mary jo white
Mary Jo White, chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission

Mary Jo White was confirmed by the Senate to chair the US Securities and Exchange Commission by unanimous consent, succeeding Mary Schapiro with a mandate to re-invigorate a key post in financial regulation.

Ms White comes to the SEC from Debevoise & Plimpton, a corporate law firm in New York, where she was a partner. Before that, she was a prosecutor for a decade and the first woman to be US attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Ms White’s approval by the Senate, where she received bipartisan support, sets the stage for the SEC to move ahead with its agenda, including finalising regulations under the 2010 Wall Street reform bill, known as Dodd-Frank, that have yet to be promulgated.

From bans on proprietary trading under the so-called Volcker rule, to the regulation of derivatives, money market mutual funds, and high-frequency trading, Ms White is facing decisions that will have a big effect on Wall Street and for US and global investors.

Ms White will also be expected to pursue an aggressive stance on the enforcement side, after Ms Schapiro led the SEC in some high-profile insider trading cases and settlements with banks related to the financial crisis.

“The SEC needs a strong leader in place as it works to implement Wall Street Reform, and that is exactly what the commission is getting with Mary Jo White,” said Tim Johnson, the South Dakota Democrat who chairs the Senate banking committee, said after the voice vote.

Ms Schapiro was credited with helping improve the image of the agency after it was criticised for failing to uncover the Bernard Madoff scandal or to oversee brokerage firms in the lead-up to the financial crisis.

Four years later, Ms White is expected to bring new verve to the SEC. “She is facing a very daunting task. Her predecessor took the agency back from the brink. But Mary Jo White has to take it forward – from rulewriting to energising the enforcement division,” says Tom Gorman, a lawyer at Dorsey and Whitney in Washington.

During her time as prosecutor, Ms White took on mafia boss John Gotti, as well terrorists responsible for the bombings of the World Trade Center in 1993 and American embassies in Africa in 1998, earning plaudits from Barack Obama when he announced her nomination earlier this year. “I’d say that’s a pretty good run. You don’t want to mess with Mary Jo,” Mr Obama said.

Yet there have also been some concerns that because of her recent past as a corporate lawyer, including work for Ken Lewis, former chief executive at Bank of America, she might hold her punches.

Rebecca Katz, a plaintiff’s lawyer at Motley Rice, says those worries are overstated. “I really don’t feel that way. She is a great choice, and she has a reputation for being tough and very hard to intimidate, and I think she is going to aggressively pursue Wall Street misconduct, expand enforcement and continue their whistleblower programme,” she said, adding that her comfortable confirmation could help “shield her from partisan politics”.

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