Not surprisingly, consumers are concerned whether their money is safe in financial institutions.
Banks, savings and loans and thrifts seem to be painted with the same brush by media reports and even advertising campaigns. Sometimes consumers have difficulty differentiating banks from other financial institutions."The industry has a problem differentiating itself from the thrift industry. Because of the new competition from insurance companies, securitites firms, retailers and even phone companies, its products and services no longer stand out in the marketplace. There's a broad range of financial services available through other institutions other than banks," said Mike Griffin, a national banking adviser to the American Banking Association.
The association, through advisers such as Griffin, hope to change public perception about the banking industry. Griffin is one of 10 bankers nationwide who volunteer their time to travel about the United States informing consumers and the media about commercial banking. He is executive vice president of Somerset Trust Co., which serves four counties in central New Jersey.
In a climate of economic uncertainty, commercial banks have been profitable the past five years, something Griffin believes consumers may not know.
"I think consumer confidence has been shaken by the savings and loan crisis, debacle really. There's been a tremendous amount of confusion as a result. People are shocked to find out the commercial banking industry has been profitable the last five years. The profitablity of the commercial banking industry and its strong capital reserve, $280 billion in capital reserve, should give the consumer some degree of confidence in the industry. The federal government would have lent money to the commercial bank industry if it wasn't a good loan to make - without the expectation they could pay it back," Griffin said, referring to the loan the industry has received to replenish the federal bank insurance fund.
But to repay the loan, banks must charge higher prices for the services they provide. But because of the intense regulation of banks, bankers say they are at a disadvantage because they cannot offer their services at the same rates as industries that are less regulated.
"What we ask is that we all compete on a fair playing field. Maybe the idea is to try to stop regulating industries because they're too clouded and regulate products instead," Griffin said.
To further help the industry compete, Griffin said he believes commercial banks will continue to merge and larger banks will acquire smaller ones. This will increase market share and reduce costs.
Yet, the small neighborhood commercial banks will continue to thrive, he said. "You need an array of banks, the large banks as well as the small banks to serve diverse needs. The `boutique' banks, if you will, can outperform and provide services a big bank can't."