Coinbase is planning a pivotal acquisition that will allow it to launch crypto derivatives in the EU

LONDON, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 09: In this photo illustration, a flipped version of the Coinbase logo is reflected in a mobile phone screen on November 09, 2021 in London, England. The cryptocurrency exchange platform is to release its quarterly earnings today. (Photo illustration by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

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Coinbase plans to offer crypto-linked derivatives in the European Union, and it’s planning to acquire a company with a license to do so.

The U.S. cryptocurrency exchange told CNBC exclusively that it entered into an agreement to buy an unnamed holding company which owns a MiFID II license.

MiFID II refers to the EU’s updated rules governing financial instruments. The EU updated the legislation in 2017 to address criticism that it was too focused on stocks and didn’t consider other asset classes, like fixed income, derivatives and currencies.

It’s part of a long-standing ambition by Coinbase to serve professional and institutional customers.

The company, which began 12 years ago, has been seeking to expand its offering to institutions such as hedge funds and high-frequency trading firms over the last several years, looking to benefit from the much higher sizes of transactions done by these kinds of traders.

If and when Coinbase completes the deal, the move would mark the first launch of derivatives trading by the company in the EU.

With a MiFID II license, Coinbase will be able to begin offering regulated derivatives, like futures and options, in the EU. The company already offers spot trading in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

The deal is subject to regulatory approval and Coinbase expects it will close later in 2024.

“This license would help expand access to our derivatives products by allowing Coinbase to offer them to eligible European customers in select countries across the EU,” Coinbase said in a blog post, which was shared exclusively with CNBC on Friday.

“As the industry leader in trusted, compliant products and services, we aim for the highest standards for regulatory compliance, and before operationalizing any license or serving any users, this entity must achieve our Five-point Global Compliance Standard.”

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Coinbase said it would look to adhere to rigorous compliance standards that are upheld in the EU, including requirements related to combating money laundering, customer transparency and sanctions.

The company said it is committed to ensuring a five-point global compliance standard, supported by a team of more than 400 professionals with experience at agencies including the FBI and Department of Justice.

“We have a long road ahead before finalizing the acquisition and operationalizing the EU MiFID licensed entity, but this is an exciting step forward in our efforts to expand access to our international derivatives offerings and bring a more global and open financial system to 1 billion people around the world,” Coinbase said in its blog post.

A key battleground

Derivatives could be a crucial battleground for Coinbase. According to the company, derivatives make up 75% of overall crypto trading volumes. Coinbase has a long way to go to compete with its larger rival Binance, which is a massive player in the market for crypto-linked derivatives, as well as firms like Bybit, OKX and Deribit.

According to data from CoinGecko, Binance saw trading volume of more than $56.6 billion in futures contracts in the past 24 hours. That’s seismically larger than the amount of volume done by Coinbase. Its international derivatives exchange did $300 million of futures trading volume in the last 24 hours.

Coinbase does not currently offer crypto derivatives products in the U.K., where they are prohibited. The Financial Conduct Authority banned crypto-linked derivatives in January 2020, saying at the time they are “ill-suited” for retail consumers due to the harm they pose.

Coinbase currently offers trading in bitcoin futures and ether futures in the U.S., and bitcoin futures, ether futures, “nano” ether futures and West Texas Intermediate crude oil futures in markets outside the U.S.

Derivatives are a type of financial instrument that derive their value from the performance of an underlying asset.

Futures are derivatives that allow investors to speculate on what an asset will be worth at a later point in time. They’re generally considered riskier than spot markets in digital assets given the notoriously volatile nature of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, and the use of leverage, which can significantly amplify gains and losses.

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Expanding beyond U.S.

The move into derivatives continues Coinbase’s expansion drive in markets outside of the U.S.

Coinbase has been aggressively chasing international expansion in the past year as it faces a tougher time at home. The company is the target of a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission lawsuit alleging it violated securities laws.

In October, the firm picked Ireland as its primary regulatory base in the EU ahead of an incoming package of crypto laws known as Markets in Crypto-Assets (MiCA), and submitted an application for a single MiCA license, which it hopes to obtain by December. 2024 when the rules are slated to be fully applied.

Coinbase also recently obtained a virtual asset service provider license from France, which gives it permission to offer custody and trading in crypto assets in the country.

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