Which one of these four topics has received the most hostile criticism from the Bush administration?
1) The $500 billion savings and loan collapse.
2) The $??? billion banking-industry swan dive.
3) The BCCI banking scandal.
4) L. William Seidman, top federal banking regulator.
The answer, of course, is No. 4, Bill Seidman. Mr. Seidman is the 70-year-old head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which runs the banks' deposit insurance system, and the top man at the Resolution Trust Corp., the agency charged with handling the S&L bailout.
Mr. Seidman, who assumed his posts after most of the damage had been done to the nation's financial industry, has admirably met the tests of being a public servant. In the process, he badly irritated the What, Me Worry? brigade in the White House, which has long wanted to get rid of him and was not displeased when Mr. Seidman said last week that he would retire in October.
Bill Seidman was the messenger who brought bad news, over and over again. He may not have been perfect in his insights nor terribly politic in every public appearance, but he consistently told the administration and the Congress what he thought to be the truth.
Mr. Seidman took heavy hits from bankers upset about his role in pushing for tough bank examinations last year. These audits required many banks to add large sums to their loan-loss reserves (thus hurting earnings) and to adopt tougher loan standards.
Some bankers believe that this was inappropriate and that it helped bring about a credit crunch that took an already ailing economy and tipped it into recession. The White House heard a lot about this.
There were also shock waves whenever Mr. Seidman appeared before some congressional subcommittee and tossed forth a new, and astronomically high, tab for bailing out the S&Ls and banks. In fact, these alarming numbers seem to be as truthful and accurate as any coming from the government.
The jury is still out on the audits. They may have sent some borderline banks over the edge, scaring away enough business to turn a bank that was weak into one that was broke. They may also have helped spur a merger wave that many experts say is unavoidable and even essential for the long-term health of the U.S. banking industry.
But Mr. Seidman's heavy dose of fiscal sobriety has also doubtless caused many banks to make needed repairs to their capital structures and turned probable victims into survivors in the process.
"I feel today as though somebody has removed a shot put from my gullet," Mr. Seidman told the New York Times after his announcement. "I'm now available for any kind of job that will pay a lot of money to do practically nothing."
Of course, the reality of the regulator's job is the reverse -- being paid relatively no money to do practically everything. Rarely rewarded or acknowledged for competence, regulators are routinely ridiculed by the other arms of government (and the press) when it suits their purposes.
Fortunately, Mr. Seidman isn't alone. Charles A. Bowsher, head of the Government Accounting Office, has become as much a burr under the administration's saddle. Both men's reports are relatively accurate, if politically painful.
In a similar vein, Dr. David A. Kessler, Food and Drug Administration commissioner, has seemingly issued more far-reaching orders and administrative changes in his brief time atop the agency than occurred during the past 10 years.
Performances such as Mr. Seidman's deserve far more praise and respect than they receive. The fact that honest, aggressive and sometimes abrasive regulators are often more likely to earn the ill will of their superiors is a troubling "kill the messenger" syndrome that's been around as long as there have been bosses.
Anyone who manages people should regularly stop to appreciate the value of receiving honest information. Hearing what you want to hear is comforting; hearing what you need to know is profitable.