PHILADELPHIA - Most bankers realize their industry has a massive reputation problem. But sometimes their own words seem to make it worse.
Take James Rohr, the executive chairman and former chief executive of PNC Financial Services Group (PNC). His bank had fewer problems through the financial crisis than many of its too-big-to-fail competitors, and Rohr has occasionally served as a spokesman for all banks, exhorting them to regain public trust "by our actions over time."
He returned to that theme Monday. Improving banks' reputations is "not about an advertising campaign, it's just about talking about our business," Rohr said during a speech to risk-management executives here.
"There's no industry that gives back to the community the way our industry does, it's not even close," he added.
But some of Rohr's imagery during that speech would appear to reinforce the widespread public perception of callous banksters recklessly hurting Americans. Most jarring was Rohr's evocation of an era when foreclosing on a delinquent homeowner involved the police roughing up and threatening a borrower as they repossessed his house.
When Rohr was training as a banker, "before we got out of the training class, they put me with a mortgage person and we went out for a mortgage foreclosure," Rohr recalled near the beginning of his speech on Monday.
"We went to see a police officer, he called a couple of guys and we went over to a house. He knocked on the fellow's door [and when] he answered the door, [the officer] grabbed him by the shirt, pulled him out of the house and said, 'If you ever go back in there again, I'm going to throw you in jail for the rest of your life." He sent two guys in there - they took everything out of the house and put it on the curb. He locked the door... and said, "The house is now yours." And then he turned to the fellow sitting on the stoop and he said, "I'm coming back at 4 o'clock with a can of gasoline. If any of that stuff is on the curb, I'm going to light it on fire."
"That was what foreclosure was," Rohr concluded, to scattered chuckles. "It took about 15 minutes, or maybe a half hour, and then we were in possession of the house. Today it takes... two years to foreclose on a home."
Rohr went on to argue that such protracted processes, as well as new regulatory burdens and changing business conditions since the financial crisis, have increased costs and mandates for banks that legitimately foreclose on defaulted borrowers or otherwise take necessary measures to protect themselves against mounting risks.
"Despite the fact that most of the industry came through it pretty well, the last four years have seen the pace of change like we've never ever seen it before," he told attendees at the Risk Management Association's annual meeting in downtown Philadelphia.
"The political environment [of the financial crisis], and the regulatory environment that followed it, and now the reputational environment, really have put us into a place where the chief risk officer has to think about a lot more than credit risk and liquidity risk," he added.
A PNC spokesman noted by email that Rohr's anecdote was "about a time before regulatory reforms when things were done differently, and not better, and this is one example of how risk management as a practice has changed through the years..... He is on the record as supportive of positive regulatory reforms for the mortgage industry."