She has yet to cause a run on any of the money-center banks, but political-pundit-turned-digital-entrepreneur Arianna Huffington has lit up the blogosphere with a campaign targeting customers of the largest financial institutions.
Her Move Your Money Project began last week urging consumers to move their deposits from big banks that have feasted on government aid and been the subject of scorn to presumably more responsible community banks.
"For me, the most interesting thing moving into a new year is to encourage people to move from resignation and frustration to action, which is very empowering," Huffington said in an interview Monday. "As I was out with my children over the weekend, at the coffee shop, at the promenade, I had people literally coming up to me saying, 'I'd been thinking about it, I'd been worried as to whether I should do it, and this gave me the courage to do it.' "
No surprise, community bankers are thrilled.
"Community banks are going crazy over it," said Cam Fine, president and CEO of the Independent Community Bankers of America. "I haven't had one banker email me that had something negative to say about it. They just love it."
But even Fine doesn't expect the campaign will be terribly effective.
"I don't think the Huffington Post article is going to disintermediate the nation's 15 or 20 largest banks from some significant portion of their funding," he said. "I think it will run its course and be another interesting little episode among many during this financial crisis."
By the close of business Monday, the targets — Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Wells Fargo & Co. — still seemed to have their funding bases intact.
Still, the campaign has proven popular. It had more fans on Facebook than B of A, Citi and JPMorgan Chase combined.
"The idea is simple: If enough people who have money in one of the big four banks move it into smaller, more local, more traditional community banks, then collectively we, the people, will have taken a big step toward re-rigging the financial system so it becomes again the productive, stable engine for growth it's meant to be," Huffington wrote in a Dec. 29 piece on her Huffington Post Web site with co-author Rob Johnson, who is financial policy director at the Roosevelt Institute. "Consider it a withdrawal tax on the big banks for the negative service they provide by consistently ignoring the public interest."
The campaign's Web site, MoveYourMoney.info, attracted 2.3 million page views and 176,000 unique visitors in its first week. It features a short film equating today's commercial bankers to Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey character in "It's a Wonderful Life" - with the bailed out mega-banks playing the role of the cold-hearted Mr. Potter.
The site also lets visitors look up banks in their zip code with a grade of "B" or better from Institutional Risk Analytics, a research firm that donated the online search widget to the project. Armed with that information, and the realization that Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. protection applies to accounts under $250,000 regardless of the size of the FDIC-insured bank where the accounts reside, customers who are unhappy with the behavior of big banks can vote with their pocketbooks to support smaller institutions that played a comparatively minor role in the buildup to the financial crisis, Huffington said in the interview.
Officials from B of A, Citi and JPMorgan Chase declined to comment on the campaign. Wells spokeswoman Richele Messick acknowledged that consumers are demanding more of their financial institutions, but argued that the firm is up to the challenge.
"We are focused as we always have been on delivering the products, the services and especially the conveniences that contribute to the financial success of our customers, but we certainly know that that means earning their trust," she said, adding that Wells through the third quarter had extended $640 billion of credit since last fall's bailout.
Huffington, herself a former Wells customer, said she has banked for more than a decade now with a firm that was not among the top 19 financial institutions stress-tested by the government last spring. But some of her colleagues on the project are just now cutting ties to the biggest banks and establishing relationships with smaller institutions.
"The point we are making is that these big banks that are perceived to be too-big-to-fail have an unfair advantage," said Huffington, who lives in Los Angeles and declined to publicly name her banking institution out of privacy concerns. "It's really the government picking winners and losers, and a lot of these banks are lobbying to undermine the needed reforms."
The project was the result of a pre-Christmas dinner at which Huffington was discussing the state of the banking industry with Johnson, a former Soros Fund Management and Bankers Trust Co. executive, along with filmmaker Eugene Jarecki and the Huffington Post Investigative Fund's Nick Penniman. Within days, Jarecki had prepared the film, which splices scenes from It's a Wonderful Life with footage from Congressional hearings and other outgrowths of the recent credit crisis. And Huffington and Johnson posted their commentary, in which they introduced MoveYourMoney.info and lambasted the big banks for restricting credit even after receiving bailout funds.
"Meanwhile," they wrote, "America's Main Street community banks - the vast majority of which avoided the banquet of greed and corruption that created the toxic economic swamp we are still fighting to get ourselves out of - are struggling… The government policy of protecting the Too Big and Politically Connected to Fail is badly hurting the small banks, which are having a much harder time competing in the financial marketplace."
Of course, some small banks were quite successful in hurting themselves all on their own, making foolish loans based on overly optimistic assumptions and expanding into businesses and geographic regions in which they had no expertise. But Fine agreed with Huffington that the troubles that spilled over from Wall Street, particularly in the areas of residential and commercial real estate, contributed to the destabilization of smaller institutions.
"The public policies over the last couple of decades led to the creation of these megabanks, and they were so large… that they impacted the economy both nationally and globally," Fine said.
Large banks have long been the target of grass roots campaigns Service Employees International Union devotes part of its Web site to condemning big banks, including tracking their lobbying and compensation practices. Other sites, including stopbankabuse.com and bankofamericasucks.com, have been set up by angry customers who complain of high credit card fees and deceptive practices. Consumer advocate Clark Howard went to war with B of A in 2006 after a customer spent 11 hours in jail for attempting to cash a check he did not realize was fraudulent.
Huffington, who has reached an audience beyond her Web site through a spate of television appearances this week, has a cachet that could prove even more effective.
"This is the dream of every social media marketer, to shoot a concept out to the world and have it turn viral," said Jacob Jegher, a senior banking analyst for Celent.
The MoveYourMoney project plans to add information to its Web site to help supporters persuade state governments and municipalities to pull accounts from big banks. Huffington and her colleagues planned to strategize on that topic during a conference call on Monday afternoon.
But Huffington's group may need to be careful what it wishes for. Some patrons of big banks may be mad enough to walk away as customers, but until the issue of too-big-to-fail is resolved, they are still on the hook for these firms as taxpayers. So a swift exit of deposits from the largest firms may not yet be in anyone's best interest - not that Huffington expects that to happen.
"This is going to be a long-term campaign, and people are going to act at different times," she said.
It would take a big wave of account transfers to make a dent in the funding war chests at the biggest banks, which amassed deposits at a brisk pace in 2009. But smaller banks, which had a banner year on the deposit front as well, are grateful all the same for whatever extra lift Huffington's project provides.
"Community bankers are going crazy over it, in a positive way," the ICBA's Fine said. "I have had emails from all over the country as this thing gets ricocheted around."