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Nominee to lead CFTC pledges tough stance

President Obama with his choice to lead the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Timothy Massad (right). If confirmed, Massad would succeed Gary Gensler (left).

Chip Somodevilla/ Getty Images/File 2013

President Obama with his choice to lead the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Timothy Massad (right). If confirmed, Massad would succeed Gary Gensler (left).

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s choice to head an agency overseeing potentially risky financial market activities has promised to act aggressively against misconduct to ensure investors’ confidence.

The nominee as chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Timothy Massad, said at his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday that he will make enforcement a top priority if he is approved.

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Massad also said he would pursue final action on a revised rule aimed at clamping down on speculative trades that can drive up food and gas prices. The trading commission’s original rule was struck down in 2012 by a federal court.

The CFTC, which regulates futures and options markets as well as derivatives trading, oversees some of the riskiest corners of the financial world. Derivatives were blamed for fueling the financial crisis.

Some consumer advocates ask whether Massad, a Treasury Department official, will be as aggressive as his predecessor in holding big Wall Street banks to new, stricter standards.

If confirmed, as expected, he would succeed Gary Gensler, a Wall Street veteran who surprised many by becoming a tough regulator who pushed for stricter rules that large banks had lobbied against.

For three years, Massad, 57, oversaw the Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, the bank bailout program launched in response to the crisis. Under TARP, the government lent about $422 billion to bail out financial companies and automakers. The companies have repaid around $370 billion.

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Massad oversaw the implementation and enforcement of rules enacted to meet the agency’s mandate under the 2010 financial overhaul law.

‘‘We must aggressively pursue wrongdoers, whatever their position or size, and we must deter and prevent unlawful practices,’’ Massad testified at the hearing by the Senate Agriculture Committee. ‘‘Strong enforcement is vital to maintaining the public’s confidence in our markets. Therefore, I will make it a top priority to fulfill the CFTC’s responsibility to enforce the laws protecting these markets vigorously.’’

Before joining the government, Massad was a corporate lawyer for 24 years at a leading white-shoe law firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore.

He told the Senate panel that he had a lot of experience with derivatives as a lawyer.

After the financial crisis that struck in 2008, the CFTC brought the secretive $600 trillion market for derivatives under regulation for the first time. The goal was to prevent another crisis and resulting taxpayer bailout. Derivatives are complex investments that helped ignite and escalate the financial meltdown.

The value of derivatives is based on a commodity or security, such as oil or currencies. They are often used to protect businesses that produce or use the commodities, such as farmers or airlines, against price fluctuations. But they also are used by financial firms to make speculative bets.

Speaking about finalizing the anti-speculation rule, Massad said it is possible to find a balance: ensuring that companies that use derivatives to hedge against risks such as swings in commodity prices can continue to do so while also reducing excessive speculation.

Several senators, including Senator Debbie Stabenow, the Michigan Democrat who heads the committee, said it is important for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to ensure that companies such as airlines, oil companies, and farmers can hedge against unforeseeable risks with derivatives contracts. Many businesses engage in the practice.

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