What does it take to get the attention of JPMorgan Chase & Co. these days? Little plastic sharks, apparently.
Asserting that the financial giant is not doing enough to modify Ohio home loans, protestors dumped 500 two-inch-long sharks inside a Chase branch in Cleveland three weeks ago. The stunt came after the branch manager refused to relay a letter imploring CEO James Dimon for some face time to air their grievances.
"We put them on top of coffee makers, on top of computers. You name it — where you fill out the little deposit slips," said Mark Seifert, the head of the community organization that staged the event. "They called the cops. … At that point we left, chanting, 'We'll be back, we'll be back.' "
Though Seifert admitted that the tactic may have been "tacky," he said it delivered results (though the bank begs to differ). His group — Empowering and Strengthening Ohio's People — said it has helped nearly 50 people modify their Chase mortgages in Ohio since mid-June, up from about three workouts done with the company during the preceding months of the year.
It is no surprise in the current climate that pickets are targeting JPMorgan Chase — whose spokeswoman said Dimon has read the letter but declined the invitation — and Bank of America Corp., Wells Fargo & Co. and Citigroup Inc. as well. The protestors share a rallying cry that bailed-out banks have not done enough to help ordinary Americans.
Though not taking sides on the veracity of the complaints, some industry watchers do feel that financial companies are making a mistake by not responding quickly and coherently to these critics. The banks seem to prefer defending themselves case-by-case, these observers said. In doing so, they risk major reputational damage.
"There is a credibility bank that all organizations have — when you do good things, it's like [generating] deposits," said Michael Cherenson, chairman of the Public Relations Society of America and executive vice president of Success Communications Group, a PR firm. "Similarly, there are withdrawals to your reputation credibility. … Each one on its own may not deplete the account. They slowly, but surely, will have impact."
Cherenson said banking company CEOs should be more vocal and visible — the "chief reputation officers" of their organizations. They also should beef up their communications departments and make sure that their publicists have the ear of senior management, he said. On a broader level, he said, banks should band together to improve their image.
"They're all in this together," Cherenson said. "There are plenty of trade groups and professional organizations that could certainly carry the ball on this issue."
Not everyone sees it this way, however.
A spokesman for a Wall Street trade groups — the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association — said grass-roots and labor protests are not really on his organization's radar.
"This has not been an issue — as far as I know — that our members have asked us to take up directly," said Travis Larson, a spokesman for the association. Instead, it has focused on advocating sensible regulation of the financial industry, he said.
For its part, JPMorgan Chase considered the Cleveland protest an "isolated" incident, according to spokeswoman Mary Kay Bean.
She said mortgage modifications are emotional for borrowers, and complicated for the lender, given how every loan is different. The company is committed to helping troubled borrowers stay in their homes and has agreed to modify 138,000 mortgages since April, she said. The uptick in Ohio modifications was part of this larger effort, rather than a reaction to the protests, she said.
Robert Topel, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, said grass-roots and organized protests could have dire implications for the financial industry, particularly if large lenders let a public outcry dictate how they manage their loans.
Bank of America may have set a dangerous precedent in December, he said, by agreeing to lend money to settle a pay dispute at a Chicago factory called Republic Windows and Doors. Workers there made national headlines by staging a sit-in after management decided to close the factory. Their anger extended to Republic's lender, Bank of America, who they said had prevented them from being paid.
"Everybody wants to see people get paid for the work they performed," Topel said. "On the other hand, it's not the bank's job to monitor what the borrower is doing in that dimension."
Topel said banks may become more stringent with lending to companies and consumers for fear of public backlash when it is time to collect the debt. Caving in to protestors might only embolden others to take to the streets.
Bank protests do appear to be accelerating. On Tuesday, the Service Employees International Union began a media campaign against Bank of America, alleging that to drive profits it intentionally burdens customers with too much debt. Anne Pace, a Bank of America spokeswoman, said the union is "misrepresenting" its relationship with its customers. Given the economic environment, the bank's first priority is helping its customers rather than countering organized labor protests, she said.
On June 23, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America staged a 20-city protest against Wells Fargo. United Electrical — the union behind the sit-in at Republic Windows — is now lambasting Wells for cutting off credit to an Illinois factory, Quad City Die Casting, that is slated to close this month.
Wells Fargo spokeswoman Kathryn Ellis said in an e-mail statement: "We empathize with the employees affected by Quad City Die Casting's decision to close its plant. We work with our customers who are having financial difficulties as prudently as we can. Our goal is for them to be able to succeed financially and stay in business. We cannot comment further on this particular situation because our customer relationships are confidential."