A New 'Too Big to Fail' Bank for the 1 Percent

The Federal Reserve should reject the CIT/OneWest merger application. At the very least, regulators should stop the clock, hold public hearings and get some real community input before allowing this dangerous deal to proceed.
12/09/2014 02:00 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

Remember back in 2008, when collapsing banks nearly tanked our whole economy and people had the quaint notion that maybe we shouldn't let banks become "too big to fail"? Would you be shocked to learn that regulators may well approve creation of a new "too big to fail" bank from the ashes of one of the very institutions that crashed our economy?

Meet OneWest Bank, which is seeking to merge with CIT Group, a deal that would meet federal criteria for what's politely termed a "systemically important financial institution" -- one whose failure could imperil the financial system. OneWest is the successor to IndyMac Bank, one of the first and biggest to collapse as the financial crisis was hitting high gear in the summer of 2008.

IndyMac was a textbook case of reckless, exploitive lending often aimed at communities of color. A report from the Treasury Department's inspector general found that IndyMac offered an "extensive array of risky option-adjustable-rate-mortgages (option ARMs), subprime loans, 80/20 loans, and other nontraditional products."

IndyMac's collapse cost the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation $10.7 billion. OneWest was born from the ruins when a group of wealthy investors bought the remnants of IndyMac from the FDIC.

Not only will the OneWest/CIT merger create another bank that's worryingly large, that bank will be run by people who seem to have learned nothing from IndyMac's collapse.

Advocates, including my colleagues on The Greenlining Institute's Economic Equity team, have tried to open a dialogue with OneWest officials. We hoped that the new institution would chart a different course, working to benefit communities instead of ignoring or exploiting them. You'd think a bank growing from the ashes of one of the institutions that sparked the foreclosure crisis that ruined millions of families would make some effort to at least look like it's moving in a new direction.

Nope.

For example, we asked OneWest to make meaningful commitments under the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which encourages banks to invest in underserved communities. The bank revealed a so-called CRA plan in September at a meeting in Los Angeles. The plan, concocted with no community input, commits the new bank to precisely zero additional lending. OneWest CEO Joseph Otting made clear that he has no intention of negotiating a better agreement with the advocates who were leading the effort to hold his bank accountable.

Otting also make clear that nonprofits opposing the merger could forget any chance of receiving philanthropic donations from OneWest. Subtle, huh?

OneWest's marketing and products have been geared to the wealthiest customers in its market area (primarily southern California), with only 15 percent of its branches in low and moderate income communities and no plans to build new branches in low-income areas. In addition, OneWest Bank makes only three percent of its purchases from vendors and suppliers that are minority owned -- despite being based in a southern California market with over 70 percent people of color. There's no indication that this will change. Unless federal regulators call a halt, we are literally witnessing the creation new too-big-to-fail bank for the one percent.

The Federal Reserve should reject the CIT/OneWest merger application. At the very least, regulators should stop the clock, hold public hearings and get some real community input before allowing this dangerous deal to proceed.