WASHINGTON — Considered to be a deal broker and careful listener by those who have worked with him in the past, Joseph Smith won near-universal acclaim Friday as President Obama's pick to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
Many said Smith, the commissioner of banks for North Carolina, was someone with considerable regulatory experience and the ability to draw consensus on even a highly politicized issue like reforming Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
"It's hard to think of a better choice; he has the experience and the temperament," said Mike Calhoun, president of the Center for Responsible Lending, which is based in North Carolina.
"He's applauded by bankers and consumer advocates alike. I think a lot of that is a testament that he's not only smart, but he's a very good listener and, with the broad experience he has, able to craft things that operationally work for everybody. That will serve him well in this new position."
Those attributes will be sorely needed as Smith, if confirmed by the Senate, steps into a pivotal role just months before the Obama administration is due to unveil its plans to revamp the housing finance system.
Under the Dodd-Frank Act, the administration is required to unveil its plan by January to reform U.S. housing policy, along with the troubled mortgage government-sponsored enterprises.
The White House made the announcement after months of speculation about who would take over the seat, which has been held by acting director Edward DeMarco since Sept. 1, 2009.
"Mr. Smith brings to this position both tremendous expertise and a deep commitment to strengthening our housing finance system for the American people," President Obama said in a press release.
"I'm grateful that he has accepted this nomination, and I look forward to working with him in months and years to come."
As commissioner in North Carolina, a position Smith has held since June 2002, he supervised state-chartered banks and thrifts, as well as mortgage lenders and brokers.
Many said in that capacity he worked to build consensus, while still advancing policy on the foreclosure problems in his state.
Colleagues describe Smith as a genuine, likeable person with a persuasive personality who, even on tough issues, would provide criticism constructively.
"He's very balanced," said Paul Stock, the executive vice president and counsel at the North Carolina Bankers Association. "He listens. Rather than blocking out the noise, he tries to sort through it and give everybody an opportunity to make their case. He's deliberative. He seems to do a very good job about keeping his eye on the target and figuring out where he wants to end up."
While Smith has been an outspoken opponent of preemption and even criticized the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s proposed restrictions on private-equity firms' purchase of banks, little is known about his views on the GSEs.
As a state regulator and a top official with the Conference of State Bank Supervisors, Smith has overseen nonbank mortgage lenders and supported the creation of a national mortgage licensing system. Many said that would provide him valuable insight into the housing finance system.
"In North Carolina, he has been a strong force in creating a well-regulated mortgage broker system for mortgage lending," said V. Gerard Comizio, a partner in the corporate department at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP. "North Carolina has been going through a pretty lengthy process to license mortgage lending, and he was on the cutting edge among the states to do so even before the financial crisis. From the regulatory perspective I think the folks who look at him for this agency have that in mind. He has a strong ability to think around the next corner, and I think that's going to serve him well in this kind of job."
Richard Neiman, the New York commissioner of banks and a top candidate for comptroller of the currency, also cited Smith's work in North Carolina.
"He sees a real balance between the role government plays in terms of ensuring a sound financial system as well as access to credit as well as a strong view on consumer protection, as evidenced by how progressive he has been in his state on mortgage origination," he said in an interview.
"He will bring a very strong perspective as a commissioner, as a bank regulator, very close to the issues of residential mortgage financing and a strong interest in consumer protection. I think it's a perfect choice because of his background and priorities," Neiman said.
Some observers said Smith would likely bring a fresh perspective to the GSE dilemma.
"He's not understood to be a Republican or Democrat on these issues," said Lawrence Baxter, a professor at Duke Law School and a former executive vice president of Wachovia Corp.
"He's understood to be a person who wants to find viable compromise, or a practical result that works. I don't see him as a turn-everything-upside-down kind of reformer, I also don't see him as complacent about the status quo and just trying to hold onto the interest of the most powerful party," Baxter said. "On the contrary, he personally worries a lot about if we are losing our way in financial practices."
"He really does come to this with an open mind," Calhoun said. "He appreciates the role of government in housing and recognizes its importance, he also recognizes the moral hazard and the excesses in the mortgage industry in the last decade. But I think one of the things that will make him well suited for this position is that people are going to quickly find out he is a fair broker on this issue and will truly listen to all sides and look at the data and look at the different options."
Some lawmakers have already been impressed. Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., lauded Smith as a smart, solid individual who would likely take a straightforward approach as a regulator. "He will tell the truth, he will tell me the truth," said Miller, who has frequently worked with Smith on financial reform issues. "It's a two-step process: what the people in charge are really doing and what they say they are doing, and second, do I agree with what they are doing. I might not always agree, but I can cut out that first step."
Bob Clarke, a senior partner at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP and the former comptroller of the currency, said the most important thing Smith brings to the table, however, is experience.
"I just think that he has a good sound grounding in financial institutions supervision, knows what to look for and knows how to deal with financial institutions," Clarke said. "My experience with him is he has very good judgment and doesn't overreact."