Anything but a caretaker, acting Comptroller of the Currency Julie L. Williams is as driven and outspoken as any of her predecessors.
In her six months as the agency's interim leader, Ms. Williams has made the evils of lax underwriting standards her signature issue.
"It really would have been wrong to keep a low profile, to just sit and keep the seat warm," Ms. Williams said in an interview this week. "It would have been wrong for the agency, it would have been wrong for national banks, it would have been wrong for consumers."
Since April 5 when Eugene A. Ludwig finished his five-year term as comptroller, Ms. Williams has also tackled consumer privacy, the impact of big bank mergers, internal controls at banking companies, and lending discrimination.
"I would not describe Julie Williams as a caretaker," said David W. Roderer, a banking lawyer with Goodwin, Procter & Hoar here. "She has her own agenda and she has pursued it."
How much longer she'll have the bully pulpit is a big question.
President Clinton nominated Treasury Under Secretary John D. Hawke Jr. in July to succeed Mr. Ludwig, but Congress adjourned without confirming him. As early as next week Mr. Hawke could be placed in the job through a recess appointment. But the administration also might leave Ms. Williams in control and renominate Mr. Hawke when Congress returns next year.
Once Mr. Hawke becomes comptroller, Ms. Williams said, she would like to return to her job as the agency's chief counsel, a post she has held since May 1994.
As vocal as Ms. Williams has been on important issues such as credit standards and privacy, she has been silent on others.
For one thing, Ms. Williams has issued no major new policies. She has also refused to rule on a controversial application to create a bank subsidiary authorized to do real estate development. The application, filed by NationsBank, which is now BankAmerica, has lingered without a decision since March 1997.
Ms. Williams has also ignored a request that the OCC preempt a state law in Rhode Island that restricts who at a bank may sell insurance.
"It's not a question of shying away from controversy," she insisted. However, Ms. Williams refused to explain why she has not acted beyond saying the real estate development application is "not something I feel comfortable with us acting on."
While she has sidestepped these specific issues, Ms. Williams has played a major role in raising the industry's awareness of credit risk.
"When the comptroller of the currency, acting or not, starts talking publicly about concerns that her examiners are seeing ... the industry pays attention to that," said Lee B. Murphey, executive vice president and chief credit officer, First Liberty Bank in Macon, Ga.
Second to underwriting standards, Ms. Williams has hammered on banks to better protect the privacy of their customers-or risk more government regulation.
Banks must be careful about what information they collect from consumers and then share with their affiliated companies, Ms. Williams said. Some worry she is moving too fast.
"Let's make sure there is uniformity in privacy regulations," said Joe Belew, president of the Consumer Bankers Association. "I think it would be horrible, it could be very dangerous, if bankers were held to a higher standard than other financial services providers."
Threats to privacy are a rising concern in the era of megamergers, reflecting consumers' broader worry that big institutions will be indifferent to their individual needs. "Others perceive that large banks charge higher fees for certain services than smaller, locally based institutions," Ms. Williams said in an April speech before Women in Housing and Finance.
Another impact of mergers is potential slippage in internal controls, Ms. Williams has said.
"We will be drilling down into the bank's operations and doing more testing and verifying of actual transactions," she promised in June.
Banks may not be devoting enough resources to their auditing departments and to upgrading their accounting, information, and communications systems, she said.
Ms. Williams has also spoken out on social issues. She told a Baltimore gathering of the National Black Chamber of Commerce in July that "lending discrimination undoubtedly still exists, and where it does, I promise you that we will do whatever we can to root it out."
She added that the OCC launched a project called Banking on Minority Business, which attempts to close a communication gap between bankers and minority businesspeople.
Ms. Williams always seems to find an audience, large or small.
On Wednesday she gave a speech about the availability of credit to small businesses to the McLean (Va.) Chamber of Commerce. Not exactly the venue one might expect for a national regulator.
But Ms. Williams said she was glad to do it, "partly because I count a number of personal friends in the audience, but also because I am a big believer in the importance of free and open communications between government, the entities we regulate, and the customers they serve."