A.W. Clausen, former president of Bank of America and World Bank, dies at 89

January 24, 2013

A.W. Clausen, an American banker who rose to the highest echelons of his field nationally and internationally, serving twice as president of Bank of America with a stint as head of the World Bank in between, died Jan. 22 at a hospital in Burlingame, Calif. He was 89.

He had complications from pneumonia, said his wife, Helen Clausen.

Mr. Clausen, who was known as Tom, began his career more than six decades ago as a part-time cash counter toiling away in a Bank of America vault. He advanced through the management ranks of the bank and its parent company to become president and chief executive in 1970.

Over the next decade, he led the San Francisco-based Bank of America through a period of burgeoning growth and profit. By the time he left, the once largely regional institution had become an international powerhouse.

After his departure for the World Bank in 1981, Bank of America suffered devastating losses on loans — some of them undertaken during Mr. Clausen’s tenure — and he drew criticism for what his detractors regarded as his failure to invest sufficiently in new technology and loan management practices.

He was recalled as chief executive at the end of his World Bank term in 1986. Over the next four years, Mr. Clausen successfully defended the beleaguered institution from a hostile takeover attempt by First Interstate Bancorp.

Under his leadership, the bank shed a reported 20,000 jobs and sold off profitable divisions of the company to achieve fiscal recovery. The year before his retirement in 1990, Bank of America reported a net income of $1.1 billion, according to Bloomberg News.

At the World Bank, Mr. Clausen succeeded Robert S. McNamara, the former defense secretary who had astronomically expanded the institution’s lending programs to developing nations and particularly to the poorest countries.

Mr. Clausen was named World Bank president in 1980 in a pre-election agreement between President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, and his successful challenger, former California governor Ronald Reagan, a Republican.

The World Bank is a sort of cooperative in which dozens of countries are shareholders. As the largest shareholder, the United States traditionally selects the president.

Mr. Clausen was a compromise candidate: a liberal Republican who had professed his commitment to private-sector entrepreneurship as well as foreign aid, which he regarded as beneficial for both the borrower and the lender. He took the World Bank job for a fraction of the salary he earned at Bank of America.

The World Bank continued to grow under Mr. Clausen’s leadership, although not at the fast clip it had under McNamara. This was in large part because of the political and financial forces at work during the Reagan era.

The conservative revolution led by Reagan had begun to turn U.S. policymaking against vast spending on foreign aid. Major powers such as West Germany and Japan also reduced their commitments to the bank.

On the financial front, the global recession of the 1980s made loans all the more necessary for poor countries and all the more complicated for rich ones. Inflation meant that the World Bank had to borrow money at high interest rates while still carrying old loans given at low interest rates.

Mr. Clausen’s “signal accomplishment” was his successful effort to “protect and preserve the major expansion in the bank’s role” in the world, said C. Fred Bergsten, undersecretary of the treasury for international affairs under Carter and director emeritus of the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

He was a forceful advocate for the bank and defended it from conservatives who said it existed mainly to redistribute wealth. He said foreign lending was not a matter of mere altruism. Upon taking the post in 1981, he noted that one-third of American exports were bought by developing nations.

“That’s the vested interest I’m talking about,” he said.

“I don’t believe in transferring wealth,” he remarked, “but I believe in helping those that want to help themselves.”

Alden Winship Clausen was born Feb. 17, 1923, in Hamilton, Ill. His father was owner and publisher of the city’s newspaper; his mother was a homemaker. The younger Clausen became known as “Tom” after portraying a boy with the same name in a school play.

He received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., in 1944 before serving in the Army Air Forces in the final months of World War II. He received a law degree from the University of Minnesota in 1949.

Later that year, he joined Bank of America in California. The company placed him in an executive training program and made him a senior vice president when he was in his early 40s.

As president, Mr. Clausen worked to refocus the institution on profit rather than on volume of loans. He decentralized the institution to give regional offices and local branches greater authority.

Mr. Clausen was credited with growing assets from $25 billion to more than $100 billion and with turning the institution into one of the largest and most profitable commercial banks in the world.

His wife of 51 years, the former Mary Margaret Crassweller, died in 2001. Survivors include his wife of 10 years, Helen Higgins Clausen of Hillsborough, Calif.; two sons from his first marriage, Eric Clausen of Daly City, Calif., and Mark Clausen of Chevy Chase; and five grandchildren.

During his banking career, Mr. Clausen was a staunch advocate for lending to countries and people in need.

“The hurt is now,” Mr. Clausen once told the New York Times. “Money is a lot more helpful than a warm handshake and a friendly smile.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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