WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama implored top bankers Monday to help keep the fragile recovery from faltering by boosting lending to small businesses and getting behind an overhaul of financial regulation. "We rise and fall together," he declared.
The bankers said they got the message. Some pledged to increase lending and exercise more caution over some compensation for employees.
But they also insisted they are getting conflicting messages from Washington when they do try to make more loans. While the White House presses for more lending, regulators are cracking down on banks to lend more prudently and forcing them to keep larger cushions of capital to protect against future losses. That means there's less money available to lend.
Obama called his message a simple one: "America's banks received extraordinary assistance from American taxpayers to rebuild their industry, and now that they're back on their feet, we expect an extraordinary commitment from them to help rebuild our economy."
He urged bankers to "explore every responsible way" to boost lending and to "take a third and fourth look" at every loan application.
The impact of the president's burst of populist jawboning was hard to gauge. If the banks had to come hat in hand to Washington a year ago to assure their survival, they returned on Monday in a much stronger position in dealing with the government. As they repay the government bailout loans, they escape much of the direct and indirect government influence over their operations.
Obama's lecture to the bankers was also part of a broader election-season Democratic effort to tie sluggish bank lending to continued high joblessness — and to try to tie the banking industry to Republican efforts against financial overhaul legislation.
The meeting came amid growing friction between the president and the industry, a day after Obama denounced "fat cat bankers on Wall Street" who enjoy big bonuses but "just don't get it."
"He didn't call us any names" during Monday's session lasting just over an hour, said U.S. Bancorp CEO Richard Davis.
Davis called the meeting "very productive" and acknowledged banks haven't done as good a job as they could in resuming lending. He said he and fellow bankers understood the public outcry over compensation and said they agreed to "make sure we are doing the job of banking, which is lending."
"And we should get paid for that when we do it," added Davis, who is incoming chairman of the Financial Services Roundtable.
Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis pledged that his bank would lend $5 billion more to small- and mid-sized businesses in 2010 than it did in 2009. JPMorgan Chase & Co., said last month that it would boost such lending by $4 billion.
Participants said Obama focused on four areas: making more loans to small and medium-size businesses, increasing modifications of underwater mortgages, bringing executive compensation under control and giving more support to legislation overhauling financial regulation.
The meeting included top executives from 13 financial institutions. The heads of three of the biggest companies — Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup — did not even make it to the White House meeting in person. They had waited until Monday morning to travel on commercial flights to Washington and then were held up by fog.
By contrast, James E. Rohr, PNC Financial's chief executive, drove his own car on Sunday evening to Washington from Pittsburgh, stopping at a Wendy's for a sandwich en route. Other chief executives made sure they would arrive on time: Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase flew into Washington on one of the bank's private jets, while Kenneth D. Chenault of American Express took Amtrak.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was later asked how Obama could persuade banks to lend more and to support overhaul given the hard time the administration had in winning that case when it had more leverage because of the bailout loans.
Gibbs cited the $5 billion that Bank of America had pledged as an early indication of success. "I think that the 'bully pulpit' can be a powerful thing," he said.
Nearly all U.S. presidents have used jawboning — Washington slang for an effort to talk things into happening — with mixed results.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy "jawboned" the steel industry into overturning a price increase after first encouraging labor to lower wage demands. President Lyndon Johnson was acknowledged by friend and foe alike as a master of the art of twisting arms.
George W. Bush criticized departing President Bill Clinton for not attempting to lower oil prices by "jawboning" OPEC to increase supply. But the former Texas oilman did no better on that score with OPEC after taking office. Clinton tried to use the White House pulpit to coax an end to a major league baseball strike in 1995, but it was ended without his intervention.
Increasingly, the White House and congressional Democrats have been lashing out at the banking industry, responding to polls that show growing public outrage at compensation practices while joblessness remains at 10 percent.
"Politically, the bankers are an unpopular group these days," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "People believe that banks helped to create the desperate economic situation that we're in and that they've gotten a lot of money and haven't helped the economy in exchange."
Mellman also said Obama's jawboning "will only help to show the American people that he's focused on this issue. Honestly, that helps whether the banks respond or not."
American University political scientist James Thurber said he believed Obama's effort would have "limited effect" in changing bankers' ways. "But maybe it will have some effect on the American public that will have an effect on members of Congress when they're trying to pass these reforms on the Hill."
The White House said Obama plans a similar meeting on Dec. 22 with heads of smaller financial institutions.
Obama has complained that, while bankers claim they support financial regulation reform, large banks have been lobbying against portions of overhaul legislation moving through Congress, including a provision to set up a new consumer protection agency to oversee their marketing of credit cards, mortgages and car loans.
The bankers told Obama they are shifting from cash bonuses to longer-term payouts such as stock, but Obama said that was not good enough because the public was likely to still see it as excessive, this official said.
The bankers have said the amount of lending is limited by factors beyond their control: The sluggish economy and tighter oversight by regulators.
Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.