WASHINGTON — While Lawrence Summers, the director of the National Economic Council, is the most visible potential successor to Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke, observers are increasingly looking west and finding a dark-horse candidate in Janet Yellen.
The president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, Yellen is a well-respected economist who has served as a governor of the central bank, head of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Clinton, and would be the first woman to chair the Fed. Though it is unclear if President Obama will choose to keep Bernanke, Yellen's name is gaining traction as a possible alternative.
"If President Obama elects to choose someone else, I think Janet Yellen would be a very good candidate," said Sung Won Sohn, a lecturer in business and economics at California State University Channel Islands. "She would definitely be less controversial than Larry Summers. It's no secret that he has some what you might call detractors, especially on Capitol Hill."
The San Francisco Fed declined to make Yellen available for an interview, but in conversations with numerous former colleagues and associates, many of whom requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, Yellen was invariably described as "articulate" and "not in your face."
In other words, the exact opposite of Summers, who has a history of alienating colleagues, most notably when he had to resign the presidency of Harvard University after making comments perceived as disparaging to women. Beyond Summers and Yellen, other potential candidates to lead the Fed include Alan Blinder, the former vice chairman of the central bank, who is well regarded in Democratic circles.
But Yellen is a unique figure inside the central bank. She is the only current president of a regional Fed bank who has also worked as a Fed governor in Washington (from 1994 through 1997). She left the central bank to become the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Clinton. Yellen has also been on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley since 1980, teaching economics.
"Just looking at her background, she's a top-notch economist," said Mary Pugh, the president and chief investment officer of Pugh Capital Management Inc. and a former board member of the Seattle branch of the San Francisco Fed. "I don't know anyone that has better credentials."
Bernanke's term as chairman is set to expire on Jan. 31, 2010, and whether Obama will seek to replace him remains unknown. Obama has praised the Fed chief's handling of the financial crisis but remains mum on whether he would reappoint him to another four-year term.
Some have viewed the Fed's recent hiring of Linda Robertson, a close associate to Summers during his Treasury days, to run the central bank's congressional relations, as a sign that Obama may replace Bernanke. But with initial signs of improvement in the economy, Bernanke's shot at reappointment is looking better, according to some Fed watchers.
"I would put the odds at somewhere close to 75%," said Chris Low, the chief economist at First Horizon National Corp.'s FTN Financial.
Still, he added that those odds are rather low compared with previous renominations.
"At this point, when [former Fed Chairman Alan] Greenspan was there, first under Clinton and then under Bush, we already knew he would be reappointed," Low said. The odds "should be higher, at least by the standards of the past 20 years."
As the San Francisco Fed president since 2004, Yellen has focused mostly on macroeconomics. But she addressed banking issues in a speech last month to the Idaho Bankers Association, where she urged financial institutions to conduct tougher stress tests and noted the pressures faced by community banks.
She also said that consumer protection is an "area where our current system failed."
"Given what we've learned about the pernicious effects of consumer loan defaults on the banking sector and the economy, it's critical that we strengthen our regulation and supervision in this area for both bank and nonbank financial players," she said.
Those who have worked with Yellen say she is more favorable to regulation than most other Fed officials, who traditionally are reluctant to interfere with the markets.
"The philosophical hurdles you'd have to pass are lower with her than others," a former Fed staffer said. "She was a standard Democrat. She said 'sometimes markets aren't always right. Sometimes you have to regulate.' "
The same staffer remembered at least two occasions when Yellen expressed a stronger desire to regulate than her counterparts. The first instance came in 2005 and 2006 when federal regulators issued guidance seeking to tighten the reins on banks' management of their commercial real estate exposure, a move the industry fought.
"Of the presidents, she was the most vocal in saying we should put this policy in place," the staffer said. "She clearly saw the need for some supervisory guidance. She said, 'Hasn't this been a big problem in the past?' "
She was also supportive during the same period as the banking agencies prepared guidance to restrict the use of nontraditional mortgages.
"Janet, to her credit, was very supportive, whereas some folks in the Fed were quite skeptical," the staffer said.
Richard Decker, the chairman of Belvedere Capital Partners, who was on the search committee that brought Yellen to the San Francisco Fed, said she pushed for the central bank to look beyond its traditional bailiwick.
"It seemed that Janet thought there should be more understanding of the things outside the Fed's purview, whether it be mortgages, derivatives or private equity," Decker said. "She didn't voice an opinion on it, but it seemed that she felt that the regulators should have a knowledge of those types of areas as they make monetary policy."
That stance often put her at odds with Greenspan, who led the Fed during her time as a governor, and often questioned the need for regulation.
Yellen "gravitated toward issues like [the Community Reinvestment Act] and consumer protection," said Eugene Ludwig, the chief executive of Promontory Financial Group, whose tenure as Comptroller of the Currency overlapped with Yellen's years as a governor. "She was also one who believed that markets work better with some degree of regulation. That skepticism put her in contrast to Alan Greenspan, who was the quintessential free marketeer."
Given that background, consumer advocates, who have long criticized the Fed for its regulatory laxity, expressed enthusiasm for Yellen's candidacy.
"She would use her bully pulpit more to incent positive corporate behavior," said Robert Gnaizda, of counsel for the Black Economic Council. "Greenspan was unwilling to do so."
Yellen's potential move to Washington comes as Congress has grown increasingly perplexed at the sometimes bizarre structure of the 12 regional Fed banks. Lawmakers, including House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, have questioned whether conflicts of interest arise at the regional Fed banks, which supervise financial institutions in their districts but include financial services leaders on their boards of directors.
The San Francisco Fed counts the chief executives of SVB Financial Group, Alta Alliance Bank and Chino Commercial Bank as members of its board.
Observers said Yellen would likely mount a strong defense against efforts to dismantle that system.
"If you look at the Federal Reserve, it's a gigantic bureaucracy," Sohn said. "Like any bureaucracy, they're interested in perpetuating the existing system. … I can't imagine she would do anything other than perpetuate the current system."
Others said Yellen's experience in various parts of the Fed arena would make her well positioned to articulate the strengths of the central bank's structure.
"She has a full understanding of the delineation as it is set forth in the Federal Reserve Act — both very important but nevertheless distinct — no doubt as a result of her unique experiences as both governor and Reserve Bank president," another former Fed official said.
The San Francisco Fed's district is the largest in the nation and is seen as the central bank's eye on Asian economies. The district also includes states such as Arizona and Nevada that have been hardest hit by the housing bust.
Though that background gives Yellen a unique perspective, some wonder whether she would be too far removed from Wall Street, which remains in tatters and will no doubt continue to preoccupy the Fed.
"She doesn't have close contact with Wall Street," Sohn said. "She doesn't have that background."
That could be a positive, some said, given the public anger directed at big banks.
"I don't know that it's an advantage to be well networked with any of the big Wall Street firms right now," Low said.
Several observers said they were confident that Yellen has the contacts and wherewithal to quickly shore up any perceived gap in her resume.
"I wouldn't say she's not connected," Decker said. "She just hasn't spent years on Wall Street. She can be connected quickly because she has the Rolodex, networks and contacts."