Gallows humor about our banking crisis fueled by excess holiday cheer at a recent luncheon surfaced this concept for a TV reality show: A mix of actors in their 20s, wearing suits with bland ties and pulling cardboard boxes on luggage carriers enter a known problem bank on a Friday five minutes before closing time.
Comments like "Sorry, it's time," or "Hope you all didn't have much planned for tonight" to the receptionist or head teller are filmed and a hoax reality clip results.
However, after last Friday, when a community bank in Kansas City, where I've known and been friends with some of the officers for a long time, was closed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the humor of the hoax bank closing concept was lost for me. This moment and related memories are too sad. Instead, I am now convinced that the real reality of bank closures in this crisis is underappreciated and that the public lacks a realization of the seriousness of what is occurring.
The real bank failure reality show would be directed about the same as the hoax version but with lots of legal and ethical safeguards: filming the FDIC crew checking into the motel, planning the logistics of the Friday closure, entering the bank and so on.
Post FDIC-closure interviews with deposit customers, borrowers, officers, investors, regulators, analysts, regional economists and others could characterize the event in detail. More importantly, causes and effects could be examined and parsed.
The lessons that could be learned and passed on would be in several domains, from the emotional to management processes, regulation and public policy.
It has seemed to me that the bank closings of this crisis have been presented too antiseptically — over-the-weekend changes in ownership with everything looking the same on Monday. Except that, for the closed bank's small-business borrowers, officers, directors and investors, the world has been turned upside down. The human and sociological reverberations are huge and are having profound effects on local businesses.
As this comment is written, something more than 130 banks have been closed by the FDIC this year. Some of them are small, but most are larger community banks with assets measured in the hundreds of millions or low billions. This implies that many communities have been affected along with thousands of borrowers. In addition, several thousand leading local businesspeople who invested in or were directors of community banks and who are important cogs in this country's capitalist engine have been hammered.
If the current pace of community bank failures persists or worsens in 2010, it will further sap the strength of the economy's small-business sector. It is great that Wall Street and large corporations seem to be stabilized now. Main Street America and its banks still look precarious.
If the responsibility of the national media includes informing the public about what's going on so that the public can be educated citizens, it is time for a reality TV show on bank failures. The economic and human displacements are of a magnitude that requires the citizenry to know.
Bradford M. Johnson is a private investor in banks. He was the regional-bank stock analyst at Goldman, Sachs & Co. in the late 1970s and has been a major investor in and director of several community banks.