Look Back 2011: Banking troubles hold hope for Colorado

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The national and state economic climate is still tough, and it’s difficult to believe Colorado banks might be past the worst and on the road to better days.

But as the year comes to a close, there are a number of positive signs for the Colorado banking industry in 2012.

Out of state banks believe Colorado is a solid market. And, that is a good sign, state banking officials say.

Of the five banks that failed in 2011, only one was liquidated and four were bought by other out-of-state banks. Of Colorado’s 160 banks, at least 50 are headquartered out of state.

“They think in terms of 20 years when they are looking at viability in the market,” said Don Childears, Colorado Bankers Association president and CEO. “They have a bright attitude about Colorado — that is a good sign for us.”

Colorado banks are well capitalized and lending as aggressively as they can, said state Securities Commissioner and Acting Bank Commissioner Fred Joseph. And, he sees signs that banks are ready to do more lending.

Across the state, banks have typically had 8 percent capital, now they have more than 14 percent — a historic high. In his examinations of Colorado banks, Joseph is finding that banks that had problems on the books are working them out, he said.

“They have either bottomed out or they are on an improvement trend,” he said. “The worst is over.”

Banking black eye

No doubt the banking industry took its share of bad press in 2011, especially in recent months when Bank of America corp. announced that it would charge fees for using its debit card.

Customers were livid and threatened to boycott. They won the fight about debit card fees and Bank of America Corp. — and other banks — scrapped plans to charge a $5 monthly fee for debit card purchases.

The big bank backlash seems to have waned, Childears said.

“We recognize we are not a popular business right now,” he said. “Part of it is a reaction to a tough economy — we happen to be a prime target.”

In 2012, the CBA plans rollout a public relations campaign telling bank customers what Colorado banks can do for them. Childears said the campaign is more public education than a slick ad campaign.

“We are working on how to demonstrate and inform people how we do business,” he said.

The scandal over debit card fees is directly related to the regulation that caps the fees banks can collect from store owners when customers swipe their debit cards — something that generated millions for banks.

Banks will see more changes in regulations in 2012 with the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Act. How the new regulations will shake out is still unknown, Joseph said.

“There seems to be a lot of uncertainty and questions of ‘how do we implement this?’ ” Joseph said. “Naturally, from the banker’s side, there is concern about the regulatory burden. I’m very sensitive to that.”

One key change will be a risk retention requirement. It doesn’t come out and say banks are required to have 20 percent down payment from the borrower to make a loan, Childears said.

“But, it translates into 20 percent,” he said. “Think of the impact that will have on young people and people coming out of this recession that couldn’t save money — it means a lot won’t qualify for mortgages.”

No marijuana bank accounts

One banking issue that could rise to the Colorado legislative agenda is what to do with medical marijuana accounts. Now, Colorado banks are not taking accounts for medical marijuana dispensaries for fear being accused of money laundering and drug trafficking. While use of medical marijuana and dispensaries are legal in Colorado, the federal government does not recognize state’s authority and considers it illegal business.

Colorado dispensary owners are seeking changes in state law that would allow them to open their own bank, one that does not require federal insurance. Without bank accounts, medical marijuana business owners don’t have access to credit card machines and are paying bills in cash or buying pre-paid credit cards.

Joseph knows of no other state where such a change to state law has been tried.

“I understand, (the dispensaries) have to put their cash somewhere,” he said.

Meanwhile, banks will hunker down, like every business out there, and deal with the economic forces in 2012, Joseph said.

“In 2012, in Colorado, going forward, the health is improving, albeit slowly,” Joseph said. “A lot depends on moving parts, jobs have to improve — we are in this together.”