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Lawmakers to grill SEC Chair Gensler on crypto during Senate hearing

Gary Gensler, chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), speaks during a Senate Banking Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, July 30, 2013.

Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Lawmakers, frustrated by a lack of obvious progress, will grill Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Gary Gensler over the regulator’s plans to regulate cryptocurrency markets.

Gensler, scheduled to appear before the Senate Banking Committee at 10 a.m. ET on Tuesday, is expected to field several questions on bitcoin, stablecoins and other digital assets from senators on both sides of the political aisle.

Ahead of the hearing, Wall Street’s top regulator said swaths of the crypto market are operating outside of the SEC’s regulatory frameworks that shield investors and customers from illicit activity.

“We just don’t have enough investor protection in crypto finance, issuance, trading, or lending,” Gensler said in prepared remarks. “Frankly, at this time, it’s more like the Wild West or the old world of ‘buyer beware’ that existed before the securities laws were enacted. This asset class is rife with fraud, scams, and abuse in certain applications.”

He added the SEC is eager to bulk up existing authorities and, with congressional approval, expand its jurisdiction to help close the gaps in policing the crypto market.

In his remarks, Gensler said the SEC wants lawmakers’ help to oversee the offer and sales of crypto tokens, crypto trading and lending platforms, stablecoins, investment vehicles providing exposure to digital assets or crypto derivatives, as well as custody of virtual assets.

It’s unclear whether that will be enough to pacify Republicans on the committee, who for months have demanded the SEC step up its efforts to sanction crypto markets and illustrate the benefits they offer investors.

Ranking Member Pat Toomey, R-Pa., is set to grill Gensler on why it’s taken so long to support these markets and to explain why the SEC seems averse to approving various crypto assets, according to a Republican aide.

The aide spoke to CNBC on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about party leadership’s private thoughts before public testimony.

Crypto regulation is relatively new for the SEC. Gensler has repeatedly said Congress needs pass a law to magnify the commission’s power for it to be effective at managing a $2 trillion market for bitcoin and other digital currencies.

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“What we want to do is provide some of the basic protections against fraud and manipulation. The trading platforms they’re on are not currently under a regulatory regime that protects them like they’re trading on the New York Stock Exchange,” Gensler told CNBC in August.

At the time, Gensler said he hopes Congress will be able to grant the SEC enough power to force trading platforms to officially register, but that some have resisted his initial requests.

In a move that frustrated crypto advocates, the SEC last week again delayed its ruling on whether to approve an application by the Chicago Board of Exchange to list and trade shares of the VanEck’s Bitcoin Trust.

The regulator has for months punted on the application, seen as a bellwether for a raft of similar funds. This angered those who’d hoped Gensler’s arrival at the helm of the SEC would mean quicker decisions on digital assets.

Though Republicans have tended to want faster decisions from Gensler to take advantage of the speed and efficiency of digital assets, Democrats have stressed the need for accountability and oversight in what Gensler describes as the digital “Wild West.”

Democrats like Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, the committee’s chairman, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have acknowledged that digital assets may have compelling use applications, but they have also stressed the need for caution.

Tuesday’s hearing will also mark the committee’s first hearing with Gensler since the SEC approved new Nasdaq rules to require companies that list on its exchanges to meet certain race and gender targets.

Nasdaq’s stipulations will ensure company boards meet gender and racial diversity requirements or force firms to explain in writing why they have failed to do so. The move irked the committee’s Republicans, who say the explicit focus on race and gender will could come at a steep cost.

Democrats took the opposite view.

“Corporate America must do more to increase diversity in the boardroom,” Chairman Brown said in August following the SEC’s decision. “I applaud the SEC and Nasdaq for recognizing the benefits to companies and shareholders of a more inclusive and equitable economy.”

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