I have just received a clipping of a column from a big newspaper in the New York suburbs that reminded me of Arthur Haley's novel "The Moneychangers."
I could not find a single error in the factual material of "The Moneychangers." There was only one point where I took any exception to the volume-that's where Mr. Haley distinguished between the "good guys" and the "bad guys" at the bank.
It seems the "good guys" wanted to spend a lot of the bank's money to rebuild Cleveland, the bank's home city, while the "bad guys" wanted to take that money and make loans instead. I rooted for the "bad guys," because I felt they wanted to do what bankers are supposed to do.
Although the newspaper column I received also drew a line between a "good bank" and a "bad bank," I found it much harder to choose sides.
The gist of the column was that a woman had tried to cash a check at a branch of Chase Manhattan Bank, with which she did not have an account. She was turned down despite proper identifications and despite the fact that the check was written on an account at Chase.
According to the columnist, the same woman took another check, one written on an out-of-town bank, into a food store mini-branch of Columbia Federal Savings. Although she had no account there either, the check was cashed in a trice-and the teller entertained her while it was being processed.
So which bank was the good guy in this situation?
First, let's consider whether Chase has an obligation to cash the on-us check for a noncustomer?
A court in Chicago offers one opinion. According to Bankers Hotline, a highly informative newsletter focused on branches and operations, the Chicago court found that a bank that did not honor an on-us check had breached its agreement.
Bankers Hotline said the only way to ensure there is no liability for failing to honor the check may be to have the signed deposit agreement specifically state that the bank has the right to impose a fee or decline to honor an on-us check.
This probably helps explain why so many banks do honor on-us checks brought in by strangers who have proper identification. Some bankers, however, tell me that they call the writer first to get approval and make sure it is a legitimate transaction.
The columnist reached a conclusion like that of the court: Chase was the bad guy. But I can't be so decisive.
As for Columbia Federal Savings, I have a hard time categorizing them as either "good" or "bad." The best I can say for the bank is that it is "trusting and hopeful."
What does it gain from cashing a check written on a foreign bank for a noncustomer? Almost nothing. And there's a downside: the clearing cost, the risk of fraud loss, and the loss of the use of the bank's funds until the check clears.
That's why I find it hard to categorize Columbia as the "good bank."
The newspaper columnist asserted Chase was wrong and Columbia was right. I'm not sure which bank did the right thing. What do you think?
Let us know. The most convincing answer on either side will win the presidency for a day of our Schmidlap National Bank, whose tellers see checks so rarely that when one is submitted they have to ask an officer what it is.