Banker + gangster = bankster
A POINT OF VIEW
Americans are pretty good at adding words to the English language. We owe them pin-up girls, highbrows, killjoys, stooges, hobos, drop-outs, shills, bobby-soxers, hijackers, do-gooders and hitchhikers who thumb a ride.
During the time Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain was cost-cutting, he spent $1.1m doing up his office - $86,000 for a rug
The Americanisms are so much more concise and vivid. Instead of saying "sorry we're late but drivers ahead of us slowed us down when they craned their necks to look at a crash" you can say "we were held up by rubberneckers".
Words pop in and out of our language as social conditions change. The American gangster, which is still with us, has been around as a noun and a reality since 1896 according to my Shorter Oxford, but it seems to have dropped another Americanism from the 1930s and I think now is the time to revive it.
The word is bankster, derived by a marriage of banker and gangster.
Stunned crowds gathered on Wall St as news of the 1929 crash spread
It was coined, as far as I can deduce, by an American immigrant, a fiery Sicilian-born lawyer by the name of Ferdinand Pecora. He was the chief counsel to the US Senate Committee on Banking set up in the early 30s to probe the origins of the Crash of 1929.
He exposed quite a lot of the Wall Street practices that Harvard's Professor William Z Ripley had condemned in 1928. The believable Ripley called them - get ready for these Americanisms - "prestidigitation, double-shuffling, honey-fugling, hornswoggling and skullduggery".
The professor had vainly tried to warn President Calvin Coolidge that Wall Street was full of gas and was bound to blow up. To great discomfort all round, Pecora identified Coolidge himself, by then out of office, as one of those who'd been in on the honey-fugling.
The great banking house of JP Morgan had the president on a "preferred list" by which the bank's influential friends were given a chance to buy stock at half price. Shall we say, they made out like bandits?
Today the term bankster perfectly fits Bernard Madoff, whose crooked Ponzi scheme lost $50 billion of what the trade calls OPM - other people's money - invested with him.
But the revelations come thick and fast. People are now struggling for words to describe the latest example of Wall St's money madness. The fabled investment bank Merrill Lynch, run by one John Thain, had so many big zeroes on its balance sheet it would have been liquidated in December but for a merger with the Bank of America.
A shotgun wedding
That was actually a shotgun marriage - in the US vernacular - since the Bank of America was forced to take billions of government money when it learned later that Merrill Lynch was down another $15bn.
Then what? In the few days in December while he was still in charge, Mr Thain reportedly spent nearly $4bn on staff bonuses. That's peanuts on Wall St. In 2007 Mr Thain himself received $83m.
But a week ago, CNBC's Charles Gasparino, in a detailed scoop on the Daily Beast website revealed that during the time Mr Thain was busy cost-cutting, he spent $1.1m doing up his office - $86,000 for a rug, $35,000 for something called a commode on legs.
Readers bayed for blood, posting comments such as: "Oh how I wish this was Revolutionary France and we peasants could storm the offices…"
The anger about the greed that got us into our mess is, in my view, wholly justified. And now we hear that 10 of the big banks that got $148bn from Uncle Sam so they could make loans to get things humming again have actually reduced their loan totals by $46bn.
Mr Thain now is history, having resigned, but the great Bank of America, the biggest in the US and maybe the world is now on the list of banks that may have to be nationalised - a word no red-blooded American ever thought would be uttered in the land of enterprise.
Have money, will lend
The piquancy of all this is that if the term banker is ever to be restored to its former prestige, the public and Wall St might reflect on one highly relevant example of a banker who was not a bankster.
Amadeo Peter Giannini
It is the story of Amadeo Peter Giannini, a big man on the side of the little man. When the transcontinental railway started services to California after the line's completion in May 1869, he was among the very first passengers.
He was in the womb of his newlywed mother, 15-year-old Virginia. His father, having made money in the goldfields, had gone back to Italy for her. It is nice to think that as the young immigrants crossed the Rockies, their adventurous spirits somehow crossed the placental barrier.
Amadeo was born on 6 May, 1870. He grew up on a little farm, whose produce his mother and father sold in booming San Francisco. In 1877 when he was six, he saw his father gunned down. His mother moved to the city to buy wholesale from farmers and sell to shops.
Amadeo - or AP as he became known - grew into a tall, strong man, more than able to hold his own in the rough auctions for fruit and veg on the wharfs where traders met the farmers' boats. He helped to build a thriving business.
When he was 31 he sold his share, saying he had no interest in accumulating wealth. "No man owns a fortune," he said. "It owns him." It was the motto of his life.
Ask and you shall receive?
He'd married and on the death of his father in law, was persuaded to take his vacant place on the board of a little bank in North Beach. He was appalled that they'd not lend money to poor immigrants. The rows in the board room reverberated over North Beach until AP walked out and started a little bank of his own to do that, the Bank of Italy.
From his work on the wharves, he'd become a shrewd judge of character, so he'd cheerfully lend money to pay doctor's bills for delivery of a baby if he judged the couple had integrity.
Phoenix from the rubble
On Wednesday 18 April, 1906, San Francisco was devastated by earthquake and fire. AP rushed to get all his gold and paper money out of danger, hid it under orange crates to conceal it from looters, and stood guard all night in his home.
It must have been a debilitating moment the next day to find his baby bank a mass of charred rubble. The bigger banks, who had vaults too hot to open, had no records and were not lending.
Smoke billows from San Francisco's flattened buildings
AP instead went down to a wharf close to the smouldering North Beach, flung a plank across two barrels, and with his baritone booming across the desolation, started lending some of his $80,000 to rebuild San Francisco.
He looked for steamship captains he knew, shoved money into their hands, saying "go north and get lumber". AP radiated so much confidence, making a big show of jiggling his little bag of gold, hundreds who'd been hoarding cash and gold banked it with him. North Beach was built faster than any other area.
By 1918 he'd established California's first state-wide banking system. A little local bank in the valley that would have closed in a run after a bad harvest could now keep open by borrowing from the city branch.
He set out to build a nationwide banking system so that distressed areas could be helped by ones that were prospering. Wall St hated him. He beat off their attempts to destroy him. In the Great Depression, he took every opportunity in the New Deal legislation to get California revived in time for the war and the boom that followed.
He did it by putting the community first, himself last. He set up low interest instalment credit plans which enabled thousands to avoid the loan sharks and buy cookers and refrigerators and autos, and he built a whole new electrical industry with his loans.
He financed the Golden Gate bridge, and the Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
No man could do so much good without being maligned. It was said he wore the mask of populism to create a dangerous instrument of personal power and personal wealth.
The truth is that the man whose life was money had no interest in money. He refused to take increases in pay and spurned every bonus. He banned insider trading. Shortly after retiring in 1945, when he found himself in danger of becoming a millionaire, he set up a foundation and gave it half his personal fortune.
And the little bank for the ordinary man that he founded?
The Bank of America.