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Comptroller Tom Curry takes tough line with banks

He would never say so, but I’d bet Tom Curry had his fingers crossed on Election Day.

Curry, a career regulator with deep ties to Massachusetts, had been sworn in as comptroller of the currency just seven months before the election. He could count on some amount of political insulation: the job security of a five-year term running a self-funded independent bureau inside the Treasury Department.

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The presidential campaign presented two starkly different views about financial regulation. President Obama talked tough about banks and the economic damage caused by unchecked recklessness. Mitt Romney believed regulation was holding back America’s banking system and vowed to dismantle or restrain big chunks of it.

Imagine you’re a bigshot federal bank regulator. Who would you want to see elected?

As I said, Curry would never admit to any kind of political preference to somebody like me. Beyond basic Beltway preservation instincts, Curry has remained relentlessly ­apolitical in a government career over a quarter century.

He was named the state banking commissioner in Massachusetts in 1990 by a Democratic governor — Michael Dukakis — and later served in that role at the pleasure of the state’s next four chief executives — all Republicans, including one named Romney. Curry was brought to Washington by President George W. Bush eight years ago to become a director of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. He was selected for his latest role by Obama.

Curry will tell you very little has changed about the way he approaches his job over all that time. “I don’t think I’m any different than I was 25 years ago when I started doing this stuff,” he says.

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But his job has gotten much, much bigger. The comptroller regulates national banks and federal thrifts across the country, more than 2,000 institutions with $9.6 trillion in assets.

Curry is not a high-profile regulator in the style of Sheila Bair when she led the FDIC. He is not any kind of lightning rod as Elizabeth Warren proved to be when she advocated for the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

On the other hand, he is a very competent bank regulator with more front-line experience than anyone who has held similar Washington posts in a long time. He has taken over an agency with an earned reputation for being much too cozy with the industry it polices and — so far — he’s talked a pretty tough game.

A whale landed on Curry’s desk as soon as he arrived at his new job in April: Huge losses on derivatives bets at JP Morgan Chase, placed by a trader who became known as the “London whale,” reignited debate about whether financial institutions remained too complex for regulators to follow, never mind police. In that case, all Curry could do was vow to investigate what went wrong.

More recently, Curry has been cautioning big banks about moving too much money out of reserve accounts too quickly. Banks want to shift billions out of those accounts because it immediately counts as profit. But the maneuver reduces a bank’s financial cushion and ability to safely absorb setbacks. “There’s definitely pressure to show profitability, and this is potentially a way to do it,” he says. “We just want banks to do it right. That’s our job . . . , to lay out our expectations.”

Meanwhile, the comptroller’s office is reportedly leading a group of regulators investigating antimoney-laundering procedures at the nation’s big banks. The comptroller recently told bankers to expect enforcement actions and fines as a result of the crackdown, according to The Wall Street Journal.

In a lengthy conversation with me about regulators and banks, Curry most emphasized the importance of clear rules and healthy levels of capital. But he also went out of his way to advocate for some degree of discretion for examiners looking into individual banks. “Everything is not a cookie-cutter,” he says. “I don’t think we should lose sight of that as we implement structural reforms.”

Tom Curry has spent more than two decades leading bank regulators. This is his best and perhaps last professional stop. The next four years may offer a very good chance to make the most of it.The Red Herring

Staples Inc. chief executive Ron Sargent has resigned from the board of Home Depot Inc., effectively immediately. Sargent, who joined the board last year, didn’t express any disagreements with the company, Home Depot said. Staples, in the midst of a business restructuring, reported a quarterly loss of $596 million last week.

Steven Syre is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at syre@globe.com.

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