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Blame the big banks, not our local ones, for crisis

Just so you know, Jerry Sheffield's financial institution doesn't treat its executives to decadent California getaways.

"Never in my life have I had a pedicure,'' said Sheffield, area executive for Brannen Bank in Hernando County.

That, of course, is a joking reference to the AIG executives who spent $443,344 at a five-star resort just days after the federal government dumped $85-billion into the company.

But the serious point is this: Local bankers are, in every way, hundreds of miles removed from Wall Street executives who have been justifiably blamed and despised for helping to steer our economy into chaos.

Yes, most local bankers say, they are issuing fewer new loans these days, and more of their customers are missing payments.

But these banks are not on the verge of collapse, mostly because they never joined the gold rush in high-risk, high-yield loans that made it seem normal to award incompetent managers with multimillion-dollar severance packages.

Sheffield, in fact, is as mad about it as anyone.

"I have a lot of resentment,'' he said.

"There's a lot of fine banks in this country, and the vast majority are good local community banks that operate on a very sound basis. Now, they're getting a black eye along with everybody else.''

Private investment banks such as Lehman Bros. have been the most spectacular failures. The institutions run by the Hernando county executives I talked to — Brannen, Cortez Community Bank and Florida Traditions Bank — are all commercial banks.

This means their assets are backed by federal insurance and must be reported to government regulators. Bauer Financial, an analysis firm, uses these reports to produce ratings of Florida banks available on tampabay.com.

Brannen's 3.5 rating (on a scale of 1 to 5) is considered good; Cortez Community, at 3, is adequate; Florida Traditions is not rated because it has been in business less than a year.

Small commercial banks, the executives said, were never under intense pressure from stockholders to deliver high earnings. They also knew their market better than the out-of-town mortgage companies that issued vast numbers of subprime loans in Hernando.

"We took a conservative approach,'' said Don Page, president of Cortez Community Bank, who like the others said his bank typically required the traditional 20 percent down payment for home loans.

"We put out a lot of loans, but they were good loans,'' Page said.

Another difference between the locals and the Wall Street firms: None of the community banks will benefit directly from the recent $800-billion federal bailout of financial institutions.

One purpose for the bailout was to keep money flowing for short-term loans that some banks need to meet federal requirements for cash reserves.

So far, the local institutions haven't had to ask for these loans, their executives say. And their support for the bailout sounds like a financial outsider's — grudging and based only on hopes that it will keep the economy from collapsing.

"I don't think you'll find anyone who is jumping up and down saying this is a great thing,'' said Morris Porton, Hernando County vice president of Florida Traditions. "They're just thinking this is something we had to do.''

Of course, the market's continued fall may have grim consequences for them, as it will for most other businesses in the county: fewer retirees moving to Hernando, less money circulating, a drop in loans of every kind.

But there is a potential payoff in the crisis.

Investors pulling money from the stock market — including $19-billion from mutual funds during the first six days of October — are stashing it in accounts in good old commercial banks, according to a story in Friday's New York Times.

They "are running back to mother, mother being commercial banks,'' former Fed chairman Paul Volkler was quoted as saying on the Time magazine Web site.

"We've seen some of that,'' Porton said. "Some people would rather have their principal protected rather than worrying about their return.''

Still, I don't get the feeling anybody's going to celebrate with a pedicure.

Blame the big banks, not our local ones, for crisis 10/11/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 13, 2008 2:12pm]
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