The source of Sheila Bair’s power

June 16, 2009

Noam Scheiber asks how Sheila Bair seems to have managed not to hold on to her job (that can be explained by reference to the fact that she has powerful protectors in Chris Dodd and Barney Frank) but on top of that seems set to emerge the big winner from the coming regulatory overhaul — despite the fact that few senior administration officials seem to like her very much.

The answer, I think, is pretty simple: she who has the gold makes the rules. And when you follow the money, it invariably comes from the FDIC: she provided the guarantees necessary for the Citigroup and BofA bailouts, as well as the hundreds of billions of dollars in additional guarantees necessary (although, as we’ve seen, not sufficient) to get PPIP off the ground.

In a world where Congress will give exactly $0.00 for any further financial bailouts, the bottomless pockets of the FDIC are hugely valuable, and the FDIC chair is therefore incredibly important. What’s more, the FDIC can raise substantial funds through charging banks money for the insurance it provides. No other regulatory agency, bar the Federal Reserve itself, is an outright profit center in that way. (And guess what, it seems that the Fed itself is going to be an even bigger winner than the FDIC in all this.)

By Ockham’s razor, Bair is powerful ‘cos she’s rich. There’s no need to resort to explanations requiring her to have particular political prowess or economic foresight.


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