Along with the Occupy Wall Street movement has grown up a Move Our Money campaign, pushed by a group calling itself the New Bottom Line. It takes off from a brainchild of that great exploiter of unpaid journalistic labor at her eponymous Post, Arianna Huffington. Ariana’s scheme, launched almost two years ago, would have those of us with money in large banks move it to small ones. This touches on foundational populist fantasy: that virtue and size are inversely related.
When Huffington unveiled her scheme, I took advantage of the gadget on her website (the Move Your Money Project) that allowed you to enter your zip code and came back with a suggested list of virtuous, meaning small, banks. I thought I’d look into some of the suggestions that emerged when I entered by home zipcode, 11238. One, the black-owned Carver Federal Savings Bank, is a major financer of the gentrification of predominantly black neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. As those neighborhoods get richer, Carver boasts, it’s partnering with Merrill Lynch (a subsidiary of the Bank of America) to offer wealth management services to the flusher new residents. Another suggestion, Apple Savings Bank, has about three-quarters of its assets in securities like U.S. Treasury bonds, not local loans. They don’t come much bigger than the U.S. Treasury. And a third, New York Community Bank, which even features that precious word in its name, financed a private equity group that bought up a lot of apartment buildings in New York in the hope of squeezing out the rent-regulated tenants and replacing them with more lucrative ones paying market rents. With the real estate bust, the PE firm is having trouble servicing its debts, and the residents of its buildings are suffering as services are cut further.
There’s a fundamental problem with these small-is-beautiful schemes. One, many small banks have more money than they can profitably invest locally. As Barbara Garson showed in her wonderful book, Money Makes the World Go Around, the portion of her book advance she deposited in tiny upstate New York bank was probably lent via the fed funds market to Chase, where it entered the global circuit of capital. This is not at all uncommon. Money is fungible, protean, and highly mobile even when it looks locally rooted. That very mutability is part of what makes money so valuable: it’s the ideal form of general wealth that can instantly be turned into caviar, lodging, Swedish massage, erotic massage, or shares of Google.
The New Bottom Line people are pushing credit unions along with small banks. Many credit unions are fine little enterprises. But they too have the more money than they know what to do with problem. According to the Federal Reserve’s flow of funds accounts, 58% of their assets are in individual loans, mostly for cars and houses. The balance is invested in bank deposits and bonds. The bonds are Treasury and federal agency securities. Again, anything but small and local. And should they get an influx of money, it’s highly likely that most of it will go to these sorts of bonds. In fact, , more than half the growth in credit union assets over the last three years has gone into Treasury and federal agency securities. Less than a quarter went to mortgage loans, and consumer credit (like credit cards and auto loans) have actually declined. There’s no way they could accommodate even a small fraction of our near-$8 trillion in bank deposits without turning to bigtime securities or Merrill Lynch wealth management services.
Getting banks under control is a matter of politics, not individual portfolio allocation decisions. Sure, you may get friendlier service and lower fees from a credit union—but you’re not really doing anything politically transformative by moving the money. Move your money and it’s still money.