Disruptor | Sheila Bair, former F.D.I.C. chair

What did the financial crisis look like from the eye of the storm? Former F.D.I.C. chair Sheila Bair offers her take.
Written by Claire Lambrecht, Contributor

Former Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation chair Sheila Bair hardly fits the stereotype of a Beltway insider. She never flies first class. She doesn't have an Ivy League degree. She wasn't born in the Northeast. Of course, none of that prevented a protester from associating her with the insularity of Washington.

"How much did that suit cost that you have on?" a demonstrator shouted at Bair outside of the Treasury Department in the fall of 2008. Bair's reply arrived with candor that's made her a favorite on financial television: "$139 at Macy's."

As chair of the F.D.I.C. during the mortgage crisis, that foothold in the real world came in handy. During a time when it might have been easy to be consumed by the concerns of investment banks or special interests, Bair spoke out for Main Street, and particularly struggling homeowners.

"Our job is to protect bank customers, not banks," Bair told Joe Nocera of the New York Times in 2011.

Though she's maintained productive working relationships with everyone from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Bair's candor ruffled more than a few feathers in Washington.

"I cannot believe the continuing audacity of this woman," John Reich, director of the Office of Thrift Supervision, famously wrote to a colleague in 2008 in the midst of the downgrade of Washington Mutual.

Bair admits she isn't shy about voicing her opinion. "When I see something that is right or when I see something that is wrong, I'm not bashful about voicing my view," she said in a February interview with SmartPlanet.

While perhaps uncommon for a member on the "TIME 100" list -- Bair's name was added in 2009 -- Bair's no-nonsense approach wouldn't be out of place in her hometown of Independence, Kan.

"Southeast Kansas is a pretty impoverished area," Bair said. "It's remote. There's not good transportation there. We've always had to be scrappy and stand up for ourselves."

The daughter of a local physician, Bair was never far from the realities of small-town life. "There was one lady he was always giving free health care to," Bair said of her father, "who would pay him in apple dumplings. He was that kind of doctor."

Bair attended public school, earned a bachelor's degree and a J.D. from the University of Kansas, and spent nine months as a teller at a local thrift before she was recruited to work in the office of Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) Bair served as research director, deputy counsel and counsel during her time as a member of Dole's staff, dealing with issues like immigration, gun control and constitutional law.

"Sheila is a former Kansan who worked for me in the U.S. Senate. She did an outstanding job then, and since, particularly at the FDIC. She is known in D.C. as one of the most respected women in government," Senator Dole told SmartPlanet.

Following her tenure with Dole, Bair became involved in the world of finance and regulation, acting as a commissioner and then chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission; the senior vice president of government relations of the New York Stock Exchange; and assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Financial Markets. In 2002, she left Washington for a teaching position at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. It wasn't until she got a call from the White House in 2006 that she returned to Washington.

Bair, who calls herself a market-oriented Republican, acknowledged that some of Dole's influence might have rubbed off on her. "I really admire him," Bair said of Dole. "I doubt if he would agree with this label, but he had a populist streak about him. He was for the little guy."

Standing up for financial regulation is never easy. Doing this during a bull market is even harder. "There were a lot of people being deluded into thinking that we were in the golden era of banking," Bair said of the years leading up to the financial crisis, "and didn't need regulators anymore."

In 2006, in the midst of people praising the "self-correcting market," Bair’s prescient effort to call for more prudent practices -- among them higher capital requirements -- drew the ire of bankers and newspapers. The Economist, for example, lofted the word "luddite" after Bair spoke out against excessive risk-taking. (Bair, however, was right. In 2012, European banks reluctantly raised capital requirements of Tier 1 banks to 9 percent of risk-weighted assets as they began repairing their decimated balance sheets.)

To the chagrin of the banking establishment, Bair continued to speak out in her role as F.D.I.C. chair.

“If I’m the exile among Wall Street analysts," said financial analyst Mike Mayo, author of Exile on Wall Street, "Sheila is the exile among regulators for her willingness to speak up against the status quo.”

During her time at the F.D.I.C., Bair spoke up for causes unpopular with the banking establishment. She was an early advocate of loan modification. She took steps to limit executive pay at banks insured by the federal government. She took issue, publicly, with the doctrine of "too big to fail."

"I hate the effort to glorify them," Bair said of the TARP bailouts. "They should never have happened. They never should have been necessary. There are things we could have done leading up to the crisis that could have prevented this from happening, which we didn't do. We shouldn't be bragging about it or saying they were great. We should be embarrassed by it."

Bair's recent book, Bull By the Horns, is equally candid. Penned in straightforward prose, Bair tells the story of the financial crisis from the eye of the storm. Intriguing as a season of The SopranosBull By the Hornsmakes other entries in the emerging genre of financial meltdown non-fiction feel, in short, like the salad course.

"There are some stupid banks, with stupid managers, who did some stupid things, that should have failed," Bair said of the conditions leading up to the banking crisis. "The shareholders, the bondholders, should have taken the losses. They should have lost their jobs. The market should have punished them. They didn't."

When she departed from the F.D.I.C. in 2011, Bair quoted a passage from Robert Frost’s poem "The Black Cottage." "Most of the change we think we see in life," he writes, "is due to truths being in and out of favor."

"I do think that it's indicative of people forgetting lessons of the past," she said, reflecting on Frost's poem. "And we did."

Photo: Photo by Thatcher Cook for PopTech/Flickr Creative Commons 

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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