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Banker + gangster = bankster

Protesters dressed as a City fat cat and Gordon Brown in bed together
Protesters make their feelings known


It seems timely to resurrect this Americanism from the 1930s - one of many evocative words the United States has contributed to the English language, says Harold Evans.

Americans are pretty good at adding words to the English language. We owe them pin-up girls, highbrows, killjoys, stooges, hobos, drop-outs, shills, bobby-soxers, hijackers, do-gooders and hitchhikers who thumb a ride.

Harold Evans

During the time Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain was cost-cutting, he spent $1.1m doing up his office - $86,000 for a rug

The Americanisms are so much more concise and vivid. Instead of saying "sorry we're late but drivers ahead of us slowed us down when they craned their necks to look at a crash" you can say "we were held up by rubberneckers".

Words pop in and out of our language as social conditions change. The American gangster, which is still with us, has been around as a noun and a reality since 1896 according to my Shorter Oxford, but it seems to have dropped another Americanism from the 1930s and I think now is the time to revive it.

The word is bankster, derived by a marriage of banker and gangster.

Crowds gathered in Wall St as news of the 1929 crash spread
Stunned crowds gathered on Wall St as news of the 1929 crash spread

It was coined, as far as I can deduce, by an American immigrant, a fiery Sicilian-born lawyer by the name of Ferdinand Pecora. He was the chief counsel to the US Senate Committee on Banking set up in the early 30s to probe the origins of the Crash of 1929.

He exposed quite a lot of the Wall Street practices that Harvard's Professor William Z Ripley had condemned in 1928. The believable Ripley called them - get ready for these Americanisms - "prestidigitation, double-shuffling, honey-fugling, hornswoggling and skullduggery".

The professor had vainly tried to warn President Calvin Coolidge that Wall Street was full of gas and was bound to blow up. To great discomfort all round, Pecora identified Coolidge himself, by then out of office, as one of those who'd been in on the honey-fugling.

The great banking house of JP Morgan had the president on a "preferred list" by which the bank's influential friends were given a chance to buy stock at half price. Shall we say, they made out like bandits?

Today the term bankster perfectly fits Bernard Madoff, whose crooked Ponzi scheme lost $50 billion of what the trade calls OPM - other people's money - invested with him.

Costly rug

But the revelations come thick and fast. People are now struggling for words to describe the latest example of Wall St's money madness. The fabled investment bank Merrill Lynch, run by one John Thain, had so many big zeroes on its balance sheet it would have been liquidated in December but for a merger with the Bank of America.

Merrill Lynch's John Thain, left, and Bank of America chairman Ken Lewis
A shotgun wedding

That was actually a shotgun marriage - in the US vernacular - since the Bank of America was forced to take billions of government money when it learned later that Merrill Lynch was down another $15bn.

Then what? In the few days in December while he was still in charge, Mr Thain reportedly spent nearly $4bn on staff bonuses. That's peanuts on Wall St. In 2007 Mr Thain himself received $83m.

But a week ago, CNBC's Charles Gasparino, in a detailed scoop on the Daily Beast website revealed that during the time Mr Thain was busy cost-cutting, he spent $1.1m doing up his office - $86,000 for a rug, $35,000 for something called a commode on legs.

Readers bayed for blood, posting comments such as: "Oh how I wish this was Revolutionary France and we peasants could storm the offices…"

The anger about the greed that got us into our mess is, in my view, wholly justified. And now we hear that 10 of the big banks that got $148bn from Uncle Sam so they could make loans to get things humming again have actually reduced their loan totals by $46bn.

Mr Thain now is history, having resigned, but the great Bank of America, the biggest in the US and maybe the world is now on the list of banks that may have to be nationalised - a word no red-blooded American ever thought would be uttered in the land of enterprise.

Have money, will lend

The piquancy of all this is that if the term banker is ever to be restored to its former prestige, the public and Wall St might reflect on one highly relevant example of a banker who was not a bankster.

