WASHINGTON -- Alan S. Blinder thought he'd be investigating monetary policy at the Federal Reserve Board, but President Clinton's first appointee to the central bank said he spent nearly his entire initial month learning about regulatory matters.
Mr. Blinder, who previously served on the President's Council of Economic Advisers, said the clearest example of his regulatory emphasis comes from the: hours he,s spent learning about a proposed change in the way of computing whethera bank's securities activities violate the Glass-Steagall Act.
"This is pretty nitty-gritty stuff." said the new Fed vice chairman. "It's not an issue that I came here knowing about."
Called a Quick Study
But those who know him. Mr. Blinder will pick up bank regulation quickly.
"He is one of the fastest minds I know," said Peter B. Kenen, a professor in Princeton University's economics department. where Mr. Blinder worked for two decades. "He will read, he will consult with staff... He doesn't slack off on anything."
Mr. Blinder, a tall, thin man who looks the part of an economics professor, said he expects this emphasis on regulatory matters to continue to occupy much of his time throughout his tenure. which extends till Jan. 31,1996. Window onto the Industry The Fed's emphasis on regulatory matters. he said. reinforced his view that the central bank needs to remain a regulator in any scheme to consolidate the banking agencies.
The Fed needs this "window into the entire financial industry" because the central bank is responsible for the safety of the entire banking system. regardless of which agency is regulating a bank, he said.
"When things go badly," he said, "all eyes will turn to this building."
Mr. Blinder said the government should adopt the one-regulator-per-institution theory. This would allow several regulators to exist, but each would be the sole federal regulator responsible for an institution. As it stands now, many institutions deal with two or more federal regulators.
Would Tilt Fed Role
The Fed shouldn't have control over all examinations, he said. "That would tilt the nature of this institution to where the supervision of banks is job No. 1 and monetary policy is No. 2," he said.
The Fed ideally would examine a diverse group of institutions, varying from all the largest to some of the midsize to small ones, he said.
Mr. Blinder said securities are one of numerous regulatory areas where he's had to stake out a position. Others include:
* Fair lending. Mr. Blinder called this an important item for the Fed to enforce. "It's not in the Bill of Rights," he said of equal access to credit. "But I think that is because Jefferson and Hamilton weren't thinking about it."
* Interstate banking. He said interstate banking will increase the health of the industry because institutions will be able to operate more efficiently. The consolidation won't eliminate small, hometown banks. He said those always will thrive, much as small retailers survive even when Wal-Mart moves in.
Derivatives. He said he doesn't see a derivatives crisis in the making, but the Fed does need to monitor the situation carefully to ensure that the industry doesn't get into trouble in the future,
* Electronic banking. Mr. Blinder said he doubts that electronic banking will replace cash transactions any time soon. "We might never get there," he said, adding that Americans guard their privacy so much that they may reject more electronic banking.
* The penny. Although the Fed cannot control which denominations of coins Treasury releases, Mr. Blinder said he supports eliminating the penny and replacing it with a dollar coin.
Mr. Blinder, who used to write for Business Week and The Boston Globe, said he hopes to make the Fed more accessible to the public, much as he's tried to use his various articles to make economics more understandable to the public.
"On monetary policy, I think the important thing is to keep the discussion as private as possiblee," he said,." And then let the public know what we decided as quickly as possible."
Mr. Blinder, sworn in June 27, replaced David Mullins, an appointee of President George Bush.
Called Left of Center
Fellow economists describe the new vice chairman as left of center. Mr. Kenen, the Princeton professor, said Mr. Blinder considers unemployment a "social evil." But, Mr. Kenen also said that Mr. Blinder would accept greater unemployment to avoid the destructive inflation of the 1970s.
Dean Baker of the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute said Mr. Blinder will take unemployment more seriously than Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan does. But, Mr. Baker said Mr. Blinder will not "stick out like a sore thumb" on the sevenmember board.
"Hard Heads, Soft Hearts"
Charles L. Schultze, who worked with Mr. Blinder ir 1986-87 at the Brookings Institution, said Mr, Blinder's view: are reflected in the title of a book he wrote, "Hard Heads, Sol Hearts."
"It is a great title and I think it describes his views," said Mr. Schultze, a senior fellow at Brookings
Mr. Blinder, who declined to discuss his opinions on interest rates, said the best that Fed governors can do is look at the current numbers and make educated guesses about what effect their moves have had on th economy.
While it is hoped that those educated guesses will be close he said the Fed is bound to over or undershoot its goals. But, he said, "small errors will in the eyes of history be known a bull's-eyes."