WASHINGTON – Sheila Bair is stepping down as chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. this summer, ending a five-year term in which she helped craft the government's response to the 2008 financial crisis.
Bair will leave her post as one of the top banking regulators on July 8, the FDIC said Monday.
She was among the first officials to raise concerns about the explosion of high-risk lending to borrowers with bad credit. Under her tenure, the agency closed the most banks since the savings and loan crisis. That included Washington Mutual, the nation's largest bank failure.
The FDIC is charged with maintaining public confidence in the banking system. The agency guarantees bank deposits up to $250,000.
Vice Chairman Martin Gruenberg is considered a likely candidate to succeed her. He will become the acting chairman if the Obama administration doesn't appoint a replacement before Bair leaves.
Bair, 57, was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2006. Within a year, she moved to shut down Santa Monica, Calif.-based Fremont Investment & Loan. The bank had been a major player in the troubled home-mortgage business, doling out high-interest loans to people with poor credit records or low incomes. It was the first of 365 banks closed during her time leading the agency.
Bair also advocated for consumers and small banks during the financial crisis, when most other regulators focused primarily on helping the biggest Wall Street firms. After the housing bubble burst, she argued unsuccessfully for the government to force banks to reduce monthly payments for troubled homeowners facing foreclosure.
Some, including Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., criticized Bair for moving too slowly to recognize problems with IndyMac Bank, a failed California savings and loan and one of the first large casualties of the housing bust. The agency took over IndyMac in 2008.
But as part of the takeover, many borrowers' payments were lowered to a set percentage of their monthly incomes. The loan modification became a model for the government's later efforts to help those at risk of foreclosure.
Bair often disagreed with members of the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as industry executives and other regulators.
Most notably, she clashed with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner over a range of issues related to the Wall Street bailouts. For example, Bair wanted the government to force out Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit after it extended billions in bailouts and guarantees to the financial services firm. Geithner disagreed. Pandit kept his job.
Her reputation for taking on large banks was cemented during last year's debate over the financial regulatory overhaul. Bair pushed for a policy to wind down the biggest financial companies whose failure threatened the broader financial system. She fought successfully to have the FDIC run that process.
Another provision forces big banks to pay a larger share of the fees that the agency charges to insure deposits.
In the past, banks paid based on the amount of deposits they held. Now, the fees are calculated based the loans a bank holds on its books. Larger banks tend to have more loans relative to their deposits.
"We had our moments of cooperation and moments of frustration with Bair," said Scott Talbott, a lobbyist with the Financial Services Roundtable, which represents the nation's largest financial companies. But he said she provided "strong leadership during a tumultuous time."
Bair, a native Kansan and longtime financial regulator, worked as a civil rights attorney in the 1970s and was a top aide to former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan. She launched an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1990, losing in the primary by less than 800 votes.
Dole, who encouraged Bair to return to Kansas and run for office, said in a statement that she did an "outstanding job at the FDIC in very difficult times."
The FDIC says Bair will chair a final board meeting during the first week of July.
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