Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Jo White will step down as chair of the nation's Wall Street overseer in January, setting the stage for a potential conservative shift in the regulator's leadership under the incoming Trump administration.
White, a New York attorney and former federal prosecutor, made the announcement Monday, signaling a close to a nearly four-year tenure in which she championed aggressive enforcement and helped achieve approval of many post-financial crisis reforms required by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Financial Protection Act.
Unless the U.S. Senate approves two pending nominees during a lame-duck congressional session, White's departure could leave the SEC with just two of its five allotted commissioners. The vacancies would give the incoming Trump administration a potential opportunity to push the SEC toward a more conservative regulatory approach favored by many GOP members of Congress.
White, the 31st chair of the SEC, said in a written statement that she was proud of three consecutive years of record enforcement actions by the regulator. She also cited approval of dozens of rulemaking reforms that strengthened investor protections.
"My duty has been to ensure that the Commission implemented strong investor and market protections, and to establish an enduring foundation for future progress in the most critical areas — asset management regulation, equity market structure and disclosure effectiveness," said White. "Thanks to the hard work and dedication of the SEC’s staff, we have accomplished both."
In an interview with Reuters, White, 68, said she had no plans to retire, but was not sure what she would do next.
White took office in April 2013, following a time in which the regulator drew widespread criticism for failing to detect the Ponzi scheme disgraced financier Bernard Madoff used to steal nearly $20 billion from ordinary investors, charities, celebrities and financial funds.
Significant rulemaking and policy initiatives enacted since her appointment by President Obama include new disclosures and protections for mutual fund investors, as well as updated controls on how financial market participants use technology at a time when transactions are implemented in less than a blink of an eye.
One of the much-debated Dodd-Frank reforms enacted under White's leadership was a new rule that requires publicly traded U.S firms to disclose the gap between CEOs' annual compensation and the median compensation of other employees.
Although backed by investor advocates, the change drew business sector opposition, as well as that of two of the SEC's more conservative commissioners. The rule won approval in 2015 by a narrow 3-2 vote, one of several during White's tenure.
Some congressional Republicans pressed the SEC to place equal emphasis on approving provisions of the Jobs Act, legislation designed to help companies raise capital and create jobs. After debate and public comment, the regulator in October 2015 adopted final rules that authorize companies to offer and sell securities through crowdfunding.
White also drew criticism from some congressional Democrats and investor advocates who contended she wasn't aggressive enough in seeking pro-investor changes.
Last month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. sent President Obama a letter urging him to fire White for failing to force companies to disclose their political contributions, a change that could improve transparency for the firms' investors.
"This brazen conduct is merely the most recent and prominent example of Chair White undermining your administration's priorities and ignoring the SEC' s core mission of investor protection," wrote Warren.
"Mary Jo White brought a large number of enforcement actions but was less successful in issuing rules and regulations, especially implementing Dodd-Frank," Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, said Monday. "For Wall St. and banks, she was too rigorous, and for others, she was not strict enough."