In the old days when banks were local, and owned either as partnerships or mutuals, bankers had a stake in promoting the prosperity of their clients. They wanted to see their clients do well so that savings in the bank would increase, and then the banker could lend more and do better too. Bankers were meticulous in evaluating the credit quality of local borrowers, because a loss hit their own capital and equity in the business.
Largely as a result of this happy local alignment of depositor/banker/borrower interests, bankers came to be regarded as trusted fiduciaries. Depositors expected the banker to exercise discretion in the lending of capital. Borrowers expected the banker to provide loans on fair and reasonable terms which would help the borrower's business to grow and perform on repayment obligations.
As we know, those days are long past. Banks are rarely partnerships or mutuals. Remuneration models that promote fierce competition and short term bonus mania are unlikely to leave much scope for ethical reflection on the promotion of either depositor protection or borrower prosperity. Modern bank funding models are focused on money markets and shadow banking conduits rather than making depositors secure long term. Their lending models are seeking ever higher margins on transactional speculation, cross-selling and hidden fees. They seek opportunities globally rather than the long duration lending that sustained growth of local businesses. Banks are no longer geographically dependent on the local community for either deposits or borrowers.
We are now forced to re-evaluate the role of banks. They clearly have little interest in performing as fiduciaries. They have a powerful interest in becoming predators.
But if banks are predators, then their beneficial social functions are undermined, and indeed, they become a threat to social welfare, economic growth and non-bank prosperity. If that is true, then they no longer warrant state protections.
It is the depositors and borrowers who now need the protection.
In the UK some banks have threatened to leave if the successor to Mervyn King is not less "hostile" to their predations.
This is like a fox threatening to go elsewhere unless the farmer makes the chicken coop more accessible. Worrying.
UPDATE: Today Greg Smith, head of equity derivatives at Goldman Sachs, very publicly resigned in the pages of the New York Times. It sums up his resignation to say that he preferred the days when he could be a fiduciary to the firm's clients rather than their predator.