Analysis: Binance’s $4 billion plea deal is a victory for the company—but there’s a huge catch

When the U.S. government announced criminal charges against Binance on Tuesday, it marked the successful culmination of a years-long campaign to bring the crypto world’s biggest, and wildest, company to heel. The significance of the occasion was reflected by the attorney general and the secretary of the Treasury holding a joint news conference to share the details, which included that Binance would pay $4.3 billion in penalties—among the largest fines in corporate history—and that CEO Changpeng Zhao would step down and pay $50 million as part of a three-count indictment for money laundering.

The announcement, accompanied by legal settlements with three different federal agencies, also underscored a dramatic change of fortune for both Binance and Zhao from two years ago. In 2021, the company was reaping billions from a massive speculative bubble, while its CEO delighted in flitting from country to country in an illusory bid to operate beyond the reach of regulators. On Tuesday, that freewheeling era came to an end when a soft-spoken Zhao appeared in federal court in Seattle to bow to U.S. authorities.

Tuesday’s developments mark a big win for the Justice Department, but, paradoxically, they’re also a victory for Binance. Unlike FTX and other fallen crypto titans, Binance will continue to operate and, by all appearances, its former CEO will remain a free man.

This outcome defies the predictions of many who assumed that Binance’s many transgressions—which include turning a blind eye to transactions with rogue regimes like Iran and Russia—would spell its doom. While the massive penalty is a blow to the company’s treasury and the humbling of Zhao undercuts Binance’s longtime edge, the early market response suggests the company will survive.

Many in the industry have long fretted that the criminal charges looming over Binance were a potential black swan event, akin to FTX’s abrupt collapse in a torrent of fraud, that could send Bitcoin back below $10,000 and set crypto back for years to come. But so far, the market has largely shrugged off the day’s dramatic events. As of Tuesday night, Bitcoin was down around 4% over 24 hours, to just under $36,100, while Binance’s native BNB token (a rough approximation of corporate shares) had fallen 12%—a significant amount but hardly earthshaking in the volatile crypto markets.

For now, all indications are that Binance will weather the current storm and be poised to ride a months-long upswing in digital assets markets, which many say will mark the end to an 18-month-long Crypto Winter. If prices largely hold up over the next 48 hours, it’s a good sign that there will be smooth sailing for the foreseeable future—especially as traditional financial giants like BlackRock and Fidelity prepare to enter the market with crypto ETFs in the coming weeks.

In the longer term, however, Binance must navigate a new legal obligation that has the potential to hobble its status as an industry leader.

Corporate culture shock

While Tuesday’s announcements delivered major punishments to both Binance and Zhao, the long-term pain for the company lies in the court-appointed monitors described in settlements from both the Justice Department and the Treasury Department‘s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network division.

Under the terms of the settlement, the monitors will be appointed for three- and five-year terms and enjoy sweeping powers to oversee Binance’s business practices, including how it adds new customers and how it interacts with a range of jurisdictions subject to U.S. sanctions or surveillance. The monitors, who will be chosen from a list supplied by Binance, will enjoy a high degree of autonomy and be required to be experts in the United States’ strict anti-money laundering and sanctions rules. They are also subject to rules that forbid Binance interacting with them for two years or more following the end of their terms—a safeguard to help ensure they’re not influenced by the firm.

The monitors are likely to be a major shock to the corporate culture of Binance, which has for so long been so cavalier that the company—for a time—professed to have no corporate headquarters. Embedded inspectors from the U.S. government will almost certainly prove disruptive and could undercut Binance’s longtime reputation for innovation. All of this is also likely to lead its shadowy customers, who have long favored the platform for its lack of oversight, to flee for less compliant exchanges—indeed, the exchange’s market share already had dipped to about 38% this year from well over 50%.

“It functionally stops them from running the business the way Binance has historically run it,” veteran crypto investor Mike Alfred said on a Twitter Spaces on Tuesday. “It also raised the question of whether they can generate cash to pay all these fines.”

A person close to Binance, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, downplayed such concerns, saying that the settlement marks the start of a new era in crypto that will be marked by compliance—and that Binance’s pact with U.S. regulators puts the firm in position to be a primary beneficiary of this.

It is indeed possible that Binance will be able to reinvent itself as a model corporate citizen of the crypto world, and emerge as a favored forum for mainstream investors. But this is likely to be an uphill fight as the company tries to find its way without its founder and longtime CEO—and as it tries to operate with an agent of the U.S. government looking over its shoulder at every turn.

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