Hill, an Old Hand at Age 34, Takes Aim at Credit Crunch

The economy is in the doldrums, banks aren't lending, and J. French Hill is helping the Bush administration figure out what to do about it.

Mr. Hill, 34, is executive secretary of the White House Economic Policy Council, one of three cabinet-level committees that weigh policy decisions likely to have sweeping effects on the domestic economy. Mr. Hill, who began his career as a bank lending officer in Texas, is also a special assistant to President Bush, chairman of the council.

Mr. Hill's appointment, which took effect Sept. 4, coincided with intensified efforts by the administration to spur economic growth by encouraging banks to increase lending. In three meetings over four weeks, the council forged the package of regulatory relief that the administration unveiled on Oct. 8.

Visibility Assured

Given the continued sluggishness, it is a safe bet the Economic Policy Council will maintain a high profile.

Mr. Hill said no one can know for sure how much of the slump in loan growth is a direct result of the regulatory zeal that President Bush and his aides have complained about. But the President's bottom line is "We don't want inappropriate regulatory practice to account for any of it," Mr. Hill said.

Observers say the recruitment of Mr. Hill, who had been deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury for corporate finance since May 1989, underscores the council's growing prominence as a key White House forum for shaping economic and banking policy.

"The Economic Policy Council is the place where the administration's response to national economic problems and banking industry conditions is going to be developed," said Robert Dugger, chief economist of the American Bankers Association.

"French has a superb mix of private-sector, political, and public-sector back-ground," Mr. Dugger said.

For his part, Mr. Hill says the Economic Policy Council's role in banking matters is carefully circumscribed. "Where financial policy affects economic growth, we are in the forefront," he said in a recent interview.

Mr. Hill dismisses suggestions that the heightened emphasis on credit issues boils down to presidential election politics.

He ticks off evidence to the contrary: Both Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher warned about regulatory excesses more than a year ago. President Bush summoned bankers, business leaders, and regulators to talk about the credit crunch last November. And when nothing happened, in January he prodded the Treasury for action.

No Surprise Over Assignment

Granted, the discussions had not been going on in the Economic Policy Council. "But I'm not surprised that after nine months of work it was brought into the cabinet process," Mr. Hill said.

Despite his youth, Mr. Hill is regarded as an old hand when it comes to banking and economic issues.

A 1979 honors graduate of Vanderbilt University, Mr. Hill began his career as a financial analyst and loan officer with the old First National Bank of Dallas.

Was an Aide to Sen. Tower

He went to Washington in 1982 as a principal aide to the late Sen. John Tower, a Texas Republican who was then chairman of the Senate Banking Committee's housing subcommittee. Mr. Hill played a major role in the passage of the Secondary Mortgage Market Enhancement Act of 1984.

Returning to Dallas in 1984, Mr. Hill went to work for Mason Best Co., a merchant bank.

In May 1989, Mr. Brady appointed him deputy assistant secretary for corporate finance. Mr. Hill dealt with issues such as the competitiveness of U.S. business and the development of market economies in Eastern Europe.

In his new post, Mr. Hill continues to work closely with Mr. Brady, who presides over chairs Economic Policy Council meetings when President Bush is absent.

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