Who is Anthony M. Frank?
Some people know him as the postmaster general. To others, he's the former chairman and chief executive of First Nationwide Bank, the Ford Motor Co.'s San Francisco-based thrift unit.
In Washington, he and his wife are also known for their frequent dinner parties, where the conversation often turns to anything but government, politics, or money. But when those topics come up, Mr. Frank lets everyone know exactly what he thinks is wrong with the financial services sector.
He doesn't stop at table talk.
During public speaking engagements and testimony before Congress, Mr. Frank is nearly as likely to lament the woeful state of the thrift bailout as he is to explain the latest increase in the price of stamps. He sometimes veers from tips on cutting mailing costs to warnings that banks and thrifts are being ruined by the fast-growing federal secondary mortgage market agencies.
These comments keep Mr. Frank's name in the hopper for just about every financial regulatory job that comes up.
In July, reports surfaced that Mr. Frank wanted to engineera merger of several deeply troubled California thrifts, then run them himself.
Though he quickly quashed that idea, Mr. Frank admitted he sometimes feels the urge to return to his roots.
The tug is pretty strong if the company he keeps is any indication. Movers and shakers from Washington's financial sphere are regular guests at the intimate dinners to which Mr. Frank and his wife, Gay, play host at their home in the posh Georgetown section.
Gathering around the Franks' dining room table one evening recently were Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman L. William Seidman and his wife, Sally (They live up the block); prominent thrift attorney Thomas P. Vartanian and his wife, Karen; and Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., and her husband, James.
While their guest lists have included folks like the Smithsonian Institution's assistant secretary for external affairs, Thoma E. Lovejoy, and the Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, the rosters tilt distinctly toward banking and finance.
Other guests have included Securities and exchange Commission Chairman Richard Breeden and his wife, Holly; Comptroller of the Currency Roberst Clarke and his wife, Puddin; and U.S. League of Savings Institutions president Frederick Webber and his wife, Ann.
Is Mr. Frank deliberately keeping his name in curculation in hopes of making a comeback in the financial world?
Not at all, he said. "We're not interested in talking shop. It's more interesting to hear about Tom Lovejoy's trip to the headwaters of the Amazon."
Mr. Frnak's guests agreed.
"He's a very stimulating man, and he likes to bring people together from all walks of life," Mr. Webber said.
"i try to avoid bank regulators at dinner," said Mr. seidman. "i have them for breakfast and lunch."
Even people who regularly spar with Mr. Frank rate him an engaging and provocative thinker.
One such is David O. Maxwell, former chairman and chief executive of the Federal National Mortgage Association. Mr. Maxwell said he and Mr. Frank have been "friendly adversaries" over the secondary-mortgage-market agencies' growing prominence.
"I like hearing what Tony has to say, and debating with him. He is a very lively speaker, and he is bright and thoughtful," Mr. Maxwell said.
Mr. Maxwell has often been on the receiving end of Mr. Frank's diatribes against the so-called Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (formally known as the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp.). In Mr. Frank's view, they helped force thrifts into riskier activities.
"What tony is really saying is, he doesn't want the system to operate so efficiently," Mr. Maxwell said. And given widespread evidence of fraud and abuse, he said, "it's absurd" to blame the mortgage agencies for the decline of the thrift industry.
Mr. Frank remains an unabashed booster of that industry, where he labored for half of his 60 years.
"The S&L business is essentially what I call 'eight-to-one.' You gather the savings of eight families, and you lend those to one other family," he said. "That's a terrific thing to do that nobody in this country really wants to do very much."
A Radical Prescription
Apparently, 3 1/2 years as postmaster general haven't robbed Mr. Frank of the energy to keep up a running commentary on the affairs of the financial services world.
"I know a lot about the problem," he said. "i believe strongly that the banking and savings and loan mess is a national emergency, and we're not acting like it."
His prescription is radical: Quit shutting down borderline institutions; the worst, he maintains, are already gone. Instead, salvage weak but soundly run banks and thrifts by priming the pump with government aid. That, he said, would get private capital flowing into the financial industry.
He said he knows that the idea of propping up troubled banks and thrifts is unpopular with both Congress and the public. But he said the Bush administration should swallow hard and push for it.
"The mood is against it," he admitted. "But regulators and administration people are there to lead."