Consumer watchdog groups are applauding President Biden’s pick of Gary Gensler to run the Securities and Exchange Commission. They say that there is much to do to protect everyday Americans who invest their retirement or other savings in the market and that Gensler has proved he can get that done.
But progressives were a lot more skeptical about Gensler back in 2009 when he was first chosen to be a top financial regulator. That’s because, in some ways, Gensler is the ultimate Wall Street insider.
He’s a math whiz who made millions of dollars early in his career working at Goldman Sachs, where he became the firm’s then youngest partner.
So when President Barack Obama tapped Gensler to be the top regulator overseeing the multitrillion-dollar market for derivatives — the complex financial instruments that helped crash the economy and spark the Great Recession — Sen. Bernie Sanders tried to block the nomination. Sanders said Gensler was the wrong guy to reform Wall Street.
“I would like to see some new and progressive voices, people who don’t come from Wall Street, help the president address this very, very difficult crisis,” Sanders said.
It didn’t help that Gensler, before the crisis, had served at the Clinton Treasury Department under Robert Rubin when rules for Wall Street were loosened.
“Gary Gensler was in the middle of that,” said Sanders.
But Gensler got confirmed and started giving speeches that likely made financial executives nervous. He didn’t sound warm and fuzzy about the industry he used to work for.
“One year ago, the financial system very much failed the American public,” Gensler said in 2009 shortly after his confirmation. “The crisis threatened the savings and livelihood of every American.”
“I speak to you today as someone who spent half my adult life on Wall Street,” Gensler continued. “But to me, the worst financial crisis in 80 years demands the most comprehensive regulatory reform in generations.”
And Gensler got to work doing just that.
Salman Banaei is a lawyer and economist who worked under Gensler at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. He was doing what’s called “market surveillance” — trying to ferret out traders who were doing things that were too risky or illegal.
Banaei says that before Gensler came in, there wasn’t much active surveillance of what traders were doing during the trading day. The CFTC, he says, would often wait until a complaint was filed and react to that. But with Gensler, he says, that changed.
“Which was freaking awesome,” Banaei says. “We had kind of this amazing data set and free rein to go through it and, you know, try to find bad guys.”
And, he says, it didn’t take very long for the team to find a number of cases and win settlements.
Gensler is a driven, active person. He runs marathons; he has hiked Mount Kilimanjaro. And he brought that kind of energy to his job as a Wall Street cop. Under Gensler, the CFTC brought a record number of enforcement actions and levied a record amount of fines for financial institutions.
“Any time we would go to Gary with a suggestion to make a rule tougher, as in better protecting the American public, he would agree,” Banaei says.
But Banaei says Gensler insisted his team delve into all the thousands of pages of public comments on proposed rules so they understood all sides of the issue.
Gensler brought those enforcement cases and crafted new rules with an agency that was arguably underfunded and understaffed by Congress. And employee surveys show morale plunged at the CFTC on Gensler’s watch.
But he clearly got a lot done. And he faced allegations that he was being too aggressive and risked hurting American business. Gensler didn’t shy away from the industry pushback.
“I say that transparent markets and well-regulated markets benefit the American public, benefit American businesses, ultimately help promote jobs,” Gensler said in one interview. “So I say I think what we’re doing here actually helps business and helps America.”
Gensler isn’t reluctant to say what he thinks. Back in 2002, he wrote a book criticizing the high cost of mutual funds even though his identical twin brother was running one of those big mutual funds.
If he’s confirmed to run the SEC, there will be a lot that needs fixing, says Marcus Stanley, who worked with Gensler as a Senate staffer after the financial crisis. Stanley is now the policy director of Americans for Financial Reform.
“It’s an absolutely critical regulator,” says Stanley, about the SEC. But, he says, “the SEC as an organization needs some change.” He says perhaps more than any other regulator, the SEC “continued with its pre-2008 record of deregulation, even after the financial crisis.”
He says that this accelerated during the Trump years.
Some industry groups aren’t commenting on Gensler’s nomination. But the Futures Industry Association said in a statement that it “looks forward to continuing to work with Gary Gensler in his new role, to support open, transparent and competitive markets.”
Those who know Gensler say he’s not a crusader who hates financial firms. He just believes that they need up-to-date guardrails and rules — and that those need to be enforced. As Gensler likes to say: “Markets work best when there’s a cop on the beat.”