WASHINGTON - Federal Reserve Board Vice Chairman Alan Blinder doesn't want to be perceived as beholden to either consumer or banking interests.
Rather, the former Princeton University economist said, he is an independent who believes in the "old-fashioned" notion of the public good.
"I think (bankers) should know I have no desire to overregulate banks, to hoist paperwork on them," Mr. Blinder said. "But they also should know that I view my job here as an advocate for the public welfare."
Mr. Blinder, who replaced David Mullins last June for a term expiring Jan. 31, 1996, pointed to his stand on the Fed's recent recalculation of the annual percentage yield for savings accounts as indicative of his independent ways. Mr. Blinder's solution managed to anger both industry and consumer groups.
Activists on both sides remain wary about President Clinton's first Fed appointee: Banking advocates expect him to carry on what they perceive as Mr. Clinton's liberal agenda, and consumer activists expect him to capitulate to the Fed's more conservative majority.
"Mr. Blinder didn't cover himself with glory on the APY issue," said Bert Ely, president of the industry consulting firm Ely & Co. "It was a 4- to-3 vote. That is hardly the way to build consensus."
Mr. Ely said it appeared that Mr. Blinder pushed the issue for no reason.
"You've got to ask, 'Does he have the proper sense of balance of what is important and what isn't?'" Mr. Ely said. "If he ended up antagonizing all the different constituencies, that indicates that he wasn't in touch."
Community activists have their own concerns. Rather than becoming a voice supporting the administration's views on community reinvestment and other empowerment programs, Mr. Blinder has adopted the Fed's line, said Allen Fishbein, general counsel of the Center for Community Change.
"It must be something in the water," Mr. Fishbein said, trying to explain Mr. Blinder's apparent change of heart.
Mr. Blinder insisted that he feels strongly about enforcing the Community Reinvestment Act, although he declined to discuss its reform because the current proposal is pending before the Fed. He said he expects the central bank will issue new CRA rules shortly.
"The attitude is, the sooner the better," he said.
Mr. Blinder has sided with the administration on at least one controversial issue. While he favors having the Fed regulate banks, the central bank does not need to retain that power, he said.
"It would not threaten the republic if the Fed didn't supervise banks," he said. "But I think it would be a mistake to write the Fed out of bank regulatory powers. We can do monetary policy better with it."
The Clinton administration and the central bank clashed in 1993 after the President proposed merging the Fed's supervisory powers into a huge new regulatory agency. Fed opposition doomed the plan.
To succeed as a true public advocate, Mr. Blinder must ignore the Fed's staff and review regulatory issues independently, said Emory University's George J. Bentson, a member of the Shadow Financial Regulatory Committee.
"He will be what he wants to be if he does his own research," Mr. Bentson said.
A Machiavellian motive may lie behind Mr. Blinder's effort to paint himself as an independent voice, Mr. Ely said.
"It sounds like he is trying to carve a role for himself and distinguish himself in a way that will allow him to rise above the other governors and make him more chairman-like," Mr. Ely said.
That way the "king in waiting" could become chairman when Alan Greenspan's term expires in March 1996, Mr. Ely said.
Mr. Blinder takes the chiding in stride, saying people have a "constitutional right" to say what they want. But he declines to address much of the criticism, especially comments about whether he wants to be chairman.
He did deny, however, any ulterior motive for his decision on the Truth- in-Savings issue.
"I voted the way I did because I think it is the right thing to do," Mr. Blinder said. "That is same principle that guides my vote on monetary policy."
The vice chairman's first eight months have been relatively quiet, with two exceptions. The most recent was the Truth-in-Savings question. The earlier one occurred late last summer when The New York Times reported that Mr. Blinder gave more weight in monetary policy matters to employment levels than Mr. Greenspan does.
Mr. Blinder fiercely denied the Times' characterization of his remarks, saying the paper had misunderstood him. The controversy, however, raged for several weeks, forcing Mr. Blinder to answer a question during a speech in early September to the Mortgage Bankers Association.
The experience taught him to think more carefully about how to phrase sentences, he said.
Mr. Blinder said he learned something from the APY issue, as well. Some rules can go too far, he said. Even for Truth-in-Savings, it is "nearly impossible" to calculate its value to consumers.
"I've got to admit to some doubt myself," he said, referring to consumer protection laws such as Truth-in-Savings.
The current banking setup is "antiquated," he said. "But it is not on my Top 10 list of America's social problems."
Mr. Blinder, noting that he has learned more about banking in the past eight months than in his entire professional career, said he expects the industry to evolve, much as the retail and restaurant industries have done.
The number of independent banks will shrink, replaced by massive, McDonald's-like chain banks that focus on speed and volume. But just as independent restaurants thrive serving niche markets, community banks will continue to play a role, he said.
"Retailing is the same way," he said. "You have Wal-Mart. You have The Gap. Then you have millions of private stores."
The current mix of banking structures also will survive, he said, adding that some consumers just feel more comfortable banking with a credit union at their workplace or with the thrift where they have their home mortgage.
Mr. Blinder, an avid basketball player and skier, said he doesn't see his former co-workers from the administration often, although he says he does stay in touch with Council of Economic Advisers Chairwoman Laura Tyson and Deputy Treasury Secretary Frank Newman. Also, he and Mr. Greenspan have become friends.
" 'Buddies' may be too strong," Mr. Blinder said. "But we play tennis together."