WASHINGTON -- Say what you will about L. William Seidman, he sure knows how to charm a hostile crowd.
He proves it every year on his annual trip along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, pulling his Volkswagen bug up to a roughneck bikers bar in southern Maryland for beer and conversation with the leather-clad regulars.
More often and more publicly, Mr.Seidman has done his charming act as chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for the past six years, fending off attacks from Congress, the White House, and the press.
His secret weapons? Self-confidence and a good-natured style. Of course, he's smart enough to help his case by buying the bikers a round of drinks and by slipping reporters an occasional news tip.
But later this month, Mr. Seidman will leave the hostile crowds behind, stepping down from his dual position as head of the FDIC and the Resolution Trust Corp.
He could have dodged a lot of flak by exiting more than a year ago, well before the banking industry slipped into its current slump. He had the perfect excuse to bow out gracefully after he severely injured a hip in a horseback riding accident on June 20, 1990. But he stayed the course, even though he knew, as he told one reporter back then, "I have nowhere to go but down."
Collection of Bruises
Mr Seidman was right on target. His reputation as a regulator, once sterling, has been tarnished a bit in the past year or so. Among the reasons:
* The FDIC fund, which had an $18 billion balance when he took over in October 1985, is nearly empty, with many more troubled banks on the horizon. Critics say he should have taken steps sooner to prevent the big drain.
* He talked about ending the policy of too big to fail, but the practice of protecting all depositors of the nation's largest institutions continued under his stewardship.
* Though showing signs of improvement, the RTC still has considerable operating problems to overcome. For example, its big bulk sale of properties to a Boston investor several weeks ago still hasn't closed.
Nonetheless, Mr. Seidman generally gets high marks for the job he has done regulating banks during their most trying days since the Great Depression.
Tough Act to Follow
"He successfully rode the back of the tiger during the most difficult period in the history of the FDIC," said Kenneth Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America.
Mr. Seidman's predecessor as FDIC chief, William Issac, points to Mr. Seidman's ability to maintain the confidence of the public and the press, convincing them that he was on top of the problems. That performance, he said, has helped avert financial panics.
Even some of Mr. Seidman's enemies sometimes offer him a compliment. "The FDIC's prominence as a bank regulatory agency is solely due to his charisma and aggressive defense of its turf," said Karen Shaw, president of the Institute for Strategy Development and a persistent FDIC critic.
Another member of the loyal opposition author Martin Mayer, said, "I've just done an epilogue to my savings and loan book that says one has to give credit to Mr. Seidman for pursuing accountants and lawyers for their roles in S&L and bank failures. After all, he is both an accountant and a lawyer, and he went after his brethren in an aggressive way."
(Mr. Mayer quickly added, in a sudden burst of orthodoxy, that he faults almost every thing else Mr. Seidman did during his six years as head of the FDIC.)
Mr. Seidman accomplished many things, and few of them without controversy.
Big Bank Deals
Close to 900 banks have failed during Mr. Seidman's tenure, giving the FDIC unparalleled expertise in closing institutions.
In fact, the latest big FDIC deal, the sale in Sepember of Miami's Southeast Banking Corp. to North Carolina's First Union Corp., is considered an exemplary bank resolution by most experts. Said Mr. Issac, "It was the best ever."
But critics say the agency paid a hefty price to get its experience in closing banks, and, they argue, that's one reason the Bank Insurance Fund's reserves have dropped so low.
"If the FDIC had seen the collapse of Continental Illinois as a warning, and prepared properly, it would have had a more defined strategy earlier on to deal with failed banks," said Ms. Shaw. "Instead of having mergers like InterFirst and Republic Bank, the industry would have been far healthier today."
To be sure, many FDIC deals haven't worked out very well. First City Bancorporation of Texas and BancTexas in Dallas, for examples, are struggling. And the sale of the combined InterFirst and Republic banks to NCNB was extremely expensive to the fund and to taxpayers.
"I bet he wishes he could have that one back," said Mr. Issac.
But Mr. Seidman said that's not so: "You have to remember that at the time, nobody wanted to buy banks in Texas. We received two bids. One from NCNB and another from Wells Fargo, and NCNB's was the least costly. I have no regrets about the deal."
Among other things, Mr. Seidman is credited with modernizing the FDIC, which grew from about 8,000 employees in 1985 to 15,433 today, not including 6,688 RTC workers.
"There's no question, he did an excellent job raising the level of professionalism at the organization so that it served the country well during a difficult period," said James McDermott, president of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc., New York.
Mr. Seidman is most proud of this accomplishment, noting that he recruited trainees who had been among the top 10% of their college classes.
Charge of Empire Building
Scoffed Mr. Mayer, "Bill built a tiny principality into an empire. The FDIC shouldn't be an empire. It's in the scavenger business."
Mr. Seidman's most controversial decision was to take over the day-to-day operation of the government's S&L fund bailout by becoming chairman of the RTC.
He initially didn't want the job unless he was allowed a seat on the oversight board setting policies for the new agency.
"He told me in 1989 he was dead in the water without a place on the oversight board," recalled House Baning Committee Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez, D-Tex.
But soon after, bowing to White House pressure, Mr. Seidman accepted the chairman's post without getting a place on the board.
Mr. Gonzalez said Mr. Seidman should have stepped down from the FDIC at that piont because he had lost his much heralded independencE.
"There's a case for that," said Mr. Seidman. But he said he stayed on at the FDIC because he "thought there was a job to do." The chairman knew he'd be in for a rough ride. One of his favorite sayings is "Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate."
And the enemies certainly accumulated as he began to create an agency to manage the biggest disposition of assets in history. Before long, congressmen were scrutinizing his every move, citing their duty to the taxpayers.
Mr. Gonzalez and others believe that Mr. Seidman underestimated the size of the RTC's task, and that it was a big mistake to take on the responsibility at a time when problems in the banking industry were growing.
John Robson, deputy secretary of the Treasury, takes a different view, pointing out that "the RTC has accomplished a great deal. It has seized 650 thrifts, protected some 17 million accounts, and participated in the arrest and conviction of 500 and some people for thrift crimes. That ain't all bad."
Mr. Seidman gets mixed reviews for his regulation of the banking industry. He is praised for granting sensible forbearance to agricultural banks during the mid-1980s and nursing that group of lenders through a terrible crisis with little cost to the FDIC fund.
But he is criticized for abandoning some initiatives launched by his predecessor, Bill Issac, several of which were designed to head off the very problems that developed later in his term.
Mr. Issac's ideas included merging the FDIC with the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. and publishing enforcement actions against banks.
Taking a broader view, some of Mr. Seidman's critics contend that he underestimated the depth of the industry's problems and overestimated the ability of bankers to grapple with them on their own.
"Seidman relaxed at just the wrong time," said Mr. Mayer.
Cloudy Crystal Balls
Mr. Seidman's defense is that no one could have predicted the depth of the current recession. Bank consultant Lowell Bryan of McKinsey & Co., N.Y., agreed.
"Compared with his counterpart in the savings and loan industry [M. Danny Wall], Bill Seidman was terrific. He maintained the balance between overstating and understating the problems."