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SEC chair Gensler worried ‘people will be hurt’ without crypto and SPAC regulations

Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Gary Gensler shed light on an array of hot-button topics Monday—expressing his belief that “people will be hurt” if cryptocurrency markets are allowed operate beyond the remit of regulators, and voicing concerns that special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) leave public market investors vulnerable.

During an interview with former federal prosecutor Preet Bharara at Vox Media’s Code Conference in Beverly Hills, Calif., Gensler described himself as “technology-neutral” when it comes to the evolutions currently reshaping financial markets and securities. But he added that he was not neutral as far as ensuring investors “are getting a full and fair disclosure” when investing in novel products like cryptocurrencies and SPACs.

Bharara asked Gensler about hedge funder Ray Dalio’s recent comments suggesting that regulators “will kill” Bitcoin if it gains significant mainstream success, and whether they could pose an “existential threat” to the sector, as some crypto proponents fear. But Gensler demurred by comparing the SEC’s role to that of traffic laws and sports referees—and insisting that the onus falls on whether crypto players “want to comply with anti-money laundering laws, tax compliance, and the like,” while regulators “have a responsibility to the American public.”

Gensler added that the prolific growth of the cryptocurrency market recently makes regulatory action even more pertinent, with the sector now hovering around $2 trillion in total market capitalization. “This is not going to end well if it stays outside of the regulatory space,” he noted. “To think that a field that’s grown 10-fold in the last 18 months—not just in terms of asset value, but in the underlying lending and much more—that it’s going to stay outside of these public policy frameworks and succeed... We’ll end up with a problem and a lot of people will be hurt."

On the matter of SPACs, which function like publicly traded shell companies that can acquire other companies, in effect taking them public, Gensler expressed concern about the loose definitions around what they can do with investors’ money. He noted how the structure incentivizes SPACs to find a merger deal “even if it’s not a particularly great merger”—potentially at the expense of the investors they are raising money from.

Gensler also reiterated his previous skepticism about brokerages receiving payment for order flow, which sees them receive compensation for directing their trades to specific market makers and which has proven popular among newer fintech trading apps like Robinhood. “There can be inherent conflicts of interest,” he said of the practice, adding that the U.S.’s “basic infrastructure rules” governing equity markets are in need of an update given the tech-driven evolution of those markets.

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