Bair gives political advice to Geithner

By Felix Salmon
August 4, 2009
Rolfe Winkler has the details of the way in which both Sheila Bair and John Dugan are continuing to criticize Treasury's regulatory-reform plan in Senate testimony today, even in the wake of Geithner's now-famous tantrum. But what's weird is the way that Bair, in particular, is getting explicitly political:

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Rolfe Winkler has the details of the way in which both Sheila Bair and John Dugan are continuing to criticize Treasury’s regulatory-reform plan in Senate testimony today, even in the wake of Geithner’s now-famous tantrum. But what’s weird is the way that Bair, in particular, is getting explicitly political:

In light of these significant [regulatory] failings, it is difficult to see why so much effort should be expended to create a single regulator when political capital could be better spent on more important and fundamental issues which brought about the current crisis and the economic harm it has done.

The fact is that judgments as to where political capital can be best spent are political judgments, made in the White House. It looks a little odd for Sheila Bair to essentially be giving advice to Rahm Emanuel on such matters, and even odder for her to be using the vehicle of Congressional testimony to do so. If Geithner’s blow-up was a result of his seeing an advance copy of Bair’s testimony, you can see where he was coming from: Bair is treading well outside her own turf here.

Bair is right that the distinction between federally-chartered and state-chartered banks was not a proximate cause of the financial crisis — but that’s no reason to abolish a distinction which does little more than allow powerful banks to pick whichever regulator they think will smile most benignly on them. It’s a bit like high-frequency trading: just because it didn’t cause a lot of harm during the crisis doesn’t mean it won’t be responsible for great harm at some point in the future. We don’t know, and it’s generally best to cut off such possibilities before they turn into extremely unpleasant reality.


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I know Rolfe made the error first, but the FDIC Chief’s last name is Blair, not Bair.

Posted by Keith | Report as abusive

I’m not sure you’re right in this instance. First of all, policy is always political. That’s its nature. We value certain choices and trade-offs more, or less, based on our priorities and judgments as well as economic theory and predictions.

Secondly, political capital is a finite resource, and the Obama Administration’s political capital is proving to be weak and dwindling in this arena especially, owing to past and current missteps.

Therefore her comments are clearly within her area of expertise and purview, albeit essentially pragmatic in orientation. She judges X as the fundamental economic policy problems of the current not-close-to-resolved crisis, and sees the Obama Administration’s efforts overwhelmingly (yet ineffectually) focused on Y.

Why on earth should she not state her conclusions when asked by the Legislative branch?

Posted by beachrat | Report as abusive

The position held by Sheila Bair as Chair of the FDIC\’s 5-member Board of Directors is technically a political appointment and therefore categorized as a political position by the US Office of Personnel Management in Washington, D.C. Independent agency. The Board members are all appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, with no more than three being from the same political party. Certainly anyone in these roles is considered to be able as well as qualified to speak to political policy and issues in the United States.

Posted by Frank | Report as abusive

Of course all the questions are focused on the selection of regulator — because that’s a non-issue. The bigger question is.. what’s the stick that will force both the regulator and the regulated companies to follow the rules that B. Frank and co. actually create?

I have ZERO faith that any financial regulator in this country is willing to do their actual job.

But hey, in Alabama the National Guard will be needed due to cuts in the police budget.. green shoots, right? n_re_us/us_alabama_county_crisis_1

Posted by Unsympathetic | Report as abusive

Two points:

1. Re “Keith”‘s comment on this post:

(a) Mr. Salmon and Mr. Winkler are correct. The FDIC chief’s family name is Bair, not Blair.
See: ard.html

(b) Curious fact – everybody figured out the spelling of the MALE names real quick – Geithner, Bernanke, etc.
For possible explanations, see (inter alia): “Is FDIC’s Sheila Bair Getting Sexist Treatment?”  /is-fdics-sheila-bair-gett_n_148761.htm l. If you are in doubt on the sexism point, try googling “Elizabeth Warren” and e.g. “Ben Bernanke” or “Larry Summers” and compare the results.

2. I typically agree with Mr. Salmon. This is one of the exceptions. I disagree with his judgment on the inappropriateness of Madame Bair incorporating the “limited political capital” point in her arguments. “Limited political capital” is the justification that the Obama Administration has put up every time it has been accused of falling short on carrying out its campaign change promises (whether the issue is health reform, the policy on gays in the military, or something to do with the economy). So Sheila Bair is only fighting fire with fire. I give her 10/10 for employing political acuity in the service of ensuring a public policy debate.

Posted by Catherine | Report as abusive

Bair is preaching to the choir on this one, which is why, perhaps, she is being so cheeky toward the Administration.

There are three entities which would generally like to preserve the current fragmented, corrupt, and incompetent regulatory apparatus: the industry, because like most business people they prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t; the regulators, because they enjoy their power and paychecks; and Congress, because committee members derive a substantial amount of power and significant campaign contributions from the finance industry by virtue of their overlapping oversight of all the regulators.

Bair is talking about preserving existing political arrangements, not about correcting or improving the regulation of the American finance industry.

Therefore, why she may be being wise and politically expedient, nevertheless she earns no respect from me for such testimony.

This would be true were she a man, a woman, or a hermaphrodite.

I assume, based on the comments here, that you’all think Bair is useless and bad. Extrapolating, I also assume that Bernanke, Summers and Geithner are even more useless and bad. I have not seen any comments yet on Elizabeth Warren but I suspect I should ssume that she is also either useless and bad or not even a contender.

WTF? Have any of you got nominees who are not useless and bad or irrelevant?

If not, let’s just slit our throats.

If so, details please.

Posted by Catherine | Report as abusive

As you say, “WTF”???
It’s clear you haven’t even read the comments (or if
so, only with a predisposition to misinterpret everything
for your agenda). Obviously, you aren’t “Catherine” though perhaps I’m alone in failing to appreciate the irony in your assumed name… Any chance you could please, kindly, repair back to your cellar and leave civilized society alone.

Posted by axg | Report as abusive

For a number of years I have been trying to expose what has been going on at OTS. I have tried to FOIA documents for failed institutions, but they have been denied or redacted. Redacted so much that even the words “Report of examination” have been redacted!

Posted by Tricia Cosgrove | Report as abusive

From the outset of this crisis Bair has moved to expand the reach of her fief at the FDIC, to drive policy when she was able (such as launching one of the first blanket foreclosure moratoriums when the FDIC first took over IndyMac), and demonstrated a consistent lack of understnding of economics.

I doubt that her position here is any more than a an extension of her continued power-grabbing. A sigularly powerful bank regulator will, sooner or later, butt heads with the FDIC. She’s just protecting her turf.

Posted by PM | Report as abusive