Call us morons

Benj Gallander and Ben Stadelmann
Friday, December 6, 2002

We don’t normally venture into debates on national affairs — we prefer to do so abnormally — but the negative repercussions bank mergers pose force us to throw in our two cents’ worth.

Let’s start with what seems obvious: banks cannot claim that they need mergers because they’ll be unprofitable without them. Yes, the Toronto-Dominion Bank recorded its first annual loss since its formation in 1955 — snapping a rather fantastic track record. The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce was also in the red in the last quarter. However, these will prove to be aberrations, and future profits will be so yummy that, as at the Bank of Nova Scotia, dividends will increase. At Bank of Montreal, there are crocodile tears being shed because the annual profit fell from $1.47 billion to $1.42 billion — hardly a drop worth getting into a tizzy about. Royal Bank posted a quarterly bottom line of $666 million — a fine profit, albeit perhaps a little too close to the devil.

Given the huge profits to be made, no wonder many foreign banks are salivating at the prospect of doing business in Canada.

Why do Canadian banks want so badly to integrate? Is it primarily to thwart barbarians at the gate? We don’t think so. We do think a central reason is that, while being a banker is not sexy, being involved in a major merger is. The key parties involved get to be players, and while that might not guarantee a ringside seat at Victoria’s Secret festivities, it can still gain admission to some pretty cool parties.

Senator Leo Kolber, the chair of the senate committee on banking, has said, “I think bank mergers will help keep jobs.” Balderdash. Whenever major firms join, the usual outcome is that thousands of people lose their employment. In all likelihood, the rhetoric will be cloaked in the veneer of “rationalization.” The bottom line? Fewer jobs for Canadians.

Bank mergers will make the marketplace even less competitive, which will hurt clients — both those looking to borrow money and those aspiring toward decent returns on their funds. An invasion of foreign banks would reinject some rivalry into the mix, but is it wise to let those entities assume a greater percentage of the Canadian industry? Not only would more money leave the country, but foreigners would assume a controlling position in our banking system. Not something an independent nation aspires to.

Let’s examine another scenario. If one of the majors goes down, the Canadian economy would be thrown into turmoil. Still, the damage would be nominal compared to the fallout if one of these newly formed ginormous behemoths went under. The Canadian economy would be melted to its core.

If bankers rattle the cage long enough, some mergers will be allowed to proceed. How unfortunate that such a small percentage of people will benefit while so many others will suffer.

Mergers in this sector make no sense. Feel free to disagree. Feel free to call us morons. Don’t worry. We can take it.