Big-Bank Backlash Begins

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Bank of America (BAC) and Goldman Sachs (GS) are stronger than ever after the government gave big banks favorable treatment during the credit crisis. A consumer movement is eroding that support.

Media maven Arianna Huffington, economist Rob Johnson and several of their friends recently launched an initiative and Web site called Move Your Money. The site uses fictitious banker George Bailey from the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" as the poster boy for community-banking goodness. (The villainous Mr. Potter represents the too-big-to-fail banks, naturally.) Move Your Money features a tool that helps users find local community banks with institutional risk analysis (IRA) grades of "B" or higher, encouraging Americans to open accounts at stable banks that don't nickel-and-dime consumers with fees.

"It's a grassroots effort that has the potential to shift power in the financial system away from Wall Street and back to Main Street," a message on the site says.

Meanwhile, the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA) in September started " My Community, My Bank." In addition to state-by-state information on local banks, the site includes forms for sending online letters to Congress, a space to post testimonials and other multimedia tools to voice irritation with AIG ( AIG), Citigroup ( C) and the like. According to the ICBA, community banks account for almost 8,000 of the 8,195 banks in the U.S., yet half of all bank deposits are at the five largest institutions.

"Americans are frustrated that Congress cannot eliminate this too-big-to fail status, so there is appeal to individuals in having some control over how the biggest banks get deposits," says Paul Merski, chief economist at the Independent Community Bankers of America in Washington. "The financial meltdown we just went through proved that, and the local community banks are well-positioned to best serve the financial needs of consumers."

Some Americans avoid community banks for fear of a lack of automatic teller machines -- and a fear of related fees. Still, many community banks offer ATM-fee refunds. The big banks have a lot of other enticements, such as global networks, mutual funds and credit cards that reward consumers.

I can't imagine much control shifting out of the biggest banks that exceed $1 trillion in assets," Merski says. "But the movement of funds would be a start."

Small businesses may have a better chance of securing a loan from a banker they know. If their money is in a community bank, they have a better shot at knowing the banker. After all, few people know JPMorgan's ( JPM) Jamie Dimon.

SBA Administrator Karen Mills said as much in the interview: "You should have a relationship with your banker," she said. "It's good to have a bank with which you can have a relationship."

-- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston.

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