WASHINGTON – The Senate Banking Committee approved Jay Clayton, who reported between $10 million and $44 million of municipal bond assets in financial disclosures, to become the next chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission in a vote of 15 to 8 on Wednesday.
Clayton, a lawyer with Sullivan & Cromwell in New York who has represented large investment banking firms like Goldman Sachs, must now be confirmed by the full Senate before taking on the new role.
While he seemingly has little direct experience with munis, his financial disclosure documents show that he and his family have a number of investments in several tax-exempt funds and money market funds.
However, many of the investments are in family trusts from which Clayton has distanced himself, according to his disclosures. He included an endnote for each trust, saying he has resigned from the trusts as trustee and will permanently disclaim any vested beneficial interest if confirmed or does not have a beneficial interest or control. He reported between roughly $6 million and $30 million of muni bond assets outside of the trusts.
While Clayton did not talk about munis during his confirmation hearing, he said he would focus on individual accountability in enforcement actions, a trend the muni market saw during former SEC chair Mary Jo White's tenure.
Clayton said he is "100% committed to rooting out any fraud and shady practices" in the financial system, during his hearing. He also assured the senators that his past connections with Wall Street will not lead to any conflicts of interest, though some lawmakers worry his extensive client list will force him to recuse himself from many commission cases.
Senate Banking Committee chair Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, praised Clayton's experience during his comments before the committee vote on Tuesday and noted that Clayton is "not new" in his coming into the position with conflicts. White also had a number of conflicts and was forced to recuse herself from cases after becoming chair.
Crapo said he looks forward to having Clayton at the SEC "where he can help protect and promote the success of our securities markets and investors."
Sen. Sherrod Brown from Ohio, the top Democrat on the banking committee, said Clayton is "an experienced corporate lawyer, but his deep ties to Wall Street will leave him hopelessly conflicted in the SEC's most high profile enforcement actions."
"With Mr. Clayton's conflicts, and his failure to understand the concerns and risks faced by American savers, I am unable to support his nomination," Brown said on Tuesday. "As I said about my vote on Mr. Clayton's predecessor, I hope that he proves me wrong." If Clayton is confirmed by the full Senate, he will find himself involved in the ongoing debate about the future of the much-criticized Dodd-Frank Act. Clayton told the committee during his hearing that while he believes the Dodd-Frank Act needs to be examined to see if it is meeting its objectives, he has "no specific plans" to attack the legislation. President Trump and other Republicans have been vocal about their desire to roll back the legislation as part of a move toward deregulation in the financial sector.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Tex., has said he plans to introduce a revamped version of his Financial CHOICE Act during this congressional session. A February memo from the House Financial Services Committee, which Hensarling chairs, gave some indication of where the changes may come.
One proposal in the memo is to have the SEC chair "provide a report within one year on eliminating duplication and inefficiencies amongst the various self-regulatory organizations." That language could mean exploring possible opportunities to roll back regulations and streamline rulemakings between the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.
The original CHOICE Act, introduced during the last congressional session, would also have moved the SEC's Office of Municipal Securities back into the commission's trading and market division, where it was before Dodd-Frank required it to be made independent. Another provision would have diverted the funding the MSRB receives from SEC and FINRA enforcement actions over muni rule violations to the Treasury for deficit reduction. It would also have allowed the SEC to triple monetary fines in administrative and civil action where penalties are tied to illegal profits as well as in enforcement cases dealing with repeat violators of laws and rules.
Clayton generally avoided direct comments about deregulation during his hearing, but said he has "a real problem with regulations that are unnecessarily complex" and that reducing complexity and creating clarity in rulemakings is very important.