Amadeo Peter Giannini in his office, 1923
Amadeo Peter Giannini

It is the story of Amadeo Peter Giannini, a big man on the side of the little man. When the transcontinental railway started services to California after the line's completion in May 1869, he was among the very first passengers.

He was in the womb of his newlywed mother, 15-year-old Virginia. His father, having made money in the goldfields, had gone back to Italy for her. It is nice to think that as the young immigrants crossed the Rockies, their adventurous spirits somehow crossed the placental barrier.

Amadeo was born on 6 May, 1870. He grew up on a little farm, whose produce his mother and father sold in booming San Francisco. In 1877 when he was six, he saw his father gunned down. His mother moved to the city to buy wholesale from farmers and sell to shops.

Amadeo - or AP as he became known - grew into a tall, strong man, more than able to hold his own in the rough auctions for fruit and veg on the wharfs where traders met the farmers' boats. He helped to build a thriving business.

When he was 31 he sold his share, saying he had no interest in accumulating wealth. "No man owns a fortune," he said. "It owns him." It was the motto of his life.

Woman begging asks for money from ATM customer
Ask and you shall receive?

He'd married and on the death of his father in law, was persuaded to take his vacant place on the board of a little bank in North Beach. He was appalled that they'd not lend money to poor immigrants. The rows in the board room reverberated over North Beach until AP walked out and started a little bank of his own to do that, the Bank of Italy.

From his work on the wharves, he'd become a shrewd judge of character, so he'd cheerfully lend money to pay doctor's bills for delivery of a baby if he judged the couple had integrity.

Phoenix from the rubble

On Wednesday 18 April, 1906, San Francisco was devastated by earthquake and fire. AP rushed to get all his gold and paper money out of danger, hid it under orange crates to conceal it from looters, and stood guard all night in his home.

It must have been a debilitating moment the next day to find his baby bank a mass of charred rubble. The bigger banks, who had vaults too hot to open, had no records and were not lending.

People watch smoke billowing over a collapsed SF, 1906
Smoke billows from San Francisco's flattened buildings

AP instead went down to a wharf close to the smouldering North Beach, flung a plank across two barrels, and with his baritone booming across the desolation, started lending some of his $80,000 to rebuild San Francisco.

He looked for steamship captains he knew, shoved money into their hands, saying "go north and get lumber". AP radiated so much confidence, making a big show of jiggling his little bag of gold, hundreds who'd been hoarding cash and gold banked it with him. North Beach was built faster than any other area.

By 1918 he'd established California's first state-wide banking system. A little local bank in the valley that would have closed in a run after a bad harvest could now keep open by borrowing from the city branch.

He set out to build a nationwide banking system so that distressed areas could be helped by ones that were prospering. Wall St hated him. He beat off their attempts to destroy him. In the Great Depression, he took every opportunity in the New Deal legislation to get California revived in time for the war and the boom that followed.

He did it by putting the community first, himself last. He set up low interest instalment credit plans which enabled thousands to avoid the loan sharks and buy cookers and refrigerators and autos, and he built a whole new electrical industry with his loans.

He financed the Golden Gate bridge, and the Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

No man could do so much good without being maligned. It was said he wore the mask of populism to create a dangerous instrument of personal power and personal wealth.

The truth is that the man whose life was money had no interest in money. He refused to take increases in pay and spurned every bonus. He banned insider trading. Shortly after retiring in 1945, when he found himself in danger of becoming a millionaire, he set up a foundation and gave it half his personal fortune.

And the little bank for the ordinary man that he founded?

The Bank of America.

