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The Banker's Revolt: Why We All (Understandably) Hate Banks.


The paper discusses the rising anti-bank sentiment, attributing it to public distrust stemming from the perceived concentration of power within a few banking institutions, a lack of competition, exploitative practices, and a lack of transparency and accountability in the banking sector. The paper highlights that these issues have resulted in an unjust financial environment that disproportionately benefits the wealthy while exploiting vulnerable communities. In response to this growing discontent, the paper calls for a thorough reassessment of the banking sector to foster a more equitable and transparent financial system. It suggests that innovative solutions may lie in the fintech and decentralized finance (DeFi) sectors, which emphasize consumer-centric experiences and blockchain-based transparency, respectively. However, significant regulatory changes would be needed for these innovations to have a substantial impact, emphasizing the necessity of adopting a financial system that ensures service equality, financial education equity, and inclusivity.

Why we all hate banks:

In recent times, traditional banks have found themselves increasingly in the crosshairs of antitrust sentiment. It's no secret that banks have historically been the object of public disdain, whether that's been expressed through the Occupy Wall Street movement, Thomas Jefferson's pithy assertion that "banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies," or even Jesus's expulsion of the money-changers from the temple. However, contemporary anti-bank sentiment is more complex. This current trend denotes a deepening distrust and dissatisfaction with the overarching financial system—an emotion ignited by the aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis. The fallout from 2008 cast a long, dark shadow over the once invincible realm of traditional banking, turning it into fertile ground for scrutiny and debate across all strata of society. Even with the economic success of the past decade, the lingering sourness towards banking refuses to dissipate.

The widespread critique of banks largely stems from the prevailing belief that they have become too big to fail, wielding excessive power. The lingering aftermath of the most recent financial crisis has only deepened this skepticism, eroding public faith in banks' capacity to act as responsible custodians of public interest. This crisis has illuminated a range of concerns that fuel such sentiments. These encompass an undue concentration of power, a distressing lack of competition, and the perception of unfair, predatory practices that seem to be rampant within the banking sector.

In this context, the call for a thorough and thoughtful reassessment of the banking sector is louder than ever. These institutions, once seen as the bedrock of financial stability, are now under the microscope for their practices and policies. We must critically examine the role and responsibility of these financial giants to understand the roots of public distrust and figure out what we can do to mitigate it. By doing so, we can foster a financial environment that not only empowers the consumer but also upholds the principles of fairness and transparency. This involves promoting competition, demanding accountability, and ensuring that financial power is distributed more equitably. As we navigate through this crucial period of financial reckoning, we must remember that our collective effort can bring about a more just and inclusive banking system for all.

The Concentration of Power and the Stifling of Competition:

The intensifying consolidation of power within the banking industry has become a key catalyst for antitrust sentiments. As time inexorably advances, a small coterie of colossal banks has accumulated an alarming degree of control over the global financial landscape. For instance, a mere five US banks, including the likes of JP Morgan and Bank of America, hold close to half of all deposits in the country.

This concentration – a product of economies-of-scale, mergers, and regulatory practices – not only stifles competition but also erects formidable barriers for innovative newcomers. This concern is potently highlighted in Rana Foroohar's book, "Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business." She astutely observes, "A banking landscape with fewer players equates to diminished competition, stifled innovation, and the unhealthy concentration of power in the hands of a financial oligarchy."

Moreover, the frequent unearthing of banking scandals, where entrenched institutions partake in unethical actions, has severely eroded public trust. Revelations of dishonest activities, such as the infamous Wells Fargo account scandal, multiple money laundering incidents, and the recent implosion of community banks due to flawed balance sheet practices, have led the public to question the very essence and ethical backbone of these banking titans.

The concentration of power in the hands of a few, along with the suppression of competition, threatens not only the health of our financial system but also the democratic principles upon which our society is built. We must remember that fostering competition and ensuring ethical behavior in banking are not just economic necessities, but also moral imperatives. The societal implications of these issues call for further study, open discussion, and, most importantly, robust regulatory responses.

The Apparent Lack of Accountability (and Transparency):

One of the primary instigators behind growing antitrust sentiments is the apparent widespread use of exploitative strategies, underpinned by an alarming absence of accountability. The 2008 global financial crisis, coupled with the recent banking catastrophe resulting in the downfall of SVB, Signature, and First Republic, laid bare the fragility of the banking system and the devastating fallout of unchecked risk-taking. Echoing the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, top executives from both Signature Valley Bank and Signature Bank deflected responsibility onto their panic-stricken customers, artfully dodging their own financial mismanagement. Astonishingly, even after presiding over the wreckage of their respective institutions, these executives audaciously refused to repay any part of their massive salaries to their investors.

