Can the Big Banks Be Trusted?

Motley Fool analyst Matt Koppenheffer sits down with Rick Engdahl for a side-of-desk interview about banks. Are they really that hard to understand? Can the big banks be trusted? Join us for a discussion that sheds some light on banks from Citigroup to Wells Fargo  (NYSE: WFC  ) , as well as some of the smaller players.

Everyone has heard the horror stories about big bank behavior during the crisis, and the calls for consumers to switch to credit unions and smaller banks. In this video segment, Matt offers his views, including an explanation of how some of the abuses may have come to pass.

A full transcript follows the video.

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Rick Engdahl: As someone who's a consumer looking for a loan these days, it seems to me, just based on conversations I've had with neighbors and such, that people are more interested in getting loans from a credit union or from a small bank or a regional bank than from one of the big banks right now, just simply because of the bad PR and the bad taste from the bailouts.

Bank of America is synonymous with evil right now. There's just that perception out there that these banks are all bad. Certainly, a lot of it's justified. There's a lot of damage done, and there was a huge bailout of taxpayer money.

What do you make of the bad press? Is it lingering? Does it actually have an effect on... is it just my neighbors that are shopping at local banks and credit unions, or is it actually a sizable movement? Does it affect the banks at all?

Matt Koppenheffer: You know, big picture, I don't think it's had that much of an effect. I think for a lot of people there's been a lot of talk about it, but a lot less action.

You had the -- I forget exactly -- I think it was called Bank-Switching Day or something like that, a couple of years back. It was going to be this whole big thing where people were going to, en masse, move their accounts from big banks to credit unions, and it was a blip. It wasn't even a blip. People just didn't do it.

Rick: Switching costs are very high, right?

Matt: Switching costs are very high. When you look at Wells Fargo, for example, one of the areas that it's been so successful at -- and a lot of the banks are focusing on this -- it's cross-selling. Wells Fargo says that its average household, the average Wells Fargo household, has six Wells Fargo products.

When you think about that, if you've got your mortgage, your bank account, maybe a college savings account, an IRA, credit card -- you've got this all with Wells Fargo, and then you're thinking, "OK, I'm going to unwind all of this and put it with a different institution" -- that's very difficult.

Then also I think to some extent there is a value proposition idea with this. There are a lot of very bad things that the big banks did. I think some of that was... yeah, there were terrible things that they did, in some cases.

In some cases, too, when we look at a lot of the headlines, some of that I think was just the idea that they got so overwhelmed. These are deposit-taking and lending institutions. They're not businesses set up with the idea of handling massive amounts of foreclosure and default activity. Prior to the crisis, you had a fraction of a percent of loans at the banks that were non-performing, and you had an even smaller fraction that were getting charged off or foreclosed or whatever.

You had these departments that were set up to be able to handle that small amount of activity, then all of a sudden you had the financial crisis, and you had 4x, 5x, 10x the amount of non-performing loans you had to deal with, with foreclosures you had to deal with, with near-foreclosures you had to deal with. I don't think that they built out -- or they had trouble building out -- those departments fast enough to be able to handle all of that.

I think you get some shenanigans, some bad things happening, just from the fact that people were overwhelmed. The organizations are overwhelmed and they can't handle all that. They couldn't handle all the activity at once.

Now I think we're going to start to see that minimized because you have the number of foreclosures coming down, the number of non-performing loans coming down. Meanwhile, you have these now built-out big foreclosure-dealing-with departments.

That's part of it, but what I was getting to is the value proposition at a bigger bank, for a consumer, can be pretty compelling. When you think about the cross-selling at Wells Fargo... six products in a Wells Fargo household.

A lot of smaller banks, maybe a lot of credit unions, they can't offer -- or they don't offer -- all those different products. In that case, you've got your bank account one place, maybe if you're a small business owner you've got an individual 401(k) somewhere else. You've got your credit card somewhere else. Maybe you've got an auto loan from somewhere else.

Whereas, if you're at Wells Fargo, you can get them all in one place. On top of that, you can know that pretty much anywhere in the country you go, you can find a Wells Fargo ATM. And on top of that, you know that if somebody writes you a check, you can take out your mobile phone, take a picture of that check, and deposit it in your account.

That's one of the big advantages of the big banks, one of the advantages of the scale, is that they offer more. More locations, and they have more ability to invest in technology, too.

Many investors are terrified about investing in big banking stocks after the crash, but the sector has one notable stand-out. In a sea of mismanaged and dangerous peers, it rises above as "The Only Big Bank Built to Last." You can uncover the top pick that Warren Buffett loves in The Motley Fool's new report. It's free, so click here to access it now.


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