In its earliest days in the summer of 2007, it was labeled a “crunch,” shortly followed by “storm.” As credit conditions worsened into the fall, financial industry players and some observers were quick to reassure investors that this storm was indeed a cycle, something the markets had weathered in the past. But then analysts began tossing the “crisis” word around and, by November, William Seidman, the then 86-year-old former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., felt compelled to remind players that “things will get much worse, but I don’t think it is going to imperil the financial system the way the S&Ls did.”

Almost a year later, the jury’s out. What the financial industry is suffering through may not be the S&L crisis, but it’s a crisis all its own, with global implications. Billions of dollars in writedowns have caused some once-hallowed halls of capitalism to topple, wiped out 10 years’ worth of stock appreciation at others, raised the ire of Wall Street and investors, prompted the Federal Reserve to open the discount window to investment banks and, eventually, triggered its involvement in the bailout of Bear Stearns. By late summer, the government had seized control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in an attempt to stabilize the financial markets, 12 banks (and counting) had failed, and the list of deposed CEOs was growing along with their institutions’ mounting losses.

The news about the industry grows darker by the day: At press time, Lehman’s stock price plummeted 45 percent in one day to $7.79, the lowest close for the shares since October 14, 1998, as the investment bank’s capital-raising talks stalled and the market braced for the worst. The Dow Jones Industrial Average—a roller coaster these days for those who live and die by it—jumped 290 points on news that Fannie and Freddie had been rescued by the government, only to fall 280 points to 11230.73 on the Lehman news.

It’s been like this all year, with financial stocks taking a beating in the wake of bad news—and the rumor mill has been working overtime, further crushing investor confidence. Most recently, on a single day, Washington Mutual shares dropped 19.9 percent, while AIG shares fell 19.3 percent, both in response to market events. By the time chief executive Kerry Killinger was given his walking papers, Washington Mutual’s stock was hovering at about $4 a share from a 52-week high of $39.25 last September.

And so it goes. Colin Powell once observed that “good managers do things right; good leaders do the right thing.” The 25 Most Powerful Women in Banking is U.S. Banker’s annual tribute to the professional achievements, personal tenacity and influence of top-performing financial executives. In 2008, the magazine considered the performance of 4,700 executives before compiling its ranking of the most influential women, which also includes The 25 Women to Watch, The Top 25 Nonbank Women in Finance and The Top 3 Banking Teams.

The top five U.S. banks—Citigroup, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wachovia and Wells Fargo — saw nine women place in The 25 MPWIB ranking, accounting for 36 percent of the women in the top spots. Overall, money-center banks claimed 88 percent of the positions, while community banks and mid-tier banks combined made up the 12 percent balance—the first year that small and mid-tier banks fared so poorly in the ranking and a clear indication of the gravity of the credit crisis and its affect on women’s performances at smaller financial institutions.

The top five women in The 25 MPWIB are JPMorgan Chase’s Heidi Miller, CEO of Treasury and Securities Services; Bank of America’s Barbara Desoer, president of Mortgage, Home Equity and Insurance Services; Wells Fargo’s Carrie Tolstedt, senior evp of Community Banking; U.S. Bancorp’s Pamela Joseph, vice chair, Payment Services; and Citigroup’s Sallie Krawcheck, chairman and CEO, Citi Global Wealth Management.

Among The 25 Women to Watch, money centers commanded 80 percent of the spots, while community banks held 12 percent and mid-tier banks made up eight percent, a better showing for smaller banks than in The 25 MPWIB. The top five women in this group are TD Bank Financial Group’s Colleen Johnston, group head of Finance and CFO; Cascade Financial’s Carol Nelson, president and CEO; Wells Fargo’s Avid Modjtabai, evp and CIO; Citigroup’s Elyse Weiner, managing director, global head of Liquidity and Investments, GTS; and Citigroup’s Maura Markus, evp and head of International Consumer Banking.

This year marks the second time that U.S. Banker profiled The Top 25 Nonbank Women in Finance, a companion ranking to The 25 MPWIB that highlights the top performers in the securities, asset management, insurance, private equity and exchange businesses. The top five women in this group are Credit Suisse’s Nicole Arnaboldi, vice chair, Alternative Investments; London Stock Exchange’s Clara Furse, CEO; Goldman Sachs’s Stacy Bash-Polley, partner and managing director, co-head of Fixed Income Sales in the Americas; Fidelity’s Abigail Johnson, president, personal and workplace investing; and Goldman Sachs’ Clare Scherrer, partner and managing director of the Industrials Group.

And when ranking the Top 3 Banking Teams, now in its third year, it is clear that the effect of gender diversity has an impact on the overall financial prosperity of an institution, and that the total performance of women-led businesses is far more important than companies might consider at first blush. The Top 3 Banking Teams for 2008 are U.S. Bancorp, Zions First National Bank and Citigroup—ranked numbers one, two and three, respectively.

This is a year of many firsts for The 25 MPWIB ranking. It is the first time that an individual — Heidi Miller — has been ranked No. 1 twice, and in consecutive years, since the ranking’s inception in 2003. It is also the first time that sisters made the ranking in its six-year history—Diane D’Erasmo, who is ranked No. 8 this year, is the sister of Wachovia alum Maryann Bruce, who was named one of the most influential women in the industry in 2005. And U.S. Bancorp is the only bank to have been ranked the No. 1 Banking Team in the three years that the designation has existed.

