FAQ: What's Behind Roundtable's Surprising CEO Pick

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WASHINGTON — The selection of Tim Pawlenty as the next chief executive of the Financial Services Roundtable came as a shock to both those inside and outside the beltway for at least two reasons.

For one, Pawlenty, the co-chairman of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, was seen as a shoo-in for a cabinet spot should the Massachusetts Republican win the White House in November. In announcing he was taking the job Thursday, Pawlenty ruled out any future in a Romney administration.

The other surprise was just as important: Why did the Roundtable choose a leader that — while politically well-connected — had no financial services background?

We offer the following frequently asked questions to help sort out the issues:

Why is this such a big deal?

While it is not uncommon for politicians to join trade groups (for a list of them, check out this slideshow here, Pawlenty is easily the most high profile to do so. Unlike many others, Pawlenty's star in the Republican party is still on the rise—and he had a chance to play a prominent government role if Romney won the November election. The fact that Pawlenty, a former governor of Minnesota, even wants to take the job is surprising.

So why did he do it?

Money. We don't know how much the Roundtable will pay Pawlenty, but it's certain to be substantial. To give you some idea, the low end of the projected pay range is $1 million, and the high end is anybody's guess. For the Roundtable to lure Pawlenty away six weeks prior to an election—one that he is still involved in—there must have been substantial compensation involved.

What does the Roundtable get out of all this?

Pawlenty is smart, well-spoken and has experience with the media. As we've already made clear, he also has mega-connections to Republicans. At 51 years old, he's likely to be around for a while, helping him take center stage in future debates over financial services policy matters. Most critically, the Pawlenty pick — in one fell swoop — raises the profile of the Roundtable dramatically.

Contrary to some early press reports, the Roundtable job isn't "Wall Street's top lobbyist." Like other financial services trade groups during the Dodd-Frank debate, the Roundtable struggled to make its voice heard.

But Pawlenty seems likely to boost the Roundtable's prominence.

"He's articulate, very smart and the kind of person that could make a splash," said Camden Fine, president of the Independent Community Bankers of America. "I think they wanted that cachet."

Ed Yingling, the former head of the American Bankers Association, agreed.

"It's a high profile pick of a guy that is very highly regarded around the country," he said. "It's an effort by the financial services industry to step up the game."

But isn't picking a Republican risky, especially now?

Yes. If Romney were to win, the Pawlenty choice would be politically advantageous for the Roundtable. If President Obama wins re-election, however, the situation is very different. At the very least, Pawlenty faces a Democratic White House, and probably a Democratic Senate as well.

While Steve Bartlett, the outgoing head of the Roundtable, is also a Republican (a former congressman from Texas), he had a reputation for working across the aisle.

"Bartlett was viewed as an across-the-aisle kind of guy and came out of a less partisan era," said a banking lawyer that spoke on condition of anonymity. "But Pawlenty would appear to be casting your lot entirely with one side of the aisle. Pawlenty's challenge as a trade association head will be to work on a bipartisan basis."

It's worth noting, however, that Pawlenty would have credibility with House Republicans, who are almost certain to maintain control of that chamber.

Many also said Pawlenty would tone down any partisan connections.

"This is a more contentious period, there is no doubt it, than historically. But the governor has a track record of dealing with both parties throughout his career," said Gene Ludwig, a former comptroller of the currency and now chief executive of Promontory Financial Group.

Speaking at the Roundtable on Thursday, Pawlenty said that was one reason why quitting Romney's campaign was necessary in order to accept the trade group job.

"But in my new role as the head of the Roundtable, I need to take a bipartisan responsibility seriously, so as it relates to the national co-chair title, I've relinquished and resigned that title with the Romney campaign," Pawlenty said.

Are there other downsides?

The most obvious other drawback to the choice is Pawlenty's lack of financial services experience. In this way, he is much like the ABA's choice as CEO two years ago, Frank Keating, the former governor of Oklahoma, who also came in with no banking experience.

Keating, however, had at least run a trade group before, the American Council of Life Insurers. Pawlenty has no equivalent position in his past.

Indeed, many industry sources privately worried about the impact of choosing someone with no banking or insurance background, the two areas the Roundtable is most focused on.

In some ways, however, this choice likely reflects the evolving reality of trade associations, particularly those representing the biggest banks. The financial crisis upended the world not just for banks, but for those that represent them in Washington. Faced with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle that view the entire financial services lobby skeptically, trade groups are turning to political heavyweights in the hope that they can learn the policy later.

"The model had to change in recent years," Yingling said. "You need an outside spokesman who is high profile, who can deal with the media and press conferences -- and surround them with [policy] wonks."

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Comments (1)
Let's hope Gov. Pawlenty can effectively work with both parties; something that is sorely needed in Washington, D.C. I relish the days when good banking policy was not partisan.
Posted by Susan Gordy | Wednesday, September 26 2012 at 8:36PM ET
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