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FDIC’s Bair sets the record straight

By Leigh Gallagher

FDIC chief Sheila Bair gave an insightful and informative interview to CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo in one of the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit’s headline sessions today.

Bair, No.3 on Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women in Washington list, spent most of the interview doing what she probably does a lot of these days — clearing up confusion about her agency in the public view. Right off the bat, Bair disputed the notion that her agency has said that 400 banks will fail, an oft-cited figure. “Others said that,” Bair said, speaking quickly and definitively, but calmly. “We don’t make predictions.” She said there are 412 banks on the FDIC’s problem bank list, and pointed out that most of those do not fail. “But the list is getting bigger,” she acknowledged. The FDIC has shuttered 92 banks this year, she said.

She also clarified what she called a “misunderstanding” in the media surrounding the FDIC’s reserve fund. The press, she says, has focused on a $10.4 billion figure for the fund, but Bair says that figure is more a “net worth” figure; the funds available for bank rescues for the next 12 months, she told the audience, are $42 billion. But she said that had recently dropped from $52 billion, so “it’s $10 billion lower.”

She also pointed out that there are ways for the FDIC to access more funds, like increasing bank premiums or borrowing from the Treasury. In what has become a common refrain for Bair throughout the financial crisis, she explained to the audience that depositors are safe, and that when a bank is taken by the FDIC there is no risk for banking customers. “There is no way anyone is going to lose a penny over insured deposits,” she said. “They never have and they never will.”

Bartiromo asked Bair what she thought of the institutions that have been deemed too big to fail. Bair said the “unnecessary risktaking” that led to the financial crisis highlighted the fact that those firms have no resolutionary mechanism: a set of “tools to depose them, put them into receivership and wind them down” should they become troubled. She said what was needed was a law that would provide those banks with a framework so they can be put into receivership, much like FDIC-insured banks. “Unless you make it clear to these institutions that they’re going to have pain [or] there’s going to be trouble” if they take too many risks, she said, “you’re going to have a bad situation.”

Bartiromo also asked Bair what it was like to be a woman at the table often dominated by men. “You have to speak up,” Bair said, “and it can be frustrating.” She said sometimes the better way to be heard is by going public, the way she did when she criticized the Obama administration’s loan modification plan earlier this year.