Alongside accountability, the term "transparency" stands out - or rather, the glaring lack of it. Transparency is a bedrock of trust across all industries, and banking is no exception. As Bethany McLean asserts in her book "The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron," "Banking is a confidence game, and once that confidence is lost, it's a daunting task to regain it." The persistent obscurity around fees, the intricate nature of financial products, and the enigmatic operations of banks have steadily eroded public trust. This dearth of transparency isn't merely frustrating; it's a phenomenon uniquely endemic to the banking sector.

Consider the metaphor presented by Paul Lewis in the Financial Times (with figures in GBP):

Imagine if you went to refuel your car. The local garage is Esso and the price is 136.9p per litre. But Sainsbury’s sells it for 132.9p per litre. So, you drive the extra mile to Sainsbury and save yourself a bit of money.

Now, consider if your garage charges 129.9p per litre plus £5 to enter the forecourt. This would be more expensive. However, if you commit to using this petrol station for the next 10 visits, they waive the forecourt charge. Is that still cheaper than Sainsbury’s at 132.9p, which charges you £2 for each visit and then gives you back £1 if you refuel twice consecutively?

In the retail world, this strategy would be considered madness. Yet, this is often how you're charged for personal finance products.

This comparison encapsulates the complexity and lack of transparency within the banking industry, emphasizing the urgent need for reform to regain public trust and confidence.

Fueling Inequality and Financial Exclusion: The Role of Banks

The chasm between the rich and the poor is not merely widening but accelerating, and the proliferation of financial exclusion has stoked heightened antitrust sentiments toward banks. A pervasive and growing perception exists that banks are prioritizing the needs of the wealthy, while overlooking those of less privileged communities. This perceived bias has resulted in a growing sense of frustration. In his seminal work, "The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future", Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz articulates, "Banks have been instrumental in exacerbating inequality by offering predatory loans to vulnerable communities while disproportionately benefiting a privileged few at the expense of many."

Banks have a long-standing history of exploiting financially distressed individuals and communities by trapping them in high-interest loans and imposing substantial fees. This exploitation manifests in various forms: the predatory payday loans industry, valued at $21 billion, and the $40 billion check-cashing services industry that primarily targets underbanked households. Let's not overlook credit card debt, which currently looms at an alarming $1 trillion or approximately $3,000 per US resident. The latest banking sector innovation, the "Buy-Now-Pay-Later" schemes, predominantly targets younger customers. Around half of the $24 billion outstanding in "Buy-Now-Pay-Later" loans are held by individuals aged 33 or younger.

The banking industry is rife with exploitative practices. A simple Google search can yield enough unsettling examples to occupy you for hours. As Paul Lewis astutely observed in the Financial Times, "Banks make money because they are better at arithmetic than their customers." This statement elegantly highlights the stark imbalance of power and knowledge that fuels the profits of these financial institutions. Consequently, it's only logical for regulatory bodies to intervene, striving for more transparent practices and fostering an equitable environment for all. However, this approach isn't without its own set of challenges, not the least of which is a significant reduction in competition. Beyond regulatory intervention, public awareness and financial education are crucial for transforming the status quo. These tools empower individuals to make informed decisions about their financial futures.

What is the solution, then?

In addressing the root causes of antitrust sentiment, we lay the groundwork for a fairer, more resilient global financial system—a system that reignites trust and ensures the prosperity of individuals and economies alike. The public outcry isn't merely noise—it's a clarion call for greater fairness, stringent accountability, and a thorough overhaul of our current banking frameworks.

In the financial landscape, both conventional fintech companies and nascent decentralized finance (DeFi) platforms might hold the keys to potential solutions. The fintech sector, with its emphasis on consumer-centric user experiences, has redirected financial services towards a more customer-oriented approach, intensifying competition as services vie for attention on users' smartphone screens. In parallel, the DeFi (crypto) sector is placing a significant emphasis on blockchain-based transparency, financial and data sovereignty, and the reduction of centralized intermediaries and power structures. This focus is reshaping the understanding of what financial services can be, even if this shift hasn't fully registered with the public yet. However, for these innovations to make a substantial impact, significant changes in the US regulatory environment will be necessary. This is a challenging prospect, considering the often close relationships between US financial regulators and institution executives (who like the status quo)—a topic deserving of a separate, in-depth discussion.

Our global landscape is in constant evolution, making it not just essential, but absolutely paramount, to heed the call for a financial system that truly embodies service equality, financial education equity, and inclusivity. Western society is built on these systems, whether we like it or not; thus, a loss of trust in these institutions equates to a loss of trust in ourselves. Our aim extends beyond merely restoring trust; we strive to instill it so deeply that it becomes an inseparable component of our financial interactions. We aspire to a world where the financial system doesn't merely cater to the needs of every individual as an afterthought, but adopts this as its guiding principle. This vision is not a distant dream, but a tangible goal demanding our unwavering commitment.

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