President-elect Joe Biden will be able to reshape key financial regulatory agencies soon after he takes office on Jan. 20, but how much he will tilt them in a more progressive direction remains to be seen.
The banking industry is closely following that issue, given that banks have benefited from some of the regulatory rollbacks under President Donald Trump's administration and could soon see a shift in tone from Democratic-led agencies.
Biden's ability to appoint stalwart progressives — if he chooses to go that route instead of picking more moderate agency heads — may hinge partly on the outcome of the January runoff elections for two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia. Republicans would need to win only one seat to maintain control of the Senate, which votes on presidential nominees.
If Republicans keep the Senate, Biden will face pressure from the left to use recess appointments as a way to install agency heads without requiring Senate approval. Those groups are asking the president-elect to avoid further enabling the "revolving door" between financial industry lobbyists and top government posts.
Biden, who spent 36 years in the upper chamber, may be wary of going around his former Senate colleagues and may ultimately disappoint progressives by opting for more moderate picks. But so far, progressives are hopeful given his decision to turn to a transition team that includes some major critics of the financial industry. That includes former Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., and former Commodity Futures Trading Commission Chairman Gary Gensler, both of whom railed against Wall Street in the aftermath of the 2007-09 financial crisis. Kaufman is co-chair of the overall transition effort, while Gensler is playing a leading role in evaluating policy and personnel changes at key financial regulatory agencies.
Representatives from labor unions and other left-leaning groups are part of the transition team's advisers, as is Dennis Kelleher of the advocacy group Better Markets. Other prominent members include Leandra English, the former deputy director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Mehrsa Baradaran, a law professor at the University of California-Irvine who has written extensively on the racial wealth gap and is a leading proponent of letting the U.S. Postal Service offer banking services.
"It's very encouraging," Bartlett Naylor, financial policy advocate at the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said of the Biden transition team list.
Below is a rundown of some of the potential picks to key agency roles:
One of the Biden team's first priorities will be picking a new Treasury secretary, a role that requires involvement in high-level economic negotiations and determining regulatory priorities from the new administration.
Biden has pledged to make diverse cabinet appointments, and selecting the first woman or person of color ever to lead the Treasury Department would help him meet that goal.
One leading candidate under consideration is Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard, who as the lone Democrat on the Fed's Board of Governors has voted against several regulatory changes backed by her Trump-appointed colleagues.
Brainard has worked closely with Fed Chairman Jerome Powell throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a partnership that could be critical next year if the joint lending programs the Fed and Treasury have launched this year are extended. Powell has also entrusted her with taking the lead on the Fed's efforts to overhaul the Community Reinvestment Act and the forthcoming launch of a real-time payments system called FedNow. She has also been a key voice at the Fed as it begins to better understand the financial risks of climate change and ways that regulators can mitigate them.
Brainard has received some skepticism from the left, including over her perceived leniency on China while she was a top Treasury official in the Obama administration. However, Bloomberg News reported that she had pushed privately for calling China a currency manipulator, but then-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner decided against that approach.
Biden is also considering picking former Fed Chair Janet Yellen for the post, Bloomberg News reported. Yellen, an Obama administration appointee, was the first woman to lead the U.S. central bank and is currently a distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institution. Since leaving the Fed, she has been a leading voice in proposing that the U.S. adopt a carbon tax as a way of limiting the impact of climate change.
Another name being discussed is former Fed Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin, who was deputy secretary at the Treasury Department under the Obama administration and currently teaches at Duke University. In recent months, she has been critical of the Fed's decision to include oil and gas companies in its corporate bond purchase programs, writing in a The New York Times op-ed that the Fed was "ignoring clear warning signs about the economic repercussions of the impending climate crisis."
Another candidate is Roger Ferguson, the president and CEO of Teachers Insurance & Annuity Association of America and a former Fed governor. Ferguson was the Fed's first Black vice chair. He led the central bank's initial response to calm markets after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, given that he was the only governor in the Fed's Washington, D.C., headquarters that day. Ferguson announced on Nov. 17 that he would be stepping down from his current post in March 2021, a move that raised eyebrows among those watching the transition process.
Ariel Investments LLC co-CEO Mellody Hobson, who is also Black, has been floated as an option. Hobson is known for her work on financial literacy and has served on boards of high-profile corporations. She is currently a board member of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and vice chair of the Starbucks Corp. Hobson was formerly on the boards of The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. and DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc.
Biden will also be able to immediately replace the current CFPB director, Kathy Kraninger, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling in June that the agency head can be fired "at will."
His first move will likely be to appoint a current CFPB official to take over Kraninger's position until he can install a permanent leader.
Potential options for a permanent CFPB director include Federal Trade Commission member Rohit Chopra, the former CFPB student loan ombudsman, and Patrice Alexander Ficklin, who led the CFPB's Office of Fair Lending & Equal Opportunity, according to a Reuters report.
Progressive groups have also floated Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., a bankruptcy expert and former student of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as a potential agency head.
Bharat Ramamurti, a former Warren staffer, is also viewed as a potential Biden pick. Ramamurti, who works for the progressive Roosevelt Institute, is currently a member of the Congressional Oversight Commission overseeing the Fed and Treasury lending programs.
The Biden team may also be lining up some possible nominees to the U.S. central bank, although the lame-duck session of Congress could limit how many the president-elect will be able to appoint.
The seven-member Board of Governors currently has two openings, and Senate Republicans are hoping to confirm Trump's two pending nominees, Judy Shelton and Christopher Waller, ahead of Biden's inauguration. Shelton failed to pass a procedural hurdle on Nov. 17, but a vote on her nomination remains possible. Waller, the research director at the St. Louis Fed, was a more conventional Fed pick and is expected to easily pass the Senate if his nomination gets added to the calendar.
If both get confirmed, Biden would be unable to nominate someone to the Fed until 2022 unless a sitting Fed official retires. He also would be able to nominate a replacement for Brainard if she becomes Treasury secretary.
Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic, a housing expert and former Fed board economist, could be one of Biden's Fed picks if he has a vacancy. Bostic, who was the first Black and first openly gay regional Fed leader, has also been floated as a potential candidate for the Treasury Department. Bostic drew national attention over an essay he wrote this summer following protests over police brutality, arguing that systemic racism is "a yoke that drags on the American economy."
Biden will also eventually have to turn to who he picks as the Fed's next vice chairman for supervision. The post is currently held by Randal Quarles, a Trump appointee whose four-year term in that position ends on Oct. 13, 2021. Quarles, however, is able to remain on the Fed board until his full term runs out on Jan. 31, 2032, giving him a vote on regulatory issues for years to come even if Biden picks someone else to become the Fed's regulatory czar.
The president-elect will also have to decide whether he will reappoint Fed Chairman Jerome Powell. But Biden will not have to make that choice right away, given that Powell's four-year term as chairman lasts until February 2022.
FDIC and OCC
Biden will also be unable to appoint a new Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. chair immediately, given that Jelena McWilliams has said she will stay atop the agency until her term as chair expires in June 2023.
But the president-elect will be able to influence the agency's policymaking by adding members to the FDIC board of directors.
The FDIC board includes the leaders of the CFPB and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The current head of the OCC, Brian Brooks, is serving on an interim basis, but Trump has said he intends to nominate him for a full five-year term. But there is "very little time left" on the Senate calendar and even if senators did confirm Brooks, the law is "relatively clear" that Biden can remove the comptroller at his choosing, according to Isaac Boltansky, director of policy research at Compass Point Research & Trading.
Biden would also be able to appoint the other two members of the FDIC board, although the agency's rules dictate that the board can have no more than three members of the same political party at one time.