Political Minutes: Former FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair on Financial Reform


A year out of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), Sheila Bair, the Chairman of the FDIC from 2006-2011, is busy on the public speaking circuit working at her self-professed goal of cutting through the half-truths and myths of financial reform.

During “A Conversation with the Honorable Sheila Bair” held in the rotunda of Low and sponsored by the Program for Economics Research, the former chairman delivered an explanatory account of the subprime mortgage crisis.

Columbia professor Richard Clarida delivered the introduction of Bair, noting that he “worked with her in the trenches” ten years ago when Bair served as the as Assistant Secretary for Financial Institutions at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Throughout the night, Clarida regularly stressed Bair’s modesty when noting that she had been named one of Time magazine’s top 100 most influential people, received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, and was a character in the HBO film Too Big To Fail.

Amid the discussion of credit default swaps, capital requirements, and mortgage restructuring, Bair stressed the importance of trust – not only that financial institutions need to gain trust from the public, but also that the public needs to trust regulators.

“Only two institutions have a lower level of public trust than banks,” said Bair. “Can you guess? One is HMOs and the other is Congress."

In all three cases, Bair noted that banks and legislators need to stop practices that undermine public trust and to start allowing regulators to use the tools that have been provided to them to reform the financial industry. Summing up, Bair stated, “At the end of the day, regulators need political and public support. ”

Bair acknowledged that a constant challenge to all, even the FDIC, is managing the message that reaches the public.

Recounting a flight into San Diego, Bair remembers a passenger exclaiming, “Holy cow! You really must be running out of money — they have you flying in coach.”

“The public is angry and I don’t blame them," she said, adding that the lead up to 2008 was a greedy moneymaking machine.

While many in the electorate may not understand the specifics of Dodd-Frank, Bair still believes that the public can and should make financial reform an issue in the election.

Finding fault with Romney’s debate message to repeal Dodd-Frank while not offering any specifics on what program would be established instead, Bair also criticized the Obama economics team for granting bailouts for far too long instead of implementing accountability standards for banks.

“I always joke that I am writing in Jon Hunstman,” said Bair when explaining that Huntsman has been, in her opinion, the only 2012 contender who has made an issue of bank regulation on the campaign trail. While candidates continue to dodge the issue, Bair stressed it is up to the public to make politicians address financial reform.

For those who do not know the specifics of mortgage restructuring and liquidation authority, luckily enough, Bair has recently published a book entitled Bull by the Horns.