Comptroller of the Currency Eugene A. Ludwig announced Thursday that he will resign April 4, ending a remarkable five-year run that greatly expanded the powers of national banks.
Though the announcement was not a complete surprise-his term was due to end on April 4-some had speculated that Mr. Ludwig might serve a second term or simply remain in the job until President Clinton named a successor.
"Five years is enough time to make an impact, and these jobs benefit by fresh ideas from new people coming in," Mr. Ludwig said in an interview Thursday. "It's time for somebody else to do the job."
Mr. Ludwig said as recently as last week that he was ambivalent about whether to stay or go, but the chance to spend more time with his wife and three children and return to the private sector won out.
Industry sources said they do not expect a successor to be in place quickly. If no one has been nominated and confirmed by April, OCC Chief Counsel Julie L. Williams will become acting comptroller.
On Thursday, bankers praised Mr. Ludwig as a progressive regulator. "Gene Ludwig has been the best comptroller in U.S. history," said Richard M. Kovacevich, president and chief executive of Norwest Corp., Minneapolis. "He has had both the talent and guts to do what is right, whether or not it is politically popular, and that is a rare quality in Washington."
"He's been a pioneer," added Terrence J. Murray, chairman and chief executive of Fleet Financial Group in Boston. "He has been committed to giving us the tools we need to compete on a global basis with our nonregulated competitors."
During his tenure, Mr. Ludwig expanded the scope and delivery of bank insurance and securities products. He streamlined many of the industry's most cumbersome regulations, and his "supervision-by-risk" program nudged examiners to let banks operate more freely.
But such aggressive efforts led House Rules Committee Chairman Gerald Solomon (R-N.Y.) to label Mr. Ludwig "a rogue regulator."
Even House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach (R-Iowa), despite past criticism, described Mr. Ludwig Thursday as a "thoughtful advocate" for national banks. Banking Committee member Rep. Bruce Vento, D-Minn., said Mr. Ludwig "is guilty only of success."
But Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., criticized Mr. Ludwig for repeatedly permitting banks to enter once-prohibited businesses. "Eugene A. Ludwig never met a financial activity he didn't find to be closely related to the business of banking," Rep. Markey said. "In his effort to expand the OCC's bureaucratic turf, he repeatedly overstepped his regulatory authority and intruded in policy decisions that are more appropriately reserved for the Congress."
In a letter to President Clinton on Thursday, Mr. Ludwig pointed out that the agency's rulings have been repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court. "National banks are serving their customers with a broader array of financial products and services than at any time in their history," he wrote.
Observers said Mr. Ludwig's departure will slow, but not halt, the agency's push to broaden the powers of national banks.
"His leaving will have some impact on the pace of change, but the types of change that he has pushed are based on very sound legal principles," said Edward L. Yingling, chief lobbyist of the American Bankers Association. "Much of what they do is driven by applications, which they must act on by law. We expect the OCC to continue in the same direction, whoever is in charge."
Mr. Ludwig is a hero to bankers today, but early in his term, many were suspicious of his campaign to rewrite the Community Reinvestment Act rules.
Bankers got the impression that the comptroller was a "social engineer," said Kenneth A. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America. But Mr. Ludwig succeeded in balancing the industry's competitive needs with ensuring that they provide fair access to credit.
"He successfully rode two horses," Mr. Guenther said. "He was very pro- banking, but he also had a very strong commitment to having banks do more in the consumer lending area."
The low point of Mr. Ludwig's tenure was in January 1997, when he was accused of helping Democrats raise money from bankers by attending a coffee held at the White House. Mr. Ludwig said he did not know party fund-raisers were present.
Although Mr. Ludwig said he has not decided what he will do next, a former OCC official predicted that the comptroller will not return to the Washington law firm Covington & Burling. Instead, Mr. Ludwig may become a consultant or take a job with a financial services firm, the former official predicted.
"While at the OCC, he had the chance to get a strong sense of where the industry is going in the future, and that strategic aspect really interests him," he said.