ROLLER COASTER: The Bank of America and the Future of American Banking by Moira Johnston

ROLLER COASTER: The Bank of America and the Future of American Banking

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An engrossing--if narrowly focused--account of the steady ascent, dramatic decline, and partial comeback of the Bank of America. Drawing mainly on interviews with principals, Johnston (Takeover, The Last Nine Minutes, etc.) traces the events that brought low a San Francisco-based enterprise once ranked as the world's largest financial institution. Having become a socioeconomic powerhouse, B of A ventured further and further afield after WW II. Drawn deeply into offshore markets by the need to recycle petrodollars, the bank eventually paid a staggering price for risky loans. In the meantime, cyclical forces, the government's anti-inflation campaign, stiffer competition, ad hoc credit procedures, and allied factors were making stateside business an unrewarding proposition. During the mid-1980's, B of A came perilously close to going under or being taken over. A. Winship Clausen (the executive responsible for much, if not most, of the leviathan's woe) returned to B of A. By dint of a radical restructuring program, he managed to stave off disaster and cede control of a far smaller (albeit viable) organization to a new team of successors. Johnston makes a generally good job of sorting out the strong personalities, from founder A.P. Giannini through the autocratic, growth-minded Clausen, who shaped B of A's corporate culture and, hence, its fate. She goes discernibly easy, though, on one key source--Sam Armacost, whose mission impossible, at 42, was to steer a battered ship safely through a dangerous decade. Moreover, Johnston fails to provide a systematic context in which to assess either the global or domestic, let alone the operational and technological, problems that cost B of A so dearly. In sum: an investment-grade entry, but well short of a triple-A rating.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1990
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields/Houghton Mifflin