Her family lost its savings in a bank run in Yugoslavia. Now she’s in charge of the FDIC

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Financial regulator Jelena McWilliams, the head of the FDIC, knows firsthand the devastation that can happen when the public loses confidence in the banking system.

Her family was the victim of a run on the banks in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, a time when the country was being torn apart by a civil war.

McWilliams’ father, dressed in a three-piece suit, waited 11 hours in line on a drizzly day to get money out of a bank in Belgrade. But he was too late.

“By the time he made it to the teller, the money was gone,” McWilliams told CNN Business during an interview.

Unlike the United States, banks in the former Yugoslavia did not have deposit insurance. When the country’s financial system collapsed and banks ran out of money, depositors had no recourse.

Her father, then 68 years old, lost his entire life savings and was left little choice but to work as a day laborer earning just $5 a day, McWilliams said.

Today, McWilliams leads the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the US regulator formed during the Great Depression and charged with protecting depositors from bank runs.

“The notion of deposit insurance is not an esoteric concept to somebody like me,” McWilliams said. “It’s very real because my father was digging trenches as a result of not being able to get his life savings out of the bank when it collapsed.”

The FDIC insures trillions of dollars of deposits in banks across the United States. The banks pay premiums that are used to fund the insurance coverage. The insurance fund, backed by the credit of the federal government, protects up to $250,000 per depositor at each insured bank.

The FDIC was responsible for safely unwinding banks during the 2008 financial crisis, the worst to hit the United States in nearly a century. Nearly 500 banks failed between 2008 and 2013, wiping out about $73 billion from the FDIC’s deposit insurance fund.

Washington Mutual had $307 billion in assets when it failed in September 2008, making it the largest failure FDIC history. JPMorgan Chase purchased WaMu out of FDIC receivership. Mortgage lender IndyMac collapsed in the summer of 2008, and although it was a smaller financial institution, it remains the most expensive failure in FDIC history.

Arrived in America with just $500

McWilliams, who became chairman of the FDIC in June 2018, arrived in the United States at 18 years old with just $500 in her pockets — money her parents had to borrow.

But with no credit history and few assets, McWilliams struggled to get a credit card.

“I had no income, no job, no assets. I joke that I was a perfect NINJA,” she said, referring to the term for borrowers with no credit history who managed to get loans before the last crisis.

Eventually, McWilliams jumped on the chance to open a secured credit card — a type of credit where the bank held her money as collateral and collected interest. It gave her time to build a credit history.

For McWilliams, having that credit card helped her blend in with the rest of American society.

“As an immigrant, what that meant was that when I went to a grocery store and I pulled a plastic card out, I was just like every other American,” she said.

Anti-immigrant sentiment

McWilliams was nominated to her post at the FDIC in 2017 by President Donald Trump.

She declined to comment in detail about Trump’s controversial comments suggesting that four Congresswomen of color should “go back” to the “broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

“I generally don’t comment on the president’s statements or any political statements,” McWilliams said.

Asked about the anti-immigrant sentiment in today’s political discourse, McWilliams said she’s not bothered by it.

“There’s always been some form of anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States,” she said. “I try to do my best to be a good American. I feel so indebted to this country. This call to public service was my way to pay back.”

McWilliams said that the FDIC is focused on giving immigrants an opportunity to become part of the financial system. She pointed out the agency’s emphasis on improving access to credit for underbanked Americans, many of whom live in low-income and immigrant communities.

“I do believe that the American dream is alive,” she said.

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