WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren is either one of the best qualified people in America to set up President Barack Obama’s new consumer financial watchdog, or the financial industry’s worst nightmare who would hound banks and crush financial innovation.
She could of course be both, and has even inspired a rap song by the Main Street Brigade that praises “Sheriff Warren” because “she wants to expose the banks and all the greed.”
This is an example, depending on your point of view, of exactly what Wall Street is worried about or of Warren’s credibility with ordinary Americans on Main Street.
It also illustrates a surprising amount of grass roots support for what might normally be seen as a rather dry corner of government, hinting at lingering popular anger toward banks bailed out last year by U.S. taxpayers.
Here are some questions and answers about Warren’s background, qualifications and why has she is controversial:
Credited with coming up with the original idea for a U.S. consumer financial protection agency, Warren, 61, is not afraid of making enemies and has campaigned for years on behalf of consumers, writing books about why working families can no longer afford a middle-class lifestyle in America.
She put banks on notice on Friday, as she accepted Obama’s invitation to become a special advisor to stand up the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a move by Obama that sidesteps a potentially bruising Senate confirmation.
“The time for hiding tricks and traps in the fine print is over,” she cautioned in a White House blog posting.
“People ought to be able to read their credit card and mortgage contracts and know the deal. They shouldn’t learn about an unfair rule or practice only when it bites them.”
This was music to the ears of consumer advocates, who had lobbied hard for her to get the post and were delighted that their hero was safely in place.
“Wall Street is busy trying to thwart regulators from doing the job Congress laid out — keeping the big banks in check,” said Lisa Donner, Executive Director of Americans for Financial Reform. “With Elizabeth Warren leading the way, and the public keeping up its vigilance, they will not succeed.”
This sentiment was echoed by other consumer groups, some of whom had mounted petitions to secure her the job.
“Warren offers the promise of what financial consumers need most - a tough advocate to clean up an industry that has made unfairness and deception its core business model,” said David Arkush, Director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division.
Making her an assistant to the president and special adviser to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was sharply criticized by industry lobby groups.
“This maneuver is an affront to the pledge of transparency and consumer protection that’s purported to be the focus of this new agency, the Chamber of Commerce said in a statement.
“This may be a calculated move to help fire up some groups ahead of the mid-term elections, but it undermines the credibility and effectiveness of this already politicized new agency from day one,” it said.
The banking industry already had reservations about being regulated by an individual who has a long track record of seeing Wall Street as the problem.
The two key gripes about Warren are her perceived predisposition in viewing banks as the guilty parties, and an academic’s lack of real-world experience of how the industry functions, and hence a lack of appreciation of its views.
“She has no grounding in the practicalities of the industry that she would be regulating,” said one former Federal Reserve official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“Many people in the industry believe, in her mind and in her heart, that she has been such an advocate for this that there is a predisposition in her view-point of being highly suspicious of the industry and that it is guilty until proven innocent,” he said.
That perception was cemented during hearings she conducted at the Congressional Oversight Panel, the body monitoring the government’s bank bailout. Warren made comments about certain mortgages as too complicated, the proliferation of credit card fees, and on misleading insurance plans.
“She’s very strong-minded,” said Ernie Patrikis, a partner at law firm White and Case and a former senior officer at the New York Federal Reserve, citing her conduct at the hearings.
“I think people have seen that side, and have concerns that she would just not be open-minded on issues, or would have made up her mind ahead of time,” he said.
Reporting by Alister Bull; Editing by Tim Dobbyn