WASHINGTON — Marty Gruenberg, the No. 2 at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., is expected to be nominated shortly as the agency's chairman, according to several sources.
Though the White House is remaining silent on a forthcoming package of financial services nominees, Gruenberg's ascension has been rumored for months, with no other likely candidate mentioned. A former top aide on the Senate Banking Committee, Gruenberg has been the FDIC's vice chairman since 2005, and briefly was its acting head before the confirmation of Sheila Bair.
During that time Gruenberg has amassed a solid background in regulatory policy, taking an active role in the development of Basel capital standards and demonstrating a clear interest in consumer protection. Gruenberg's agenda is an unknown, but he has been aligned with Bair on every recent FDIC initiative, including those that have upset bankers, suggesting he may steer the agency in a similar direction.
"I wouldn't see significant differences with how the FDIC operates right now under Sheila Bair," said V. Gerard Comizio, a partner at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP. "As the vice chair, he has been involved in all of the important policies that have been developed since the financial crisis and are continuing to evolve post-Dodd-Frank."
But where Bair has been vocal on the agency's behalf, observers say Gruenberg would likely work more quietly, making his presence known behind the scenes.
"Marty will be a deliberate, thoughtful regulator who will think much before he speaks. He'll do his homework. He'll dig into the issues," said Mark Oesterle, an attorney at Reed Smith LLP who was a senior Republican aide to the Senate Banking Committee while Gruenberg worked for the Democratic side. "Once he makes up his mind, he sticks to his convictions."
Gruenberg is well known as a consumer advocate, having worked for years under former Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., another champion of customer rights. Some of Gruenberg's views may rub bankers the wrong way, but he has shown a willingness to listen and find common ground.
"There's a strong exasperation on the part of many bankers … that the FDIC has been led by people who don't have much banking background. So there is a strong desire to have someone there who has either been a banker or some other strong banking experience," said an industry source who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Marty won't fit that concept of what many bankers would really want to see in that spot. That will be a source of concern for them. I don't think it will be a disqualifying concern."
Still, Gruenberg is "a known quantity," the source added, and bankers "don't have bad feelings about him."
"He's always been willing to talk to folks," the source continued. "He's been very accessible. He had a round of being the acting chairman where bankers got to know him. All of that adds up to: they will be concerned, but they're also ready to give him the benefit of the doubt."
Gilbert Schwartz, a partner at Schwartz & Ballen and a former Federal Reserve Board attorney, said any industry concerns about Gruenberg's consumer-rights views would be muted by the restrictions on the FDIC's authority in writing consumer rules.
The agency still can issue guidance to the banks it supervises, and enforce consumer protection rules for its banks, but the primary rule writer under Dodd-Frank is the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
"He's a strong consumer advocate," but "the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is going to have most of the say. If I were in the industry, I'd be more concerned about the CFPB than I would be about Marty Gruenberg," Schwartz said.
But he added that Gruenberg would likely scan the industry to identify products that may be abusive.
"For quite a while, the FDIC's position on payday loans was they can be offered in a safe and sound manner. If they didn't violate the law and were offered in a prudent way, the FDIC did not find that to be objectionable," Schwartz said. "Somewhere along the line, they changed their view, and I suspect he had something to do with that. He will probably find some other abuses that he feels should not be engaged in by FDIC-insured institutions or state nonmember banks."
Though Gruenberg has been the obvious choice for the job for months, the Obama administration has hesitated on naming financial services nominees, apparently because it prefers to push through a package of candidates at the same time.
A White House spokeswoman said she had "no comment on speculation about personnel before the president makes his decision."
Challenges for the White House include a statutory limit on the number of FDIC board members from the ruling party (three) and issues facing other potential nominees.
Gruenberg's position as vice chairman is the only FDIC board seat not nearing the end of its term. (His term expires in 2012.)
Bair's term as chairman is up in June, and she has said she plans to leave then. The administration has yet to appoint a permanent comptroller of the currency since the August 2010 departure of John Dugan. (John Walsh has been serving as acting comptroller.)
Meanwhile, Tom Curry's term as an FDIC board director officially ended last year, and under Dodd-Frank the Office of Thrift Supervision's seat will be replaced by the director of the CFPB.
Many names have been tossed around for the other positions, including that of Elizabeth Warren, the architect behind the CFPB who is advising the administration on its formation and is widely expected to be nominated as its permanent director.
Warren's nomination would be contentious. Many observers say the White House is likely negotiating with congressional Republicans on a package of members that would satisfy both parties. Gruenberg became vice chairman under a similar scenario in 2005, when Sarbanes encouraged his appointment as the Bush administration was looking to nominate Republicans for other roles.
The administration is expected to announce its full package of nominees at any time. Under Dodd-Frank, the CFPB assumes its authority on July 21, and most observers expect President Obama to push to get an agency director in place by then or shortly afterward.
"They're generally aware that with the way the Senate works, you probably need to announce the nominations soon to even make it possible for people to be in place by the July deadline," Oesterle said.
But some said the rancorous political environment in Washington may make it difficult for any nominee to be moved.
Cornelius Hurley, director of the Morin Center for Banking and Financial Law at the Boston University School of Law, cited the recent nomination of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Peter Diamond as a Fed governor. Republican senators blocked Diamond's nomination; Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the Banking Committee's ranking member, called Diamond unqualified for the job. But Hurley said Gruenberg may have a better shot if he is nominated.
"Gruenberg is highly qualified, but so is Peter Diamond from MIT. He just picked up a Nobel Prize, and he can't get confirmed. It's crazy," Hurley said, though he added that Gruenberg's time working on Capitol Hill may work in his favor.
"Somebody who is a known staffer from the Hill probably has personal relationships that transcend party and should be able to be confirmed," Hurley said.