Another “FDIC Friday” has come and gone, with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) announcing last Friday that four more US banks have been closed. The shuttered institutions included Denver’s United Western Bank, reportedly done in by some lousy mortgage-backed securities it was holding.
For those keeping count, a total of seven US banks have failed so far in 2011. One hundred and fifty seven failed in 2010, and before that, 140 failed in 2009.
Given their pivotal role in financing small businesses, the health of America’s community banks ought to be of great concern to elected and unelected officials, at all levels of government – from the White House and governors’ mansions, to the offices of individual legislators and their staffers.
These community banks may seem like tiny sardines compared to the too-big-to-fail whales of Wall Street, but they nonetheless play a vital role in the US economy that is perhaps hidden to some by their small size.
With his State of the Union speech coming up, President Obama’s advisors are no doubt busily scrubbing all economic “bad news” from his draft speaking notes. That would rule out any mention of the number of bank failures on the President’s watch.
It isn’t that the President is afraid to talk about community banks, or that he is ignorant about their role as lenders to small businesses – it’s just that “bad news” about bank failures doesn’t fit with the political “narrative” he and his advisors want to present to the public.
(If the rate of community bank failures had gone down during his White House tenure, of course, community banks would likely get a starring role in his SOTU as props. And perhaps the head of the Independent Community Bankers of America would be invited by the White House to sit in the audience on Tuesday.)
This is one of those cases, however, where the President has to overrule his advisors. The preference to say nothing about bank failures is understandable, but the short-term gain it provides also brings with it a longer-term problem.
The longer that the President goes without talking about bank failures, or about what he is doing to help slow them down and restore more banks back to health, the more likely it is that his Republican opponents will be able to fashion the bank failure issue into a potent political weapon pointed directly at the White House.
A recent speech by Rep. Spencer Bachus provides some insight into the rhetorical heavy artillery that may await the President.
On bank failures, Obama’s choice is perhaps expressed best by a slogan used successfully for many years by the people who make Fram oil filters – “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”
That is, the President can start talking about bank failures now, take a political hit, and then recover whatever ground he loses by seizing the initiative and acting swiftly to reduce the frequency of further bank failures.
Or he can remain silent, and pay a much higher political price when Republicans like Rep. Bachus steal a march on him, and attack him on his vulnerable bank failure flank. Republican legislators will make President Obama look weak while he rushes to catch up with them on the bank failure file.
So – which will it be, Mr. President? Do you want to pay now, or pay later?