WASHINGTON -- At the Federal Reserve Board, an institution that thrives on consensus-building and collegiality, Wayne Angell is the voice of dissent.
The 61-year-old Kansas native can often be found in the minority on policy decisions ranging from bank mergers to expanded powers to interest rates, Frequently, he is the only naysayer. And that suits him fine.
"It just doesn't make any sense to have a seven-member board of governors if everyone is to say the same thing," Mr. Angell says.
Some dismiss the slight, wiry Mr. Angell as a gadfly, and question whether his dissents make any difference.
But others - including smalltown bankers who view him as a steady ally - credit the energetic, outspoken Fed governor with keeping mainstream American opinion in the forefront of policy-making.
They say Mr. Angell, with his populist leanings and midwestern twang, stands apart on a Fed board dominated by East Coast academics and intellectuals. "I think Wayne Angell may be the only person inside the governmental system who understands small banks," says Harold Stones, president of the Kansas Bankers Association.
Some Key Dissents
And Mr. Angell, the board's senior member, with six years of service, often stands apart from his colleagues:
* When other governors extolled the merits of bank consolidation, Mr. Angell raised doubts. In just the past six months, he voted against the mergers combining Chemical Banking Corp. with Manufacturers Hanover Corp. and Society Corp. with Ameritrust Corp.
* When other members of the Fed's economic policy-making committee were expressing satisfaction with progress in controlling inflation, Mr. Angell was sounding alarm bells. He dissented from easing moves last year.
For his part, Mr. Angell plays down his differences with the other governors, noting that more often than not, he is part of a consensus.
He says that when he does dissent, he isn't being combative - he's acting on deeply held principles.
One of his tenets: Banking is overregulated because it is undercapitalized. He has irritated banks by publicly calling for another increase in bank capital requirements - to the range of 10% to 12% of assets.
But he argues the hike would ultimately help the industry. Congress will continue to prescribe rigid rules until it is satisfied that banks are soundly capitalized, he says.
Another guiding principle: Market systems work only when competition is level and fair.
On this score, Mr. Angell chides the central banks for ceding too much ground to the Justice Department in ensuring adequate competition in the banking industry. That belief prompted his objections to several recent bank mergers.
"I want the Federal Reserve to be the decisive decision makers in regard to antimonopoly and pro-competitive positions," he says. "If the Fed does not do a significant job in this area, then we'll have the Justice Department do it for us."
Looking for Cracks
Mr. Angell also has a strong prove-it-to-me streak. As chairman the Fed's bank activities committee, which oversees the 12 regional reserve banks, he received reports from engineers concluding that the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis headquarters was structurally unsound.
He wasn't satisfied until he donned a hard hat and crept into the crawl spaces to take a look for himself.
Mr. Angell says it is not as if he relishes being a maverick. It just comes naturally. He points to his strict Baptist upbringing.
"I didn't grow up expecting to be making the same choices as everyone else. Not smoking cigarettes or drinking beer was an unusual phenomenon when I was growing up. It seemed O.K. not to be patterning my life after everyone else."
While no one questions Mr. Angell's intellect, some critics think his positions have little impact on the board. They say he dominates the discussion at Fed meetings, yet his views don't seem to sway the debate.
But he sees himself playing a crucial role.
Role Called Significant
Mr. Angell insists that differing perspectives need to be aired in the Fed's deliberations, even if they are ultimately voted down.
"It's important, at least from my perspective, for me to say, What point of view is not being represented in the debate?"
If he didn't ask the provocative questions, he maintains, the American public's native skepticism that the Fed is up to no good would be confirmed.
"Many people misunderstand the populist mood of American politics," he says. "I mean, there is a history of cynicism in regard to a central bank in the United States. That was a very difficult proposition for us."
Consequently, he thinks he owes it to the public to "stand alone if necessary, if that's what it takes for the point to be made."
Mr. Angel is one of the most conservative, hawkish members of the Fed's policy-setting body, the Federal Open Market Committee.
His primary goals: fighting inflation and ensuring stable currency values.
"If we let inflation slip back up to 40%, that means the price level doubles every 18 years," which would ravage the savings that working people have set aside to educate their children or to retire. "That to me is a very grave responsibility," he says.
Mr. Angell was appointed to the Fed in 1986 at the behest of Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., a close friend. His term ends in January 1994, and he plans to serve it out. He says it is premature to say whether he would accept a second term, since he hasn't been asked. But he doesn't rule it out. Mr. Angell racked up the most electic credentials of any member of the Fed without leaving Kansas.
He has been a banker, professor, farmer, and economic consultant - all at the same time.
Proud of his roots in America's heartland, Mr. Angell prominently displays at his Fed office a replica of the Angell One-Way Disc Plow, which revolutionized agriculture in the Great Plains states. It was invented in the 1920s by his grandfather, Charlie Angell.
Alone among the governors, he has held elective office, having served in the Kansas legislature form 1961 through 1967.
He also ran for the U.S. Senate in 1978, but loss in an eight-way Republican primary to Nancy Kassebaum, who went on the win the general election.
Even then, Mr. Angell befuddled onlookers. Rival condidate Daryl Schuster, a former banker, recalls Mr. Angell's efforts to elevate the tone of the debate.
"While the rest of us were trying to say catchy little things to the electorate, Wayne would go on and on about these elaborate economic theories he was espousing," says Mr. Schuster, now president of the central division of Emergent Business Capital Inc., Wichita, Kan.
But there were no hard feelings, and the two men remained friends. In 1986, shortly after Mr. Angell joined the Fed, they met in Washington and went with their wives to the Kennedy Center. And they reminisced.
"He kind of blamed me for splitting the business vote," Mr. Schuster says. "But he owes me. He's in his element at the Fed. He's got to be one of the world's happiest people."