Breaking News: Wall Street Has a Reputation Problem

Breaking News: Wall Street Has a Reputation Problem

Not since the Great Depression have Americans harbored so much ill-will against what were once called "the monied interests."

This should worry Wall Street and the big banks.

The latest evidence: Bank of America's decision this week to drop its plans to charge customers $5 a month for making purchases with their debit cards, in the wake of a customer revolt.jay leno

On, a 22-year-old Washington, D.C., activist named Molly Katchpole started a petition against the BofA fee that gathered 306,000 signatures in less than a month. Politicians chimed in (for better or worse) and even Jay Leno got into the act, saying on Halloween night:

One kid wanted to charge me five bucks to give him candy…I said, "Who are you supposed to be?" He said, "Bank of America!"

BofA reversed itself after rivals Wells Fargo, J.P. Morgan Chase, Sun Trust and Regions Financial said they'd drop customer tests of new debit fees. Analysts say this will cost the banking industry as much as $8 billion in foregone revenue.

In other words, the banks are giving up billions of dollars because people don't trust them to do the right thing.

Occupy Wall Street is but one manifestation of the discontent, even anger, that people feel towards powerful banks. Move Your Money Project, an Internet and Facebook campaign, aims to persuade consumers to move their accounts from Wall Street banks to credit unions or community lenders. You can also see stepped-up efforts by local banks and customer-friendly banks like TD Bank ("America's Most Convenient Bank") to win away customers of the Wall Street crew.

Much of the ill will is deserved, dating back as it does to the 2008 financial meltdown. In a column called Confronting the Malefactors, Paul Krugman wrote:

In the first act, bankers took advantage of deregulation to run wild (and pay themselves princely sums), inflating huge bubbles through reckless lending. In the second act, the bubbles burst -- but bankers were bailed out by taxpayers, with remarkably few strings attached, even as ordinary workers continued to suffer the consequences of the bankers' sins. And, in the third act, bankers showed their gratitude by turning on the people who had saved them, throwing their support -- and the wealth they still possessed thanks to the bailouts -- behind politicians who promised to keep their taxes low and dismantle the mild regulations erected in the aftermath of the crisis.

Actually, it's worse that that. In a 4,000-word take-down headlined Which is the Worst Bank? on The Daily Beast, investigative reporter Gary Rivlin chronicles a long list of offenses by the banks, ranging from J.P. Morgan's decision to evict military families from their homes (despite a law against doing so) to Wells Fargo's practice of pushing minority borrowers into high-priced mortgages, dubbed "ghetto loans." Nice.

People don't read the financial pages probably aren't aware of the egregious behavior that infected the banks. Last month, Citi agreed to pay $285 million (without denying or admitting guilt) to settle an SEC complaint. The bank defrauded its own clients by selling them shares in a mortgage-backed security that was designed to fail, and then bet its own money that the security would collapse, which it did, according to the regulators.

If that sounds familiar, it should: Goldman Sachs paid $550 million to the SEC (again, without denying or admitting guilt) because it failed to inform clients that it had allowed John Paulson, a prominent hedge-fund manager, to pick sub-prime home loans he thought wold fail; he bet against the loans, which Goldman repackaged and sold to unsuspecting investors, a.k.a., the clients that Goldman is supposed to serve.

By contrast, BofA's $5 fee seems both trivial and defensible. The bank was transparent about its plans for the fee, which helps offset the cost of a nationwide network of ATMs as well as the costs of processing debit charges, which are now capped by the government. Not that I feel sorry for BofA. Rivlin wrote:

Bank of America received two bailouts from Washington totaling $45 billion -- and since that time has spent more than $9 million on D.C. lobbyists. The bank was particularly generous to Ken Lewis, the deposed CEO behind the ill-conceived purchases of Countrywide and Merrill: he left the company with an exit package of nearly $64 million in retirement pay.

So what should the big banks do to repair their tattered reputations?

This would be a start:

1. Curb executive pay. It's outrageous, especially when CEOs who fail still collect millions. Excessive pay breeds terrible cynicism about business.

2. Instill a culture of service from top to bottom. Easier said than done, but tell people again and again that their job is to serve customers.

3. Punish unethical behavior, ruthlessly.

One final thought: If I were the regulatory czar, I'd cap the size of banks. They are bigger than ever. They won't be allowed to fail if things go awry again. As a result, they have little incentive to be prudent. Please see the chart below from the Jan-Feb 2010 Mother Jones. (Click to make it bigger.) I find it troubling.

You can also check out Move Your Money. That's one way to cut the big banks down to size.

Disclosure: I've done writing and speaking in the past for JP Morgan and Citi. For what it's worth, I was impressed by the values of CEOs Jamie Dimon and Vikram Pandit. Maybe these banks are too big to manage, as well as too big to fail.

Photo CC-licensed by EdenPictures.