GameStop Fallout Sparks Washington Fight Over Market Rules

The inner-workings of the U.S. equity markets emerged as a political flashpoint with lawmakers offering starkly differing views on whether Wall Street needs new rules following the wild trading in GameStop Corp. this year.

The January frenzy, sparked by small investors buying GameStop and other stocks with their mobile apps, is a sign that the Securities and Exchange Commission needs to update its regulations to account for new technology and market dynamics, Democrats on the House Financial Services Committee told the agency’s recently sworn-in chief at a hearing Thursday.

“It is critical for our cops on the block at the SEC to protect investors and ensure that our markets are transparent and fair,” said Maxine Waters, the California Democrat who heads the panel.

Republicans, however, cautioned SEC Chairman Gary Gensler against pushing requirements that would stymie innovation and raise costs for the millions of young people who have opened accounts with brokerages such as Robinhood Markets that offer an easy way to buy shares without commissions.

“Let’s stand up for everyday investors and make it easier for them to invest,” said Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, the senior Republican on the committee.

It’s the panel’s third hearing since the GameStop mayhem, when retail investors banded together on social media to push shares of the video-game retailer to astronomical levels, while hurting hedge funds that were betting against the stock. The episode fueled a Main Street-conquering-Wall Street narrative and became a divisive topic on Capitol Hill.

It also focused attention on Robinhood and billionaire Ken Griffin’s Citadel Securities, one of the market-making firms that pay brokers to process their trades. The arrangement, known as payment for order flow, has allowed firms to lower commissions to zero but has also come under fire from Democrats who argue it can obscure the true costs of trading.

Earlier this week, the committee’s Democrats released a series of draft bills to address the GameStop controversy, including one that would ban the practice.

Political Posturing

In his testimony, Gensler said he had concerns that the payments could raise conflicts between brokerages and their clients, but that he wasn’t sure there was a quick or easy fix.

“We need to take a closer look at that, but also in the context of the overall market structure,” he said.

Still, political posturing among the lawmakers often took precedence over how the SEC should proceed on payment for order flow or other potential market reforms.

Democrats “are exploiting a high-profile situation to push a radical progressive agenda with these proposed ‘small d’ democratic solutions that will only further prevent regular Americans and investors from accessing our capital markets and denying them the opportunity to further save and invest,” said Representative Bill Huizenga, a Michigan Republican.

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