Tue | Sep 25, 2018

Mark Wignall | Big banks will not easily yield

Published:Sunday | August 26, 2018 | 12:00 AM

It was midday, I think, as I entered the huge bank in New Kingston. It was 1993 and I wanted to change a cheque for $350. By nature, I am impatient, and it hasn't served me well in life.

There were two lines in the bank simply because only two tellers were actually dealing with incoming bank customers. Five 'wickets', or spots for tellers, were empty or unmanned. After about 20 minutes, much to my own surprise, I snapped.

"What the hell is this @&#!!!?" It was followed up by me audibly berating the bank at a basic level. "If we don't walk through this door, this bank makes no money, no teller is paid."

A few people, quite decent-looking folk whose best days of protests are buried in the last two decades, surprisingly began to speak up. As it reached critical mass, a 'jacket-and-tie' entered the main, inner-blaming area, where about 20 staff members were seated at individual desks.

People were finding their true strength, and as their voices rose, the man in the suit deployed two young ladies to handle the crush of customers, whose agitated nature immediately got him into damage-control and problem-solution modes at once.

As far as I am concerned, 20 minutes in a bank is a lifetime. Not many people see it this way, and so, driven by middle-class aspirations or social leanings, they dutifully stand in lines for up to an hour and congratulate themselves as they leave for the parking lot. "She was OK. We are lucky. It could have been longer."

Recently, there has been more than talk that some banks in Jamaica are operating in a mode that favours the big fish eating the little fish. Historically, those in authority structures who are supposed to represent the concerns of the people have usually sided with those serving their immediate social and economic interests.

In that understanding, it is normal that, say, big players in the Jamaica Manufacturers' and Exporters' Association find common ground with big banks. Not so this time with Metry Seaga, head of the powerful JMEA, castigating the banks.

Our banks charge the highest interest rate on loans in the Americas. Think about that. The spread between the buying and selling rates of the US dollar is close to extortionate. And, year after year, the two big banks in Jamaica up their profit records.

Good for them, but at which place in the wider society, that is, among small business entrepreneurs and those dumping their funds in these banks for pennies on the dollar, and at what time, do we as a people admit that the banks do not really need the vast majority of poor depositors wasting the time of their loan officers seeking loans?

 

Big banks need to show no love

 

"They represent about 75 per cent of our depositors, and they will never be able to access a loan from us," said a bright, young bank manager to me sometime last year.

What many of us either know and hide, or fail to detect, is that big banks can afford to thumb their noses at the perceived ignorance of their poorest depositors. An uptown shopping mall is being developed and the consortium of developers secures loan funding from one of the big banks.

Who are these developers? People much needed in Jamaica at this time and lifetime members of the one per cent class at the top. Who will be the people shopping at the mall? The top 15% of the population with hopes of 'extras' from those down below.

The point I am making is that the big banks in Jamaica have apparently designed a business model based on enhancing the financial advancement of those at the top instead of striving to find radically new programmes and approaches to bringing small people into big people business.

So, instead of having, say, a 20-year plan to build out the base of people and businesses considered bankable, what actually happens is that the conservatively safe banks remain in waters where no rocking of the boat is desired.

 

Murder and criminal extortion

 

It is said that one of the business places along the well-known stretch of roadway pays $50,000 per month to the criminal up the lane. Years, and even months, ago, it would be his woman who would do the actual collecting.

About a year ago, I developed a lead that placed me at a transportation hub while I watched a man said to be a policeman supposedly receiving his extortion percentage from a main collector at the hub. Having no easy way of identifying the man, I surreptitiously approached him with a beer in my hand, but unknown to him, I snapped his picture on my phone.

A day later, someone in the JCF, who I had known for years confirmed his identity as a cop. But whenever traffic cops and the Transport Authority were out in full flow, the policeman would disappear, and instead, there would be a woman said to be one of the don-collector's main girls.

She just stood there looking prim and proper, knowing that the police operation could not last for more than an hour. After they left, she moved in as her goons came to her and handed over the loot.

But, in recent days, gunmen shot her dead. As I understand it, her man is in the slammer, and while directing street movements from behind bars, he was given information that she was collecting 'his' money and using it for purposes other than what he would declare as fit and proper in his world. And so he ordered that she be killed. So it was ordained in the ghetto, so it was horribly fulfilled.

 

Bad businesses and ignorant customers

 

It's a well-known Chinese wholesale along Red Hills Road. Close to the massive PriceSmart. Just recently, the Kingston and St Andrew Municipal Corporation and public-health authorities swooped down.

Food degradation, filth, rats, weevils, and a general stink even before the freezers were opened.

"Dem always a diss we, but a we mek dem mek money," said a young woman at the time. "Dem pay we di cheapest and work we longest and sometime we can't even leave fi piss," she said.

She is rejoicing for now but says that they will soon be operating again. "In Jamaica, is jus about di money. If dere is a seller, dere is a buyer."

One man in his early 50s says, "Few years ago when Red Hills Road a run right, every week me collect my two bag a groceries because me and di don inna di same circle. Di Chiney shop dem know di ting and dem pay. Di don get the big money. We get grocery."

"Is Red Hills Road under any pressure now?" I asked him. He looked around. And around. "Tension. Dem may haffi carry back di police post a Hundred Lane."

In the last week, a wanted man was killed by the police in Park Lane, while late last week, a woman was shot in Hundred Lane. Both communities are close to each other. Park Lane votes overwhelmingly for the JLP, and Hundred Lane does the same for the PNP. Both communities have, in previous times, aimed their guns at each other, and the consequences have been quite tragic.

Right at the dawn of 2001, the guns came barking. An hour and a half later, seven lay dead, including women, children, and goats that died in a horrendous fire.

Gunmen from nearby Park Lane admitted to me that they committed the killings in retaliation for the constant raids and loss of life in Park Lane by Hundred Lane shottas.

"Me would advise dem to cool down," said an older man from Hundred Lane to me. "Can't afford nutting fi start again."

- Mark Wignall is a political- and public-affairs commentator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.