NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Elizabeth Warren, clad in cardigans and pearls, has become Wall Street’s public enemy No. 1, but it’s that very vitriol that could earn her a post heading the government’s new consumer watchdog agency.
“I get disgusted every time I hear her speak. It’s like she’s sitting in some ivory tower, not understanding the ramifications of anything she says,” said Anton Schutz, president of Mendon Capital Advisors. “Any person you put in that role really ought to have some industry experience.”
Warren, a Harvard law professor and outspoken consumer rights advocate, is currently a top monitor of the government’s $700 billion bailout of the financial system.
Now she is one of the main contenders to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency to regulate financial products ranging from credit cards to mortgages.
Banks bitterly opposed White House efforts to create the agency, but lawmakers pushed it through as part of the Wall Street reform legislation passed this month.
Now, industry players, fearing a profit crunch, are taking aim at the woman who could be their new regulator, calling Warren dogmatic and unwilling to compromise. Their aim? To convince Washington she cannot secure the kind of compromise or cooperation needed to push reforms through.
“I don’t think she can run that new agency in a fair, balanced way where she can listen to all the constituencies, not just the consumer advocates,” said Alan Kaplinsky, a lawyer for Ballard Spahr, who advises banks and consumer financial companies.
The financial industry fears that Warren’s single-minded fight for the consumer will strip away their ability to charge fees and customize products.
But she is a hero to many lawmakers and consumer advocates, due in no small part to the fear she inspires on Wall Street.
In fact, Warren’s supporters don’t disagree that she wants to pressure banks’ profits. They just don’t see that as a bad thing.
House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank, one of her most ardent supporters, told Reuters in an interview that he wants banks to make less profit from things like overdraft fees and more from lending. “I would like to impinge on bank profits in this area,” Frank said.
Warren was plucked in 2008 from Harvard Law School, where she specializes in bankruptcy, to head a congressionally-appointed bailout oversight panel.
She took on the role with unexpected zeal, saying banks sold innocent customers shoddy loans that were the equivalent of flaming toasters.
Every few weeks, she does a round of television appearances, taking the banks to task for their unfettered pursuit of profit, while giving a few lumps to the government for quick-and-fast bailouts.
Her supporters call Warren’s critics insincere in citing a lack of “banking experience.”
“What they mean is a certain kind of ‘experience’. Traditionally bank regulators have often come from K street (lobbying) law firms working on banking law for banks,” said Travis Plunkett, legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America, who has worked with Warren for decades.
“The whole point is to have an independent agency that is not beholden to the banking industry or to banking regulators,” said Plunkett.
Banking industry trade groups declined to comment. Through a spokesman, Warren declined to comment for this article.
On Monday, the White House dismissed Wall Street’s criticisms and said they did not disqualify her.
“Elizabeth Warren is a terrific candidate. I don’t think any criticism in any way by anybody would disqualify her and I think she’s very confirmable for this job,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.
But the banking industry’s criticisms have succeeded in raising some concerns that Warren will be ultimately a hard sell as a candidate.
“Elizabeth could be a terrific nominee,” Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd said in a radio interview earlier this month. “The question is, ‘Is she confirmable?’ And there’s a serious question about that.”
Frank said others with regulatory experience have failed to distinguish themselves.
He praised her command of the issues and political savvy, calling her a “very intelligent woman with great knowledge of the specifics.”
The nominee, whoever that might be, must be confirmed by the Senate. Republicans may still be able to block the nomination if Democrats cannot muster 60 votes to block a procedural hurdle in the full Senate.
A Republican aide, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said Republicans are looking for someone with more bank regulation and industry experience.
Reporting by Maria Aspan in New York and Kim Dixon in Washington; Editing by Tim Dobbyn
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