Aug. 27 (Bloomberg) -- Muriel “Mickie” Siebert died this past Saturday. Siebert, of course, was the first woman to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, founding her own successful brokerage firm and pointing the way for a future generation of women on Wall Street. All the obituaries have dutifully reported this, and there are some great stories in the tale of Siebert’s battle to level the playing field for women in finance.
But making so much of the fact that Siebert was the first woman to hold a seat runs the risk of reducing her to a Trivial Pursuit question. It also ignores the fact that Siebert’s greatest contribution –- one that rarely gets mentioned in the obituaries, if at all –- had nothing to do with buying and selling stocks. It was, instead, her role as a bank regulator, easily the most important job she ever held, and one that opened the door to women at the highest levels of government. Long before Sheila Bair at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and Mary Schapiro at the Securities and Exchange Commission, there was Muriel Siebert, the first women to serve as New York State’s Superintendent of Banking.
She was appointed to the position on April 13, 1977, by Democratic Governor Hugh Carey. As Siebert recalled, Carey was “very frank. He said, ‘I’m looking for a woman, and yours is the only name that keeps coming back.’” This was a bit of a gamble: the position carried far more responsibility than Siebert had ever shouldered in her work on Wall Street, and making gender the principal qualification for the job could have backfired had Siebert failed at her new undertaking.
She didn’t. Siebert proved a quick study, assuming control of a vast regulatory empire. By the time she stepped down in 1982, she had a staff of 500 and responsibility for hundreds of banks with assets exceeding $400 billion (about $1 trillion today's dollars). Crises immediately came her way: not long after taking office, New York’s Municipal Credit Union started to fail. Its total assets exceeded the insurance fund of the National Credit Union Administration, which was obligated to bail it out. Siebert promptly took it over herself, putting it on the path to recovery.
She tangled with many politicians during her tenure, most famously when she split with Carey over permitting Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corp., the predecessor of HSBC Holdings Plc, to absorb New York’s Marine Midland Bank. Carey wanted the takeover to proceed, and when Siebert refused to put her stamp of approval on it, he threated to dismiss her. Siebert held her ground, surviving the challenge, even if she failed to prevent the takeover (proponents of the merger circumvented her by applying for a federal charter). Siebert’s pugnacity nonetheless earned her plenty of admirers: as one state legislator was quoted on condition of anonymity in the Wall Street Journal, “She’ll tell you to go to hell in a minute. It’s refreshing in this world of B.S.”
Siebert won plenty of other battles during her tenure. In the late 1970s, spiraling inflation was crippling many savings banks, which found it difficult to make up the difference between the income they received from mortgages, and the need to pay depositors high rates of interest. One of the biggest cases she had to confront was Greenwich Savings Bank. Had it collapsed, it would have been one of the biggest bank failures up until that time. Siebert played an adept matchmaker, lining up suitors for the ailing bank and brokering a deal with the FDIC. It was an act she reprised multiple times during her tenure, steering banks into consolidations instead of permitting disruptive failures.
Siebert pushed hard -– and successfully -– for regulatory changes that would enable banks to compete in the era of high interest rates. Not all of her efforts sat well with liberals: some critics claimed that she favored banks over consumers, though here, too, she showed a pragmatic streak that served her well. Early on her tenure, she was faced with two seemingly unrelated controversies. The first was a demand by community activists to do more about the tendency of banks to refuse to underwrite mortgages in certain, largely minority neighborhoods, a practice known as redlining. The second was the plea by banks to change usury laws, which limited the amount of interest they could charge on consumer loans. Siebert brokered a creative deal in Albany that simultaneously banned redlining and abolished the old usury laws. Not bad for someone who had never worked in politics.
So yes: Muriel Siebert was a trailblazer. But her seat on the NYSE was a sideshow to the bigger things she accomplished during her career. And it was her term as a banking regulator that really deserves the spotlight. As one upstate banker quoted in the Wall Street Journal in 1981 observed, “I think history will record that Mickie confronted about the worst problems of any state regulator. And she grabbed the reins. She took the flak.”