Community groups nationwide have rallied against the NationsBank/BankAmerica merger, which would create the country's first coast-to-coast banking franchise with $570 billion of assets.
In acquiring BankAmerica, NationsBank plans to relocate the West Coast's largest financial institution to Charlotte, N.C. Little has been done to assure Californians that the combined bank will respond to the challenges of the West Coast's unique diversity and its particular economic needs.
The new NationsBank has pledged to lend $350 billion under the Community Reinvestment Act. However, the pledge contains no specific goals for improving service to underserved communities, and has failed to satisfy us that NationsBank will be as good a neighbor as BankAmerica has been.
Compared with most other large bank mergers, including the highly controversial Citicorp/Travelers Group merger, the NationsBank/B of A merger drew a disproportionate number of opponents at the Federal Reserve hearing held last month in San Francisco. Community representatives flew in from across the country to denounce the deal; in the end, critics of the merger outnumbered supporters 100 to 73. As Alan Fisher of the California Reinvestment Committee asked, "From the altitude of $570 billion in assets, will such a monolithic bank even see local neighborhoods?"
The heated battle over the deal underscores the need for specificity in CRA commitments. Consumers want banks that are attentive to the specific needs of their neighborhoods, companies that invest in and care about their local communities.
NationsBank might learn something from the example of Seattle-based Washington Mutual, whose recent acquisition of California's largest thrifts went smoothly and was quickly accepted by dozens of community groups.
Wamu created a community reinvestment agreement designed to make it the leader in lending to underserved minorities and low-income neighborhoods. Wamu chief executive officer Kerry K. Killinger has been actively involved in establishing specific goals for improving home and small-business lending to low-income, African-American, Asian-American, and Latino borrowers-the communities that represent the key to future profitability in the diverse California economy.
Furthermore, the Wamu agreement contains ambitious goals for improving vendor contracts to competitive minority- and disabled-owned business enterprises, and commits at least 70% of the company's charitable giving to underserved communities in California.
Finally, the $120 billion Wamu commitment contains specific goals for each region in which Wamu operates, demonstrating the company's responsiveness to the different needs of different communities.
And unlike NationsBank CEO Hugh McColl, Mr. Killinger has spent the past several months setting up personal meetings with hundreds of community groups across the state to reassure California's consumers that the company will work hard to promote the economic development of California's inner- city and rural areas.
As a result of Mr. Killinger's attention to community concerns, community groups are welcoming his out-of-state company into California.
Wamu, as the largest thrift in the country, proves that it's not impossible for a large financial institution to garner the support of the diverse communities in which it operates. Specificity, however, is an important key to overcoming consumers' fears about losing their local banks to distant conglomerates.