Do You Hate Your Bank? Why Bank-Bashing Is Good for America


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If you have any sense of fairness and justice, then it's hard not to be amused by a headline like "UBS CEO: Bashing Banks Unhelpful to Financial System," which adorned a story in The Wall Street Journal on Monday morning.

"Life is hard enough, and I think this constant lecturing on ethics and on integrity by many stakeholders is probably the most frustrating part of the equation," UBS  (NYSE: UBS  ) CEO Sergio Ermotti said in an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. "We are far from being perfect [...] but it's not going to be very helpful to be constantly bashing banks."

Beyond the fact that Ermotti isn't a disinterested party -- it's a bit like Alex Rodriguez, the disgraced third baseman of the New York Yankees, saying there's no reason for Major League Baseball to punish him -- this simply isn't true.

The virtues of bank bashing
While bank bashing may indeed be frustrating to someone in Ermotti's position -- to say nothing of how it must feel at JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) , where executives recently finalized a $20 billion legal settlement with federal and state regulators over a laundry list of alleged misdeeds including turning a blind eye to Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme -- the reality is that it's neither the "most frustrating part of the equation" nor is it unhelpful.

I would even go so far as to say that it's not only not unhelpful, but that it's actually an essential step to ensuring that valuable legal and regulatory reforms are enacted by those in the position to do so -- who, mind you, are under constant pressure from the financial industry's lobbyists.

To be fair, I'm unaware of the precise "equation" that Ermotti is referring to. However, assuming it's the residual effects from the financial crisis -- which is probably a safe assumption given the context -- then I would urge him (and others like him) to consider a few other things that may vie for the title of "most frustrating."

How about the millions of people who remain unemployed because of the crisis? Or perhaps the millions of people who lost their homes as a result? Or maybe the tens of thousands of people (if not more) who had their credit histories destroyed because the financial industry mishandled their foreclosures.

I don't know about you, but these things certainly seem at least as frustrating as having to jump through a few more hoops as a part of your job -- and particularly if you're someone like Ermotti who earns upwards of $10 million for performing it.

On top of this, moreover, to claim that bank bashing is "not going to be very helpful" is, if you'll excuse my bluntness, completely ignorant of history. It was this very sentiment that ushered in a wave of positive regulatory changes to the banking and securities industries in the aftermath of the Great Depression.

These changes forbade banks from misleading customers about the quality of toxic securities. They leveled the playing field for the individual investor by banning insider trading and market manipulation -- which was brought about, in large part, by the behavior of executives at Citigroup's predecessor National City Bank. And they prohibited banks from using depositors' life savings to speculate on high-risk securities.

More recently, moreover, as I discussed in a recent article about Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) , the current wave of negative sentiment that Ermotti is presumably referring to has already accomplished a lot in and of itself.

It forced banks to stop manipulating the timing of debit-card transactions merely to maximize overdraft fees. It inspired legal authorities to put an end to the alleged rigging of markets for municipal bonds, energy, and interest rates. And it's persuaded federal and state regulators to hold financial institutions accountable for the voluminous list of misdeeds that fueled the financial crisis.

When all is said and done, in fact, I'd submit that bank bashing has actually accomplished quite a bit of good over the last eight decades.

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