Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan has a lot of nerve. Either that, or he is profoundly disconnected from his company's ordinary, everyday customers. My guess is both. Evidence of a major disconnect came in a recent Moynihan speech to BofA employees in which he declared himself "incensed" about all the bad things people are saying about his poor widdle bank. His company has screwed untold numbers of customers, but he's incensed — kind of like the school bully who gets mad when the teacher rebukes him for taking other kids' lunch money.
The criticisms are especially unfair, Moynihan told his employees, "when you think about how much good all of you do, whether it's volunteer hours, charitable giving we do, serving clients and customers well." There were no reports of riotous laughter after that "serving customers well" part, so we assume Moynihan was serious. In fact, we know he was serious. What other local banking bigwig (besides Moynihan's predecessor, Ken Lewis) has ever seemed so tone-deaf to the public mood?
That institutional cluelessness, unfortunately, is no surprise. From the time of the economic meltdown in 2008, BofA has hardly made any good moves — either in terms of making money, or of public relations.
Much of the criticisms sticking in Moynihan's craw started after the late-September notice of a $5-per-month charge for debit card users. The timing of the announcement — on the heels of brutal employment reports and growing anger over U.S. income inequality — was proof enough of BofA's tone-deafness. It evidently never entered the head of the bank's top execs that public anger over the debit-card news was less about the fee itself and more about it feeling like the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.
At first, BofA honchos reacted condescendingly to the anger, thus further polishing their "clueless" image. The bank's defenders then claimed it was "forced into" the debit-card fee when Congress put new caps on retailers' debit fees — as if the bank is somehow guaranteed a certain profit, no matter what. That explanation may have worked in the pre-recession era, back in the days when big banks' reputations were still better than that of raccoons raiding a garbage can. But three years into the Great Recession? Sorry.
Moynihan nailed the Tone-Deafness prize, though, with his next explanation: Hey, if you keep a ton of money in our bank, you won't have to pay that monthly debit-card fee. To the 1-percenters, that no doubt sounded good. To nearly everyone else, however, it was just another slap in the face from Bank of America. The uproar over debit-card charges finally led other large banks to back off their own plans to charge similar fees, and now BofA supposedly plans to make it easier to avoid the debit-card fee. Like that will help its image now.
Moynihan must be really incensed now, since his bank took even more hell last week. First, Truthout, a leading progressive news blog, ran an extensive story Thursday titled "10 Reasons Bank of America Is the Most Hated Bank in America." It's not a pretty picture. On Friday, some Democratic lawmakers, including N.C.'s Rep. Brad Miller — but not banker-friendly Rep. Mel Watt of Charlotte — asked regulators why they allowed BofA to transfer derivatives from Merrill Lynch into the bank's deposit-taking operations. Since the deposits are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the lawmakers say taxpayers could once again be stuck paying big investment losses, just three years after BofA received tens of billions in bailout money.
So it's not just the debit-card issue that has people moving their money into credit unions. Since Moynihan seems to have forgotten why his company's reputation is circling the drain, here's a short guide to help him out:
• Bank of America was part, although by no means the largest part, of the insane Wall Street gambling in derivatives that nearly brought down the global economy.
• BofA was involved, largely through its Countrywide Financial friends, in massive foreclosure fraud, including robo-signing foreclosure documents and using false documents to justify foreclosures. Those scandalous goings-on included Bank of America paying $22 million to settle charges of improperly foreclosing on active-duty troops. Nice, huh?
• The bank was bailed out by taxpayers and yes, they've paid it back, but continuing to act as if the rest of us saving the bank's butt was no big deal is not exactly a way to regain trust.
• BofA consistently ranks low in customer satisfaction, small business-owner satisfaction, and was voted the nation's second-worst company (behind BP) by Consumerist.com, a Consumer Reports-affiliated outfit. Finally ...
• Bank of America has laid off more than 30,000 employees — thirty thousand!
And Brian Moynihan thinks he's incensed? C