Coinbase Opens the Floodgates to New Coins
09.26.2018

On Tuesday, cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase announced it would revamp its process for adding new blockchain tokens, potentially vastly expanding the number of cryptocurrencies and digital assets that can be bought and sold on the platform. The announcement has huge implications for crypto markets in the short term, though the long-term significance for blockchain technology is less clear.

What’s Coinbase?

Coinbase is by far the most popular service for buying and selling cryptocurrency in the U.S., thanks to a user-friendly interface and a good reputation. It’s particularly popular with novice crypto investors—last December, for instance, Coinbase became for a time the #1 iPhone app in America.

The company has, at the same time, been extremely slow to list new tokens for sale. That’s both out of legal caution—it doesn’t want to be linked to money laundering or other crime—and because it didn’t want to damage customer trust. Before this announcement, Coinbase only listed five cryptocurrencies for trade.

Coinbase now appears to be moving to a more open approach, starting with a new web form that will let coin creators proactively apply for listing on the exchange. Those assets will have to meet Coinbase’s standards for legal compliance, and users will have access to different tokens depending on the laws where they’re located.

Why it matters

Coinbase’s move will give more cautious crypto investors access to a broader array of assets.

For the most part, to buy a digital token, you have to find an exchange that lists it. Many speculators looking to buy particular tokens have found themselves dealing with exchanges based everywhere from Hong Kong and Korea to Malta, the Bahamas, and various Eastern European countries. Sometimes, smaller or more obscure tokens are only listed on exchanges without much in the way of reputation, or in jurisdictions with lax regulation. That increases the risk that the exchange itself might be hacked, or that its administrators would simply steal user funds, both of which happen pretty frequently.

But Coinbase’s solid reputation and huge user base means that many new entrants will start investing in any digital asset it lists for trading. That will certainly mean some mid-tier tokens, for instance IOTA or Stellar, will have access to brand-new buyers. It could even increase the total amount of money flowing into crypto markets, and as of midday Wednesday, that promise had sent practically every blockchain token into a strong rally.

What it means

If you care less about crypto prices and more about blockchain’s transformative potential, there are two very different ways to read Coinbase’s announcement.

1) The Utopian Take: Top-Down Compliance

Any token listed on Coinbase will have to be “compliant with local law” in each region where it wants to be traded. That will provide a massive new incentive for blockchain creators to follow regulations, such as securities law regarding ICO sales, potentially increasing protections for speculators.

But the impact could ultimately be much deeper. Blockchain regulations in many jurisdictions are either evolving, unclear, or simply nonexistent, and the prospect of a Coinbase listing might actually motivate blockchain developers to engage with local authorities to shape and clarify those laws.

The new policy could also make Coinbase itself a major player in global crypto regulation. To streamline its review process, Coinbase will need a big pool of regulatory expertise. It will also be highly motivated to push toward standardizing those rules around the world, if only to save labor costs by increasing the efficiency of its review process.

2) The Cynical Take: God-Mode Thirst Trap

Of course, the other inescapable truth is that Coinbase is out to make money—and what primarily drives its revenue is trading fees. Over the last year, it has almost certainly lost out on huge amounts of potential revenue on the trade in small, extremely speculative and risky tokens, as traders went to international exchanges like BitMEX and Binance.

By expanding the assets it offers, Coinbase can get more of those sweet, sweet fees. Coinbase VP Dan Romero said as much on CNBC Tuesday, indicating that Coinbase is pursuing a better competitive position globally, not just in the U.S.

But that’s not necessarily good for the public. Coinbase’s announcement didn’t lay out any specific requirements for listing beyond legal compliance, and just because a cryptocurrency is legal doesn’t mean it’s a solid project or a good investment. Even some of the most high-profile projects have been accused by reputable onlookers of either being fatally flawed or engaged in deceptive marketing. A Coinbase listing will inevitably look like a broad stamp of approval, though, regardless of what their review process includes.

This newly open stance, then, could leave buyers shouldering more risk than they think – and might make the next crypto bubble even more damaging than the last.