"We’re Dull, Small Banks Say, and Have Profit to Show for It
INDIANAPOLIS — It’s unlikely that any group of professionals is happier to highlight the dullness of their work than small-town bankers.
At a recent conference held here by the Indiana Bankers Association, attendees said it over and over: our business is plodding and boring and we would not have it any other way.
“Banking should not be exciting,” said Clay W. Ewing, president of retail financial services at German American Bancorp, a community bank in Jasper. “If banking gets exciting, there is something wrong with it.”
It is an ethos squarely at odds with the risk-addicted style of megabanks, like Citigroup and Bank of America, that trafficked in the subprime mortgages and complex financial products that helped drive the country into the grimmest recession in decades.
But to the deep chagrin of Mr. Ewing and others at the conference, the public, politicians and the media have made little distinction between the stress-tested behemoths and the 7,630 community banks across the country — the vast majority of which have watched the crisis like bystanders at a 10-car pileup.
As a result, community bankers have felt compelled in recent months to mount public relations campaigns to emphasize their fiscal health and in some cases to announce they rejected Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, funds. Some have held cookouts, others have held “reassurance” meetings in their lobbies, hoping to educate customers and prevent panics. All are dealing with banker jokes and the occasional wisecrack.
“I was on vacation in California and this guy I had just met said, ‘So, traveling on that bailout money, huh?’ ” said Blake Heid, of First Option Bank in Paola, Kan., which didn’t take any bailout money. “I didn’t find that very amusing.”
Though they greatly outnumber the national and regional banks, community banks have barely registered in any of the fallout from the credit crisis, in part because they hold less than 10 percent of the $13.8 trillion in bank assets nationwide.
The 50 or so bank failures have been largely clustered in a few states, like Florida, Arizona and California, where the bursting housing bubble had the greatest impact.
In states like Indiana, where property values never soared, community banks have been rock solid. The last failure in the state was in 1992.
To spend time with these Indiana community bankers is to step into an alternate universe, where everything sounds a little strange because it makes perfect sense. You hear things like, “If you don’t understand the risk you’re taking, don’t take it.” And, “We want to be around for decades, so we’re not focused on the next quarter.”
Forget “too big to fail.” These banks consider themselves too small to risk embarrassment. They are run by people who grew up in the towns where they work, and their main fear is getting into a financial jam that will shame them in the eyes of their neighbors.
The steep profits earned by national banks didn’t turn their heads in the last decade because they were inherently skeptical of double-digit growth rates.
“We like a nice, gentle, upward slope,” said Donald E. Goetz, the president of DeMotte State Bank, an 11-branch operation in the northwest part of Indiana.
“This kind of growth, like you see in the stock market” — Mr. Goetz ran his hand through the air, tracing the shape of a mountain range — “that doesn’t interest us.”
One recent morning Mr. Goetz gave a tour of his bank, which included a bulletin board with fliers for a fire department fish fry and the Kankakee Valley Women’s Club flower sale.
There is a lot of bric-a-brac in his wood-paneled office and a Thomas Kinkade painting of a green-gabled stone house after a snow fall, titled the “Olde Porterfield Gift Shoppe.”
“There is one set of footprints, going in,” he said, pointing to the painting. “That’s how we feel as a business sometime. We’re walking alone.”
Mr. Goetz, who was wearing a tie and a short-sleeve shirt, started as a teller at DeMotte right after he graduated from college in 1976, and he’s been president since 1988. He is a stolid guy who, when asked what he does for fun, offered two words: “Yard work.”
He sounds somewhat aggrieved. His bank, which opened in 1917, didn’t make any subprime loans, nor did it take any bailout money. Even when bank stocks were soaring, not one of his 246 shareholders needled him to earn more than the 3 to 4 percent dividend that DeMotte has generated for years.
Still, he’s had to train employees in the art of assuaging the fears of jittery customers. He programmed the blinking signs outside his branches to read “Safe, Strong, Secure.”
Despite these efforts, he’s fielded some customer calls at night, to his home. In rare cases, people withdrew their savings.
“We had three or four people panic,” he said. “A couple of them said, ‘It’s not the bank. We just don’t trust the government.’ And I told them, ‘If the government fails, the money you’re taking out of this bank won’t be worth anything.’ ”
Mr. Goetz, like a lot of his competitors, is livid about the mortgage shenanigans born of the securitization craze. But he thinks his public relations problem had many authors.
“The media, Congress, the president, everyone just keeps saying ‘the banks, the banks, the banks,’ like we’re all the same thing,” he said. “Well, we’re not all the same thing.”
Explaining that distinction has been especially challenging for community banks that signed up for TARP funds, which initially were pitched by the government as a way to shore up healthy banks. Only later, after the American International Group bonus fiasco, community bankers say, did the TARP acquire a stigma.
“We heard a lot of smart-alecky comments,” said James C. Latta, president of the Idaho Banking Company in Boise, Idaho, which took $6.9 million in TARP funds. “A lot of ‘Wish I had a bailout.’ ”
At DeMotte, Mr. Goetz is bracing for a steep increase in a crucial overhead cost: the bill from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which is basically an insurance fund underwritten by banks.
Last year, DeMotte paid $42,000 into the fund. This year, because of failures in other parts of the country and particularly among national banks, that sum will rise to $500,000 or more.
“Isn’t that the American way?” he says, folding his arms. “Whoever is left standing, whoever was prudent, is always the one who has to pick up the pieces.”