It’s also worth noting that despite Citigroup’s financial woes as a whole and a changing of the guard when Vikram Pandit replaced chief executive Charles Prince earlier this year, six of the positions in The 25 MPWIB and The 25 Women to Watch rankings are held by women executives from the nation’s largest bank, whose individual performances range from remarkable in the case of Citi’s Global Transaction Services unit, to commendable in Consumer Banking and Wealth Management, in a difficult operating environment.

Unlike prior ranking years, 2008 presented unusual challenges—notably how much players were affected by market conditions. Given that all players faced the same conditions, no weighting was applied; that is to say that financial performance is financial performance, no matter the conditions. Consistent with other years, however, the methodology requires that an executive be in her position for at least 12 months and hold a title of svp or higher within a bank, division, group or subsidiary owned by a bank holding company to be eligible for The 25 MPWIB ranking. The same requirements apply for those ranked in the Top 25 Nonbank Women in Finance.

As the 2008 nomination process drew to a close in late July, two high-profile promotions were taking shape: that of Karen Peetz, who was elevated from The Bank of New York Mellon’s CEO of Corporate Trust to CEO of Issuer, Treasury, Securities and Hedge Fund Services, and Barbara Desoer, who rose from Bank of America chief technology and operations officer to the newly created position of president of Mortgage, Home Equity and Insurance Services. The post-June 30 moves meant that both women met the methodology criteria and were eligible to be ranked based on their performance in their prior roles.

In the methodology, quantitative factors for The 25 MPWIB earn two-thirds weight in the final ranking, with qualitative elements making up the balance. Quantitative measurables include one-year and three-year financial performance, business initiatives and results, as well as length of tenure in the business. USB also considers final performance in light of a business’s size and development.

As for qualitative factors, USB weighs a nominee’s job complexity and responsibility, management style, best practices and innovations implemented, charitable work and overall influence within her institution, the industry as a whole and the community in which she lives and works.

In compiling the final ranking this year, it’s worth noting that nine spots, or 36 percent, are held by new faces to The 25 MPWIB, while 10 spots, or 40 percent, are held by newcomers to The 25 Women to Watch. Moreover, The Top 25 Nonbank Women in Finance list boasts 11 new faces, or 44 percent of those profiled.

The awe-inspiring performance of the women profiled in the ranking has occurred against an industry backdrop that is at times dire and, from a women’s advancement perspective, disappointing. Based on the most recent data available, only 16.1 percent of executive positions at the 100 largest nationally chartered commercial banks were held by women in 2007, according to Financial Women International Foundation’s Women at the Top study. This marks a decline from the prior year’s study which found that 17.9 percent of those positions were held by women. The recent data from FWIF also found that 13.5 percent of executive management positions at the 100 largest state-chartered banks were held by women, compared to 14.7 percent the prior year. “It is disappointing to see the ongoing sluggish movement in the advancement of women executives in our field. The statistics definitely indicate the unbalance between professional women and men in top positions. These results reinforce the need for women to continue to learn, lead and succeed with their own career development,” says Cindy Haas, FWI Foundation chair and svp of private banking at Anchor Bank.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The average number of women corporate officers in finance and insurance is 2.9, while the average number of women directors is 2.1 — relatively stalled from prior years, according to recent Catalyst research. The same holds true on a percentage for women corporate officers in finance and insurance, which, on average, is 16.6, while the percentage of women directors, on average, is 16.1, according to Catalyst’s 2007 Census.

So what can CEOs do to encourage diversity and, in so doing, enhance both profits and women’s career paths? Put more talented women into positions of power—as corporate board members and officers. In other research this year, Catalyst found that there is a clear and positive correlation between the percentage of women board directors and women corporate officers. “Put simply, women board directors are a predictor of women corporate officers: the more women board directors a company has in the past, the more women corporate officers it will have in the future,” according to the Catalyst study “Advancing Women Leaders.”

Catalyst officials say the findings are significant because companies with more women board directors are more likely to draw leaders from a broader, more inclusive talent pool that values skills and results regardless of gender. The upshot: This positions companies for better financial performance. On average, Fortune 500 companies with higher percentages of women board directors financially outperformed companies with the lowest percentage of women board directors — by significant margins, according to Catalyst findings. In another study, Catalyst found Fortune 500 companies with the highest percentages of women corporate officers reported, on average, a 35.1-percent higher return on equity and a 34 percent higher total return to shareholders than did those with the lowest percentages of women corporate officers.

The best advice for CEOs looking to mesh diversity with better financial results: understand the correlation between women leaders and better financial performance; break traditional leadership stereotypes by putting more women into positions of power; strive to become the best place to work by empowering women leaders; create a culture of innovation through women leaders who are more inclusive in management styles; and talk openly and frequently about diversity within your organization using numbers—the percentage of women leading units, that sit on the board and that are rising stars in the organization’s talent pipeline.

Can top performing women have it all? Yes—but it takes some doing, according to a confidential survey of 46 of 75 honorees this year. The difficult economic and financial climate is visible with wide swings in responses to some survey questions. This year’s honorees overwhelmingly — 67 percent — said “commitment to doing what it takes to get the job done” has played the biggest role in their professional success; last year only 41 percent said so. And, in times of crisis, leadership takes center stage. Some 77 percent of respondents said “leadership ability” is their greatest professional asset, last year only 43 percent chose this first.

A difficult climb to the top? Most certainly, but the profiles of the 75 women who are redefining what’s possible in the financial industry are making a difference not only in their own careers, but of those of the men and women around them. And that, research shows, means more money for the institutions that employ them and the investors that bank on them. (c) 2008 U.S. Banker and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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