Coinbase Gave Silicon Valley Bank Stock Warrants for Access to USD Payments

Banking services were so hard for cryptocurrency businesses to come by early on that as a fledgling startup Coinbase apparently had to throw in a sweetener to seal the deal.

In 2014, the crypto exchange gave Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) stock warrants as part of an agreement allowing Coinbase to send and receive U.S. dollars through the banking system, an exhibit in the company’s prospectus shows.  

The warrant “is issued in connection with … certain ACH Origination Services,” according to the exhibit. ACH is the automated clearing house, the system for sending domestic, low-value payments between bank accounts in the U.S. A business that pays or is paid through ACH is an “originator” in banking parlance.

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The disclosure in Coinbase’s long-awaited S-1 filing Thursday offers a rare window into the often murky relationships between cryptocurrency businesses and the limited number of financial institutions willing to bank them.

The warrant gives Silicon Valley Bank, a bank that caters to tech startups, the right to buy more than 400,000 class B shares of common stock at a little over $1 per share. 

Class B shares have 20 times the voting power of the Class A shares that Coinbase is seeking to list on Nasdaq, according to the prospectus. The Class B shares, however, are convertible at any time, on a one-for-one basis, to Class A shares, which presumably would be more liquid once they are publicly traded. 

In 2014, bank accounts for cryptocurrency firms were even more difficult to find than they are today. Most banks lumped bitcoin-related services into the same high-risk bucket as marijuana-related businesses and refused to work with them, fearing regulators would frown on the relationships. 

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Coinbase, which had an account and a line of credit with Silicon Valley Bank, would later lose that relationship in 2015 after Silicon Valley gave Coinbase six months to find another bank, as detailed in the book “Kings of Cryptoby Jeff John Roberts. 

“SVB is built for the needs of the Valley, taking on risky startups other banks wouldn’t touch and operating within a tight clique of founders, venture capitalists, and tech incubators,” Roberts wrote. “Still, even with its Valley-centric worldview, SVB wasn’t particularly enamoured of Coinbase of its promise. It had taken a special nudge from Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures [an early investor in Coinbase] to get SVB to take its business.”  

Much has changed since those scrappy days; last year, Coinbase secured a banking relationship with JPMorgan Chase, which is also one of Coinbase’s advisers on the direct stock listing.

Coinbase declined to comment, and Silicon Valley Bank did not return requests for comment by press time.

UPDATE (Feb. 25, 23:40 UTC): Added background, links.

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