Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Surprise! This Bank Refuses Fed Bailout

The way major financial institutions are feasting on taxpayer-backed bailouts, you'd think every bank in this country has on the feed bag.
Not true.
Just north of Chicago, dwelling in the People's Republic of Evanston, is First Bank & Trust -- a 13-year-old community lender that doesn’t want any part of the U.S. government’s $700 billion bank bailout or, for that matter, any subsequent rescue plans.
You see, First Bank & Trust won't do business that way.
Says Robert R. Yohanan, CEO and one of the bank's founders: “We don’t need the money. More important, we don’t want the government as a partner.”
That refreshing approach makes First Bank & Trust a rarity in these dismal economic days.
First, it's a healthy institution that hasn't forsaken one of the main skills of successful banking: managing risk. For example a few years ago, First Bank & Trust shrewdly determined the home mortgage market was spinning out of control and greatly limited making real estate investments thus avoiding big trouble.
Secondly, this bank isn't looking to game the system by profiting from the government-backed bailout.
Believe me, one of the yet untold stories of this massive taxpayer-funded rescue is how many healthy lenders are grabbing for the government gold because it's a source of cheap and ready capital. Recently, one bank industry analyst told me that viable banks are under pressure from their institutional shareholders to take advantage of the bailout funding even if the lender doesn't need the cash cushion.
First Bank & Trust's management has a different approach.
It would rather fund bank operations through traditional means, like customer deposits, while also making a profit on sound loans. Moreover, it cringes at the prospect of selling even a slice of itself to the government, which usually gets preferred stock from any lender participating in the bailout.
"Who knows what is to come? They seem to be writing laws as they go along." says CEO Yohanan, who I spoke to while researching a story for Chicago magazine.
First Bank & Trust hasn't made a big deal out of the decision to go it alone.
For the most part, the bank's marketing initiatives travel more along the lines of neighborhood pumpkin carving contests. And to the best of my knowledge, the only mention of its bailout stance was made in a letter to the editor printed in a free local newspaper, which is where I learned of the "No Bailout Here" decision.
Yes, some critics will claim that First Bank & Trust shouldn't be held up as some shining example of restraint and fair play. They'll note this is a very small, conservative bank that caters to a niche of area business owners or operators and is surrounded by a fairly affluent depositor base. In addition, it doesn't provide the sweep of services and loans like JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America or other mega-banks and doesn't bear their heavy community reinvestment burdens.
All that may be true.
Still, I feel better knowing there's at least one bank out there not looking to score a free lunch.

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