Bank of America Corp Chief Executive Kenneth Lewis downplayed growing concern that banks are indifferent to providing needed credit to get the economy moving again, while maintaining that vitriol over the industry's responsibility for the recession is overdone.
Speaking in Chicago at the National Urban League's annual conference, the head of the nation's largest bank said he particularly recognizes the struggles in urban areas, as unemployment for some population groups soars into double digits, real income falls and municipal services are cut.
I want you to know that the CEO of the largest bank in the United States is aware of what's going on, Lewis said in prepared comments. He projected the U.S. economic recession will end this year but that the unemployment rate, now 9.5 percent, will continue at high levels well into 2010.
Bank of America, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, is the nation's largest consumer lender, but like many rivals has reduced lending as it tightens its credit standards.
Average consumer loans on the bank's balance sheet fell 3 percent and average commercial loans fell 2 percent in the second quarter from the prior three-month period. The bank nonetheless has said it extended $211 billion of credit in the second quarter, up from the first quarter's $183 billion.
Lewis said banks deserve some blame for the troubled economy. Yet he said the criticism is overdone, and that largely unregulated mortgage lenders and brokers, investment banks and hedge funds deserve more blame.
Recalling former U.S. President Ronald Reagan's comment that the scariest words in the English language are I'm from the government, and I'm here to help, Lewis proposed that some Americans might now imagine a similarly scary variation, I'm from the bank, and I'm here to help.
That's not a fair assessment, he maintained. He said banks need to act aggressively to provide credit and invest in communities, and called for mortgage companies to do more to help struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure.
Any bank, mortgage lender or servicer that hasn't gotten deadly serious about loan modifications needs to get with the program immediately, he said.