Bernanke, Romney turn to small banks

When news broke last month that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke had refinanced his mortgage through Cardinal Bank, the McLean-based bank was abuzz.

“We loved it,” said Bernard Clineburg, chairman and chief executive of Cardinal Bank. "We got a lot of e-mails and phone calls on that — I had no idea so many people paid attention to [Bernanke’s] finances.”

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But by the next day, it was business as usual.

“People don’t care about who gets what, where — they just want a good deal for themselves,” Clineburg said. “We don’t get additional business because a big name comes in.”

Just ask the Bank of Georgetown, where Mitt Romney secured a $20 million loan for his campaign in August. Chairman Curtin Winsor III said business has remained unchanged since National Review Online revealed the source of the Republican presidential candidate’s loan a a few weeks ago.

“We have a number of prominent clients here — [Romney] just happened to be disclosed by the media,” Winsor said.

Bernanke, who has championed community banks in recent months, declined to comment for this story. Romney’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Local banks picking up some business from high-profile people is not exactly rare in a place like the nation’s capital, but big-name politicians typically turn to big-name institutions for personal banking. In May, President Obama disclosed that he had up to $1 million in accounts at JPMorgan Chase, which has assets of $5.16 billion. Romney’s disclosures earlier this year showed that he had about $3 million in an account at Swiss bank UBS, which has assets of $1.49 trillion. (Bank of Georgetown, in comparison, has assets of $721.69 million, while Cardinal Bank has $2.7 billion.)

According to 2010 disclosures, the most recent year for which they are available, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had accounts at JPMorgan and Citibank, while Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner kept his money at Citibank.

In the past year, however, memberships at local credit unions and community banks have climbed steadily, thanks in part to initiatives such as Bank Transfer Day that encouraged people to close their accounts at large institutions.

“It’s not just [Romney] but also larger commercial corporations, the kind that traditionally work with multinational banks, that are moving to smaller banks,” Winsor said.

Local municipalities are taking part in the push, too. In the past year, both the District and Montgomery County have introduced programs that call for public funds to be deposited into community banks.

“It’s like we’re going back to the basics,” said Camden R. Fine, president and chief executive of the Independent Community Bankers of America. “Customers love that they can walk through the door of a community bank on any given day and speak directly to the chairman of that bank.”

Clineburg of Cardinal Bank said the Fed chairman has never asked to meet with him, but added, “Of course I would speak with any of our clients.”

“Mr. Bernanke — I feel awkward saying anything about that,” he said. “Obviously we would never have disclosed anything like that. But if he wants to tell the world, we’ll take the kudos.”

 
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