Wall Street watchdog shortens time-frame for stock trades

WASHINGTON: Wall Street’’s top regulator on Wednesday (Feb 15) adopted rules tightening the time-frame for stock trades in an effort to tamp down the kind of risk seen in 2021’s GameStop fiasco, when retail investors suffered heavy losses.

The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) also proposed changing rules protecting client assets held by investment managers, a move that could hinder cryptocurrency platforms from serving a key marketplace role.

In a 3-2 vote, the SEC opted to shorten the time between when a securities order is placed and when a trade concludes – something officials say can lessen the kind of “systemic risk” spotlighted in early 2021 when the share price of the consumer electronics retailer GameStop Corp plummeted amid intense market volatility.

Trade groups have broadly welcomed the commission’s proposal to cut the so-called settlement cycle to a single business day from two, six years after an earlier SEC rule shortened the period from three days.

But some have complained the commission isn’t leaving enough time for them to adjust before the rule takes effect in May 2024. Republican Commissioners Hester Peirce and Mark Uyeda voted against the rule for this reason.

The longer a trade remains unsettled, the more likely a buyer or seller may default – by refusing to pay or to hand over shares sold.

Clearing houses can require trading platforms to offset such risks with margin deposits, costs that can skyrocket during volatility and market stress. High margin deposits caused trading platforms such as Robinhood Markets to block purchases of GameStop’s shares in early 2021. The price then plummeted.

A shorter settlement cycle should see fewer defaults, helping cut margin costs and reducing the chances of such a scenario recurring, according to the SEC.

In a 4-1 vote, the commission proposed new requirements for investment advisers, who can only maintain custody of client funds or securities if they meet requirements to protect the assets.

The SEC’s draft proposal would expand these requirements to any client assets, including real estate, loan participations and digital assets not currently deemed funds or securities.

Advisers need to hold investors’ assets with a firm deemed to be a “qualified custodian”. SEC enforcement staff have been probing registered investment advisors over whether they are meeting those existing rules when it comes to clients’ digital assets, Reuters has previously reported.

Among other things, Wednesday’s proposal would require crypto firms to guarantee in writing that client assets held on behalf of hedge funds and others will be protected against loss and bankruptcy.

“Make no mistake. Based upon how crypto platforms generally operate, investment advisers cannot rely on them as qualified custodians,” SEC chair Gary Gensler said in a statement about the proposal.

By explicitly saying the legally compliant custody of digital assets was unlikely, the proposal could hinder such investments, Republican members of the commission said.

“How could an adviser seeking to comply with this rule possibly invest client funds in crypto assets after reading this release?” Commissioner Mark Uyeda said in prepared remarks.

However, Gensler told reporters on Wednesday the solution was simply for trading platforms to observe rules that have been in effect since 2009.

“I continue to encourage the platforms to come in and properly come into compliance,” he said, noting that investors lost improperly safeguarded assets in recent crypto bankruptcies such as that of FTX, which collapsed in November.

However Miller Whitehouse-Levine, policy director at DeFi Education Fund, described Gensler’s position as an attempt to cut off digital assets from the traditional financial system.

“This should end any doubt that ‘come in and register’ is a fig leaf for the SEC usurping Congress to block crypto in the US,” he said. – Reuters

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