District bankers suffered a couple of losses last week, neither of which should have come as a surprise to anyone in the local banking community.
Mayor Marion Barry, as most District bankers knew he would, vetoed his own regional interstate banking bill, which the D.C. City Council had approved by a unanimous vote.
Even though many bankers believed that Barry would veto the bill, they succumbed to some last-minute chicanery, nevertheless, by dispatching to the mayor's office, on the eve of the veto, signed commitments to increase their investment in the city. Not even a commitment by American Security Bank to disregard a ceiling and invest "unlimited dollars" in the District was good enough to impress the mayor. New York's Citicorp's promise to invest $100 million in the District in exchange for permission to open a bank here obviously has.
Following the rebuff by the mayor, local bankers took it on the chin again when Riggs National Bank, the District's largest, withdrew from the D.C. Bankers Association. Riggs no longer shares a "commonality of interest" with other local banks, a spokesman explained.
Although the spokesman maintained that the decision has "nothing whatever to do with the interstate banking bill," it has been apparent for some time that Riggs does not support the DCBA in its attempts to win passage of a regional reciprocal banking bill that would align the District with Maryland, Virginia and 11 Southeastern states.
Bankers say Riggs Chairman Joe L. Allbritton wanted a bill that would have included Texas in a banking region with the District. Allbritton, who owns more than 40 percent of the common stock in Riggs, also owns a bank in Texas and could have merged the two under a reciprocal agreement between D.C. and Texas.
Riggs' "commonality of interest" with other D.C. banks has been less apparent since Allbritton gained control four years ago. Allbritton has been known to question the value of membership in the DCBA, and members of the association have suspected for some time that he would pull Riggs out.
Ironically, Riggs cites an absence of commonality with other local banks at a time when the mayor describes Riggs as the "most derelict" in terms of investing in depressed areas of the city.
The mayor has had some pretty harsh words for D.C. banks in recent weeks, questioning their commitment to invest in the District. Some of the criticism may be valid, but much of it is just so much rhetoric. The mayor talks of a possible compromise on the interstate banking issue but holds up an important part of the local business community to ridicule. Like a puppeteer manipulating marionettes, he jerks local bankers around by asking for signed investment commitments and rejecting their responses as superficial.
To be sure, financial institutions in the District failed in the past -- indeed, refused in many cases -- to make loans in certain areas of the city. But the clubby, conservative old guard among the larger D.C. banks no longer calls the shots. A new, ostensibly more enlightened group of executives who run the District's banks apparently hasn't convinced the mayor that it is prepared to change old policies.
Interestingly, while bankers are being flogged for not investing more in depressed areas of the city, real estate developers are being hailed as heroes for rebuilding downtown Washington. Does anyone dare ask the mayor how he plans to deal with developers who have stood by all these years and watched while H Street NE, Minnesota Avenue NE and Martin Luther King Avenue SE decay under the strain of blight? And how much leverage will it take to get real estate developers to rehabilitate and build new housing in depressed areas of the city where mortgage loans might be made?
In the meantime, the mayor may have succeeded in creating a credibility gap for himself. How he manages to castigate the South African regime for its apartheid policies and beckon to Citicorp to open a bank in the District is a striking balancing act. And you can bet your savings account that D.C. bankers won't soon let him forget that.
According to an account in The Wall Street Journal two weeks ago, the chairman of Citicorp said his company intends to continue doing business in South Africa, adding that the "notion that now is the time to pull out is a foolish one." What's more, the paper quoted Chairman John S. Reed as saying, "If your idea is to be popular in the U.S. community, then you should pull out" of South Africa.
The South African issue not only poses a serious question that the mayor must answer, but tests the D.C. City Council's credibility as well. And local bankers, smarting from the mayor's handling of the interstate banking bill, are almost certain to raise the credibility question as the council contemplates an override of the mayor's veto.