Washington insiders are stumped by Ricki Helfer's sudden resignation as chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Her stated reason-that she's accomplished her goals and wants more time for a personal life-just isn't washing. So people are supplying their own explanations.

One of the leading rumors last week was that her husband, banking lawyer Michael Helfer, is moving to San Francisco to be Bank of America's general counsel. (Not true.) Other people speculated that Ms. Helfer must have a terrific job lined up. (She doesn't.) Finally, darker minds wonder whether Ms. Helfer is seriously ill. (She's not.)

"Given the personality involved and given the tenacity she showed through the confirmation period, I find her resignation completely inexplicable," said one longtime agency watcher.

So, why leave halfway through her five-year term? Maybe it's as simple as she says: It's been a productive and exhausting 30 months.

Ms. Helfer, like no chairman before her, has controlled the FDIC's day- to-day operations. She has shown an interest in most every issue, with an uncommon appetite for detail. To say she is exacting is an understatement.

She threw herself into the business of the agency from the moment she was sworn in on Oct. 7, 1994. And now, there may be little left for her do to.

Beyond leading it through the celebrated capitalizations of the bank and thrift insurance funds, Ms. Helfer fundamentally changed how the agency operates. Gone are the days when the division directors-the head officials in each of the FDIC's main areas-ran the agency day to day.

To make it clear who was running the show, early in her term Ms. Helfer ended the long-standing practice of division directors sitting at the board's table during agency open meetings. Today, the five members of the FDIC board sit on the straight side of a semi-circular table and invite only the staff member presenting an issue to sit before them. The rest of the staff sits with the public.

This was the first of many moves Ms. Helfer made to put her staff in its place. For example, she required the division directors to report to her through one of her three deputies. This was viewed as an insult to men who had long had direct access to the agency's chairman.

It was clear this new approach did not sit well with many veterans. A number of them left, including supervision gurus Paul Fritz, John Stone, and Stan Poling. Others were demoted. Steve Seelig, who directed handling of the agency's finances for years, now toils in obscurity in the research department.

Fans and critics alike give Ms. Helfer credit for seizing the opportunity presented by a healthy banking system to refocus the FDIC.

Starting with staffing to handle massive failures, Ms. Helfer is bringing the agency back to reality with a series of buyouts and layoffs. Plans she put in place will shrink the FDIC to 6,600 employees by 2000, compared to 11,600 at yearend 1994.

Ms. Helfer created a new division to study what caused so many banks and thrifts to fail in the 1980s and early 1990s, and demanded plans to prevent a repeat. The FDIC is identifying problem banks sooner by incorporating general economic data into exams and assessing bank management talent more accurately.

What could Ms. Helfer have looked forward to by staying at the FDIC?

The arduous and unrewarding work of shrinking the agency will continue for years, barring any unforeseen catastrophes in the industry.

What's more, in the debate over financial modernization, the FDIC is a second-tier player. Lawmakers are looking to the Treasury and the Federal Reserve-not the FDIC-for help in drafting that legislation.

"The job is hard, time-consuming, stressful and not very rewarding," said Chuck Muckenfuss, who worked with Ms. Helfer at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher law firm. "She wants to get on with her life."

A big part of that life involves Michael Helfer. The two got together in 1993 when he coached her through the confirmation process. They married in January 1995-just weeks after she was sworn in-and have had little time to themselves.

So, maybe her resignation makes sense after all.

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