Coinbase: from the exchange’s legal battles with the SEC to regulatory approval, a new era for crypto oversight

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The clash between innovative financial technologies and traditional regulatory frameworks has often led to uncertainty and legal battles; in this context, Coinbase, one of the leading players in the crypto exchange industry, has managed to accomplish a remarkable feat: gaining Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) approval as a futures dealer (FCM). 

This important step not only distinguishes Coinbase as a pioneer in the cryptocurrency industry, but also has implications for the broader regulatory landscape and the status of cryptocurrencies like Ether as commodities.

The legal battles with the SEC are not over, but crypto exchange Coinbase reaches an important milestone

Although Coinbase is still involved in a legal dispute with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) over its status as an exchange, its recognition as a registered FCM is a significant step toward regulatory acceptance. 

In an industry hungry for structured controls, this development points to a potential path for other crypto-native entities to gain US regulatory recognition. The FCM designation is similar to that of an SEC-registered broker-dealer, a distinction that plays a vital role at the heart of derivatives trading in the United States.

The importance of Coinbase‘s new FCM status goes beyond its superficial significance. It is a symbol of legitimacy and a testament to the firm’s commitment to establishing robust systems for capital, disclosure, recordkeeping and safeguarding client funds. 

Dan Davis, former CFTC general counsel, noted that obtaining such a registration is no small feat and requires strict adherence to stringent regulatory requirements. The fact that Coinbase was able to meet these requirements underscores its dedication to operating in compliance with regulatory expectations.

The approval of Coinbase’s FCM status came under the oversight of the National Futures Association (NFA), an industry-funded organization responsible for registration review and enforcement of standards under the authority of the CFTC. 

However, the derivatives agency itself played a key role in evaluating Coinbase’s application because of its intricate, novel and potentially controversial nature. 

This move highlights a stark contrast between the approaches of the CFTC and the SEC in addressing the challenges posed by the cryptocurrency industry.

The difference in the various approaches of the SEC and the CFTC

Justin Slaughter, who has experience in both regulatory bodies, highlighted the differences in approach between the CFTC and SEC. 

While the CFTC has focused on accommodating a major player in the crypto industry through regulatory approval, the SEC has taken a more adversarial approach, resorting to legal action against numerous entities.

This difference in stance reflects a broader divide in regulatory philosophy, where one body seeks to promote innovation while the other grapples with fears and uncertainties.

Beyond the immediate significance for Coinbase, this step in regulation also has implications for the categorization of cryptocurrencies, particularly Ether (ETH). 

The CFTC’s decision to grant Coinbase the ability to manage Bitcoin (BTC) and Ether futures not only legitimizes Coinbase’s operations on these assets, but also reinforces the argument that Ether can be categorized as a commodity rather than a security. 

This can potentially alleviate the stringent regulatory burden that would be imposed if Ether were considered a security by the SEC.

Coinbase’s approval as an FCM further ignites the debate over Ether’s regulatory status. Supporters of Ether’s classification as a commodity have found cause for optimism in the CFTC’s recognition of Coinbase’s role in facilitating Ether futures. 

This development lends credence to the idea that the utility and decentralized nature of Ether aligns more closely with commodities, such as precious metals or agricultural products, than with traditional securities.

The implications of the decision are twofold

The implications of this news are twofold. On the one hand, Coinbase’s achievement signals a progressive approach to regulating the cryptocurrency industry, setting a precedent for other companies seeking regulatory recognition. 

On the other hand, the recognition of Ether’s potential commodity status serves as a subtle juxtaposition to the SEC’s regulatory jurisdiction over the asset. While the SEC grapples with its legal battle against Coinbase, the CFTC’s approval of the company’s activities with Ether futures offers a glimmer of hope for advocates of a less onerous regulatory environment.

The battle with the SEC is not over, but can this latest update change things for crypto exchange Coinbase?

Brent Xu, CEO and co-founder of Umee, notes that the CFTC’s decision represents a setback for the SEC. 

While the SEC continues its legal crusade against Coinbase, the CFTC’s recognition essentially labels Coinbase as a legitimate player in the US financial landscape. This dichotomy between regulators underscores a growing divide in their approach to the complex world of cryptocurrencies.

Recent SEC enforcement actions against Coinbase and Binance, alleging violations of US securities law, have fueled a multi-pronged legal battle over the classification of unregistered cryptocurrency securities and the legality of some exchanges. 

The CFTC’s acceptance of Coinbase as an FCM does not directly bolster Coinbase’s legal defenses against the SEC’s allegations. 

However, the message it sends is clear: It states that a cryptocurrency company can successfully navigate the intricate regulatory landscape and achieve a prestigious status that mirrors that of established financial institutions.

Zachary Townsend, co-founder and CEO of Meanwhile, argues that the CFTC’s actions highlight the SEC’s different position. 

The SEC’s views in contrast to other regulators

The CFTC’s willingness to integrate a crypto-native entity into the ranks of traditional firms stands in stark contrast to the SEC’s more adverse approach. 

This divergence of regulatory philosophies is indicative of the broader complexity of harmonizing the burgeoning cryptocurrency industry with the existing regulatory framework.

While the SEC’s control over the cryptocurrency industry is welcomed by skeptics in Congress and consumer groups, there are concerns about the concentration of control. 

Todd Phillips, a former government lawyer and consumer advocate, warns that companies controlling every aspect of transactions, from brokerage to exchanges and clearinghouses, can potentially lead to increased costs for traders and increased susceptibility to market manipulation. 

This concern applies to both crypto-native companies like Coinbase and traditional traders like NYSE.


Coinbase’s view of its newly acquired status is in line with its mission to provide customers with greater access to the cryptocurrency market. 

The company believes that offering the ability to trade on margin gives customers leverage and greater access to the market with a lower initial investment than traditional spot trading.

Ultimately, Coinbase’s journey from exchange controversy to regulatory recognition as an FCM underscores the need for transparent and predictable oversight of the industry.

Although this development does not offer an immediate legal defense against SEC charges, it demonstrates that regulatory hurdles can be successfully overcome in the cryptocurrency space. 

As the first cryptocurrency company to achieve this status, Coinbase has paved the way for others to follow, potentially ushering in a new era of cooperation between regulators and the cryptocurrency industry. 

As the industry continues to mature, other similar applications for recognition may emerge, further reshaping the regulatory landscape.