Crypto billionaires' wealth crushed by SEC after big 2023 bounce
It was a great year for crypto billionaires — until this week.
The Securities and Exchange Commission’s crackdown on Binance Holdings Ltd. and Coinbase Global Inc. — the largest crypto platforms in the world and the U.S., respectively — has upended the optimism that crept back into digital-asset markets after the miserable “crypto winter” of 2022.
Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao, known as CZ, has seen his wealth shrink by $1.4 billion, to $26 billion, over the past two days, while Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong’s net worth has slumped by $361 million down to $2.2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. The SEC sued both companies for breaking securities rules, sending shares of several crypto-linked companies and tokens slumping.
It was yet another reversal in the fortunes of crypto’s wealthiest founders. Their combined net worth plunged in 2022, which was a year of high-profile blowups ranging from the algorithmic stablecoin TerraUSD and hedge fund Three Arrows Capital to Sam Bankman-Fried’s FTX.
But their fortunes soared by $15.4 billion this year through Friday as the price of Bitcoin and other digital assets rebounded. Zhao’s fortune surged by 117% before this week’s drop, while Armstrong’s jumped by 61%. By comparison, the other billionaires on Bloomberg’s wealth index were up a combined 9%.
Underpinning Bitcoin’s partial comeback this year were expectations that the U.S. banking crisis that erupted in March would force the Federal Reserve to hit pause on rate increases. That allowed Bitcoin bulls to raise the case that the token stands to gain from lower real interest rates and that it offers shelter from turmoil in traditional finance.
That may not matter if U.S. regulators make it harder for the industry to operate and for Americans to trade.
In a lawsuit filed Monday, the SEC alleged Binance and Zhao misled investors and regulators, mishandled customer funds and broke securities rules. Zhao, 46, co-founded the exchange in 2017 and grew it into a global giant. His personal net worth grew, too, reaching a high of $96.9 billion in January 2022.
The SEC then sued Coinbase on Tuesday, sending its stock down 12%. In the 101-page complaint, the SEC didn’t accuse Armstrong of any wrongdoing but alleged that the company evaded SEC rules by letting users trade tokens that were actually unregistered securities.
Armstrong owns 16% of the company he started through a number of trusts and direct holdings. He’s also a frequent seller of Coinbase stock and has unloaded about $27 million worth so far this year. His co-founder, Fred Ehrsam, now a venture capitalist at the crypto-focused firm Paradigm, also saw his net worth drop to $1.1 billion. Ehrsam’s Paradigm funds bought Coinbase shares worth $50 million last month.