One doesn’t need a Ph.D. in economics to know certain facts about the current state of America’s economy:
1) Unemployment continues to be a serious problem not only for the unemployed but for the economy as a whole.
2) Consumers are skittish about spending money, so they can’t help drive an economic recovery.
3) In response to fears about unemployment and the economy, consumers are paying off debt.
4) Reducing debt may be a a good thing for individuals and for the economy in the long-term, but when too many people do it all at once it leads to less goods and services being bought, which reinforces and helps sustain a recession or a weak recovery.
5) Many of the largest corporations in America are sitting on huge sums of cash. Among the reasons for not investing it and hiring new employees: aversion to risk, preoccupation with the current bottom line, and hefty profits through making current employees more productive, that is, making them work longer and harder.
Enter the Bank of America. You know, the corporation that American taxpayers shelled out 45 billion dollars to rescue. Its past and current behavior exemplifies the failings of many giant corporations to do the right thing in national crises. Make no mistake about it, the way that the Bank of America mistreats its customers is bound to reinforce exactly the types of behavior that will maintain the economy in its present anemic state.
Let’s take the story back a few years. It seems that for several years the Bank of America has been arbitrarily raising interest rates on its credit card customers. Here is an excerpt from an article on MSN from BusinessWeek, February 2008.
Credit card issuers have drawn fire for jacking up interest rates on cardholders who aren’t behind on payments but whose credit scores have fallen for other reasons. Now, some consumers complain, Bank of America is increasing rates based on no apparent deterioration in their credit scores at all. The major credit card lender in mid-January sent letters notifying some responsible cardholders that it would more than double their rates to as high as 28%, without giving explanations for the increases, according to copies of five letters obtained by BusinessWeek. Fine print at the end of the letter — headed “Important Amendment to Your Credit Card Agreement” –- advised calling an 800-number for the reason, but consumers who called say they were unable to get a clear answer. “No one could give me an explanation,” says Eric Fresch, a Huron, Ohio, engineer who is on time with his Bank of America card payments and knows of no decline in the status of his overall credit….But Bank of America appears to be taking an even more aggressive stance because, beyond credit scores, it is using internal criteria that aren’t available to consumers. That makes the reasons for the rate increases even more opaque….Analysts also say they are surprised by the magnitude of the rate increases Bank of America is imposing on affected cardholders.
You can find stories all over the web about Bank of America’s bad behavior regarding its credit card customers. Recently it appears that BofA has accelerated the use of one of its strategies: arbitrarily reducing the credit limit of customers who have very good credit histories, pay on time, and pay more than the minimum. The deal goes like this: You borrow an amount from BofA at a good interest rate. After a few months you get a call. You are told that your credit limit is being reduced to almost exactly what you owe. When you ask for an explanation, you are given transparently bogus reasons. And there is no appealing the reduction. This action is unfair to credit card customers because it can adversely affect credit scores. Consumers now appear to be maxed out on their cards when 24 hours earlier they had a nice cushion. A lawyer in California became so incensed about this practice and arbitrary increases in interest rates that he threatened to sue the BofA. The story can be found in the Huffington Post, January 2010. An excerpt:
“Banks have done really well figuring out ways to screw people without making themselves legally liable,” said Ira Rheingold, director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. “I think [the limit reduction] is another example of Bank of America’s venality. Whether or not it’s a successful lawsuit, I don’t know. Whether I think it ought to be challenged — absolutely.”
But maybe Bank of America is just trying to do what is best for its shareholders. That’s often what you hear when companies are challenged about their executives’ pay or other practices. Yet BofA doesn’t seem too keen on giving its shareholders a say in the pay of its executives. For example, a Los Angeles Times headline on February 23, 2010 announced:
Bank of America resisting shareholders on executive pay. . . The bank is working to keep investor proposals on executive compensation off the ballot.
The machinations of BofA are sad stuff. The resulting likely behavior from customers with reduced credit lines: pay off debt more quickly and spend less money in the marketplace. Of course this will only help to extend the anemic recovery. The fact is that the actions of leading banks and corporations have often not been good for the economy. They rant and rave about taxes and the federal government, but it’s a shell game. (Banks and their supporters will tell you that the reason they are not loaning is because of federal regulations. BofA is currently sitting on 172 billion in cash.) The intense preoccupation of corporations with the bottom line (and the well-being of their executives) has left millions of Americans un- or underemployed. The way that credit has been handled, for example, has increased the fear that we will never come out of this downturn, which will only help to prolong it.
Socialism is no threat. Corporations only looking to the bottom line, which in times such as these is downright unpatriotic, are a threat. It’s time for companies that have done so well in America to stand up and sacrifice for America. We are not asking you to become charities, although you were willing to take our charity when you needed it. We are asking you to spend some money, damn it, and put people back to work, even if it’s not the absolutely best thing for your corporation’s current bottom line….and stop harassing responsible citizens while you do it.
Oh, and just in case you might be worried about the well-being of the former Chairman of BofAm, Ken Lewis, here is what ABC news reported regarding his retirement pay in 2009.
Outgoing Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis’ nearly $64 million retirement pay puts him ahead of most, though not all, fellow major bank CEOs who have left their institutions during the financial tumult of the last two years.