PARIS — They say the euro is coming apart at the seams. This, however, was not evident this morning when, with my wife, Hotlips, I made the involuntary rounds of several bank branches in this European capital.
All we wanted was to deposit a few non-euros into our Paris euro account. We entered the neighborhood branch of “our bank,” HSBC, to give them our money. But when we tried to do this (banks used to welcome this sort of transaction), we were spurned. A lady — who seemed a little miffed at our presumption — said that HSBC Europe (actually, a Hong Kong outfit) doesn't like to exchange non-euros. We confirmed this policy at a second HSBC branch a few blocks away, where someone did concede that the main Paris branch on the Champs Elysées tends to be more permissive.
As we were thus running around, I had an attack of (pardon my French) déja vu , recalling a previous experience with another Paris bank account, at Citibank — which ended in our expulsion. One day, you see, we got a letter from the main Citibank branch in Paris on the Champs Elysées telling us that our little savings and checking accounts were déclassé and no longer worthy of Citibank's continued hospitality. Citibank, said the letter, was turning its attention exclusively to “wealth management.”
Citibank — then under the leadership of a couple of fiduciary wizards named Sandy “Subprime” Weill and Chuck “Credit Default Swap” Prince — divorced us and fobbed us off onto HSBC. At the time, HSBC still did what's known as “commercial banking,” whose foremost exponent was probably George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), at the Bedford Falls Building & Loan in It's a Wonderful Life .
Nowadays, HSBC is re-thinking the whole George Bailey thing. They're leering covetously at the example set by Sandy Weill, Chuck Prince, and, of course, the cinematic patron saint of bankers everywhere, Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore).
Meanwhile, back at the Left Bank, Hotlips and I decided to compound our pain by hitting up the Banque de France. But first, of course, we had to get inside this great national bank, which required us to — one-by-one only — buzz through two doors. Then, within the hallowed halls, we faced a dark dreariness reminiscent of Edgar Alan Poe, or perhaps Samuel Beckett. It took a moment to spot a living thing among the varnished enclosures, the frosted glass, the deep shadows, and the cast-iron grates. The best we could spot, behind several layers of oaken fencework, was a grizzled Bartleby, dozing over a massive ledger and preferring not to.
Finally, behind a counter, a human form emerged from the gloom — a Victorian spinster in a severe blue suit, her hair in a bun, her wire-rimmed spectacles perched atop her nostrils. But even as we drew near, our alien money clutched in outstretched foreign hands, she was crossing her arms in the X-shaped universal gesture of defense against the sanguinary undead. She shook her head vigorously, as though to say, “What do I look like? A stinking credit union?”
We didn't ask (nor was our French good enough to do so) if the Banque de France was emulating Citibank by shunning all but the wealthy. Clearly, though, the BDF had long since ceased to suffer riffraff and garlic-eaters like me and Hotlips. After a desultory scolding from Miss Havisham, we retreated, still laden with unwelcome currency, still unable to put our money into what we thought was “our bank.”
But no bank is our bank anymore. Nor is it yours, unless the annual stable bill for your Arabians is more than seven figures. If there's a lesson from the Great Recession, brought partly to us all by Citibank, it's that “commercial” banks have outgrown their interest in savings, checking, CDs, Christmas clubs, home mortgages, car loans, and all that other penny-ante, chump-change, kid stuff.
A commercial bank nowadays might still tolerate us hoi polloi cluttering the foyer and playing the ATMs, so as to maintain a certain populist façade. But your up-to-date “commercial” bank truly serves only two purposes. First it provides the new multinational plutocracy a perfect front for a handful of too-big-to-fail Wall Street casinos. Second, thanks to a vast public endowment maintained by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, it backs up white-collar high-rollers like Jamey Dimon by covering their gazillion-dollar “investment” losses.
Ironically, ever since the days of George Bailey, the FDIC's money arrives there in the form of taxes. It's our money. Which is to say: It's not ours at all. It's theirs, all of it, one way or another. Because none of us will ever destroy a bank, wipe out a million people's pensions, or wreck the economy — as they did. And still can. And probably will.