Wall Street’s new sheriff is on a mission

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Financial markets may soon have a new regulatory sheriff. President-elect Joe Biden, who will be inaugurated on Wednesday, is expected to pick the former head of the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Gary Gensler, to run the Securities and Exchange Commission. Given that US capital markets are the broadest and deepest in the world, the chair of the SEC is not only the most important market regulator for America but also, arguably, for the wider world. The good news is that Mr Gensler is exactly the right man for the job. 

As a former Goldman Sachs partner who also served in the Treasury department during the Clinton administration, he is a powerful choice in part because he’s a “born-again” regulator.

After 18 years at the US bank, including time in the risk arbitrage unit, Mr Gensler began his regulatory career working with his former boss Robert Rubin, who had been appointed US Treasury secretary. He then became an under-secretary to Mr Rubin’s successor, Larry Summers, who passed the Commodity Futures Modernisation Act. This was the law that exempted credit default swaps, which exploded the global economy during the financial crisis of 2008, from regulation.

But later, as chair of the CFTC under President Obama, Mr Gensler spent a large portion of his time cleaning up the mess that such lack of oversight created. He passed dozens of new rules to increase transparency and reduce risk in the swaps and futures markets — moving faster and further on financial regulation than any of his peers.

Indeed, Mr Gensler almost seemed to see it as his own personal mission of penance. As he told me in a 2012 interview, “Knowing what we know now, those of us who served in the 1990s should have done more [to protect] the derivatives market.”

Democrats usually decry the revolving door between Goldman Sachs and Washington. But Mr Gensler is both beloved of financial reform types and feared on the Street in large part because of his status as a former insider.

“Gary can’t be intimidated, and he’s usually smarter than you are,” says Dennis Kelleher, president and CEO of Better Markets, a non-profit financial reform organisation. “He’d call baloney on arguments that didn’t withstand scrutiny,” Mr Kelleher adds — recalling Mr Gensler’s tenure at the CFTC, when financial executives would lobby for or against various rules.

Since stepping down from the CFTC, maths-whizz Mr Gensler has been at MIT, studying and teaching on the next big things in finance: blockchain and cryptocurrency. That background will make him even more useful as a regulator at a time when the largest tech platform companies — from Google and Facebook to Amazon and Apple — are moving into the financial industry.

Mr Gensler has so far lauded the convenience and low cost of retail financial services apps while cautioning against the use of decentralised technologies for financial speculation. In a November 2020 MIT paper, he and co-author Lily Bailey discussed the “significant opportunities for efficiency, financial inclusion, and risk mitigation from AI and big data in the financial sector, but also the possibility of ‘regulatory gaps’ that might lead to ‘financial system fragility and economy-wide risks’.” Translation? In a Gensler-led SEC, fintech will be under greater scrutiny.

But he will also have to address past failings. For some years, the SEC has been criticised for not being tough enough on corporate America and not adequately protecting investors. Indeed, scams and fraud have been on the rise during the Trump administration, according to the SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy.

As head of the SEC, Mr Gensler would therefore have to balance two jobs. First and foremost would be restoring trust in the agency’s ability to accomplish its core mission of protection, financial stability and penalising violations. In addition, though, as a longtime Democratic politico, he would want to help facilitate the Biden administration’s priorities, such as addressing income inequality, racial injustice and climate change.

On the former, progressives will look to the next SEC chair to acknowledge that it is not banks that break laws, but individual bankers. By appointing a tough director of the enforcement division — perhaps a former prosecutor or a consumer advocate — the chair could send a message: there will be no more sweetheart deals for individual executives while organisations write-off their regulatory fines as a cost of doing business. The chair could also revisit Trump-era deregulation, and toughen rules around whistleblower protections, pay clawbacks for illegal gains, and limits on executive pay for high-risk activities.

On the broader Biden agenda, the SEC could meanwhile play a big role in increasing transparency and disclosure around hidden fees, predatory lending and unseen risks from factors such as climate. Imagine, for example, if companies had to disclose their potential litigation risk around lending to the fossil fuel industry or developing waterfront property. This, combined with opening up the black box of algorithmic finance, could go a long way towards mitigating risk at a delicate time for the global economy. 

With a new administration and a new “born again” SEC director, markets may soon get regulatory religion too.

rana.foroohar@ft.com

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