Tag Archives: too big to fail

The Age of the Bankster

Remember Mr. Potter, the banker in “It’s a Wonderful Life”? He wasn’t exactly a paragon. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that his character reflected how people of that era viewed their local banks and bankers.

Potter-like or not, however, bankers used to live in their communities and tended to have a pretty accurate picture of their needs, not to mention the credit-worthiness of the merchants and working folks who made up those communities.  (I grew up in a small Indiana town, and remember our local bank president with some affection; if I was overdrawn, he’d just call my father, who would transfer some money into my account. No embarrassing surprises, no fees. Just a parental lecture.)

So this report is troubling.

Here’s a statistic that ought to alarm anyone interested in rebuilding local economies and redirecting the flow of capital away from Wall Street and toward more productive ends: Over the last seven years, one of every four community banks has disappeared. We have 1,971 fewer of these small, local financial institutions today than at the beginning of 2008. Some 500 failed outright, with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) stepping in to pay their depositors. Most of the rest were acquired and absorbed into bigger banks….

In 1995, megabanks—giant banks with more than $100 billion in assets (in 2010 dollars)—controlled 17 percent of all banking assets.

By 2005, their share had reached 41 percent. Today, it is a staggering 59 percent. Meanwhile, the share of the market held by community banks and credit unions—local institutions with less than $1 billion in assets—plummeted from 27 percent to 11 percent. You can watch this transformation unfold in our 90-second video, which shows how four massive banks—Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo—have come to dominate the sector, each growing larger than all of the nation’s community banks put together.

Whatever one’s opinion of the bank shenanigans that precipitated the Great Recession, of “too big to fail,” or Dodd-Frank–whether or not you agree with Elizabeth Warren about the need for additional financial regulation–concentrations of power of this magnitude are cause for concern.

When that power is concentrated in large national banks removed from community relationships and concerns, the result is more foreclosures and fewer small business loans.

But perhaps the most important reason to treat the decline of community banks as a national crisis is that, while megabanks devote much of their capacity to activities that enrich their own bottom line, very often at the expense of the broader economy, local banks are doing the real work of financing businesses and other productive investments that create jobs and improve our well-being….

 While credit unions and small and mid-sized banks account for only 24 percent of all banking assets, they supply 60 percent of lending for small businesses.

The inverse is true of megabanks: they control 59 percent of the industry’s asset, but provide only 23 percent of small business loans. Given how much ground these giant banks have gained over local banks in the last seven years, it’s not hard to understand why small business lending has continued to shrink even as the economy has recovered.

Sometimes, bigger is better. Sometimes, it most definitely is not.