Audit Notes: Overdraft Ethics, CNN’s Wall Street Apologist, U.S. Gas Boom

American Banker’s Jeff Horwitz finds some emails that offer an interesting look into how banks make unethical decisions to gouge their customers.

These are from Union Bank, which like lots of banks, artificially reordered checking account transactions to make bigger transactions clear first. That makes it more likely that the customer will rack up multiple overdrafts. There was pushback amongst bank executives internally who said it was just flat wrong to treat customers that way. But the banks’ bottom line ultimately won out.

The Banker:

Documents filed in the Union Bank case appear to paint a picture of an institution focused on maximizing fee revenue by using CAST’s technology while dismissing employee concerns that resequencing payments was unfair and possibly illegal. One bank employee argued high-to-low processing was harmful to “Poor but Honest” customers, according to an email sent from a colleague and cited in the amended complaint.

Bank documents turned over to plaintiff attorneys during discovery indicate Union Bank agreed that CAST would receive 20% of any extra overdraft charges generated under its high-to-low system. Union Bank employees also discussed how to hide the bank’s policy from customers, even as it was costing them tens of millions of dollars, internal emails show.

“By design, the details of what happens inside the bank when an overdraft occurs were never intended to be communicated to the public,” a Union Bank employee wrote to a colleague in an email cited in the suit…

“We should … burn all our documentation that [says the only purpose of reordering payment] posting sequence = more fees,” an employee wrote in an exchange cited by class action attorneys.

This is a good find by Horwitz and AB. I’d guess that there might be another story in these guys:

Union Bank’s venture into high-to-low processing began in 2002, when it retained CAST, a consulting firm headed by Steve McCollum, a former Citigroup banker. CAST promotes itself on its website as an expert in “revenue optimization” based on a “database of proven revenue enhancement practices.” Its clients include Citibank, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank and more than a dozen large regional banks

— Glenn Greenwald nails it on CNN’s condescending Wall Street apologist Erin Burnett:

On her new CNN show on Monday night, host Erin Burnett was joined by Rudy Giuliani’s former speechwriter John Avlon and together they heaped condescending scorn on the Wall Street protests while defending the banking industry, offering — as FAIR documented — several misleading statements along the way. Burnett “reported” that while she “saw dancing, bongo drums, even a clown” at the protest, the participants “did not know what they want,” except that “it seems like people want a messiah leader, just like they did when they anointed Barack Obama.” She featured a video clip of herself explaining to one of the protesters that the U.S. Government made money from TARP, and then demanded to know if that changed his negative views of Wall Street.

This is far from the first time Burnett has served as spokesperson for Wall Street; it’s basically what her “journalistic” career is. She angered Bill Maher a couple years ago when arguing that the rich have suffered along with the poor and middle class as part of the financial crisis, and that it would be wrong to “soak the rich” because they’re already paying so much taxes. She caused Rush Limbaugh to gush over her when she argued on TV in 2007 that all Americans benefit when the rich get richer: “the majority of Americans directly benefit from what happens on Wall Street,” she proclaimed, just over a year before the financial collapse…

Needless to say, Burnett and Kosik consider themselves to be opinion-free, objective “reporters.” Indeed, this is what Burnett said in the Vantiy Fair interview when asked if she sympathizes too much with the Wall Street plutocrats on whom she purports to report: “My job isn’t to give an opinion but to try and explain what’s happening.” But just like Andrew Ross Sorkin and his protection of and subservience to his “CEO-of-a-major-bank” friend, these people are oozing bias and opinion from every pore of their being. They are so devoted to and immersed in the insular oligarchical world of which they are desperate to be a part that they know and care about nothing else. Expecting them to provide objective, critical assessments of business elites is like expecting a heroin addict to rat out his dealer.

— The Financial Times reports that the shale gas gold rush underway in the U.S. could have significant indirect economic impacts, helping boost manufacturing in chemicals and other industries that rely on petrochemicals for production processes.

By creating fast-growing markets for production equipment and services, and providing cheap energy and raw materials, the shale producers are holding out the promise of an American industrial renaissance. “It’s a phenomenal opportunity,” says Andrew Liveris, the chief executive of Dow Chemical, who is a vocal supporter of US manufacturing. “This is a gift that American entrepreneurs, the wildcatters, the oil and gas drillers, have given the country: 100 years of natural gas supply. There’s no country on the planet that wouldn’t love to get that, and then use it.”


Shale gas is particularly important because it is stranded in US, with no facilities to sell it on world markets, although the country’s first liquefaction plant to enable the gas to be exported is now under development. As a result, gas is much cheaper in North America than in other leading economies. The US price of about $3.60 per million British thermal units compares with about $8 in the UK and $16 in Japan…
“Natural gas is to the chemicals industry as flour is to a bakery,” says Cal Dooley, president of the American Chemistry Council, an industry group. “Cheap gas means both international and American companies are now looking at the US as the preferred location for new investment”…
For the first decade of the millennium, high and volatile gas prices made US production uncompetitive relative to producers in emerging economies. Jeffrey Lipton, a former chief executive of Canada’s Nova Chemicals who now spreads the shale gas gospel, says the balance of power has shifted back to North America. Unlike in some industrial sectors, China has no competitive advantage in chemicals, because it is an importer of gas and oil.

As the effect of cheaper American raw materials works through the value chain, Mr Dooley says, other manufacturers will also be encouraged back to the US to take advantage. “Even in the auto industry we are starting to see a response,” he says. “There are composite and plastic components presently being made outside the US, because it has been cheaper. That competitive advantage no longer exists. In the future the US will be in a far stronger position to be a supplier to the auto industry.” The ACC estimated in March that a 25 per cent increase in ethane production could create 400,000 jobs.

In other words, the FT says that our cheaper gas is causing manufacturers to consider relocating to the U.S. This is a bit pie in the sky, so it’s worth being skeptical here. I’d like to see more reporting on it to make sure it’s not energy-industry spin. But it’s not implausible.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,