CIT and OneWest Chiefs to Take on Critics at Merger Hearing

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Few bankers want to hear consumers and community groups rehash grievances from the financial crisis.

But two bankers -- John Thain, the chief executive of CIT Group, and James Otting, the CEO of OneWest Bank -- are expected to get an earful at a public hearing in Los Angeles on Thursday, along with more than a dozen officials from Federal Reserve and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

Dozens of community groups, minority coalitions and churches are expected to protest CIT's $3.4 billion deal to buy the parent of OneWest on the grounds that the banks have done little to help low-income communities in California. They owe the public more after receiving substantial government help during the financial crisis, critics say.

The hearing is expected to last at least eight hours, with 20 panels, a three-page long roster of speakers and an "open microphone" at the end.

"We want them to be transparent about how they will serve the community in a way that reflects the size of the organization they are to become," said Kevin Stein, the associate director of the California Reinvestment Coalition in San Francisco. The group collected 21,000 signatures in a petition calling for a hearing.

The community groups have plenty of ammunition against the CIT-OneWest merger and may direct some of their ire against regulators. The two banks have received nearly $5 billion in corporate subsidies, Stein said.

CIT, a $48 billion-asset specialty finance company based in Livingston, N.J., received $2.3 billion in taxpayer support from the Treasury Department's Troubled Asset Relief Program. But that infusion was wiped out in 2009 when CIT filed for bankruptcy.

The $23 billion-asset OneWest, based in Pasadena, Calif., received lucrative loss-sharing deals from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. that are expected to carry over to the merged company.

The combined bank would have $70 billion in assets and 73 branches. Nearly all of those branches belong to OneWest; only two of them are located in low-income areas, Stein said.

Much of the criticism at the hearing is expected to be directed at OneWest, created in 2009 from the failed subprime lender IndyMac, which was responsible for 35,000 foreclosures in California alone. Some seniors also are expected to complain at the hearing about OneWest's reverse mortgage business resulting in foreclosures for some nonborrowing spouses.

Public hearings are held for most large bank mergers primarily as a way for community groups to let off steam. But no bank merger has ever been stopped by community protests, though some have been delayed by a few months, said Robert Gnaizda, the retired co-founder and policy director of the Greenlining Institute, in Berkeley.

Some community groups are supporting the merger primarily because the two banks have agreed to invest $5 billion over four years in small business loans and residential mortgage lending, according to a draft proposal. The merged company would develop an annual plan to meet the needs of five assessment areas in Southern California, stretching from Oxnard to San Diego, with the goal of receiving an "outstanding" Community Reinvestment Act rating.

Speaking last month at an Operation Hope conference on financial inclusion in Atlanta, Otting said that OneWest has sought in recent years to "create a culture in our bank that we were going to embrace our community." It has worked with nonprofit organizations to promote financial literacy, encouraged employee volunteering in the community and tried to foster job growth by providing counseling and special products for small business, he said in an interview at the conference.

This article originally appeared in American Banker.
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