As beautiful as the day was Tuesday, a cold sky enameled to a Faberge blue, it was no wonder that the bankers and business folk, condemned to the indoor gloom of an auditorium and the interior gloom of a hostile takeover, looked miserable.
Tuesday was the second of four days of public hearings on the likely merger of First Interstate by Wells Fargo bank, and if banks merge the way a young antelope merges with a lioness, then yes, it's a merger.
Day Two of testimony in the Museum of Science and Industry's auditorium had the feel of a football game at the nearby Coliseum when the second quarter score is already 54 to zip: you just go through the motions until the whistle. On the front page of the Los Angeles Times, a bank analyst had already blown the game to an end: "Start whistling taps. This one's over."
Onstage sat the representatives of the Federal Reserve Board, that mysterious agency whose fiats on interest rates and economic policy can shake the nation's piggy banks. Opposite them, at another white-skirted table, sat two glum guys--William Siart, the head of First Interstate, the mergee, and his reluctantly preferred suitor, Richard A. Zona, the No. 2 man at First Bank System in Minneapolis. Zona's demeanor was that of George Bailey trying to persuade Old Mr. Potter of the merits of kinder, gentler banking in Bedford Falls, arguing that "the answer is not an all or nothing push into electronic banking," and "branches are the economic anchors in the neighborhoods they serve."
Our uneasiness with banking reaches back far; the early Catholic Church condemned usury, the charging of interest on loans, as a sin, which makes a Visa card a one-way ticket to the lower depths. That's why it was in the interests of Christendom to permit Jews to lend money with interest; the logic was they were nonbelievers and going to hell anyway, but they were reviled for making money en route.
The banker-father in Mary Poppins was a pinch-farthing with a mind as narrow as his tie.
In the hungry 1930s, the banker could be the man you saw at the school PTA meeting, and the man who ended up repossessing your house.
And we all know about Old Mr. Potter.
Banks opened at 10 and closed at 3--banker's hours, we still call them--and you got your money then or not at all, and 3:02 was too late, and too bad if you needed cash for the weekend, unless you could sweet-talk the grocer into cashing a $31.50 check for $1.50 worth of cereal and milk. Now it's the libraries that only stay open from 10 to 3, and the banks that are open late and Saturdays, if you can find one.
That kept coming up at the hearings: bank branches are being shut faster than nuclear missile silos, and are about as hard to find. We're back to banking at the grocery store.
Astonishing, the people a dry bit of business like a bank merger can draw: Skid Row workers, ministers, Big Sisters of L.A., a barber and a yacht broker, Central Valley cotton growers and inner-city grocers, mayors and restaurateurs, the NAACP and Korean groups, and more members of Congress than some states send to Washington. What will happen to bank branches? they ask. What about small-business loans, affordable housing loans?
The mayor of Montebello, William Molinari, had been reading the morning paper too, the part about the 39 First Interstate executives who have already packed their golden parachutes. "I find nothing," he remarked sardonically, "about a golden parachute for the 10,000 employees who'd lose their jobs."
The mayor of Ventura, Jack Tingstrom, arriving slightly out of breath after a three-hour haul down the 101, counts a half-dozen branches gone from his city of late, along with Ventura's own local bank swallowed up by First Interstate.
Like some New Yorker cartoon of a food chain run amok, Security and Crocker have been digested by bigger banks and one of those will now itself get digested. A time when government is parading the virtues of getting local--block grants to block parties--businesses are getting more and more vast in the name of efficiency, gobbling each other up, sometimes on the backs of customers and employees but always to the advantage of stockholders.
Some accounts charge less if you do business with its convenient machines rather than with real employees, who require inconveniences like bathrooms and Social Security.
Banking used to have a human face--a cantankerous one at times--but now it approaches having no face at all, except your own, reflected in the shatterproof cover of the ATM.
A security guard in a Smokey Bear hat searched my bag before he let me into the hearings. This is, after all, a hostile takeover.
For a moment, I thought of standing up and asking the panjandrums my question, about 10 years of checking accounts handed off from one taken-over bank to another, about branches as far off as a water mirage. But it felt trifle petty, and I guess I already knew the answer: Lady, this is big business.