Jonathan Fiechter represents the best in career civil servants. He has served ably for nearly 25 years at the Treasury, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Office of Thrift Supervision. He announced recently that he will be leaving his post as acting director of the OTS, a position he has held since 1992, to join the World Bank.
It's hard to imagine anyone who could have run OTS more effectively during what has been an extremely difficult period for the agency. When Mr. Fiechter took over the acting director's job, the thrift industry was on the ropes. The OTS' reputation appeared tarnished irreparably, and morale was abysmal.
Four years later, the thrift industry has recovered, and the OTS is considered an effective regulator. Morale is good despite massive layoffs and the near certainty the agency will be merged into the Comptroller's Office.
An important factor in Mr. Fiechter's decision to leave the OTS is his belief that it needs a leader with sufficient political clout to bring closure to some important unfinished business. For example, Mr. Fiechter believes that the OTS should be merged with the Comptroller's Office, that the charters of banks and thrifts should be unified, and that the Bank Insurance Fund and the Savings Association Insurance Fund should be combined.
The occasion of Mr. Fiechter's departure serves as a reminder that the BIF-SAIF issue is neither gone nor forgotten. Bankers, against all odds, have dodged the bullet several times in the past year.
This happy state of affairs for banks is not likely to continue indefinitely. Proponents of merging the funds misplayed their hand, but presumably they will learn from their mistakes.
They claimed, with little factual basis, that a crisis existed requiring "emergency" action. They believed, erroneously, they could cram a legislative quick-fix down the bankers' throats without addressing the bankers' concerns.
Their proposal would have required banks to contribute some $12 billion to the thrift fund. Banks, which had no hand in creating its problems, would have gotten nothing in return. Worse yet, the "fix" would not have dealt with any structural issues, including the unification of bank and thrift regulation.
Most bankers seem to recognize the reality that the BIF-SAIF issue will remain on the table until it's resolved. Understandably, they would like their financial contribution to be as small as possible.
Congressman Doug Bereuter, R-Neb., has proposed using some of the Federal Reserve's surplus to reduce the cost to the banks of any BIF-SAIF solution. His proposal would have little budget impact under the government's rather arcane accounting rules.
The only rationale for taxing banks to fix the thrift fund is that they participate in the federal deposit insurance system. One has to wonder, in view of this reasoning, why federally insured credit unions should not also be part of the solution.
An even stronger case exists for tapping members of the Securities Investor Protection Corp. for a contribution. Not only do its members participate in a federally sponsored guarantee program, many of them had a significant hand in creating the thrift crisis. They provided hundreds of billions of dollars in brokered deposits to failing thrifts and then sopped up the money by selling those thrifts junk bonds.
As important as the money issue is, bankers feel even more strongly about the structural issues. If they help bail out the thrift fund, they want to do it only once.
Bankers want the separate thrift industry to disappear. They believe thrifts and banks should operate under the same charter, have the same holding company rules, be supervised by the same regulators, and be taxed in the same manner. All these issues are in the public interest and should be done irrespective of the thrift fund problem.
My sense of the situation is that the banks are ready to negotiate in good faith on BIF-SAIF if and when the politicians see fit to come to the table.
Mr. Isaac, former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., is chairman and CEO of Secura Group, Washington.