As Bank of America Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. proved this week, government assistance is raising the civic bar for banking companies.
Receiving capital from the Treasury Department or issuing debt guaranteed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. puts bankers at risk for public backlash, especially those taking advantage of the economic slump to make acquisitions and build bigger retail operations.
"We have politicized the banks to a greater degree than we have in the past," said Gary Townsend, the chief executive at Hill-Townsend Capital LLC. "Could the financial institutions have been so naive to think that politics wouldn't intrude when they took the capital? I doubt it."
Legislators are repeatedly pressing Treasury officials to assess how bankers are spending the capital, whether it is funding deals, financing loans, or being used to absorb losses on mortgages being modified to keep people in their homes. Stories about banking companies reducing exposure to their shakiest customers or cutting lines of credit, while possibly prudent, provide more fodder to critics who expect banks to be "part of the solution."
James Dimon, JPMorgan Chase's CEO, defended his company Thursday by telling CNBC, "We're going to do exactly what they want us to do, which is make more loans."
JPMorgan Chase and, to a greater degree, B of A were the first targets of this intensified scrutiny when workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago staged a five-day sit-in after their plant was closed.
B of A initially refused to extend Republic further credit but relented after Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois called for a statewide boycott of the Charlotte company. (The next day he was arrested on federal corruption charges.)
A JPMorgan Chase unit reported a loss in July on an investment in Republic.
Both banking companies provided new loans to resolve the labor dispute — B of A at $1.35 million and JPMorgan Chase at $400,000 — but the criticism keeps coming.
D.C. Jobs for Justice, a coalition of unions and community groups, staged a rally Thursday in Washington to protest how B of A is using the $15 billion it received from the Treasury. Ruth Castel-Branco, a spokeswoman for the coalition, said the idea for the protest started "as a solidarity action" for the Chicago workers, "but we realized that they [B of A] are symbol of a bigger problem with the bailout, in that the money is going to large banking institutions that haven't done anything concrete."
A B of A spokeswoman defended the initial decision to refuse funding for Republic, which she called an unprofitable company that had maxed out its existing credit lines. A JPMorgan Chase spokesman would not comment beyond confirming the New York company's loss on Republic.
Jacqueline Reeves, the managing director of Bell Rock Capital LLC, said the Troubled Asset Relief Program is the "underlying lever" for the public angst. "You can say that the banks should take the Tarp money and use it to make solid loans, but would this be considered a solid loan for most banks in the country? Not likely."
B of A's brand name and national reach clearly make it a sharper target. By its own estimates, the $1.83 trillion-asset company will have some type of financial relationship with two-thirds of Americans by next year, and it markets itself that way. And after it buys Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. this month, B of A will control about 12% of the nation's deposits.
Anthony Polini, an analyst at Raymond James & Associates, compared B of A's status in the corporate world to that of one of pop culture's biggest celebrities. "Britney Spears is going to get watched more than other entertainers, for good or bad," Mr. Polini said in an interview. "The same applies to Bank of America. They have been the biggest consumer bank in the U.S. for a long time, and this is part of the baggage that comes along with it."
Kenneth D. Lewis, B of A's chairman, president, and chief executive, is acutely aware of his company's image and says it has encouraged him to become more visible on public policy in recent years. "I don't seek attention," he said in an October interview after being named American Banker's 2008 Banker of the Year. "It just comes with the territory as we have gotten bigger and truly become the Bank of America."
Analysts said other companies are setting themselves up for added scrutiny as they challenge B of A for U.S. retail supremacy, including JPMorgan Chase, which bought Washington Mutual Inc.'s banking operation in a government-brokered deal, and Wells Fargo & Co., whose deal for Wachovia Corp. is set to close this month. A Wells spokeswoman would not discuss the matter.
According to analysts, the Republic case also highlights how an acquirer gains more than just assets in a purchase. The B of A spokeswoman said her company inherited the Republic relationship when it bought LaSalle Bank, a major commercial lender that increased B of A's exposure to middle-market and corporate clients in the city. Mr. Townsend said: "When you add in the acquisitiveness and the bigger issues of fairness and antitrust … Bank of America, through a variety of its behaviors, has made itself a political target. So another bank could easily go down that path, too."