WASHINGTON - Walter V. Shipley had just wrapped up a distinguished banking career, including 16 years as chairman and chief executive of Chase Manhattan Corp. and its predecessors.
"My commitment to myself and my wife was that for a year I wasn't going to take on anything," he recalled in an interview Thursday.
Then the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board called.
Alan Greenspan had concluded that banks are so big and complex that supervisors need help. Market discipline could be brought to bear on these behemoths if more data about risk taking and internal operations were disclosed.
But what should banks be telling the public? Proposals abounded, suggesting banks disclose everything from customer retention figures to supervisory ratings. But writing new disclosure rules would be contentious, taking months, maybe years. So the Fed took an alternate path, appointing a panel of bankers to canvass current practice and recommend improvements.
Enter Mr. Shipley.
Though a long-standing fan of public disclosure, he didn't think banks alone should be nudged into disclosing more data - especially in light of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which is expected to spur more combinations of banks, brokers, and insurers.
Mr. Shipley, 64, accepted Mr. Greenspan's invitation to chair the group but suggested that securities firms and international lenders be included.
"What I wanted to avoid was getting a group of bankers regulated by the Fed having to come up with some recommendations on disclosure for themselves which might put them at a competitive disadvantage with rivals."
On April 27, the Fed, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency announced a Working Group on Public Disclosure, naming 12 chief financial officers from six big banks, three leading securities firms, and three large foreign banks to the panel.
At its first meeting late last month, the executives divided up the work, forming four smaller groups to consider proper disclosures for market and credit risk, capital, capital allocation, and risk management. Its second meeting is set for July.
Mr. Shipley is more interested in producing pragmatic suggestions than the perfect answer. "Our report is going to be relatively short and implementable," he said. "My perception is the regulators are of the same view. Let's move this thing along. Let's not get hung up on huge controversies and get a hung jury, drag the thing out, and have a minority report."
The recommendations will not be binding on banks or brokers, but if no progress is made, financial companies could face added regulation down the road. "It's in our interest to move the ball," Mr. Shipley said. "We're not trying to get to the end zone, but to keep the ball moving."
Do not expect the group to recommend massive new disclosures.
Mr. Shipley repeatedly stressed in the hour-long interview that every new disclosure will be put through a "usefulness test." The benefit to investors and analysts will be weighed against the cost to the institution, particularly in terms of its competitive advantages.
"You want to make sure you're not disclosing just for the sake of disclosure," he said. "That there is true value in it.
"Those are the subtler issues I think the committee has to deal with," he added. "The value of the disclosure, the risk of the disclosure, the trade-offs our judgment on how much, how frequent, how detailed."
During the interview, Mr. Shipley carefully tried to avoid tipping his hand - but a few opinions slipped out.
"I think there is room on the credit risk side to be a little bit more forthcoming," he said. "Credit risk relative to capital or earnings is vastly smaller than it was back in the '80s. On the other hand, there isn't a whole lot of information broken down on credit risk."
While he declined to discuss specifics, some experts have suggested that banks disclose the geographic distribution of their loans, their 10 largest credits, and even the internal ratings assigned to loans and the shifts among those categories. Mr. Shipley was slightly more forthcoming on the disclosures he does not favor.
"Should we disclose daily profits daily in trading accounts? The answer is no. Would some analyst like that? Yes. But is it useful? I don't think so. And is it dangerous? You bet.
"A bad day at a large bank could produce a fairly significant loss and the market would react quickly and very negatively."
Though many have asked for it, the group is also unlikely to recommend that banks disclose supervisory ratings. "The Fed is very sensitive on things like Camels rating disclosures," he said.
Also off the list: disclosing actual losses versus those predicted by internal risk models.
Mr. Shipley said that sort of information is obvious. "No one plans to have a bad quarter, so you know their performance was below what they expected," he said.
But he did say he favors disclosures that provide a "better understanding of the stress-testing models." Asked whether he meant banks should disclose the assumptions they plug into models designed to predict changes in their portfolios caused by such things as stock market swings, Mr. Shipley said, "I'm not going to prejudge specifics."
Though enthusiastic to help Mr. Greenspan accomplish his goal of providing investors more information, Mr. Shipley is clearly eager to get back to his interrupted retirement.
"We're going to do this quick," he said. "I would love to get something done by the end of this year."