Mary Jo White is stepping down as chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, putting a spotlight on one of the many regulatory roles Donald Trump will have to fill having promised to loosen rules on the financial sector
Ms White, a former federal prosecutor and defence lawyer appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013, said she would leave at the end of the Obama administration, well before the end of her term in 2019.
She had planned to depart even before Mr Trump’s shock victory last Tuesday.
Her departure will leave a vacancy at the US’s top market watchdog, where she has implemented many rules mandated by the post-crisis Dodd-Frank reforms at an agency whose laxity was blamed for contributing to the 2007-09 mortgage meltdown.
But her tenure was marked by criticism from both sides of the political divide, as Republican lawmakers accused her of not using the SEC’s funds efficiently and leftwing Democrats attacked her perceived failure to be tough on Wall Street.
Mr Trump, who must nominate an SEC chair to be approved by the Senate, vowed to dismantle the Dodd-Frank reforms on the campaign trail and told the Wall Street Journal after his victory that “we have to get rid of it or make it smaller”.
Leftwing Democrats led by Senator Elizabeth Warren had been preparing to press Hillary Clinton into appointing a liberal successor to Ms White. But Mr Trump’s victory means they will instead seek to stand in the way of any nominee seen as overly market-friendly, using the fact the president will need some Democrats to reach the Senate threshold of 60 confirmation votes.
In the rumour mill about Trump administration appointees one person mooted as a potential SEC chair is Anthony Scaramucci, a hedge fund manager and member of the president-elect’s economic advisory council.
Ms White’s decision to step down as soon as Mr Obama leaves office could mean work at the SEC grinds to a halt as it will take weeks if not months for her successor to be confirmed.
The five-member agency will be left operating with just two commissioners who are at odds on many issues, the Democrat Kara Stein and the Republican Michael Piwowar, unless the Senate confirms two pending nominees in its lame duck session this year.
Ms White said: “I am very proud of our three consecutive years of record enforcement actions, dozens of fundamental reforms through our rulemakings that have strengthened investor protections and market stability, and that the job satisfaction of our phenomenal staff has climbed in each of the last three years.”
But just one month ago she saw Ms Warren send a blistering letter to Mr Obama pressing the president to sack the SEC chair, who the senator accused of failing to protect the interests of investors and the public.
Ms Warren, who had previously accused Ms White’s SEC of being timid and slow, accused her of “undermining [the Obama] administration’s priorities and ignoring the SEC’s core mission of investor protection”.
At the time a White House spokesman said the president continued to believe that Ms White was the right leader for the SEC.
Asked about complaints that she is too close to the financial services industry, Ms White told the Financial Times: “Look at the rules we’ve done and look at the outcry from the industry when we’ve done them.”
“The goal is to build strong rules that stand the test of time. Even measured by complexity and volume, what we’ve done is enormously impressive.”
Additional reporting by Ben McLannahan