With at least five appointed positions due to be vacant at bank regulatory agencies next year, the President -- whoever he is -- will have an opportunity to make a profound and lasting impact on the industry.
And banking leaders say it will make a big difference who does the appointing, regardless of the White House legislative agenda.
Democratic candidate Bill Clinton is likely to select regulators with philosophies very different from those that George Bush's banking appointees hold near and dear.
"There have been a lot of laws passed in the last three or four years that are vague and leave a lot of room for interpretation," said Edward L. Yingling, the chief lobbyist for the American Bankers Association.
"So it is really important that you have the right people in there to interpret them, and that they have the political strength to stand up for their interpretations," he added.
For example, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Improvement Act of1991 requires regulators to set guidelines for executive compensation. Bankers believe that Congress intended that regulators address only abusive practices. They are lobbying for that narrow view.
But a regulator who comes into office determined to bring executive compensation under control -- a position Gov. Clinton has voiced at times during the campaign -- could take a different view.
In an extreme case, Mr. Yingling said, the agencies could establish a system involving "peer group analysis and requirements that banks provide justifications" for the salaries paid each officer and directors.
Delay on an Appointment
Both the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency have vacancies at the top. Although President Bush has nominated California Banking Superintendent James Gilleran for the OCC post, Senate Democrats are unlikely to take up the appointment this year.
The FDIC chairmanship became vacant last month with the death of William L. Taylor.
Congress mandated in the 1989 thrift-bailout law that a majority of the seats on the FDIC board turn over on Feb. 28, 1993. This gives the new President an opportunity to set his own direction for the agency.
As a result, only one of the FDIC board seats -- held by Timothy Ryan, director of the Office of Thrift Supervision -- is not due to come open next year.
Ryan May Quit Post
However, the Republican Mr. Ryan is widely expected to leave office, so President Bush or Gov. Clinton could start with a clean slate.
Frank DeSantis, a bank stock analyst with Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Securities Corp., thinks the choice of regulators could be a life-or-death issue for the banking industry. He is uneasy with the prospect of a Clinton victory, even though the Arkansas governor has not indicated whom he might appoint.
Worrying Mr. DeSantis most is the prospect that the Democrat might appoint someone like Comptroller General Charles Bowsher. He heads the General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog agency that has been a tough critic of the banks and the FDIC's Bank Insurance Fund.
Until recently, it made little difference to industry leaders whether regulators were chosen by Republicans or Democrats.
"Historically, the banking positions were relatively free of partisan politics," said William Isaac, an FDIC chairman under President Reagan. "I can't say that one person or another made better or worse appointments."
Mr. Isaac entered office determined to change the agency, which he then regarded as "a sleeping giant with huge responsibilities." But the kinds of changes he had in mind -- reorganization of the examiner force and instituting risk-based premiums -- were not the kinds of issues likely to be influenced by the White House.
Today, they are. Kenneth Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America, argues that the administration is exerting a direct influence over the two agencies whose heads -- the Comptroller and OTS director -- nominally work for the Department of the Treasury. He sees it trying to shape the policies of the independent FDIC as well.
Although Congress has shown that it will not authorize interstate branching or repeal the Glass-Steagall Act just because the regulators urge such action, neither initiative would have a prayer if the agencies opposed it.
Support Is Significant
The same rationale applies to social legislation, such as efforts to add teeth to the Community Reinvestment Act. While opposition from regulators might not dissuade congressional Democrats from enacting new CRA measures, their support might enhance its odds for passage.
If Gov. Clinton wins in November, "I think we are going to have less ideological free-market regulators a la Greenspan," said Mr. Guenther.
For his small-bank-oriented organization, which has opposed efforts to permit interstate branching, bank securities underwriting, and commercial ownership of banks, a swing of the pendulum would come as good news. It would likely hurt larger institutions hungry for deregulation.
But Mr. Guenther worries that Democratic appointees would be all too willing to accept laws that would lead to an increase in the burden of regulation.
"In the Carter years, we got the first truth-in-savings rules, the Bert Lance bill, and the Community Reinvestment Act," he said. "The Fed got the Humphrey-Hawkins Act."
Pressure on Clinton Likely
Ironically, it was under the Bush administration that the term "regulatory burden" became the code for a common industry complaint. Even so, most bankers believe Republican appointees are more likely to be sympathetic on that issue.
The ABA's Mr. Yingling noted that Gov. Clinton came out of "the DLC wing of the party," the moderate, pro-business faction represented by the Democratic Leadership Council. But he warned that the Democrat, as President, would be under pressure from less-moderate elements.
"That happened to Carter," recalled Mr. Yingling. "Others in the party will try to pull him in a more liberal direction, and we're going to have to work hard to make sure the right people are appointed."