Below is a selection of your comments:

The Jimmy Stewart character in the film It's A Wonderful Life, directed by Sicilian immigrant Frank Capra, may have been based on Giannini. Giannini's daughter resigned her board seat, saying that B of A was no longer the people's bank but just another Wall Street scam.
Josh, Los Angeles, US

My adopted uncle, Ettore Bicchieri, now 93, was sent off from Lucca at age of 15 with an envelope in his pocket addressed to "compatriota" Giannini and was well received by the great banker, given hospitality and sent to school. Ettore still remembers the man as the greatest.
Nicola Colangelo, La Spezia, Italy

The key phrase in this story of Amadeo Giannini is "he'd become a shrewd judge of character" - the implication being that he could spot people who would be able to honour their debts. A lot of today's bankers are also good judges of character but they have been selecting those who cannot pay back their debts so they get more out of them until it turns into the toxic default that we are all now paying for.
Andrew Dean, Exeter

Oh, dear - another rags to riches and back in three generations story but a delightful one. Take one day at a time and live it as well as you can seems to be the answer. I bet AP was a happy man.
Marion Monahan, Bristol UK

Living in a town collapsing with banks that are international, national and local relates to the story of Amadeo Peter Giannini. The Big Boys are again tucking in their pants and playing it safe, while the local banks are talking to the locals trying to establish integrity. Make people accountable for their actions. Bankers knew that they were creating false wealth. People like Amadeo Peter Giannini are what the banks should look at as role models. But for now the banks are laying off everyone because of their greed or "bankster" banking practices.
Steven Sarno, Stamford, Connecticut

What an inspiring and heart-warming story of AP. I found myself wishing I had a school assembly to give tomorrow and an A level English group with whom to share a brilliantly constructed essay. Long may Harold Evans continue to give his points of view.
Susan Wright, Hayling Island, Hampshire

Would that we produced honest, decent, entrepreneurs like Gianni in this country today. When did we stop teaching our children ethics and responsibility for their actions? Helping others to help themselves used to be the finest part of the American character. Encouraging our people to live on the dole is contrary to everything our founders espoused. It is wrong. It is equally wrong to bail out our lenders and brokers with our tax money. Their stupidity and greed should never be rewarded. If they fail, so be it. If our economy sinks to another awful depression, so be it. Perhaps the pain will strengthen our backbones and restore some of the self-reliance we've lost. Gianni is fortunate he can not see how badly his bank has failed its original mandate.
PD, Dallas, Tx USA

The current economic crisis and role of banksters tell us that more regulatory control need to be established in US financial affairs. One could be surprised that how come all of this mess is being discovered now in such a short period of time and why none of the US authorities had no how about this in the past many years.
Zakir Mohammed Hashmi, Pakistan

A month or two ago I watched an excellent program about the 1929 crash. I recall a quote from Al Capone, to paraphrase, that he did not invest in the stock market because there was a bunch of crooks on Wall Street.
Eugene W Stunard, Chicago, USA

It's a sad commentary on America that people like Bill Gates with gobs of money want to spend it in Africa instead of in their own country. Think of all the public schools which could be upgraded with his billions. Instead, we have to go into debt to do it, and if anyone talks about raising taxes on the rich, you'd think they were suggesting that people come to take away the rich children's Christmas presents by the reaction you get from rich people.
George Robertson, Culpeper, VA

A great example of responsible banking, and a realisation by an individual that he did not need millions or billions to live a comfortable life. The moral of this story is that he saw that his gain was someone else's loss. How anyone can sit comfortably in the knowledge that they have millions, yet millions have nothing is beyond me. I can only assume they are sick people. We all see today the result of pure unadulterated greed and where it ends. Social unrest, social deprivation and global melt down, will money protect you? No you will be the first targets - people in great need will target those that have abused them, look at history. Time for more people like AP.
Mick, Kings Lynn, Norfolk, UK

Isn't it amazing what capitalism accomplished before governmental regulation encouraged dependency of governmental programs (e.g. the Community Reinvestment Act)? Capitalism promotes the growth of wealth and legitimises it. Social engineering does not, and cannot.
Joe Roberts, Jackson USA

"Held up by rubberneckers?" Not since about 1950. In current parlance, "There was a gapers' block."
RE Brining, Monticello, IN, US

What a beautiful story. However, over here we refer to it as just "Bank of America," not "the Bank of America".
Thomas, New York, NY

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