$700,000,000,000… oh what a relief, it is! With apologies to Alka-Seltzer, one chamber crawled out of the sandbox and reached an unpopular but bipartisan decision to save global credit markets last night as banks held a Russian Roulette pistol with six chambers full to our heads and yelled, “Stop me before I shoot.”
Crisis over? Problem solved? Ha! Not even close.
A friend described a banker as someone who smilingly lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining then asks for it back when it begins to rain. Well, it’s pouring and while everyone wants to blame Congress for their petulance, it is the bankers who have behaved despicably throughout this crisis.
After years of irresponsible lending they have again typically overreacted locking the wheel of this oil tanker hard to starboard. They’ve shut off the lending spigot, strangling markets everywhere in their newfound religion of ‘prudent restraint’ after years of mailing free credit cards to students and infants creating credit crack addicts.
I worked for two institutions in the 80s that no longer exist today. Bank of Boston was founded in 1784, the USA’s oldest chartered bank. We walked around headquarters as masters of New England , wearing stuffy regimental ties, sumptuously dining in the Officer’s Dining Room with its 360-degree view of the city 36 floors below. The second-floor executive offices held the bank’s charter preserved, like a pheasant dish, under glass. Poof, 215 years of history disappeared in 1999, merged into Fleet Financial, itself bought--poof!--by Bank of America four years later.
Miami’s Southeast Banking Corporation was even more ignobly treated. After 80 years as Florida ’s corporate banking institution, it was closed, then liquidated overnight by the Comptroller of the Currency in 1991. First Union Bank acquired the fire sale assets and most now admit the sale never should have happened. First Union was itself gobbled up by Wachovia, which was rescued this week by Citigroup for the fire sale price of $1 a share.
Most bankers behaved as captain of the Exxon Valdez and are now trying to sleep it off. We’d sit in quarterly management meetings as the executives would spin the steering wheel and say, “We need deposits!” where 90 days earlier they’d spun it the other way saying, “We need loans.”
How bad is it, really? Terri Tobin-Young is a real estate broker in Southeastern Massachusetts. Not selling in the go-go investment world of Florida or California rather helping decent, hard working folks for whom their home is their largest asset. Blue collar Brockton has been decimated and she recently “wrote offers on two triple-deckers (three apartments in one large old house) for $120,000 and $181,000. Each last sold in ‘05 (peak of market) for approximately $450,000.”
Terri is a conscientious agent who works hard for her clients. The pain she felt was evident when she said, “I had to tell a would-be seller the house she bought through me in ‘04 for $275,000 will fetch under $225,000 in today’s market. So if she sells she loses the $50,000 she put down on the property.”
Charley James wrote about his family member, a small business owner trying to get by on a unilateral $10,000 cut in his bank business credit line. Their excuse, “it’s only because you are a good client that you are able to keep what you have.” So he should be, what, grateful he now has to cut staff just to survive because he played the game by the rules and must suffer for everyone else?
As bankers walk out of Wall Street and London City headquarters offices lugging their little cardboard boxes, it’s hard to feel sorry after their cavalier attitude. Successful businesses have such a hatred for bankers they do without the hassle. And those are the people banks want as customers. If there is one industry in need of an empathy and charisma transplant, it’s this one. Perhaps without their dogmatic, “because I have the money you want,” approach, we might actually solve this.
Instead they behave like the school bully (or ex-wife, hard time deciding which metaphor worked best) who kicks your butt seven ways to Sunday to get ‘them’ more while pinning ‘you’ to the ground with a knee planted in the middle of your chest.
Perhaps if they made room under that umbrella for us both to stand and became human beings instead of policy-reciting automatons, we’d figured out a way to humanely get by and assure joint mutual survival and prosperity?
Naaah, just like a cancer that kills its host body, they enjoy sitting atop of your chest and watching you suffer without ever fearing about pendulums swinging back and cutting off their own heads. Funny thing about pendulums… they always do.
I’ll buy my own umbrella thanks.
Denis Campbell is a US journalist based in the United Kingdom. He contributes to newspapers and magazines, is a BBC Radio election commentator and publishes the daily e-magazine The Vadimus Post from the Latin Quo Vadimus – where are we headed and do we know why?
Articles by Denis Campbell