Few people had a more important role than Scott Jarvis in overseeing how Washington’s financial institutions weathered the twists and turns of the disruptions the Great Recession brought to the economy and the financial industry.
As director of the state Department of Financial Institutions (DFI) from 2005 until his retirement this week, it was the role of Jarvis and his team to closely monitor the financial health of the state’s banks and thrifts during that economic crisis. And on 20 or more occasions, they had to pull the plug when critically inadequate capital or severe loan losses threatened continued solvency.
Jarvis, appointed by Gov. Christine Gregoire to the DFI director role in 2005 and reappointed in 2013 by Gov. Jay Inslee, reflected on that crisis during an interview that amounted to a revisiting of the bumpy ride on which the financial downturn took financial institutions in this state, and the role his agency had in each of the “bumps.”
But the most high-visibility failure, the seizure of Washington Mutual in September of 2008 by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the sale of the assets of what was by then one of the nation’s largest banks to J.P. Morgan Chase, was without consultation with the state regulators.
And the closure that was perhaps the most painful for Jarvis and his staff, that of Frontier Financial Corp. in April of 2010, was unavoidable after the feds turned down what both the bank board and state regulators viewed as a satisfactory buyout plan.
“If I had to name a ‘down’ moment, it was the circumstances associated with the closing of Frontier Bank,” Jarvis said. “Willing and adequate capital was available for infusion but the Fed was unwilling to sanction the transaction.”
A key bright spot for the regulators was the successful emergence of Sterling Savings Bank from under threat of closure. The once high-flying Spokane-based institution had been placed under a cease and desist order in early October of 2009 and its chairman-founder and the CEO ousted.
Agreements Sterling secured to raise $730 million in new capital under new CEO Greg Seibly and a reconstituted board allowed both DFI and the FDIC to terminate the order and allow Sterling to proceed back on the road to healthy operation and growth, and eventual acquisition by Umpqua Bank.
In fact, Jarvis said of Sterling’s re-emergence: “Sterling’s success is proof that a cease and desist order is not a death-knell for Washington’s banks, but rather a call to action. When a financial institution’s leaders take aggressive, well-planned, corrective action, success can be found at the end in safe and sound business practices – and in strong community and employee support.”
The financial crisis had actually paved the way for Oregon-based Umpqua to move into Washington since the Bank of Clark County, closed by DFI in January of 2009 as the first closure in this state, reopened under Umpqua ownership. And a year later, when DFI took action against Seattle-based Evergreen Bank and Rainier Pacific Savings Bank, they wound under the Umpqua banner.
And Jarvis may well have had Umpqua, among others, in mind when he said: “No matter how dark the financial or investment environment might seem at any given moment, there are always individuals and organizations who see opportunities for success that benefit our economy and move us forward.”
Of the circumstances that forced DFI to close the 18 banks and at least two thrifts that the department had to act on, Jarvis observed: “as a pituitary giant will tell you, sometimes there is a problem with too much growth.”
Jarvis, a New York native who graduated from Allegheny College and got his law degree from University of Puget Sound (now Seattle University), first joined DFI in 1997 after serving as an insurance regulator for the state Insurance Commissioner and General Counsel to the State Treasurer.
In discussing the relations between state financial regulators and their big-brother counterparts at the federal level, Jarvis admitted that “overall, state regulators are concerned with the feds pre-empting powers of state regulators,” evidencing an unsaid sense that in some areas, the local regulators have a better sense of market needs.
A key area where that is important, he feels, is in failure of the feds to understand the need to right-size regulations for small institutions, where “the risk and exposure are dramatically different for small banks.”
“I think the number of small commercial banks will shrink further and small towns need these kinds of institutions,” Jarvis said.
Of the WAMU takeover by the Fed, Jarvis’ banking chief, Rick Riccobono, has been outspoken in his view that the Fed’s action and its sale of assets to J.P. Morgan Chase for what many viewed as a bargain-basement price didn’t need to have happened. Jarvis has routinely scolded Riccobono for making those statements to various groups, but intriguingly, hasn’t said he disagreed with the comments.
Under his leadership, DFI became a nationally-recognized leader in state financial regulation, which helped move the state from 17th in the nation to 10th on Washington's Corporation for Enterprise Development Scorecard Ranking in "Financial Assets & Income.” In 2012-13 he chaired the legislative committee for the Conference of State Bank Supervisors.
An area where Jarvis was obviously pleased to see the states step in when a void was being left at the federal level was in creation of local legislation to make it easier for start-up entrepreneurs to raise capital from local investors, basically a state version of the JOBS Act passed by Congress in April of 2012.
It was clear after Congress passed the legislation and told the Securities & Exchange Commission to enact rules to put the law into effect, that the SEC’s then chair, Mary Shapiro, didn’t think easing investor protections to enhance entrepreneurial opportunities was a good idea, so she foot dragged for several years.
Eventually a number of states, including Washington, decided they could do it better locally anyway, so they enacted JOBS Act-like crowd-funding legislation, strongly supported by Jarvis and his agency. He told me once that his role was to balance protection for investors with opportunity for entrepreneurial startups and that the balance wasn’t that difficult a challenge.
He was careful how the process of putting the crowd-funding into effect was carried out, with hearings, testimony and staff evalutions, though there have only been four companies that have filed to raise money under the state legislation.
In thanking Jarvis for his years of contribution, the governor named Gloria Papiez, who had served as Jarvis’ deputy for more than a decade, to replace him.