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Sheila Bair: The one thing banking regulators should do now

October 2, 2012: 1:03 AM ET

Sheila Bair has a new book on the insider's view of the financial crisis. She's no longer a bank regulator, but she has plenty of advice for those who are.

Sheila Bair

Sheila Bair

FORTUNE – The press may have come to know Sheila Bair's new book as a juicy tell-all tale of all that's wrong with Wall Street, but the former Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation chairwoman on Monday clarified the tone of her book, Bull By The Horns: Fighting to Save Main Street From Wall Street and Wall Street From Itself.

"Blunt and honest I like – tell all, I don't like," said Bair during an interview with Fortune executive editor Stephanie Mehta at its annual Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel. "I did take people to task but only when I thought there was a good reason for it."

Her book takes aim at bankers she blames for the 2007 financial crisis. Bair also criticizes regulators – notably, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who was head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York during the crisis. She called him the "bailouter in chief" and questioned whether his efforts to flush the big banks with billions of dollars were really a veiled attempt to rescue Citigroup (C).

Read a full transcript of this interview

Admittedly, it turns out Bair wanted to say a little more, but readers (and perhaps Geithner) may never know exactly what. She said she actually held back: "I took 30,000 words out," she said about her 365-page book.

What Bair didn't leave out were the challenges of doing her job in the world of government and high finance so largely dominated by men. She described being left out of important meetings. And on Monday, she stressed the need to have more women working in "government at all levels."

"There are some women who maybe aren't as tough regulators as they should be.  But net-net it just seems to me like the women tend to focus more on the broader population.  Maybe it's our role as mothers, I don't know.  But we do seem to have a bigger identification of that."

Read an excerpt of Bair's book, Bull by the Horns

Bair was appointed to the FDIC in 2006 and served a five-year term.  She's a native of a rural town in Kansas called Independence – a place she described as mostly Republican "with a populist streak." She sees herself that way as well.

Looking ahead, it's probably not all that surprising that Bair has plenty of concerns over the future of Wall Street and the broader economy. She has high hopes for the newly-created Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, although she said the "rules are still too long and complex." Bair's much bigger worry is that the level of capital that banks must hold in order to keep from ever going under isn't sufficient. This isn't to say banks shouldn't take risks, Bair said, but capital requirements should be higher.

"If there's one thing the regulators can and should do before they do anything else is to raise capital requirements," Bair said. "You raise it for large financial institutions – bank and non-bank. Leverage was really a key driver of the crisis. It's the reason why you ended up having to do bailouts."

And as there seems to be no immediate end in sight for Europe's ongoing debt crisis, raising capital requirements seems ever more important.

"You look at Europe now they've never re-capitalized their banks. The leverage is still astonishing out there, said Bair, now a senior advisor to the Pew Charitable Trusts and a columnist for Fortune.

She added: "The new capital rules only came out for comment in March. I'm already hearing pushback."

And in terms of what the Fed has been doing to bolster America's tepid recovery, Bair doesn't think the central bank's latest prescription to buy billions of dollars worth of bonds and help drive mortgage rates lower will help at all. After all, banks aren't as quick to lend as they used to, and the appetite to borrowers amid economic uncertainties isn't at all what it used to be during the credit boom years.

"I think the risks are quite profound," Bair said, adding that it could very well lead to inflation or rapidly rising prices.

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About This Author
Nin-Hai Tseng
Nin-Hai Tseng
Writer, Fortune

Nin-Hai Tseng covers economics and finance. Before joining Fortune, Tseng was a reporter at The Orlando Sentinel and a public affairs associate at GE. She holds an MPA from Columbia University and a BS in Journalism from the University of Florida. She lives in New York City.

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