About 300 other community bankers and I were listening to Teresa Curran from Federal Reserve of San Franciso speak at the 10th annual Strategic Issues Summit. She was helping the small banks understand the benefits and challenges presented by Dodd-Frank and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
We were suddenly startled by the chants, whistles and screaming outside the doors of this major hall. I had been reading the reports about Occupy Wall Street, the group that has camped out in New York's financial center.
Protestors chanting "Make Banks Pay….Make Banks Pay," fought the door open and marched throughout the room, taking the microphone they continued the disruption. This group of about 40 described themselves as Refund California, a sister group to Occupy Wall Street. They had apparently taken up the west coast cause with little organization, using viral communication and having gained the support of many union groups.
Everyone and every group is entitled to express their views, but this bunch had chosen the wrong crowd to attack. These bankers consisted of the little guys who had nothing to do with the mortgage/financial crisis, don't have big fat cat salaries and have only limited relationships with Wall Street. These community bankers all want to see a better economy, restored public confidence and Washington off their backs.
It is now clear that bankers are generic in the eyes of the public and the press and bear the burden of ongoing damnation out of Washington that was punctuated by the president in his press briefing on Thursday. Only about 25 of the 7,000 banks were part of mortgage/financial debacle however a major portion of our economic future rests with the remaining 6,975.
When the whistles and rants ceased the group offered their message. I had a particular interest in what they had to say and it wasn't directed to the absurdness of the $5 B of A debit card charge or the inherent evils of Dodd-Frank. Their base statement was "Wall Street banks shattered our economy, destroyed our communities, wrecked our budgets and left our communities to pick up the pieces."
They specifically asked for a reduction in mortgage principal for underwater homeowners, a mandatory foreclosure mediation program and a return to more small business lending. The group wants commercial business or investor-owned property revalued and for banks to pay $10,000 for every foreclosure and $1,000 a day if they don’t clean up foreclosed properties. In today's environment any revaluation could actually reduce tax revenues! They also believe that Californians making over $500,000 should pay an additional 2% income tax.
Their thoughts are extreme and in many respects radical. But they are a lot more realistic than the out-of-this-world demands of Occupy Wall Street, which include eliminating all private healthcare insurance providers, the forgiveness of all public and private debt around the world, free college education for everyone, open boarder migration and a guaranteed living wage regardless of employment.
No one is sure just who these people are, but we have to question the motivation of their demands. Are they politically motivated, trying to create class warfare, intended to enhance working class or union stature, or a real grass roots expression of many seeking opportunity while living at the lower end of the economic spectrum?
Whether they are ordinary people, radical, extreme or a few of each, and whether their demands are unrealistic and could never happen, the message is very clear. We are in a period of distress and uncertainty today and there are a number of people in our country who are willing to stand-up and fight for jobs, fairness and someone who will listen to their concerns. They want an improved economy, and seeing no solutions coming out of Washington they are attacking the bankers and Wall Street as public enemy #1.
We would all agree that there is an urgent need to get the economy moving. Beyond the "wish list" ideas, they want the banks to openly and honestly deal with foreclosures, build business opportunities to create jobs and for government to balance its budgets and help get the job done. This takes positive encouragement and support from Washington, strong leadership from the administration, congress, regulators and top bankers and specific action plans to support the efforts.
We need to find leadership from the administration, Geithner, Bernanke and top bank CEOs to develop workable cooperative solutions to the plethora of foreclosures, regulations and combative issues with banks.
For the time being, shouldn’t we set aside the current differences to recharge all banks with the opportunity to build small business, grow jobs and resolve issues of home ownership?
No doubt everyone will have to pay a little more, receive a little less or assume a little more risk as we extract the excesses from our financial system. If we don't act soon, however, and recognize the societal impact of inaction — as poorly expressed by these groups — and begin working together we will likely stagnate for 10 or more years as Japan did.
Robert H. Smith, the former chairman and chief executive of Security Pacific Corp., is a founder and director of Commerce National Bank in Newport Beach, Calif.