Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Banking Thoughts

I’m not sure how banks really function.  I’m watching the Bernanke hearings now on C-SPAN, and I’m beginning to realize that neither the questioners (Senators) nor the witness (Bernanke) seems to know that much more.  Yes, they all profess to be knowledgeable about what happened, and they claim to know what to do in the future, but weren’t these the same people who were around when the seeds of destruction were being planted a few years ago?  It doesn’t give one a lot of comfort.

I never used to give a passing thought to banks, or to bankers.  Then, when the crisis struck, it made me start to worry more about the financial system and the cause of its collapse.  Was it the government’s fault?  Nope.  The government said it was Wall Street’s.  Was it Wall Street’s fault? Nope. You guessed it. Wall Street blamed the regulators. But someone had to be culpable, yet no one wanted to take credit.  Wonder why?

I had been starting to get a little comfortable with our financial leadership a few weeks ago when Time magazine anointed the Fed chairman as its Person of the Year.  But then I recalled an earlier Time cover, Feb. 15, 1999, with photos of an earlier Fed chairman, Alan Greenspan, along with Treasury’s Bob Rubin and Larry Summers. 

There were two captions on the cover: “The Committee to Save the World,” and “The inside story of how the Three Marketeers have prevented a global economic meltdown – so far.”  I’m not sure which caption was funnier.  A year later, as you may remember, all hell broke loose as one of our increasingly frequent financial bubbles burst. So much for the Three Marketeers.

Over the decade, the Fed leadership had changed from Greenspan to Bernanke. Yet here was Summers himself, back this time as National Economic adviser.  And Tim Geithner, a protégé of all the aforementioned, took over Treasury.  So our economic leadership has “progressed” from Greenspan, Rubin and Summers to Bernanke, Geithner and Summers.  In effect, the guys who got us here are back in the chicken coop again.  Change you can believe in? Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

The conventional wisdom is that Bernanke is irreplaceable and should be reappointed in order to assure stability in the financial markets; there is absolutely no one else who can do the job.  Somehow, I find it hard to believe that in a country of 300 million-plus, there is no other person who can run the Fed, that Bernanke is indispensable.  As Charles de Gaulle said, “The cemetery is full of indispensable men.”

Meanwhile, Geithner has his own issues.  Back in the bad old Soviet days, western Kremlinologists used to study photographs of the Politburo to discern who was gaining in favor -- by standing nearer Stalin -- and who was losing.  Those who moved over time from the center to the outside were likely headed for the Gulag.  This White House photo taken last week during Volcker’s visit suggests – based on Geithner’s distance from the President, not to mention the concerned expression on his face – that Cyrillic lessons might be in order.

Or as put it last week:

Many in political Washington immediately suspected that the new ideas reflected a diminution of influence of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and White House economic advisor Larry Summers, and the ascendancy of former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, who has advocated a tougher approach to the “too big to fail” problem for a year or more. In fact, Obama referred to one part of the proposal as “the Volcker rule.” 

Anyway, I’m going back to TV to watch more of the Senate hearings.  I’m dying to learn whether “somebody knows something” or it’s just more of “nobody knows anything.”

But I have recently learned something about the way that banks run their businesses.  They run them strangely.  Even though they’re lending very little to anyone but those with prime credits, the banks seem to be expanding their retail space at a feverish pitch.  At least in Manhattan.  It seems that whenever a street-level space becomes vacant – a not infrequent occurrence these days – some bank snaps up the location.

I just surveyed the area up and down Broadway within three to four blocks of our apartment building, and discovered 10 bank branches, many opened in the last few years.  They outnumber Starbucks in the same stretch five to one.

The good news?  Lots of ATMs.

Broadway & 63rd

Broadway & 62nd

Broadway & 61st

Broadway & 60th -- Home

Broadway & 58th

Broadway & 58th

Broadway & 57th

Broadway & 56th

Broadway & 56th

Broadway & 56th


  1. I very well may be the only person you know who has never touched, much less used, an ATM machine. Have no idea whether I should feel smug or ablaze with shame. I do know what the letters stand for, which may cut either attitude off at the knees.

  2. I love all those bank photos! But seriously... my comfort with Bernanke has to do with the fact that he is a serious student of the Depression and what went wrong (and what the fixes should be). I'm be happy to get rid of Geithner and Summers... I do think we need leadership that is not so inside Wall Street and its old ways of doing business. There were plenty of smart people, who were marginalized at the time, who saw the problems on the horizon re: securitized loans, derivatives, etc. As for the economic team, whom do you recommend? Do you still like Joseph Stiglitz? Have you read his latest book, and if so, what do you think of it? Finally, I don't understand why banks aren't making more loans to small businesses... shouldn't that just be a condition for being a bank?

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