July 3, 2009

The New Yorker has a great profile of Sheila Bair, the populist Republican who's at the helm of the FDIC. (h/t Riverdaughter)

As you may already know, Bair is not well liked by the Wall St. crowd that's running the White House show. (Apparently she has this bizarre idea that her job is to look out for working folk. Crazy talk!) Well, she's very popular with regular people - the administration wouldn't get rid of her, it would make a stink. Instead, they've just neutered her:

These debates entered into the Administration’s discussions about building a new regulatory architecture. In late March, Geithner previewed for Congress some of the key concepts that Treasury wanted. The outline seemed to match the Bair camp’s ideas. [Ladies, has this ever happened to you?] A new authority with the power to take over large financial institutions that posed a systemic risk to the economy was modeled on the F.D.I.C., which, Geithner suggested in his testimony, would be an equal partner with Treasury in resolving such firms if they failed. He seemed to be saying that although he and Bair may have disagreed about how to handle the current crisis, there was much more consensus about how to deal with a future one.

But in the white paper detailing the new legislation, which the Administration released on June 17th, all the new authority to regulate firms that posed systemic risk was vested in the Federal Reserve. During Geithner’s testimony before the Senate, Jim Bunning, of Kentucky, echoing Bair, was incredulous. “It took fourteen years for the Fed to write one regulation on mortgages after we gave it the power to do that,” he said. “What makes you think that the Fed will do better this time around?” In addition, while the March plan said that the “Secretary and the FDIC would decide” how to resolve a failing firm, the new plan said such power should “be vested in Treasury.” Geithner could appoint the F.D.I.C. to do the technical work of cleaning up the firm, but between late March and mid-June — when Bair’s aggressive ideas about how to handle Citigroup leaked to the press — Bair’s agency had been downgraded from Treasury’s equal partner to a sidekick.

The senior Treasury official said that stripping authority from the F.D.I.C. had nothing to do with pressure from the banks. “Making a group decision on something that must be done really quickly is not easy,” he said. “At the end of the day, someone has to have the ability to make a call, and it’s better to have that authority vested in one person.”

When I asked Bair about the plan, she said, “I think it reflected a lot of input from a lot of different agencies, and the private sector, and insurance and consumer groups. It’s a very difficult task to try to balance all the different perspectives and come up with a package, and every compromise is going to have people who are unhappy about various parts of it. So I think it’s a starting point.” I said that she sounded disappointed. “I don’t know if ‘disappointed’ is the right word,” she replied.

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