WASHINGTON – The largest U.S. banks are treading lightly in response to President Trump's executive order banning travel to the U.S. by refugees and others from certain Muslim nations, with corporate statements emphasizing the need for diversity while stopping short of outright opposition.
The banks are also clearly struggling to grasp the order's impact as the administration sends conflicting messages about who is covered under the ban, which is also subject to multiple court orders by separate jurisdictions.
That careful balancing act was on display Monday afternoon after Bank of America and Wells Fargo issued advisories about the ban to their employees.
“As a global company, we depend upon the diverse sources of talent that our teammates represent. In view of this, we are closely monitoring the recent refugee- and immigration-related executive order in the United States, and subsequent developments," Brian Moynihan, Bank of America's CEO, wrote in a message to employees. "We are connecting with teammates who may be affected, in response to questions. We also are working to ensure we have the most accurate and timely information to best assist potentially impacted teammates."
Hope Hardison, Wells Fargo's chief administrative officer, struck a similar tone.
“While we are still assessing what this change means for Wells Fargo, we know that it may have deeply personal implications for team members who may have friends or family affected by it,” Hardison wrote to employees. “As always, Wells Fargo is committed to fostering a culture of diversity and inclusion where our team members are encouraged to value and respect others for their differences. These values will continue to be of great importance as we support team members who have been affected by this executive order.”
Of the four biggest commercial banks, Citigroup was clearest in raising objections to the ban, but even that was carefully couched. In a note to employees on Monday, Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat wrote that "we are concerned about the message the executive order sends, as well as the impact immigration policies could have on our ability to serve our clients and contribute to growth.”
JPMorgan Chase's operating committee, meanwhile, issued a notice to employees on Sunday simultaneously expressing gratitude for the “hard work and sacrifices made to keep our country safe” while also emphasizing the need to be inclusive.
“We understand that our country, economy and wellbeing are strengthened by the rich diversity of the world around us, where we are dedicated to serving customers and communities in more than 100 countries every day,” the letter said.
Companies outside commercial banking have been far more outspoken — even in the adjacent sector of investment banking. Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, bluntly rejected the order in a voice mail to employees.
“This is not a policy we support,” he said, according to Bloomberg News.
Google, Apple, Facebook and even Ford Motor Co. have raised more vociferous objections to the ban.
But banks, particularly the largest institutions, are in a delicate political position. For one, the memory of the financial crisis looms large, and banks are afraid to again become the focal point for public anger. Trump harshly criticized Wall Street during his presidential campaign, but then picked several ex-Goldman executives for top government posts, including nominating Steven Mnuchin to be his Treasury secretary. Bankers are also hopeful that Trump will deliver on promises to roll back some of the Dodd-Frank Act, a pledge he repeated on Monday.
If banks speak out too loudly against Trump, they run the risk of alienating him, perhaps spurring him to return to some of his anti-Wall Street rhetoric or lose interest in his deregulatory agenda. Trump could also directly target individual banks over social media and in speeches, something he has done against other companies that crossed him.
On the other hand, the travel ban and other foreign policy moves could create real difficulties for international banks like Citi, B of A and JPMorgan. Moreover, with other industries willing to voice opposition to the ban, banks could end up looking complicit with a controversial order if they stay silent.