The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is well known for bringing landmark cases against the biggest names in finance.
But its powers to punish individuals and companies can also be intimidating, something that’s very much on the mind of Valerie Szczepanik, the SEC’s new top official overseeing the nascent cryptocurrency industry. In taking her new job last month, she left the regulator’s vaunted enforcement division and joined a less renowned SEC unit that oversees initial public offerings and other corporate stock sales.
A key reason for the less-confrontational approach: digital-token enthusiasts’ deep mistrust of government. They’re hesitant to discuss their business with the SEC’s market cops out of fear of being investigated, or even worse, shut down. If the the regulatory was going to get firms on the fringes of finance to engage, its crypto czar couldn’t be in a threatening role.
“We want people to come talk to us,” Szczepanik, 51, who practices jiujitsu in her spare time, said in an interview. “When I’m in meetings with folks, I want them to see me as someone who’s interested in communication and back and forth, and looking to encourage innovation that helps investors and the markets.”
Szczepanik’s June promotion to be the SEC’s first-ever senior adviser for digital assets reflects a recognition of the challenges posed by virtual coins. Billions of dollars are pouring into largely unregulated tokens each month, much of it coming from small-time traders.
Investors’ excitement stems in large part from Bitcoin’s meteoric rise. The SEC has shown it’s less jazzed about the world’s biggest cryptocurrency.
Last week, the regulator issued its latest rejection of a Bitcoin exchange-traded product, citing concerns that exchanges can’t adequately police trading in the underlying digital tokens and that manipulation might be widespread. Szczepanik was involved in the decision.
Other agencies have also determined that crypto merits a targeted response, as the Justice Department and Commodity Futures Trading Commission have each appointed their own point-people on virtual coins. It might be one of the few areas that watchdogs agree merits more oversight, not less, amid President Donald Trump’s deregulatory agenda.
Szczepanik said much of her work, at the request of SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, is focused on coordinating all the agency’s work on crypto across its various divisions. Major policy matters on her plate include:
- Initial coin offerings, in which companies raise money from investors by selling digital tokens. The SEC is concerned the ICO market is rife with pump-and-dump scams, Ponzi schemes and other types of misconduct. While the agency has brought some cases, critics question why there haven’t been more. The amount of money being thrown at token offerings is staggering, despite efforts by the SEC to slow things down. Last month, ICOs raised a record $5.6 billion, according to data compiled by Coinschedule.
- Determining whether certain coins are securities that should be subject to the same tough trading and disclosure rules as stocks. Such SEC announcements have resulted in traders making, or losing, big sums of money within seconds.
- The ongoing debate over a Bitcoin exchange-traded fund, which crypto investors are desperate for because it could bring trading to the masses by opening the market up to mutual funds and institutional investors.
Szczepanik, a 20-year SEC veteran, said she’s always been drawn to technology, and started looking into cryptocurrencies for the regulator about six years ago. Back then, Bitcoin was often embraced by those who wanted to buy goods outside the regulated banking system or drug dealers and other criminals who wanted to hide illicit transactions.
“A few of us really were digging in,” Szczepanik said, referring to her early involvement in the field. She said she recalled reading a crypto-project white paper and thinking “if this ever actually gets deployed into the universe, then the SEC will be very busy.”