WASHINGTON—The Senate has approved President Joe Biden’s choice of Gary Gensler to head the Securities and Exchange Commission, signaling an emphasis on investor protection for the Wall Street watchdog agency after a deregulatory stretch during the Trump administration.
The vote Wednesday was 53-45, mostly along party lines in the narrowly Democratic-controlled Senate, to confirm Gensler, an expert with experience as a strong markets regulator during the 2008-09 financial crisis. Gensler had a two-decades-long career as a Wall Street banker and later, as chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, he tightened oversight of the $400 trillion worldwide market for complex financial transactions that helped cause the Great Recession.
Now a professor of economics and management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, Gensler was an assistant Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration and later headed the CFTC during Barack Obama’s term. With nearly 20 years at Wall Street powerhouse Goldman Sachs, Gensler surprised many by being a tough regulator of big banks as CFTC chairman. He pushed for stricter regulations that big banks and financial firms had lobbied against and wasn’t afraid to take positions that clashed with the Obama administration.
Gensler was chief financial officer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign against Donald Trump and an economic adviser to Obama in his 2008 presidential bid. More recently, he was a leader and adviser of Biden’s transition team responsible for the Federal Reserve, banking issues and securities regulation.
Jay Clayton, a former Wall Street lawyer who headed the SEC during the Trump administration, presided over a deregulatory push to soften rules affecting the financial markets, as Trump pledged when he took office. Rules under the Dodd-Frank law that tightened the reins on banks and Wall Street in the wake of the financial crisis and the Great Recession were loosened.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, the Ohio Democrat who heads the Senate Banking Committee, called Gensler “an experienced public servant with a strong record of holding Wall Street accountable.”
“Mr. Gensler will bring the SEC’s focus back to the people who make this country work, and push to ensure that markets are a way for families to save and invest for their kids’ education, for a down payment on a home, and for a secure retirement — not a game for hedge fund managers, where workers always lose,” Brown said in a statement after the vote.
Gensler comes armed with receptiveness to new financial technologies and cryptocurrency. As a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, he has focused research and teaching on public policy as well as digital currencies and blockchain, the running ledgers of digital currency transactions.
At his Senate confirmation hearing last month, Gensler said that if confirmed to the SEC post he would work to strengthen transparency and accountability in the markets. That will enable people “to invest with confidence and be protected from fraud and manipulation,” he said. “It means promoting efficiency and competition, so our markets operate with lower costs to companies and higher returns to investors. … And above all, it means making sure our markets serve the needs of working families.”
Democratic senators urged Gensler as chairman to work on requiring corporations to disclose their exposure to predicted climate change risks and political spending, and to aggressively punish companies for violations of securities laws.
Republican senators said they hoped Gensler would appropriate weight the imposition of any new regulations in the financial markets, given the problems of stifling innovation and improperly expanding the government’s authority.
Gensler also said the SEC should address how to protect investors who use online stock-trading platforms with flashy tech gimmicks that entice them to trade more.
The roiling stock-trading drama involving GameStop shares earlier this year has spurred clamor for tighter regulation of Wall Street. The trading frenzy in shares of the struggling video-game retailer lifted their price 1,600 percent in January, though they later fell back to earth after days of wild price swings.