The Securities and Exchange Commission, the U.S. regulator set up following the stock-market crash of 1929 to protect investors, is sending a new message: Anything goes.
The SEC approved a New York Stock Exchange proposal last week that would allow ForceShares LLC to sell a pair of new exchange-traded funds that aim to give investors four times any daily gains -- or losses -- in the Standard & Poor's 500 Index. In a U.S. ETF industry that has mushroomed in recent years to about $2.8 trillion and some 2,000 investment vehicles, they would be the first quadruple-leveraged, or "4x," funds to win approval.
The new ruling sends a signal that the agency's leadership, as overhauled by President Donald Trump, may tolerate more risk in financial products than the prior administration would permit. Former SEC Chairwoman Mary Jo White, who stepped down earlier this year, had led a push to ban triple-leveraged, or "3x," funds -- on the grounds that they were too risky.
SEC officials didn't respond to requests via phone and e-mail for comment.
Trump has pledged to scrap many regulations on the financial industry, including those enacted in the wake of the 2008 crisis, asserting that the push will reduce costs for firms, investors and bank customers while freeing up credit and accelerating economic growth. The new president in April ordered a delay and review of a proposed Department of Labor rule that would require most financial advisors to act in the best interests of clients when administering retirement plans -- a requirement long resisted by brokerage firms because it would eat into profits.
Last year, the financial industry broadly condemned White's rule on triple-X ETFs, partly because it also included general restrictions on the use of derivatives by investment companies. Purveyors of triple-X funds, including ProShares and Direxion, argued that a ban on the vehicles would strip investors of a viable and useful trading instrument.
In last week's ruling, the SEC said that allowing the new 4x ETFs to list on an exchange would be "in the public interest and appropriate for the protection of investors." The order was issued May 2, the same day that Trump's candidate to head the agency, Jay Clayton, a longtime lawyer for the financial industry, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Prior to Clayton's arrival, the SEC had been deadlocked between the two commissioners who remained following White's departure: Republican Michael Piwowar, who had voted against White's proposed ban on 3x ETFs when it was unveiled in December 2015; and Democrat Kara Stein, who was a vocal supporter of the measure.
ForceShares, the sponsor of the new ETFs, is headed by Kris Wallace, who also serves as CEO of MarketRiders, a Web-based retirement-investing software program, and as senior vice president of SogoTrade, an online brokerage firm based in Chesterfield, Missouri, according to a fund prospectus.
Wallace didn't immediately respond to requests for comment left with MarketRiders and SogoTrade.
The ETFs will invest in S&P futures contracts on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange as well as in less-regulated derivatives known as "swaps" that are traded privately between Wall Street firms, according to the filing. The funds will be set up as commodity pools, a different designation from the "registered investment companies" that White's proposal would have applied to.
According to the prospectus, the sponsor has "no experience operating commodity pools."
In other words, caveat emptor.