Comptroller of the Currency John D. Hawke Jr. may take a while to settle into the job.
In his first interview since being sworn in Dec. 8, Mr. Hawke's unusually cautious answers revealed a regulator who must balance the long- term demands of a rapidly changing industry with his own short-term political considerations.
Though supporters and critics paint him as a pivotal actor in the serial financial reform drama as the curtain rises on a new Congress, Mr. Hawke is not volunteering for the role.
"He has the ability on a regulatory level, and with the backing of the judicial process, to change the entire landscape," said Stephen D. Johnson, a lobbyist for the American Insurance Association.
"That's very flattering but not very realistic," Mr. Hawke said. In fact, the 28th comptroller showed no signs of quickly becoming the aggressive regulator many expect.
Mr. Hawke said his priorities are promoting community banking, delivering bank services to underserved areas, and expanding the agency's examiner force.
Though he may want to focus on these low-profile pursuits, the renewed struggle on Capitol Hill over financial reform and the Community Reinvestment Act will occupy much of his time.
That Mr. Hawke dodged questions about these controversial issues underscored his political bind. Appointed by President Clinton while Congress was in recess, Mr. Hawke awaits confirmation by the Senate. The White House submitted his nomination Jan. 6, the first day of the new Congress.
Mr. Hawke insisted he is not hamstrung.
"I don't sit here worrying about the confirmation process," said Mr. Hawke, who as Treasury under secretary for domestic finance from 1995 to 1998 played a huge role in last year's financial reform debate. "I'll take the issues as they come and call them as I see them."
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm has said he will move on Mr. Hawke's nomination quickly. But Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, the panel's ranking Democrat, remains a wild card. The Maryland lawmaker led the opposition to Mr. Hawke's nomination last year in part because he was irritated by comments Mr. Hawke had made on CRA.
In the interview, Mr. Hawke made it clear he backs CRA.
"CRA has made a significant contribution to the expansion of fair access to credit," he said. What's more, the basis for his earlier criticisms have been corrected. "Many of the objections that were raised-that I had raised at one point-about CRA have been effectively addressed."
He even disagreed with Sen. Gramm, saying banks should not be shielded from CRA protests if their most recent ratings were "satisfactory" or better because those exams could be outdated.
"Community groups would be forced to try to participate in the examination process," he said. "That would end up being far more burdensome for banks than the present system."
The Comptroller's Office does not have the right to enforce CRA agreements between banks and community groups. "These commitments or pledges are made between private parties," he said. "The community groups are fully capable of monitoring the agreements."
Though Mr. Hawke pitched as hard as ever for full financial powers for national bank operating subsidiaries, he did not reveal any plan to approve new powers.
Such rulings could anger key lawmakers and propel the reform bill. Or they could discourage legislation by giving banks an upper hand over insurance companies and securities firms. If he avoids such decisions and quietly discourages groundbreaking applications, banks might be forced to stay at the table and negotiate a deal with their rivals.
Mr. Hawke refused to discuss whether the agency is stalling on a March 1997 application by Bank of America to develop real estate. He denied that the agency's foot-dragging sends a discouraging signal to other banks contemplating daring applications.
"I don't think that the speed with which we act on applications is going to necessarily have an effect on what the industry is doing," he said. "They will come to us as their needs dictate."
Mr. Hawke said he favors basic legislation that would permit banks, insurance companies, and securities firms to own each other. Such an approach would sidestep controversial issues such as operating subsidiaries, preservation of state insurance laws, and Federal Home Loan Bank reform.
"Financial modernization is not something that Congress delivers to the industry," he said. "It is something that happens in the marketplace."
Though Mr. Hawke's agenda remains murky, he emphasized that he plans to make small banks a priority.
"We do a lot for community banks already," he said, "and we're looking at identifying all the programs that we have that support community banks and seeing what more we might be able to do to make life easier."
He suggested having examiners give more advice to banks in addition to their oversight responsibilities.
Mr. Hawke also is concerned about how the industry reaches out to people without bank accounts.
Electronic delivery of federal benefit payments has exposed the lack of bank branches in many areas. Banks have tried to solve the problem by allying themselves with check cashers. However, the government is concerned that check cashers and other, similar firms do not offer the same consumer protections as banks.
An alternative, Mr. Hawke said, may be to offer "consortium charters" in which banks can "share the risk and expense of establishing facilities."
Mr. Hawke's third priority is increasing the examiner work force. In the last two years, the agency's examiner force has dropped more than 10%, to 1,929.
Without specifying a number, the new comptroller said the ranks must be replenished and that examiners need to become more specialized in areas such as year-2000 compliance.