Where is the next ticking time bomb for banks?
With credit card delinquencies and personal bankruptcies on the rise, many bankers are casting a nervous eye at the consumer finance side of the business.
But one leading banker - Richard M. Kovacevich, chief executive of Minneapolis-based Norwest Corp. - argues that, when looking for the next source of trouble, the past is prologue.
"The commercial side has always been the area that has tripped up bankers because we don't price for risk in that area," he said, speaking to a small group of reporters last Wednesday in New York. "No one makes a loan on the commercial side expecting to lose money," he said.
But with some notable exceptions, consumer financing is priced for a certain degree of loss, he said.
"The consumer side will be less profitable sometimes and more profitable other times, but it won't lose you money," he said.
Mr. Kovacevich was in New York helping promote "The New Financiers," a book about 14 top executives who, in the words of author and consultant Charles B. Wendel, are "reshaping the financial services industry."
Seated in a Park Avenue hotel conference room alongside Mr. Kov'acevich were four other chief executives profiled in the book: Terrence A. Larsen of CoreStates Financial Corp., Robert H. Bohannon of Travelers Express Co., Lawrence M. Coss of Green Tree Financial Corp., and Samuel L. Eichenfield of the Finova Group.
The two bankers on the panel - Mr. Kovacevich and Mr. Larsen - came to their current posts from opposite ends of the professional spectrum. Mr. Kovacevich started his career as a toy marketer, and Mr. Larsen is a trained economist.
But each has similar thoughts about banking, including a belief that it's not worth trying to make big bets about the kinds of products and services that Americans will want in the future.
"Guessing what the industry will look like in five years is impractical," said Mr. Larsen.
In response to a question, the CoreStates executive said his company's admitted problems in generating revenue growth during the past two quarters are a thing of the past.
During a May 22 session with analysts, Mr. Larsen and other CoreStates officers had acknowledged that the bank took its eye off the "revenue ball" as it worked to merge with Meridian Bancorp.
"We are beginning to grow now," he said.