Bitcoin bubble burst raises concerns from lawmakers, regulators about investors

Senate panel questions SEC's Clayton on cryptocurrency's staggering rise and fall, which has dwarfed the stock market drop

Feb 6, 2018 @ 2:30 pm

By Mark Schoeff Jr.

Lawmakers and financial regulators expressed worry Tuesday that no matter how volatile the stock market becomes, an investment in virtual currencies could be riskier.

Members of the Senate Banking Committee cited the swift rise and sharp fall of bitcoin in a hearing focused on oversight of digital money by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

"Bitcoin's 1,000% percent rise last year and 60% decline last month makes yesterday's Dow Jones record point drop look like a rounding error," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, ranking member of the panel. "But that growth has shown us the intersection of ingenuity and, too often, greed. Sometimes it appears that scam artists and hackers may understand more about the technology than most market participants. That deeply concerns me."

Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., asked SEC Chairman Jay Clayton and CFTC Chairman J. Christopher Giancarlo — the hearing witnesses — what they would tell investors who think they can fund their retirement through an investment in bitcoin or initial coin offerings.

"Pumping all of your money into a disruptive technology has a very high likelihood of not working out for you as an individual," Mr. Clayton said. "There will be winners, but there will be many losers. That's the way it works."

The SEC has put out several statements about the risks associated with bitcoin and initial coin offerings.

Committee Chairman Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, noted that last year bitcoin zoomed from a valuation of $1,000 in January to nearly $20,000 in December, and now has fallen to about $6,900.

"Over the last year, many Americans have become increasingly interested in virtual currencies, especially given the meteoric rise in valuation and recent fall of bitcoin," Mr. Crapo said.

In response to a question from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., about why bitcoin has dropped so drastically over the last month, Mr. Clayton simply said, "I don't know what drives volatility."

But the SEC chief expanded on the movements of bitcoin in a discussion with reporters after the hearing, including that the cryptocurrency doesn't act like other investments.

"I don't see it correlated with anything else," Mr. Clayton said. "Think about what that means as an asset class."

Mr. Clayton told Mr. Crapo during the hearing that he would be open to legislation that would expand the regulators' jurisdiction to better regulate digital currencies.

"We're already together working on it," Mr. Clayton said about SEC talks with the Treasury Department.

In response to questions about Wall Street's steep drop on Monday, Mr. Clayton said market mechanisms reacted well to the highest trading volume since November 2016.

"There was nothing to indicate that any of our systems didn't function as they were expected to function yesterday," he said.

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