WASHINGTON - For a regulator, Jonathan L. Fiechter, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency's newest senior adviser, has a fairly unusual job description. He gets paid to make sure the OCC does not hamstring the industry as banks must increasingly compete with less-regulated firms.
His nightmare starts off like a bad banker-on-the-golf-course joke, but it quickly turns serious.
"I have this great fear that you have two smart guys - one from General Electric and one from Citibank - out playing golf one Saturday afternoon. Based on their conversation, they both come up with a brilliant business idea," said Mr. Fiechter, senior deputy comptroller for international and economic affairs.
"The GE guy goes back to his headquarters Monday morning and by Monday afternoon CEO Jack Welch decides GE is going forward with it. The Citibank guy, on the other hand, goes back to his headquarters, talks to a lawyer, and spends a month trying to draft a proposal that the [government] has to approve. Six months later, we - with lots of conditions - approve it.
"But by then GE has taken over the market."
Comptroller John D. Hawke Jr. hired Mr. Fiechter in February to retrofit supervision to a post-Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act world. The financial reform law enacted last year removed the barriers between banking, insurance, and securities. "Regulators talk about interest rate risk and operating risk," Mr. Fiechter said in an interview. "But what I worry about is regulatory risk. Given that this is a different world today than it was two years ago, how do we, as regulators, let these multiheaded conglomerates respond quickly in this really competitive, fast-moving marketplace?
"How do we go about supervising in a way that doesn't put regulated entities at a severe disadvantage vis-a-vis the competition - the nonregulated financial services companies like a General Electric?"The 52-year-old career regulator is looking for answers, but said his No. 1 goal is "figuring out how we efficiently and effectively supervise these more complex institutions."
First he is marshaling a cadre of examiners with the expertise to monitor trends and to chat up bankers.
"Often the industry is aware of risks months before it surfaces at the supervisory level in Washington," he said. "We have to make certain that we can attract market-savvy people who can spot trends and have the capacity to deal with regulations so that if there are problems in these new entities, we are not the last ones to know. To do that, you've got to have a pretty good, steady dialogue with the industry."
Mr. Fiechter also heads the agency's international division, keeping tabs on global economic conditions that could affect the health of the U.S. banking system and assessing the quality of the foreign supervision of banks that want to open branches in the United States. He is the agency's point-man on the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, the international group of regulators reworking the 1988 risk-based capital rule.
The 6-foot-7-seven-inch Mr. Fiechter is able to wear his international and economic-policy hats at once - and look good in both. He draws often on his experience abroad, contacting his counterparts around the world whenever he ponders the big banking issues of the day.
"We need to take advantage of the experiences of supervisors in other countries. I'm always struck by how often we're all struggling with very similar issues," Mr. Fiechter said.
The new position combining economic and international issues was tailor-made to coax Mr. Fiechter back to an agency he joined as an economist in 1978. He left in 1987 to help the Federal Home Loan Bank System bail out failing savings and loans; he was acting director of its successor, the Office of Thrift Supervision, from 1992 through 1996.
"Jerry [Hawke] pretty much said to me, 'What would it take to get you back here?' " said Mr. Fiechter, whose 28-year tour around the regulatory block has taken him through most of modern banking's hot spots and earned him the respect of bankers, regulators, and lawmakers around the world.
After directing the OTS, he went to the World Bank to advise countries with developing financial sectors. A year later he was thrust into the front lines again - this time by dominoing Asian currencies.
"I was a fireman with lots of fires. It did not allow thinking through policies. I was in the trenches, giving advice on the fly," said the self-described policy wonk, who helped close 50 Indonesian banks in three days.
Now, Mr. Fiechter is working to make sure he won't have to don another firefighting uniform if the economy goes sour.
"Jerry asked that I lead an effort of senior staff to look at ways we could enhance our ability to deal with a large increase in problem banks," he said. "It's not that we expect it, but after nine years of very steadily rising profits and pretty easy times, we are looking at the systems and making certain that if we were ever to return to the kind of era we had in the mid-80s, when we had hundreds of problem banks, are we prepared? Do we have the staff on board who would know what to do if the number of problem banks quadrupled?"
He doesn't yet have answers to his own questions, but is gathering information internally and from other regulatory agencies so "we can assure Jerry that we are able to handle this if something blows up and the economy goes into a tailspin."
He has some sophisticated help in the form of 27 PhD economists. "Banking is a more complicated business, and I think as the industry has changed the mix, we've needed to change the composition of staff we send out to look at these banks," he explained. "We have figured out a way to marry the skill base of the PhD economists with bank examiners. No other supervisory organization has yet been able to take a whole research unit and tie it so closely to the normal examination process."
Mr. Fiechter, who can see the Capitol building from his office, said one thing that lured him back to the OCC was the fact he likes working for Mr. Hawke, whom he met in the late 1970s when he was a Treasury Department economist and Mr. Hawke general counsel at the Federal Reserve Board. Also, "it was really the ability to design a job, be given a mandate to tinker in whatever I want.
"I like doing the policy work and think that I can make a difference in some areas. I've got a lot of very good resources I can throw at a problem, so I guess if I don't accomplish something in the next several years, they ought to be able to get their money back."
Mr. Fiechter makes $180,000, and Mr. Hawke is confident he'll earn every dime.
"We combined two divisions to attract someone of Jonathan's stature," the comptroller said. "Jonathan is perfectly suited to take over both of them."
His predecessor in the economics department was James Kamihachi, who left to care for an elderly parent. The international division was headed by Susan F. Krause, who is now a consultant.
Nor does Mr. Hawke feel threatened by Mr. Fiechter's high-profile resume. "It was a huge plus for us to get a guy with those credentials," Mr. Hawke said. "The fact that he ran OTS is a tremendous plus for us. Not only does he have experience running a financial supervisory agency, but he also presided over the rehabilitation of the thrift industry."
While Mr. Fiechter won't deny missing the glamour of presiding over the Asian financial crisis for the World Bank, he certainly doesn't miss spending months away from his family in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. "For me to do my job managing the financial-sector programs in three Asian countries well, I really had to be over in Asia. I did that for a few years, and spent an awful lot of holidays overseas," he said.
He still works 10-and-a-half-hour days, but is home in time for dinner with his wife and 18-year-old daughter.
What comes next? "I envision myself having one more career after this," he said. "I don't have any regrets for all the various jobs that I've had, but it's been public, public, public. I have missed the private sector in all this."
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