misdeeds at regulated businesses – often large, Wall Street firms with extensive legal departments – that quickly begin negotiating settlements. Because the charges against digital assets companies routinely threaten their existence, they tend to take the agency to court.

The SEC has a finite enforcement budget that is often less than the financial giants it’s used to facing, so its bandwidth is limited.

“We do have a lot of litigation going on,” Hirsch conceded.

“It feels like you're at capacity,” observed the event’s moderator, A. Kristina Littman, who served as the SEC’s crypto enforcement chief before Hirsch and who now works at Willkie Farr & Gallagher.

Hirsch conceded that the SEC can only reach so far.

"There are more tokens extant -- I think maybe 20,000, 25,000, last I read -- than the SEC or any agency has the resources to pursue directly, and similarly there are a number of centralized platforms out there, some that are acting as unregistered exchanges," he said.

Edited by Nikhilesh De.


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Jesse Hamilton

Jesse Hamilton is CoinDesk's deputy managing editor for global policy and regulation. He doesn't hold any crypto.