IN BANKS WE TRUST by Penny Lernoux


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Scare stories about banks, here and overseas--greedy banks, sloppy banks, and banks taken over by people you wouldn't want to see running them. Lernoux--previously known for Latin American exposÉs--opens with a review of two major recent domestic bank scandals: the Drysdale mess, in which aggressiveness and absence of internal controls at Chase Manhattan led to a $285 million loss in the arcane business of government securities repurchase agreements; and the Penn Square collapse, in which a small Oklahoma bank (one of whose key officers often wore Mickey Mouse ears at his desk) led giants such as Continental Illinois, Chase (again), and Seattle-First down the primrose path of poorly-documented, inadequately-investigated energy loans to the tune of approximately $2 billion. Where were the regulators? In typical bureaucratic fashion, spending too much time reviewing banks that were known to be in good shape, but also fearful that decisive action would panic depositors and spur a run on the bank. Federal and state bank regulators, says Lernoux, ""will allow any kind of criminal to head a US bank, including drug traffickers, thieves and murderers."" As proof, she examines how individuals with known connections to the international drug trade have become involved in acquisitions of Florida banks. (For anyone who doubts that the banks there are being used for laundering of drug money, Lernoux points out that in 1982 the Florida banking system had a cash surplus of $8 billion--more than twice the aggregate total of all the other states combined.) Offshore, with less (or no) regulation, things are even worse: small Caribbean ""banks"" (sometimes little more than a telex machine) act as bridges ""between the poppy fields of Thailand and organized crime in the United States""; and banks can serve as covers for illegal arms traffic or intelligence activities. (Australia's now-defunct Nugan Hand Bank seems to have been both, and perhaps more, with CIA involvement.) Lernoux provides an excellent summary of the Ambrosiano-Calvi/Vatican Bank affair--complete with a tracing of the links between Italian right-wing organizations and their South American counterparts--and underscores the significance of the Italian central bank's refusal to cover the debts of Ambrosiano Bank's foreign affiliates. Though occasionally hyperbolic (repeated references to CIA involvement in Asian drug trade are thinly supported), this study is abundantly researched--readers may find the wealth of interconnections dizzying, especially in the Florida sections--and, as intended, disquieting.

Pub Date: Feb. 24th, 1983
Publisher: Anchor/Doubleday