In the final stretch of the 2012 election, President Obama was heckled by some of his opponents for taking out a $15 million loan from Bank of America (BAC -0.61%).
What did the loan represent? Depending on who you ask and which side of the political aisle they sit on, there are plenty of answers. I'd argue that the reality was probably neutral: The campaign needed a short-term loan, and the money from B of A was there and at a reasonable price.
What the loan almost certainly didn't represent was any sort of presidential soft spot for the "too big to fail" bank. Asked by ABC's George Stephanopoulos back in 2011 about whether Bank of America's highly controversial debit-card fee could be stopped, the president responded:
Well, you can stop it because if you say to the banks, "You don't have some inherent right just to, you know, get a certain amount of profit if your customers are being mistreated. That you have to treat them fairly and transparently."
Which is wrong for a variety reasons. But that's a discussion for another time.
Looking back at it though, I got curious: What is Bank of America to the president? A useful lending institution, or a handy political punching bag?
Banking institutions in general weren't the president's biggest allies during the most recent campaign. None of his top contributors came from the world of finance. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney's top five (hat tip to OpenSecrets.org) looked like this:
- Goldman Sachs (GS -0.84%): $1 million
- Bank of America: $1 million
- Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS): $911,055
- JPMorgan Chase (JPM 1.41%): $833,096
- Wells Fargo (WFC -1.21%): $674,076
President Obama did pocket some campaign cash from B of A, but that $257,397 was a fraction of what went to Romney.
And while the president tapped B of A for a campaign loan, his personal finances lie elsewhere. According to his 2011 financial disclosure (again, courtesy of OpenSecrets.org), he has multiple accounts -- including a private client account -- with JPMorgan. He has another checking account and a 30-year mortgage with Northern Trust (NTRS -0.03%). And he has retirement and education savings in Vanguard, Calvert, and PIMCO.
When we put it all together, we can say the following: President Obama doesn't bank personally with Bank of America, but he is willing to give them business. He received some campaign support, but not nearly as much as his opponent received. And he doesn't have a whole lot to say specifically about the bank, but he's ready to jump on it when politically expedient.
Which, if we shoved that through a word-crunching sausage maker, probably yields a very un-shocking conclusion. That is, that the president doesn't have much of a tightly held opinion on B of A except to the extent that it helps his ends. What are his ends? When it comes to B of A, I'd say it boils down to helping the economy get back on track, and making the banking sector appear to be adhering to and benefiting from the industry changes that have come about during his administration.
Sure, you can interpret it more cynically. But if I'm right, and that's really the calculus behind his view on B of A, then his bottom line is one that is in-line with a positive bottom line for the bank -- and the economy as a whole. And it's hard to argue with that.