As more and more American institutions founder, the little man keeps asking himself what the hell went wrong. A year ago we were assured that the banks could never be affected the way that the savings and loan institutions were.
They made a mistake. How did it happen? Well, if you really want to know, we have to return to the go-go years of the '80s:
Mr. Stonehart, the venture capitalist, was walking down the street when he was tackled by Mr. Crabapple, the banker. Crabapple held Stonehart's head in a grip and said, "How would you like to borrow $7 million to buy worthless real estate from a widow who lives in Florida?"
"I don't want to borrow $7 million," Stonehart yelled.
"Okay, then $10 million. It's a much easier number for me to remember."
"Why would I need 10 when I don't need seven?"
"Mr. Stonehart, you never know when you may have a rainy day. Today you think you only need seven, but tomorrow your wife could find a nice Gucci dress on Fifth Avenue, and you'll be glad to have the extra change."
"Maybe you're right. I must say that banks are certainly looking for business right now."
"That's because we have money to burn. If we don't spread it around it will turn into mulch. Ha, ha, ha."
"Mr. Crabapple, would you ease up on my neck? How do you want me to pay back the $10 million?"
"Very slowly. We'd rather you have our money and pay interest on it than for us to keep it in some teller's drawer where he'll have to look at it every day. We'll work out a schedule for you. You must understand that this does not stop you from borrowing more than $12 million from us for any junk bonds you would like to purchase."
"You're a really generous guy."
"When you're happy, we're happy. Banks are awash in cash nowadays, and if we don't lend you the $15 million someone else will."
"The 15 you're going to use to take your family to St. Moritz. We have a saying at the bank: 'No one ever got hemorrhoids by using other people's money.' "
"Why do they say bankers are tightfisted?"
"Charles Dickens gave us a bad name. The true story is that we lend to everybody -- Donald Trump, Ivana Trump, Michael Milken and Bulgaria. We have a warehouse full of high-heeled shoes from Imelda Marcos. The more people owe us the better we are doing. We're known as the bank that never said no."
"What happens if borrowers don't pay back?" Stonehart asked.
"We've never had that problem. These are the boom-boom '80s, which means that anyone can walk out of the bank today with $20 million."
"You'd let me have $20 million?"
"I gave it to Neil Bush, and he didn't even thank me. You'd be amazed at the type of people we deal with. Do you know who was in yesterday? Sam Pierce, the former secretary of HUD. He wanted to borrow against all the public housing in the United States. You can't have better collateral than that."
And so it was that all the banks in the '80s extended themselves. Now it's the '90s and Stonehart can't repay Crabapple the $45 million he borrowed from him. He doesn't even like the man anymore.