Frustrated with the financial industry's stricter terms, small businesses and consumers are increasingly using the media — and Tarp — as leverage against their banks.
Last week, after Wells Fargo & Co. withheld funds from a credit card processing customer, it found itself accused of contributing to potential layoffs.
A Better Tomorrow, a 51-employee drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Murrieta, Calif., issued a press release that called Wells' conduct "outrageous" for a company that had taken government money. The tactic garnered interest from the national news media, as well as a response from a senior Wells executive.
Since they started accepting government money, financial institutions and their employees have been under intense scrutiny — and public fire — for things like bonuses, business trips, and private jets. President Obama told Congress last week that he would hold banks "fully accountable for the assistance they receive, and this time they will have to clearly demonstrate how taxpayer dollars result in more lending for the American taxpayer."
The Troubled Asset Relief Program has been cited in at least one lawsuit filed by a business against a lender for changing the terms of an agreement. The program has also been used as ammunition by politicians and labor advocates against bankers for yanking credit from a manufacturer that failed.
Public relations experts said Mr. Obama's remarks have emboldened small businesses and consumers facing tightened underwriting and restricted access to credit.
"Everyone is getting more savvy about using the media, about using press releases, the Internet, and you never know what's going to catch fire and what isn't," said Davia Temin, the chief executive of the strategic marketing firm Temin & Co. and a former head of corporate marketing at General Electric Co.'s GE Capital. "There will be a time here when Tarp is a very, very effective weapon for customers to use."
Mr. Obama's remarks are "unlocking a door" for increased scrutiny of financial institutions and their use of government funds, Ms. Temin said. "If banks want to stop being the whipping boys for everyone, they've got to anticipate it and maybe even be transparent in a different way."
Bill Campbell, the president of the public relations and advertising firm Campbell Lewis Communications Inc., agreed that "if you just watch what's happening in Congress and you see the day-to-day attacks on companies like Wells Fargo and Northern Trust from the politicians, it's created a very anti-bank environment." In the future, "I'm sure you're going to see some businesses and consumers using guerilla marketing tactics to highlight their disputes with banks."
It is often difficult for bankers to defend themselves against such tactics in a public forum, Mr. Campbell said. "When you're attacked publicly, you can explain why you've taken these steps, but you can't explain why you've taken these steps with an individual company or consumer, because of privacy issues or best practices. You kind of have one hand tied behind your back."
A Better Tomorrow said Wells withheld $20,000 of card payments over two days, starting Feb. 19, without informing the center about a change in terms or providing an explanation when the center's executives called Wells.
An executive of the center who went to a Wells branch was informed that the San Francisco company was withholding the payments to build a reserve of $200,000. Such a reserve could be used to cover chargebacks if the center went out of business and customers filed for refunds.
Since then, the center switched to its backup credit card processor, Century Bankcard Services. The center said that the new processor takes longer to give it money for its payments, and that Wells disrupted its cash flow so badly it must consider laying off employees.
A Better Tomorrow took this somewhat technical dispute public last week.
"If you're looking for an example of how banks are abusing the Troubled Asset Relief Program, consider Wells Fargo Bank, which has received $25 billion in federal aid," the press release began.
Paul Delvacchio, the center's community outreach director, said it sent Wells a draft of the release before making it public, but it was only after the release was published that the center got a response — from Mark Baumli, the senior vice president of Wells Fargo's merchant services unit.
"Finally, yesterday, after the press releases went out, the higher-ups in San Francisco started speaking with our … [owner] and were a lot nicer," Mr. Delvacchio said.
At that point, it may have been too late for Wells to avoid publicity. The press release also generated inquiries from CBS, the Associated Press, CNBC, Fox Business News, and the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Delvacchio said.
A spokeswoman for Wells said in an e-mail, "Regarding A Better Tomorrow, Wells Fargo Merchant Services has worked with the customer to resolve the situation."
Campbell Edlund, the president of EMI Strategic Marketing Inc., which advises financial institutions, said her team has observed an "extremely high" level of consumer and small-business frustration with lenders on blogs and other online forums.
How successful these efforts are is another matter.
"We can see that Tarp has made the big banks more of a focus of small-business frustration than ever before," Ms. Edlund said. However, "I'm not sure how much confidence we have that they can actually resolve issues like this."
Gaurav Kapoor, a managing partner in New England Consulting Group, also expressed skepticism about how much effect tactics like A Better Tomorrow's can have on a wider scale.
"Unless this behavior starts gaining meaningful action, my guess is that the banks are going to ignore it. They have much, much bigger issues to deal with," he said.
But he cautioned that even without a deluge of press releases, lenders' reputations in certain communities are in danger. "Word of mouth in the soho [small-office, home-office] world is pretty important, because small companies learn from each other."
Last year, Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois used Tarp to pressure Bank of America Corp. to restore credit to Republic Windows and Doors, a shuttered Chicago manufacturer. Noting that B of A received $25 billion under the program, the governor said: "This is exactly and precisely the kind of thing that isn't right when, on the one hand, powerful special interests get the help of taxpayer money to bail them out, the banks. And yet the purpose of that money was supposed to be to provide a line of credit to businesses like this to keep workers working."
(He was indicted the next day on federal corruption charges. B of A and JPMorgan Chase later offered credit to Republic so it could pay its laid-off workers.)
Last month, Granite Development LLC filed a lawsuit claiming that Wachovia Corp. tried to force the Mount Airy, N.C., commercial real estate builder to accept "onerous and unreasonable terms" on loans it wanted to extend.
The complaint, filed in Guilford County Superior Court, specifically refers to the $25 billion of Tarp funds received by Wells, which bought Wachovia on Dec. 31.
The suit also cites congressional testimony by John Stumpf, Wells' chief executive: "Across the country, many of our customers are facing difficult times. Now, as ever, we want to do what's right by them."
The suit argues, "If those statements were true, Wachovia (which is now a Wells Fargo company) would not be engaging in the conduct described in this complaint."
A spokesman for Wachovia said it "strongly disagrees with the allegations in the lawsuit. Wachovia continues to lend to customers and is committed to helping them work through the current economic environment, while managing risk appropriately."
James W. Stevens, a partner in the Atlanta office of Kilpatrick Stockton LLP, called such suits "a political tactic" against lenders.
"A lot of the political arguments certainly aren't going to go far. The PR fallout may be more troublesome than the actual fallout if you continue to lend," Mr. Stevens said. "Banks need to not only measure the legal risk they suffer if they appear to be reneging on the deal, but also the reputational risk if the borrower tries to leverage the current political environment to pressure the bank to do things they may be contractually able to do," if not required to.