One way you can tell that a bank is in trouble is that it suddenly starts buying full-page ads in newspapers across the country that tell us what great shape it's in and what a fine job it's doing for our communities.
Such a PR push is now being made by Bank of America, which -- despite its happy-face ads -- is in a heap of hurt. How big of a heap? So big that it's trying to share the hurt with you and me.
In the 2007-2008 Wall Street collapse, B of A took advantage of the crisis to bulk up its empire. Using $45 billion in bailout money from us taxpayers, the giant gobbled up two troubled financial powers, investment house Merrill Lynch and mortgage hustler Countrywide Financial. It is now choking on these mergers, as well as on its own executive incompetence. Its credit rating has been downgraded, its stock price has plummeted, its CEO is desperately trying to raise cash (and save his job) by firing 36,000 employees, and it managed to infuriate its own customers by trying to impose a $5 monthly fee on debit card users.
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Now, though, CEO Brian Moynihan has a dandy plan to lighten his load by dumping a big chunk of it on the backs of us taxpayers. He's trying to transfer a mess of bad investments from his Merrill Lynch subsidiary into B of A's consumer banking unit. Why? Because that unit has about a trillion dollars in customer deposits that are insured by Uncle Sam. So, if Merrill's sorry investments cause the banking unit to fail, the feds would be there to rescue it.
A banking expert has commented: "There is always an enormous temptation to dump the losers on the (federally insured) institution. We should have fairly tight restrictions on that."
"Fairly tight?" Uh-uh! We should have totally tight restrictions -- as in, "No, you can't do that." Why should we let these failed capitalists turn into corporate socialists every time they get in trouble?
Then there's Bank of America's substance-abuse problem, which is turning into yet another problem for its customers. It's one thing to be addicted to a drug, but it's worse to be hooked because someone else is addicted.
Along with JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and other members of the big bankers gang, B of A is hooked on a drug that it loves, relies on and has no desire to shake: consumer fees. Such assessments are now a major source of income flowing through America's banking systems, and bankers are more creative than most other junkies in finding ways to get more of the stuff.
One especially infuriating creation by these fee junkies is one that hooks you to their addiction: Internet banking. To draw you in, they initially offered free online bill-paying, electronic deposits, etc. "Sign up with us," they purred, "we're here to serve you!"
Millions were lured in. But then -- gotcha! -- "free" soon turned into "free for a fee." Well, customers could just move their Internet business to another bank, right? Not so simple. The banks have deliberately wired their technology to make it a pain in the rear for anyone to switch. Instead of just click on "move," you have to disentangle each one of your electronic transactions separately -- your various credit card accounts, rent payments, utility bills, et cetera, et cetera.
One fellow who tried to move from Bank of America says he was so overwhelmed by the complications of switching dozens of his online arrangements that he gave up: "I'm really annoyed," he told The New York Times, "but someone at Bank of America made that calculation."
Rep. Brad Miller, having made his own calculation that consumers should be able to move at will, has introduced a bill in Congress to make it easier for customers to unhook themselves from their bank's fee addiction. For information, go to Rep. Miller's website www.bradmiller.house.gov.