Despite one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression, 22 bank failures and a $700 billion government bailout, the American Banker -- a daily chronicle of the industry -- was expected to proceed with its annual ritual at a black-tie celebration on Thursday night in New York.
The publication named Bank of America Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Kenneth Lewis as Banker of the Year, for the second time in six years. If anyone deserved the award, it is Mr. Lewis. Bank of America, of Charlotte, N.C., is one of the year's survivors, and Mr. Lewis rescued two big firms -- California mortgage lender Countrywide Financial Corp. and New York securities firm Merrill Lynch & Co. -- from collapse.
Still, some shareholders and even banking executives are asking, why name a laureate at all this year?
A new Gallup poll shows only 23% of the public views bankers positively, a record low.
The financial crisis hasn't been kind to some past honorees. Kerry Killinger, the 2001 winner, was ousted as CEO of Seattle-based Washington Mutual Inc. in September over disastrous bets on risky mortgages. The 2005 winner, Ken Thompson, was forced out as CEO of Charlotte-based Wachovia Corp. in June. In 2006, American Banker gave a Lifetime Achievement award to Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo, who gambled on subprime loans and saw his company disintegrating before selling out to Bank of America. J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. acquired WaMu in September, and Wells Fargo & Co. is buying Wachovia.
~ The Wall Street Journal, "Believe It or Not, There's a Banker of the Year," December 5, 2008, by Dan Fitzpatrick