Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bancos = Ladrones, and the Latin way of showing public emotion

When I was working at Merrill my clients included some of the largest pension funds in Argentina. They didn’t produce much revenue as they could only trade a certain percentage of their holdings in the US, but they were important clients and it was a good experience for the junior sales guy within my middle markets international group.

I’d visit them about once a quarter, and at the time, the country was just recovering from a major default, a freezing of banks, and a peso devaluation. The government had instituted tight controls of foreign exchange, among other things, as they battled the global investment community who wanted to recoup their losses.

Whenever I went to Buenos Aires, I’d take in the beautiful architecture and scenery of one of the grandest cities of South America. I’d also notice the barely hidden hatred of the financial community by its population. There was nary a bank who didn’t have graffiti scrolled on its façade indicating some type of negative assessment; “Bancos = Ladrones” was the common slogan, indicating to all who understood that the impression of the local citizenry was that the financial industry robbed its people.

I’d have lunch with clients and hear in the streets below the roars of street protests. Lunch time protests were common place in Buenos Aires according to my client. Basically, people would stop work (those who worked), they’d join the students from the university, march down the streets with placards and whistles bemoaning the issue of the day, then quietly go back to work/school/home. I remember walking for 2 miles and getting to my last meeting two hours late due to a transit strike during the evening rush hour, which was over by the time we finished our after-meeting dinner. I was impressed with the efficiency and peacefulness of these displays of populism as I was taken aback by its passion and audibility.

I believe we may be headed in the same direction here in the states. I’ve always felt that US citizenry, despite our history of struggle for civil rights, the Vietnam & Iraq war protests, etc, are a relatively docile bunch. We are very content to assume that someone else is fighting our battles, be they politicians, university students, or bloggers over the web. We focus our attention on a handful of iconic “trouble makers” like Al Sharpton and Cindy Shehaan, watching them do most of the rabble rousing from the comfort of our couches. These days, most popular sentiment is expressed through editorials and national “polls” and people make good livings trying to pretend they speak for the “average Joe” on the 24 hour news networks. It’s very civilized, if perhaps a bit bland for a population writhing in suppressed frustration. I guess our puritan heritage shines through in these times, as we commonly think that passionate discourse is, while entertaining to watch, a disdainful practice for the average person.

The problem of course, is all that suppressed frustration manifests itself in less healthy ways. Gun sales are up, violent crimes seem to be making more headlines, and xenophobic sentiment is steadily increasing.

Compare our current sentiment versus 2006 in Puerto Rico in the midst of their fiscal crisis. Citizens took to the streets to protest their frustration with their government's mishandling of the situation and forced law makers from opposing parties to work together to get a solution.

Perhaps we should do some venting of all that suppressed American anger at the banks and our government in a cathartic and positive way. This may actually be very healthy for us as a nation. People need to feel that they are participating in change, a notion the Obama Campaign capitalized on well. We have proven that the people control the political climate and we feel secure in that power. But what about the corporate climate? The problem is that we see banks like Merrill Lynch/Bank of America, AIG, CitiGroup, etc, doing things with our money that in many minds amounts to stealing. Our politicians seem impotent, relegated to admonishing CEOs at hearings and bloviating on Sunday Morning talk shows. CEOs and GOP lawmakers often scoff at populist sentiment, as if unless you own majority shares or large donor cards, you should just stay shut and let them settle this mess.

Perhaps what’s needed is some old fashioned taking to the streets in peaceful venting, so that people feel they have made themselves heard in the ivory towers of these corporate boardrooms, and so these titans of industry understand that they answer to more than just their shareholders, especially when their adventures in “side street” investing has been financed for decades by the pensions and 401Ks of laymen investors, and these same people are now paying double by giving them their tax dollars with the intention of keeping these banks afloat and “loosen credit.” They must know that using this money to shore up balance sheets and pay for bonuses for top managers who either actively or passively created our current crisis, while legal, will not be taken lightly by the people. If that isn’t deserving of a “Bancos = Ladrones” sticker on the side of a building, I wonder what would?