As a new year dawns, two banking topics are monopolizing the discussion in Washington and at banks throughout the country. One is agency consolidation; the other is the Community Reinvestment Act and fair lending.
This represents somewhat of a good news-bad news story for the industry.
The good news is that for the first time in several years no one is concerned about the thrift crisis or about the solvency of the banking industry and its deposit insurer.
The bad news is that precious little attention is being paid to the structural reforms needed to ensure that the industry does not get back into the soup again.
To illustrate the capriciousness of political fads, let's take a second to play a parlor game. Just a little over a year ago, The Washington Post published a study by two experts who contended the banking industry was broke to the tune of nearly $200 billion. Name the experts.
I confess that I can't. Moreover, I don't care. Their work
Mr. Isaac, a former chairman of the Federal Deposit insurance Corp., is managing director and chief executive of Secura Group, a financial services consulting firm based in Washington. was sloppy to the point of being silly. Yet for a time, their study had folks in Washington in a tizzy, wringing their hands in fear.
The thrift crisis was of mindboggling proportions, to be sure, and the problems in the banking industry were serious indeed.
They deserved considerable attention, and they got it. My complaint is that the attention the; received was short-term oriented, shallow, and driven by political expediency.
We spent a great deal of time making wild guesses about the magnitude of the disaster and devising various punitive measures aimed al anyone or anything even remotely connected to the problems. We devoted almost no energy to understanding the underlying structural issues that led to the problems.
Now that we are beyond the crisis and the passions have cooled, one would hope we could take a more thoughtful, longer-term approach. One would hope we might focus on the fact that our banking industry is rapidly losing its relevance in the financial marketplace and the economy.
Our system of bank regulation is more complicated and less efficient than it could be. And, yes, bankers are still very angry about the beatings they received from the regulators during the past few years.
But is the structure of the bank regulatory agencies really our most pressing priority? Is it sensible to decide who will regulate banks before we come to grips with how they should be regulated?
Willing to Help
I, and I think most bankers, have mixed emotions about the current focus on CRA/fair lending. No thoughtful person would contend that discrimination has been eradicated in our society. And it is plain that too many people are being left behind in our increasingly sophisticated economy.
Most bankers I talk with are keenly aware of these problems and want to do their part to help.
What they resent is being blamed for the problems and being viewed as the sole or even a major solution to them.
I suspect we would make more significant and lasting progress if we toned down the rhetoric and used a little more carrot and a little less stick.
It would be useful to keep things in perspective as we move into 1994. The principal reason CRA/fair lending received scant attention during the past decade is that banks and their regulators were preoccupied with pulling the industry back from the brink of an economic abyss.
Had they not succeeded, CRA/fair lending, agency consolidation, or even improving the health care system would not be on people's minds today.
If we don't begin soon to address the banking industry's structural problems, those and other similar topics will likely be dwarfed in importance once again.