President Joe Biden’s plans for a new era of tough Wall Street oversight will take center stage this week when two of his top regulator picks face questions from Senate Banking Committee members at a Tuesday hearing.
Gary Gensler, whom the White House has tapped to head the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Rohit Chopra, the administration’s choice to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, are likely to win confirmation, lawmakers and financial executives say. Yet their strong support from progressive Democrats means they’re certain to get pointed questions from Republican senators about their plans to crack down on businesses.
The wild rally in GameStop Corp., the explosion of blank-check companies and apps -- like Robinhood Markets’ platform -- that have prompted millions of novice investors to start trading are sure to be focuses. The biggest banks, hedge funds and private equity firms are also likely to be spotlighted, particularly after four years of rule cutting under former President Donald Trump.
Gensler, 63, is well known on Wall Street after leading the Commodity Futures Trading Commission during the Obama administration and making a fortune decades earlier at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Chopra, a 39-year-old Federal Trade Commission member who helped Senator Elizabeth Warren set up the CFPB, would run an agency that Democrats want reinvigorated to protect consumers from abuses involving credit cards, mortgages and high-interest loans. Republicans would prefer it remain in the slumber that defined the bureau in the Trump era.
“There remains a sharp divide between Republicans and Democrats on the role of the CFPB in financial regulation,” said Andrew Olmem, National Economic Council deputy director in the Trump administration who is now a partner at the Mayer Brown law firm. “This is a very important nomination because a new director can significantly shift the direction of the CFPB.”
Gensler, who has been been teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, indicated in his prepared testimony that he planned to examine whether SEC rules have kept pace with advancements in technology. “I believe financial technology can be a powerful force for good -- but only if we continue to harness the core values of the SEC in service of investors, issuers, and the public,” he said.
Chopra signaled he would focus on the economic impact of coronavirus, which he said has left millions of Americans’ finances “in ruin.” “Experts expect distress across a number of consumer credit markets, including an avalanche of loan defaults and auto repossessions,” he said.
What follows is a breakdown of policy topics that Gensler and Chopra will confront at the hearing -- and, if confirmed, in their jobs:
The popularity of commission-free trading -- spearheaded by Robinhood -- has forced regulators to grapple with new questions. Top among them is “gamification” and the proliferation of apps that make investing fun but that critics claim inappropriately hook consumers with nudges and prompts to keep them trading. Determining whether and how to respond is something Gensler will have to grapple with. The issue could also fall under the purview of Chopra and the CFPB.
The GameStop frenzy has prompted additional regulatory concerns, including whether unsophisticated investors should be able to so freely engage in risky trading involving options. Bubbles, too, will be on senators’ minds. A number think the SEC should do something about the eye-popping rise of unregulated Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Another potential target is special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACS, which are essentially corporate shells that issue shares before investors even know what their money is being used for.
The GameStop saga has made lawmakers wake up to the inner-workings of the stock market. Practices like off-exchange trading and Robinhood and other brokers selling their customers’ orders to so-called market makers like Citadel Securities are getting unprecedented attention on Capitol Hill.
Short-selling has also come under fire after it emerged that hedge funds making bearish bets had borrowed more than 100% of GameStop’s outstanding shares. In the face of all that complexity, lawmakers will want to know how Gensler plans to ensure that markets are fair for average Americans.
Among the Banking Committee Democrats who have most relished going after private equity are Chairman Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Warren of Massachusetts.
Warren introduced the “Stop Wall Street Looting Act” in 2019 calling for new rules for buyout firms, and she made the industry’s treatment of workers a centerpiece of her unsuccessful 2020 presidential campaign. She and Brown have said they will continue to press the issue and have ideas for how Gensler can use the SEC to add new oversight. Giving impetus to their plans is a successful push by private-equity firms during the Trump administration to be included as an investment option in corporate retirement saving plans.
Wall Street could soon find itself subject to lots more investigations launched by the CFPB, which was created to crack down on industry abuses that Democrats argue spurred the 2008 financial crisis. Beyond big banks, the agency under Chopra may also focus on payday lenders, student loan providers and on issues tied to the retail trading boom.
At the SEC, wielding the agency’s powers to probe and sanction companies is where Gensler can make his biggest impact. A high-profile case against a major bank or hedge fund can ripple through the finance industry, deterring other firms from engaging in similar conduct. During the Trump era, busting Wall Street titans was rarely a priority, something progressives expect Gensler to change quickly.
Bitcoin has skyrocketed more than 400% in the past year and Coinbase, a trading platform used by millions American, is on the cusp of one of the biggest initial public offerings in years. Yet, despite all the buzz, cryptocurrencies are still a big question mark for Wall Street. Industry backers say that an impediment to broad adoption is a clear legal framework and a lack of regulatory clarity from the SEC.
It’ll probably fall largely on Gensler to determine how to regulate the industry. Thorny topics he will likely have to deal with include whether to approve a crypto based exchange-traded fund, and how aggressively to pursue a high-profile lawsuit the SEC filed last year against Ripple Labs Inc. for allegedly misleading investors by selling more than $1 billion of virtual tokens without registering them with the regulator.
Progressives want Biden’s financial regulators to play a crucial role in addressing climate change, including by pressing companies to reveal more about how global warming affects their bottom lines. Democrats also want industry watchdogs to combat inequality by implementing policies that narrow social and economic gaps.
At Tuesday’s hearing, such objectives are expected to get lots of attention from Republicans, who argue that securities laws and corporate disclosures should not be used to push what they consider to be political agendas.
(Updates with prepared testimony in sixth and seventh paragraphs.)
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