Edward G. Boehne braved the cold one recent day to talk with bankers and businesspeople in two Delaware beach communities.
The president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia purposely scheduled his visit for the resort area's off-season. "You have to go when the people want to talk," he said.
That's vintage Boehne. The longest-serving of the 12 Fed presidents, he doesn't have a big ego. He drives himself around his three-state district finding out what's going on.
So what has he learned from these frequent jaunts? Mr. Boehne said trouble is brewing at some of the largest institutions in his district - the Delaware-based credit card banks.
The ease of obtaining new credit cards is allowing consumers to avoid delinquency on one card by borrowing from another, he said. The result is that consumers are a safe bet one day and bankrupt the next. Banks never get the warning that a delinquency delivers.
"This is an emerging trend and a logical one given how these credit cards are being pushed on consumers," Mr. Boehne said.
The situation is a "flashing yellow light" the industry ought to monitor closely, he said.
Mr. Boehne's trips also have convinced him that credit unions should play a key role in serving inner-city neighborhoods such as those in Philadelphia - a novel thought from an executive at a banking agency.
It's not that banks aren't trying to serve Philadelphia, the largest city in his region. Banks actually operate more branches in the city now than in 1987. "You can still go to almost every neighborhood in the city and find a banking alternative," he said.
But there are a few areas where banks just aren't meeting the residents' credit needs. There, banks either could independently fund credit unions or establish them jointly with other financial institutions, he said.
"Credit unions might be a better alternative than commercial banks," he said. "You can tailor-make them to the neighborhood's needs."
Mr. Boehne also said scores of bankers are telling him that loan growth will balloon in 1996. But Mr. Boehne doubts such demand will materialize and fears banks could overreach and end up making bad loans.
Lenders, under pressure from management to reach high targets, may let credit standards slide. Bankers, he said, should focus on sustained growth rather than unrealistic market-share grabs.
Despite his worries, Mr. Boehne said banks in his district appear healthy, with earnings from credit card operations leading the way toward record profits.
Bankers are impressed with Mr. Boehne's frequent visits, saying they have made the Philadelphia Fed one of the most responsive of the 12 reserve banks.
"He always gets out there and the interaction is invaluable," Frank A. Pinto, president of the Pennsylvania Community Bankers Association. "There he is, the president of the Fed with all his staff."
For Mr. Boehne, meeting the people who make up the district's economy is a natural.
Mr. Boehne travels at least a dozen times a year, right before meetings of the Fed's monetary policy body, the Federal Open Market Committee. He uses the trips to present the Philadelphia Fed's economic forecasts to bankers.
"The most important thing in this job is to listen," said Mr. Boehne. "It is amazing what you can learn from a cross-section of your community."
Mr. Boehne takes along several staff members, who spread out at tables among the bankers and businessmen. Mr. Boehne often caps off the evening with a 15-minute talk and takes questions.
"He's very open to hearing the collective wisdom of the bankers at the table that are out there on the front line," said Edward J. Molnar, president of Harleysville (Pa.) Savings Bank. "He really tries to a get a feel for the economy of the Philadelphia region."
The president of a large Delaware bank, who asked to remain anonymous, said he's never met such an accessible Fed official. "I don't think of it as unusual to pick up the phone and talk to him," the bank official said. "He is very visible in a positive way."
As a voter on the open market committee, Mr. Boehne now has a significant role setting short-term interest rates. This is the sixth time he's had voting rights, which rotate among the Fed presidents on an annual basis.
Mr. Boehne said he will consult bankers heavily before each committee meeting. That's one reason he found himself snowbound in Shippensburg, a small town in south-central Pennsylvania; he got out in time for the December meeting of the policymaking panel.
Mr. Boehne - with 28 years at the Fed, the last 15 as president - got his start in the research arena. That may explain his preference for policy debates.
"I'm always very skeptical of an ideological bent," he said. "I don't want to hear a monetarist viewpoint or a Keynesian one."
Of course, economics and banking issues don't always dominate his conversations. His favorite topic: the Indiana University Hoosiers, long one of the country's premier basketball programs. Not coincidentally, Mr. Boehne received his undergraduate, MBA, and PhD degrees from Indiana.
Mr. Boehne doesn't like being cooped up in his house any more than he like staying in his office. An avid outdoorsman, he bought a house near a gorge specifically so he could go hiking at his leisure. He also frequents the tennis courts, although he's never played Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, a fellow devotee of the sport.