Sandy Weill, the poster child of too big to fail as the architect of Citigroup, suddenly sounds like a community banker.
For years, executives at many of the nation's 7,000 community banks have railed against their big brethren. They have complained about the excess risk and leverage at the largest banks, bemoaned federal bailouts and urged regulators to block big mergers like Capital One's deal to buy ING Direct. Weill now agrees with them, though his motivation is less clear than theirs.
"What we should probably do is go and split up investment banking from banking, have banks be deposit takers, have banks make commercial loans and real estate loans, have banks do something that's not going to risk the taxpayer dollars, that's not too big to fail," Weill said on CNBC's "Squawk Box" this morning.
I have heard these arguments, in sum or in part, from virtually every community banker I have met in the past few years. Take Dick Evans, the chairman and CEO of the $21 billion-asset Cullen/Frost Bankers in San Antonio.
The largest banks are "too big to manage and too big to regulate," Evans told the San Antonio Express-News in early April. He said he wanted to see the "risky behavior" of big banks separated from their balance sheet activity. "We shouldn't be putting risks on the public," he added.
Weill has apparently decided to join hands with Evans and other small bankers, which is downright unbelievable given the time and money that Citi spent in the late 1990s pushing for the federal reforms necessary to protect its merger with Travelers.
"I'm suggesting that they be broken up," Weill said on the program. Again, that is a call that you hear regularly from small banks and the associations that represent them. The same can be said for his comments that leverage should be "something reasonable."
The comment that threw me the most came when Weill asserted that "there should be no such thing" as off-balance-sheet transactions.
The Sandy Weill speaking today might make a great community banker, though I would surmise that most CEOs of small banks have every right to ponder his motives. Is he reshaping a legacy? Settling old scores? Is he trying to curry favor with politicians for some other purpose?
Regardless of the rationale, there are dozens of community banks in search of experienced directors and managers. Maybe Weill should apply for one of those jobs. It would certainly lend some credence to his words.
COMMENT: What do you think? Is Weill being sincere by calling for a break up of big banks? Or is there an underlying agenda to his words and timing?