Thomas Oliver: Main Street bankers sullied by Wall Street

Nowadays, however, they can have the haggard look of a refugee.

Bankers have taken a beating in their communities, in the media and from the nation's bully pulpit in D.C.

A group of 150 plus gathered in Savannah Tuesday to lick their wounds and listen to a pep talk from the new Southeast regional president of Wells Fargo.

Darryl Harmon, ensconced now for a year in Atlanta, told the Southeastern Bank Management and Directors Conference presented by UGA’s Terry College to make known to all their constituents the difference between community bankers and Wall Street.

"There is a difference," he said, between Main Street bankers and those high-flying Wall Street investment types.

In other words, it’s Wall Street’s fault.

It is something of the same difference Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, would like to see made more distinct by law.

The Volcker Plan would attempt to put the genie back in the bottle by restricting banks from operating hedge funds and making other investments with depositors’ money. It would stop them from playing Wall Street’s favorite game of gambling with investors’ money.

Only a handful of the largest would be affected: Bank America, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley.

But not Wells Fargo. So for Harmon, the Volcker Plan is a non-issue.

Not so with the Obama’s plan to tax those banks that took TARP funding. Harmon said taxing banks isn’t the best way to help the economy if you want banks to lend more.

The tax is doubly ironic for Wells Fargo, which was the one bank that had to be threatened by then Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to take TARP funding. Perhaps executives knew all too well that dealing with Washington is hardly ever what it seems or what the politicians say it is. Payback is never simply paying the bill. The piper must also be compensated.

One of the results of the Financial Panic of ’08 was that Wells Fargo snatched Wachovia from the jaws of Citigroup, which had been anointed by the FDIC to take over the Charlotte-based bank. Wachovia shareholders cheered.

As such Wells Fargo now claims a 19 percent market share in metro Atlanta, behind No. 1 SunTrust, with one in three households having a primary banking relationship with the San Francisco-based holding company.

Harmon says it is a myth that bankers aren’t making loans, though the latest report from the Federal Reserve would indicate that credit is still tight, as it has been for two years.

Of greater concern might be that “demand from both businesses and households for all major categories of loans weakened further, on net, over the past three months,” according to the January survey of senior loan officers.

Harmon said a lot of Wells Fargo’s best customers he would like to lend more to are “waiting on the sidelines.”

Waiting, as we all are, to see how new taxes and regulations are going to affect their business.

Not to mention the escalating size of government that requires an ever increasing budget that creates a deficit for all time.

Thomas Oliver writes the Sunday business column. He can be reached at toliver.writeright@gmail.com

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