Nickeled and Dimed By Both Wall Street and Main Street

bank_feeNew Orleans   In the wake of the Great Recession and general financial meltdown we all like to think we’ve got our eyes peeled to all of the slick shenanigans devised by Wall Street wheeler-dealers.  With billion dollar bank settlements still regularly reported in the daily papers and with a new governmental body, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in place that has our backs, we can finally relax.  Not!  I’m increasingly convinced that it’s not the big heist that will get most of us, but the fact that we’re now nickeled and dimed every day and in almost unimaginable ways once we relax even the tightest grip from our hard earned money.   The answer in banking to new regulations and restraints and lower interest rates seems to be rather than the big score, just to suck us dry, bit by bit, day by day.

When we worry about the unbanked, we keep looking for ways to achieve citizen wealth or income security with more safety and less cost.  Generally, most of us would believe that it’s better to put your money in a bank than to wad it up and hide it under your mattress or in a crack in the wall.  I’m just not sure that’s true anymore.

Minimum service fees are so expensive that their main purpose seems to be to suck the money out of your accounts in exchange for nothing.  In the wave of support for credit unions a couple of years ago, some of us opened accounts in the local credit union in our neighborhood, called ASI, because they seemed committed to the area.  The whole point of a credit union used to be savings.  You put some money in, and they get to invest it, but you were able to build a relationship for the future.  Boy, is that old school, gramps!  Once you discover there are minimum balance fees ever month and quarter, a couple of hundred necessary to open the account, becomes not an inducement to savings and security, but a bank donation, because when you’re not watching, it’s gone in a couple of years.

And, not just credit union accounts either.   For years Local 100 had a petty cash account with JP Morgan Chase in Little Rock.  We had forgotten we had it, until a visit to the office several years ago stumbled on a statement.  They were sucking out $20 or more a month to maintain an account with hardly $300 bucks in it.  Over a two year period we wrote, called, and cajoled Chase to close the account and transfer the money out to Capital One where we had our main account.  They delayed.  They promised.  They assured us.  We never saw a dime before it was gone.  For a couple of hundred here or there, the small fry and the big boys know you won’t sue, so they make what’s called a “business decision” to simply steal your money figuring they can get away with it.

It’s not just bank accounts either.  They treat anyone small, even their shareholders the same way.  This week I got a weird letter from Citi, as in Citibank, Citicorp, etc.  They wanted to know how I was going to pay $45 bucks and change for some kind of investment account they had me in.  It’s a long boring story, but 30 odd years ago on an office bet among other things I bought 10 shares of Citi for less than $100 with no brokerage fee.  It goes up and down as they get caught doing good or evil, and now it’s worth $700 or so, many decades later.   This is not Warren Buffet look out time, if you know what I mean, but what was a $45 annual charge all about?  They had an 800 number for questions, so I called.  What a hustle!  So, it seems after having signed us little fish up on one of their accounts, she told me they had started attaching a fee a year or two ago, unbeknownst to me.  So, I said, take me out of this now.  Not so easy, cowboy, she said.  I would still have to pay $45 for last year and $45 for this year out of my small holdings.  Well, all you’re doing is holding my certificates.  Send them to me, I’ll hold them myself.  Oh, no, dude, she claimed they would cost something on the order of $500 apiece, which surely is a big fib!  She claimed they could transfer my shares electronically to a depository of some kind, but that would also cost about one-hundred-and-a-half and when I asked what that outfit would charge annually, she would neither give me the name nor the cost for 5 minutes or more.  Oh, and to transfer out, I would have to sign a form and get it notarized by my bank, which she would supposedly mail to me.  Come on, man!  My Citi shares are hardly worth anything with miniscule dividends, but as a small fish to a Wall Street shark the message was clear, I was either going to have to agree to let them blood suck me for fifty or more every year or they were going to try and take a third or more of the little I had with Citi so that they could bleed me out now.

Modern finance, whether Wall Street or Main Street, is about billions and billions of dollars in transaction costs ripped from the hands of all of us small fry, not shrewd deals gaining value and building the nation’s economy.   We’re the grease on their wheels.  While the government and others try to watch them at the front door, they are stealing us blind and with impunity out of the backdoor in every nook, cranny, and alleyway they can find.

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How can Billion Dollar Fines be Little More Than Water off a Duck’s Back?

indexNew Orleans   I hate to admit it, but to me a billion dollars still seems like a whole lot of money.  Unfortunately, I’m afraid saying so makes me hopelessly hide bound and old school.

            Why?

            Because the government seems to be passing out billion dollar fines like candy to banks, utility companies, oil companies, automobile manufacturers, and others and it seems to have no discernible impact on their behavior whatsoever.  I’m sure you’ve noticed the same thing.  The government takes a victory lap, a couple of months or maybe a year goes by, and the same corporate culprit is doing the same perp walk to the ATM to pay out another billion dollar fine.  Billion dollar fines seem to have replaced the space on corporate balance sheets where they once wrote “goodwill,” and now it’s an item called “reserve” for a future expenditure for bad behavior.  Cheating consumers has simply become a mundane part of corporate culture.  Rapacious capitalism is no longer an insult, but a rally cry.

            How many gazillions has Bank of America now paid out for example due to the mortgage mess and their acquisition of Countrywide?  It hardly matters it seems as they get ready to pay another $800 million because they couldn’t keep themselves from selling non-existent products to their credit card holders.  One financial institution after another these days from HSBC to storied European banks are lining up to pay huge, billion plus fines for laundering money for Iran and other countries under sanctions by the international community.  JP Morgan Chase, only a few years ago was basking in arrogance with financial folks hanging on Jamie Dimon’s every word, but the number of fines it has paid for cheating and stealing from its customers makes him seem like the boss for a serial criminal mob.  Citicorp is running around in crisis having failed a “stress test,” not because they want to get a good grade on Wall Street it seems, but largely because they may be the only big bank fine payer not able to increase the dividend to their investors, and of course having somehow lost $400 million through their Mexican subsidiary they are claiming fraud, and the government is investigating, what else, but money laundering to drug cartels in that country.

            But speaking of a criminal enterprise, how about Wall Street itself?  I’m more than half-way through Michael Lewis’ new book called Flash Boys, where the real story is about the billions that some companies are making and that all of the big banks are abetting of front-running stock trades through high-frequency trading , which is of course totally illegal,.  And, yes, the FBI is now investigating, and the SEC is embarrassed, and the Attorney-General of New York State is letting subpoenas rain down like tickertape on Wall Street, but all that means is that the outcome of this latest scandal is likely to be, yes, you know, more fines!   An analysis of super-investor Warren Buffet’s portfolio over the last 5 years says he has even underperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index.  Friends, if he can’t beat the house on Wall Street in the biggest gambling casino in the world, you know on one else has a fair chance.

What’s the answer?  If it’s not fines, is it jail?  Hardly, since the big whales only offer up the small fry to do time. 

It’s time to clean house, but it looks like the walls are so rotten and the foundation is so shot, that it’s gut rehab time, but from top to bottom there doesn’t seem to be anyone willing and able to take on the job.

What a heckuva a mess!  Seems like if we have five dollars we might as well hide it in our shoe and take our chances on street crime, since no one seems able to stop Wall Street crime.

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