RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And throughout the financial crisis in this country, a woman whose name you've likely never heard has been at the center of events. Sheila Bair heads the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the FDIC. And that's the agency that's been taking over troubled banks and merging them with stronger ones. The aim is to make sure depositors, and that's you and me, don't lose money. She sat down with NPR's Yuki Noguchi.
YUKI NOGUCHI: Sheila Bair's job is like being a goalie. When it's crunch time, all eyes fall on you.
Ms. SHEILA BAIR (Chairwoman, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation): People know me more so I can't get up on a Saturday morning and go to grocery store in my sweats without any make-up on. So it's been somewhat inconvenient that way. But that's fine. I mean, the kids are enjoying it. They like to see to mom in the paper and on TV. And there's always a downside with public scrutiny and closing banks is not a happy thing to do. You're inevitably picking winners and losers.
NOGUCHI: Happy isn't a word that comes to mind when describing this past year. 2008 started with 76 troubled banks on the FDIC's watch list. It increased to 117 and will likely grow. In July, one of them, IndyMac Bank, failed. Bair and other regulators took some heat for acting late leaving customers anxious and the government with no option but to take it over. Since then, Bair has stayed out in front of problems. She orchestrated the swift sale of Washington mutual to JPMorgan Chase. She won kudos for arranging other quirky marriages including one between Wachovia and Citigroup. The Wachovia later got a higher offer from Wells Fargo. For the past several weeks, Bair says she's had to keep track of all that's happening and stay in constant touch with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.
Ms. BAIR: It has been a very, very challenging job. You know, continuing stream of information coming in and dynamics is changing too. I think that's important for the public to understand. You know, we're only human and the solutions we thought would work six months ago, you know, we see different things every day.
NOGUCHI: Last week, the credit crisis worsened. And the FDIC said it would ensure all non-interest bearing deposits without limit. And for the first time ever, it would ensure bank debt. That essentially backs banks loans with government dollars in hopes of spurring banks to start lending again.
Ms. BAIR: We're doing as a brave, you know, new precedent-setting things, things that extend to far beyond our traditional role as deposit insurer. But I wouldn't do it, and I wouldn't commit the agency to doing it if I didn't think we had no other choice.
NOGUCHI: Sheila Bair is a native of Kansas who worked for that state's former Republican Senator Bob Dole. And she says, she's no stranger to crisis. In 2001, she became an Assistant Treasury Secretary.
Ms. BAIR: When I took that job I thought I would be a very nine-to-five kind of a policy type of job and then we had 9/11 of course, and then we had the Enron situation. I - maybe I take government jobs and bad things happen. Maybe I should just stay out of government.
NOGUCHI: But following a stint in academics at the University of Massachusetts, she came back in 2006 to head the FDIC. Back then, she was already sounding warnings at lenders needed to start forgiving and reworking subprime home loans. Ellen Seidman, is a fellow at the New America Foundation. She worked with Bair as a former director of the Office of Thrift Supervision.
Ms. ELLEN SEIDMAN (Fellow, New America Foundation): She began very early saying there's a problem here.
NOGUCHI: Bair understood how bad home loans could haunt the banks. But Seidman says people didn't want to listen.
Ms. SEIDMAN: When she got out there and started using that broader understanding, to some extent she was getting the, "hey lady, you're not supposed to be talking about this" reaction.
Ms. BAIR: And now, I can hope they can understand why we were talking about it because we do have to pick up the pieces.
NOGUCHI: Sheila Bair is still sounding the same alarm saying lenders need to get much more aggressive in preventing home foreclosures. Not doing so, she says will put more banks and the economy in jeopardy. She hopes this crisis will eventually guide the country toward more fiscal responsibility. Bair has two children, and has tried to teach that by writing two children's books. One is a parable about two boys, a saver who does well and a spender who ends up with nothing.
Ms. BAIR: People forget that, you know, there's risks and leverage, and there's a - you can lose money as well as make money and so understand what the risks you're taking before you commit yourself financially.
Ms. SEIDMAN: Chairman Bair, if they had read that book we wouldn't be where we.
Ms. BAIR: Well, maybe it will help at least. I think kids are interested in this in early age. And the other nice thing is that parents frequently read the books with the kids so maybe the parents pick up some thing, too.
NOGUCHI: If they do, the spotlight would go away and Sheila Bair could go back to being a low-profile regulator, and nothing would make her happier. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
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